Getting into Oxbridge: Mistakes I made during my Cambridge University interview - and learning from them

Preparation is key, so stop procrastinating, start now and the process will be way easier than if you wait until after the next match

Alasdair Murphy
Friday 23 September 2016 16:30
University of Cambridge, pictured
University of Cambridge, pictured

Let’s face it: applying to the University of Oxford or Cambridge is a daunting task. I tried, and I failed. But not to worry, I’m now here to help you go one better. A quick online search will present you with several comprehensive guides on how to go about the application process - but this isn’t another. Instead, I’m providing additional tips and assistance to help you succeed where I never did.

It’s all very well learning from the success of others, but, to be in with the best shot, learn from their mistakes as well. In this, I’ll outline where I went wrong. So, please, don’t do the same. As this isn’t an all-inclusive guide, I'll always point you elsewhere first where you’ll be able to find some solid advice on all parts of the application process. But. after you’ve read them, come back here and learn from my mistakes.

1. Personal statement

Truth be told, I must have performed reasonably well at this stage; I was successful in being invited for an interview. But I didn’t make it as easy for myself as I could have done. Although I knew what advice was being given, I didn’t act on it straight away. As a result, a fair bit of the tips here are simply the general advice you will find in other places. But do take note and take action - it will help.

Tailor your writing - you should know what course you are applying to, so write your personal statement with this in mind. Stick to relevant topics and write to the requirements of Oxford or Cambridge. Look on their websites for what they want and proceed accordingly. Without trying to sound too snobby, don’t worry about writing for other universities you are applying to. A personal statement that satisfies Oxbridge should satisfy them too.

Be prepared to spend time on it - give yourself enough time to complete your personal statement. It’ll take a fair amount of effort, so start early and you won’t be rushed at the end.

Don’t rush to perfection - you may be a bit of a perfectionist, and that’s alright, but try to bypass this at the start. Don’t strive for perfection from the beginning; make it your final goal. If you’ve read the guides, you’ll know the consensus is to make notes first - don’t aim for word perfect sentences first time around. If reading that has made you cringe, just remind yourself you can perfect it at the end. After you have notes, follow a plan which works for you, but don’t aim for perfection straightaway. Redrafts will help iron out any issues

Be concise - there is a lot you could write. but it’s not all necessary. Aim to make your sentences as concise as possible. Say what is essential then move on. This is particularly true when it comes to extracurricular activities. Spend less time writing about these and you will have more room to mention topics relevant to your course.

Get it proofread - no matter how good you believe you are, get at least one other person to proofread for you. Preferably, one of these people will be a teacher or someone else with an understanding of the Ucas process and what the uni’s are looking for. But even someone with no knowledge of the Oxbridge system or your chosen subject can tell you, if nothing else, how well your personal statement reads. Don’t wait until the final draft either; you don’t want to be told at the end you’ve been doing it wrong from the start.

Though with this comes a word of caution: as much as people want to help, sometimes, they don’t know best. Approach all feedback kindly but critically. Evaluate how it compares to advice given in other places, especially on the universities’ websites. After this, you can decide what to do.

Beat the deadline - don’t wait until 15 October to submit your Ucas application. It’s not worth risking something going wrong.

Reduce your characters - you are limited by a character count, so they all matter. You may be able to gain a few back by removing double spaces. If you’re writing on Word, you can find any double spaces in the text by using the Search function. Simply press CTRL F, hit the spacebar twice, and click search. If you have any double spaces, these will be found. It may not result in a great reduction, but will go some way to helping.

For Cambridge applicants - you will be asked to complete an additional SAQ form. This gives you the opportunity to add a small, max 1,200 characters, additional personal statement. You can take this opportunity to include information specific to Cambridge or something you didn’t have room for in your full statement. Keep this in mind.

Example - here’s a snippet from mine: “However, frequent exposure to team situations - such as playing in an orchestra and several bands, gaining work experience at an outdoor centre, and participating in the RYLA course - means I also know how to work in a team, both as a leader and a member.”

This sentence is far from perfect and I would quickly replace it if I was writing my personal statement again. But it does help highlight a few of the things I have mentioned. In my first drafts, I tried to expand on each part of the list. Not only did this waste time, but it also used too much of the character count. Once I focused on being concise, it was much easier to fit in everything I wanted to say. Notice that I managed to mention all these things I thought a university might be interested in without having to put in that much detail.

What you can’t tell, though, without the rest of the statement, but something still worth noting, is that this makes up a third of what I wrote about non-subject or academic-related activities. It’s not a lot. Being concise allows you to expand on the parts of the statement which matter more to Oxford and Cambridge.

