But how will I know the answers if I don't know what the questions will be?" This, believe it or not, is a question hundreds of Oxbridge applicants ask every year as they prepare for interview. The speed of the internet and the amount of information that can be accessed in a flash have contributed to a generation of school-leavers convinced that access to technology is all you need to answer questions and that being able to answer questions is all you need to succeed. Why should you think for yourself when there is a tool that can do it for you?
But tutors are looking for students who can bring something fresh and original to the subject. In contrast, a common trait in today's students is to rush headlong into problems without respecting that complex ideas require time in which to gather one's thoughts and deliver a structured answer.
Now that university places are to become scarcer than ever, students have to demonstrate that they are not automatons; trained to repeat facts, but are capable of carrying on a conversation and developing an idea.
While exams may still be stressful and difficult, what they are not testing is a student's response to unfamiliar material; quick thinking under fire. In some subjects, students who appreciate the syllabus and the mark scheme can score the points needed to get their grades without being pushed to their intellectual limit. This is a marked difference from the Oxbridge university experience, in which students are thrown in at the deep end and expected to enjoy it – and thrive.
In maths A-level, the questions are drawn from the syllabus and the pattern in which they appear does not vary much from year to year. In the Oxford University Maths Aptitude Test, on the other hand, students have to use cunning to identify which mathematical tools they will need.
In history A-level, students can have a good guess at which questions will come up, given the syllabus they are studying. In an Oxbridge interview, or the History Aptitude pre-admissions test at Oxford, questions may draw on any topic or period from history, whether students have studied it or not. They have to apply the knowledge they possess to give an interesting and strong answer. It is a strength of the Oxbridge admissions process that tutors have the experience, brainpower and time to test applicants in their respective subjects beyond the bounds of any sixth-form syllabus. The Oxford and Cambridge tests are hard because students need to prove that they have the ability to answer difficult questions and can demonstrate their academic worth and potential. The process is not focused on knowledge, but on the application of knowledge and is a chance to demonstrate intellectual curiosity and the use of logic.
Something has gone badly wrong in the education system, now that we have ended up with so many students glaring at admissions tutors for asking a question they are not expecting; unable to deal with its unpredictability.
What we need to work towards is an education system that gives students the skills to solve problems creatively and with structure, rather than depend on a set of rules.
The beauty of an Oxbridge education is that it helps to encourage students to think with structured irreverence; to create their own ideas from the very beginning, but at the same time to appreciate that they need to grasp a great deal of material before they might reach useful answers.
In order to prepare students for university, schools, parents and government need to ensure that we don't gain speed, technology and convenience at the expense of the intellectual rigour of our prospective undergraduates.
Rachel Spedding is managing director of Oxbridge ApplicationsReuse content