How to increase your chances of getting into Oxbridge
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If you're applying to Oxford or Cambridge University you're undoubtedly aware of how competitive it is to get in. But, you're also clever enough to realise that there are ways that you can improve your chances of getting in. In this podcast episode and blog post I'm going to give you some top tips on how to increase your chances of getting into Oxbridge.
How to increase your chances of getting into Oxbridge
1. Plan ahead
In episode 52 of the podcast I talked about when to start a UCAS application, and the necessity of thinking and planning ahead, particularly if you're aiming for a top university like Oxford or Cambridge. This is important on several fronts:
- You need to be very conscious of what you're aiming for, even when you're studying for your GCSEs. Lots of students sign-up for my Oxbridge updates on my email list. When they join the list, I ask them what they're struggling with most when it comes to their Oxbridge application. Often I get responses where students tell me about GCSE grades that seriously aren't good enough. If you want to get into Oxbridge you can't afford to leave getting the grades until the sixth form. You have to be proactive about getting them at GCSE. Of course, I can help you to make sure you get the grades through my book, coaching or courses.
- It's not just about the grades. It's also about the supra-curricular activities that you engage in. Supra-curricular activities differ from extra-curricular activities in that they are things that you do to deepen and broaden your knowledge and understanding of the curriculum. They include further reading and attending courses and conferences on the subjects you're interested in.
- The admissions tests that both Oxford and Cambridge run for some courses take a huge investment of time and are very important. For example, the Physics Admissions Test at Oxford takes place in November of Year 13 but examines the whole of the A Level syllabus – effectively meaning that students will either need to get a tutor or have to teach themselves the parts of the course that haven't been covered at school. Clearly, it's going to be tough to do this in between the time you send in your application in mid-October and when you take the test in November. You have to think ahead if you're going to succeed. And, if you don't get the marks in the tests, you won't be invited to interview no matter how good your personal statement and predicted grades are.
2. Choose courses wisely
My first advice to any student who asks me what they should do with their life, is to always follow their greatest passions and their greatest talents. You're more likely to excel when you do something that you love and are naturally good at it.
However, when it comes to getting into Oxbridge there is a game to be played.
When I was applying to university, my dream was to go to Cambridge. There were lots of different subjects that I would have been more than happy to study, but I wanted to maximise my chances of going to Cambridge. This meant choosing geography, which was a subject that I loved and was very good at. But, it was also a subject that was less competitive to get a place for than my other top choice, English Literature.
In Oxford's Annual Admissions Statistical Report, 2018, they list the courses with the most applicants per place as follows:
Economics and Management – 14.2
Computer Science – 12.3
Medicine – 10.2
Biomedical Sciences – 9.1
History and Politics – 7.0
Law – 7.4
Mathematics – 7.0
Physics – 6.2
Biochemistry – 5.8
From this list, you can see that there were half the number of applicants per place for mathematics than there are for economics and management. My suggestion here would be to look at your motivation for choosing a particular course. For instance, if you want to study economics and management to get a career in the City of London in banking, accountancy or the like, you're likely to be just as successful, and in some cases, more in demand, with the maths degree. Most of the maths graduates I know have ended up in that kind of career and are highly in demand because of their highly quantitative skills and their ability to create complex computer models. So, if you have the skills and aptitude and getting into Oxford is important to you, then choose maths over economics and management.
Similarly, for Cambridge, their admissions reports show the success rates of applicants to each specific course. In 2017, applicants to study classics had a 48.8% success rate (nearly half of all students who applied to this course earned a place) whereas architecture applicants had an 8.6% success rate. You need to be very aware of these odds when you're applying so that you can set your expectations accordingly.
Oxford versus Cambridge
You can also compare courses between the universities. For example, in 2017 Cambridge took 105 students onto their Computer Science course, whereas Oxford says on their website that they take 31 students per year.
If the courses at the two universities are broadly appealing, then it would make sense to apply to Cambridge rather than Oxford as you're statistically more likely to get in (12.1% versus 8%).
3. Make informed choices about which college you apply to
It's tough deciding which college at Oxford or Cambridge you apply to. There are so many factors that might impact your decision, such as:
- Single sex or mixed
- Where it's located in the city
- The culture and social life of the college
But, one of the most important factors is how well the subject is supported at that college.
The first thing you need to look at is whether there is a Director of Studies, if you're applying to Cambridge, in your subject at the college you want to apply to. If there isn't, you're less likely to get into the college for that subject and you won't be as well supported by your college. There are less likely tho be the books that you need in the college library, and you will have to go off-site for all supervisions.
You can also look at the number of offers versus applications in the statistics and work out which colleges have the highest ratio of offers to applications. For example, at Newnham College, Cambridge (where I went) 121 offers were made to 204 applicants in 2017 – which is 59%. Whereas Christ's offered to 100 students out of 397 applicants, which is 25%.
4. Interview practice
The final thing I would suggest is that you get one or two practice interviews. Both Oxford and Cambridge are becoming more and more sensitive to the fact that students from certain expensive schools have been highly rehearsed and prepared for interview so they're no longer looking for completely smooth operators at interview. However, it's important that you're familiar enough with the environment of the interview and that kind of questions that might come up that you don't crumble under pressure. The interview will be tough and challenging, and you'll probably feel a bit silly and small when you come out, but it's important that you can stand up to it because you'll be put in this kind of environment, admittedly slightly more nurturing, on a weekly basis at tutorials or supervisions if you get in.
Things you can do to prepare for interview
1. Research the kinds of questions that might be asked
I have two blog posts that will help you with this:
- Real Oxbridge Interview Questions Remembered by Successful Candidates
- Oxbridge Interviews: what they’re really looking for (Interview with the Admissions Tutor of Homerton College, Cambridge)
There is also a book called, Tell Me About a Banana, which is aimed at teachers but has loads of useful information about both universities as well as some really good suggested interview questions.
2. Set up a practice interview or two
There is nothing to compare with actually having a practice interview to prepare for interview. However, I would give you some criteria for this:
- The person who interviews you must have at least a bachelors degree in the subject that you're applying to study, or something very closely related. E.g. if you can't find a computer science graduate, a mathematician would be my second choice for you.
- The person who interviews you should have preferably been to Oxford or Cambridge (but they don't have to have been to the one that you're actually applying to)
- Try your best to get a face to face practice interview as it's closer to the real experience that you will get. If you can't get a face to face interview, a skype one is better than nothing.
When I applied to read geography at Cambridge I was given a practice interview by the Deputy Head of my school who was a drama teacher. The toughest question she asked me was, ‘Tell me about your greatest weakness.' It's a fairly predictable job interview question, but wasn't really that helpful in preparing me for a geography interview at Cambridge. It would have been better if a geographer had interviewed me.
Over to you…
As you can see, there are ways that you can maximise your chances of getting into Oxford or Cambridge. All of them require thought and planning to get them right.
If you're worried about navigating all this on your own, don't worry, I'm here to help.
My Top Ten Mastermind is a group coaching programme for like-minded year 11 and 12 students who want to study at Oxford, Cambridge or a top Russell Group university. Through the programme I will support you in putting together a suite of activities and experiences that will support your application through your personal statement and interview, as well as help you to identify the other things that you need to work on, such as admissions tests, and help you plan to succeed in these.
To find out more click here: Top Ten Mastermind.
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