2. Additional requirements

Cambridge SAQ - I’ve already mentioned this and the option to include an additional personal statement. It’s a hefty form, so start to fill it in as soon as possible. I left it too late and thus found myself faffing about trying to take and upload a passport photograph while botching together the additional personal statement. Not ideal.

Additional forms - there may be additional forms you are required to complete. These should be emailed to you. Make sure you fill them in. Please do not do as I did and forget about them until after the deadline. Check and check again. In fact, triple check your inbox unless you want to send a pleading and very apologetic email while simultaneously crossing every part of your body. Even then, there is no guarantee you’ll be able to continue with the process - so don’t run that risk. Check. Please.

Tests - find out if the course you’re applying to requires you to sit additional tests. If so, practice them. They’re not like conventional school exams, so will not be what you are used to. If it’s possible, find practice papers and any guidance notes. Read the notes and do the papers. Don’t just read over the questions either; try them under test conditions and in the allotted time. Only then will you be prepared when it comes to actually sitting the test.

If no practice papers are available, you’ll probably still be given guidance notes which will aid you in preparing for the test.

3. Interviews

This is possibly the most unnerving part of the whole process and is where it went wrong for me. So your aim is to go one better and get given an offer. Here are some tips:

Relax - okay, so this is easier said than done. But try not to panic. If you are relaxed, you will be able to think more clearly and will give a better impression.

Don’t stress about being stressed - first off, understand that stress can help you perform better. It has been scientifically proven that, within reason, stress and pressure can be a positive factor in your life. So don’t stress about being stressed.

Revise - Don’t settle for, ‘Oh, I did well in school. I know all of the stuff’. This won’t be good enough. They know you’re smart - that’s why they’ve given you an interview. They’re now testing for other things such as problem solving and rational thinking. You don’t want to be sitting in the interview trying to remember what makes a good economic indicator, or what tan 30 was, or if that was maybe tan 60. You might be able to work it out in a school exam, but the interviewers are looking for it to be on the tip of your tongue. Any amount of revision is going to help you out here; don’t kid yourself into thinking it won’t.

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Practice - practicing interviews exactly how they are may not be possible for you - it wasn’t an option for me. However, that doesn’t stop you from being prepared. As already mentioned, the interviewers are looking for you to have subject knowledge on the spot and the way they test for this is by talking to you about it. Many people, myself included, make the mistake of thinking they know what they need to know because they’ve passed an exam. But ask them to explain it to you in a concise, coherent manner and you’ll need an abacus to count the number of ‘ermms…’. The best way to avoid this problem is simple - practice. Just talk to people about your subject. They don’t necessarily have to know that much about it - they just need to be willing to listen. As you practice, you’ll develop a dialect which will make it easier to talk about the subject.

More specific practice - simply talking about your subject will help massively, but there is more involved in the interview process. You will be asked about things you are not expected to have seen before. The interviewers are looking for how you deal with this and how you process new information with regards to what you already know. To practice, try and find someone with a good knowledge of your subject field. For example, a teacher - ask them if they will help you. Explain to them what the interviewers are looking for, then set out some time when you can just talk about a certain issue you haven’t covered before. Let them question you and just see where the discussion takes you.

Treat them as a lesson - if it’s possible for you to go in with the aim of coming out smarter, you will perform much better. This will make you more willing to ask questions and to think critically. Going in to impress will make it harder for you if you get caught out by a question. Also, this way, you will actually come out smarter.

4. General tips

Know what you need help with - there will be people trying to help you but not all this help will be useful. Try and distinguish between good and bad help. There are general things, for instance grammar and spelling, which almost anyone can help you with. But once you get into the area of Ucas forms and interview processes, not everyone will be able to lend a hand. Know what you should be aiming for and then seek assistance from there. Not every auntie knows what to expect at an Oxbridge interview, and neither do most teachers. If you know what you need help with, then you can ask them to tailor what they are offering to suit your needs. But, remember, these people are offering their time to you so be polite.

Forget about the outcome - don’t worry about the result during the process - there’s enough time for that afterwards. Instead, focus on being the best you can be and take it from there.

Just get on with it - stop procrastinating. Start now and the process will be easier than if you wait until after the next match. When you get going, try to enjoy the process. View it as a challenge. You will learn a lot, so remember that, whatever the result, you will still have come away better off than if you hadn’t applied. If you get offered a place, feel free to comment below gloating and, if you don't, feel free to comment anyway and we can laugh at our mistakes together.

Alasdair Murphy is a first-year student studying chemistry and earth sciences at the University of St Andrews

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