Oxford and Cambridge applications: How to do them right

From personal statements to the interview, our brief guide

Applying to Oxford or Cambridge is a challenging and exciting process which requires motivation, determination and passion about your subject as well as ability and focused preparation.

There is no blue print for a successful Oxbridge applicant however the ability to think logically and laterally about your subject, to analyse challenging new ideas and be confident so that you can demonstrate your subject motivation, personality and the crucial ‘teachability’ quality are key.

Personal statement tips

How to plan and structure your statement

Take a piece of A4 paper, draw a line across it about 2.5 inches from the top. Do the same, 2.5 inches from the bottom.

Start with the bottom third and bullet-point all the extracurricular achievements you would like to include. You don’t need to hold back yet – this is just the plan!

Next, the top. Take a good 15 minutes to sit quietly and think seriously about the real reason you’re choosing your degree. Try not to feel embarrassed about clichés and trite statements yet. This is your plan, so you can make it sound sophisticated later. Really strong personal statements begin with a real sentiment, rather than something you think the admissions tutors will want to hear.

Finally, your middle section is your content. Fill it with the very best wider reading and projects that you’ve done that are relevant to the subject you want to study. This has to be the academic section, and crucially it has to demonstrate work you’ve done outside of your A-level or IB syllabus. Bullet these things and then look at how you might link them thematically

How to write your statement

Bad personal statements try to make a mini essay out of each subject they bring up in order to try to demonstrate knowledge of the text or idea.

Good personal statements bring up an idea about the course that is a reason you have engaged with it, and then uses the reading as examples to back this up.

Check your personal statement – you cannot sum up a complex academic idea in a sentence so check it doesn’t look as though you’ve tried to do this. Instead, demonstrate your interest in that idea, but referencing the reading you’ve done in it. Then expect to follow this up if you have an interview.

How to use your statement

Your personal statement should name-drop texts that you feel comfortable about. Everyone will tell you to be sure to read those texts, but also it’s vital to think of those texts as a doorway to a network of further wider reading that you’ve looked at.

Check out the bibliographies or the journals and articles referenced in the book on your personal statement, and read some of those. This way, when you go into your interview, you have a wealth of material to draw from as a foundation so that you are not caught short when trying to answer a question using an example.

The interview

Practice early and often

Interviews are an alien phenomenon to most young students. You don't want the process itself to baffle you, even if the questions do.

Know how to use examples

Bringing in examples shows your interests and wider reading but it also, more importantly, cements an argument and demonstrates your ability to draw ideas from substance.

Build up a bank of examples, to which you can confidently refer

There is no need to try to predict exactly what will come up in interview. In many cases, the most interesting candidates will apply whatever it is that they know about in a clever way to an strange question - a skill which is useful even through your Oxbridge final exams.

Compare and contrast

Yes - it sounds very GCSE, but interesting ideas are naturally born this way.

Know how to roll with the punches

Despite the myths, it is extremely rare for an admissions tutor to try to make your life difficult. They want to see what you can do and will usually try to make you feel at ease in order to demonstrate it. However, that doesn't mean that things won't get hard in the interview. Try not to be phased when things don't feel like they're going your way. Tutors will often push you further than they think you can go in order to try to draw as much out of you as possible. So even when you don't know the answer, try to enjoy it.

Understand what the interviewer is asking you to do

And if you can't, don't be afraid to ask for clarification! Better to take time to understand the question properly and then give a strong answer, than to blunder on blindly hoping for the best.

Admissions test tips

Admissions tests are very similar to interviews in that they are designed to test how you respond to difficult problems you haven’t seen before. They are about analysis rather than factual knowledge. Think about this. Avoid doing reams of unstructured preparation because good sense and planning are more important.

Ask yourself whether you should practise analysing language/pieces in the newspaper/numeracy. Practice is invaluable, particularly with exams like the LNAT or the TSA, where large sections of reading and/or multiple choice can be difficult to fit into the time.

  • BMAT essay – they are looking for structure, logic and detail. When you’re a doctor you will need these skills when writing patient notes so these are crucial abilities to demonstrate in the exam
  • PAT & MAT test – ensure you have looked forward to the whole of your A-level syllabus before the exam.
  • TSA – this tests problem solving and critical thinking. Your maths needs to be on point, so revise all your formulas. For critical thinking, read lots of newspaper articles to practice comprehension. One of the main challenges you will come up against is the timing. 50 questions in 90 minutes averages out at around 1m48 per question, so speed is of the essence. If you are better at either problem solving or critical thinking, do these questions first in case you run out of time.
  • LNAT – another test on comprehension and critical responses to articles, so again, read up on newspaper articles to ensure you are practising these techniques
  • HAT – This exam tests your responses to sources out of their context so practise looking at as many of these as you can.
  • ELAT – Be careful not to just analyse two texts. You’ll need to focus on the comparing and contrasting element: how are your chosen texts the same, how are they different?

Rachel Spedding is the executive director of www.oxbridgeapplications.com, and co-author of the bestselling ‘So You Want To Go To Oxbridge? Tell me about a banana...’

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

Guru Careers: Junior Web Developer

£18 - 22k (DOE) + Benefits & Stock Options: Guru Careers: Junior Developer / J...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Structural Engineer

£17000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Graduate Structural Engineer ...

Guru Careers: Graduate Sales Executive

£18 - 24k OTE + Uncapped Commission: Guru Careers: A Graduate Sales Executive ...

Ashdown Group: Learning and Development Programme Manager

£35000 - £38000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, int...

Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat