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...’