How to get into Oxbridge: 5 ways to navigate Oxford and Cambridge University applications

'One of the most important things to bear in mind is to not be perturbed or intimidated by seemingly irrelevant and difficult questions'

Rohan Agarwal
Wednesday 27 April 2016 17:02
Oxford University
Oxford University

You’re 17-years-old, have worked hard to get to this point, and want to apply to Oxbridge. However, there’s one snag: you’ve no idea where to start.

It helps to remember that, while the application process is arduous and there are a lot of hurdles to jump, it is manageable - as long as you know how to navigate it. With that in mind, here is a five-step guide to help you successfully negotiate the tempestuous seas that is the Oxbridge application process:

1) Ucas personal statement

Submitted with your Ucas paperwork, the personal statement is extremely important because it’s one of the first things admissions tutors will judge you on. It can also one of the hardest things to get started with.

However, don’t begin by being a perfectionist and writing full, perfectly polished sentences. Instead, begin with lists, spider diagrams, ideas, and rambling. Just put some ideas onto paper and write as much as possible. It’s a lot easier to trim down afterwards if too long, and doing it this way generally produces the best content.

Overall, like the head of Ucas recently cautioned: make sure your personal statement is just that - personal - so make it about you and you will do much better.

2) The Ucas form

No matter which university you apply, you must apply via Ucas before 6pm on 15 October. Cambridge will ask you to complete an SAQ (Supplementary Application Questionnaire) which asks for details including your AS level UMS (Uniform Mark Scale), class sizes, and the subjects that were covered during your AS/A2.

You will also have the added benefit of an extra mini personal-statement. At this point in the process, it’s a waiting game to see if you have been shortlisted for an interview. However, while you are waiting, there is still plenty for you to do.

3) Admissions tests

There’s a high likelihood you’ll need to sit an admissions test either in November or very close to your interviews. Following the national reforms into how A-levels are assessed, Cambridge now requires the vast majority of applicants to sit an entrance test.

Pre-interview written tests will be conducted in early November, while at-interview written tests will be held in December. When you take the tests depends entirely upon the subject you are planning to read.

Each university has a list of courses and the tests that are required, or not. This is Oxford’s, and this is Cambridge’s.

These are not the standard A-level tests you might be used to, where you expect to get 90 per cent or over. In general, scores of 60 per cent are considered good on these examinations, as they’re designed to test the very best of applicants. Therefore, you need to make sure that you start preparing for these as soon as comfortably possible.

4) The interview

If you make it this far, one of the most important things to bear in mind is to not be perturbed or intimidated by seemingly irrelevant and difficult questions. “How would you weigh the Earth?” was what I was asked in my own interview.

While you might think the most ‘obvious’ thing interviewers are looking for is excellent factual knowledge, this is already displayed through your exam results. While having an excellent depth of knowledge may help you perform better during an interview, you are unlikely to be chosen based solely on your knowledge.

The main thing an interviewer is looking for is for the applicant to demonstrate critical thought, excellent problem-solving skills and intellectual flexibility, as well as motivation for the subject and suitability for small group teaching.

Remember: the questions are designed to be difficult, so don’t panic when you don’t immediately know the answer. Tell the interviewer what you do know, offer some ideas, and talk about ways you’ve worked through a similar problem that might apply here.

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Overall, this is your chance to show you’re eager to engage with new ideas. There are many times at Oxbridge when students are in this situation during tutorials and supervisions, and you need to show you can persevere in the face of difficulty - while staying positive, of course.

5) Dealing with the decision

If accepted, you’ll be informed of the decision by the college you applied at and by Ucas. Your focus should then change to your final examinations to ensure you achieve the grades you need.

If you’re not accepted, don’t worry. There are a multitude of high-ranking universities across the country, and all of the work that you’ve put into your application for Oxbridge will elevate your applications to these institutions.

Finally, if you are dead-set on Oxbridge, consider taking a year out and re-applying. Assuming you get the grades you need, you’ll be in a great position to apply with your additional experience and confirmed grades.

Dr Rohan Agarwal is the director of operations at admissions company UniAdmissions

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