Getting into Oxbridge: 7 things students wish they’d known before applying to Oxford and Cambridge University

Veterans of the bruising process who have sat the aptitude tests, stressed over the personal statements and sobbed afterwards shed light on the same interview rooms which will be open again in just a few months

Jessica Frank-Keyes
Tuesday 30 August 2016 16:02 BST
The University of Cambridge, pictured
The University of Cambridge, pictured (Getty)

If you’re considering applying to Oxford or Cambridge, there are a few things you’ll already be aware of. The Boat Race, the Bullingdon Club, and the infamous May Balls to name but a few. What you may not be prepared for is the horror show of the admissions process. From drafting a personal statement that shows off your subject knowledge, to prepping for the famously tough interviews, the application experience can be gruelling.

Don’t sweat it, though. Veterans of the bruising process who have sat the aptitude tests, stressed over the personal statements and sobbed outside - and in, if it went really badly - have shed some light on the same interview rooms you’ll be sitting in in just a few short months. To learn of the dos and don’ts of securing that all-important place, and what to keep in mind if it doesn’t go your way, follow these essential pieces of advice:

1. Do your research

Lucy Stewardson applied to Clare College at Cambridge in 2013 and is now a third-year English literature student at the University of Exeter. She went into her interview with some misgivings, and said she expected it to be more like a job interview, anticipating a character assessment where you “put yourself across as intelligent and articulate.” She said: “In reality, though, the interviews were very academic. They expected us to come out with fully formed arguments about specific details of the books we’d read. I had an opinion about The Book Thief as a whole. About the use of colour, though, not so much.”

She recommended preparing for the interviews thoroughly and treating them as though they were an exam, but also suggested prospective students don’t apply “just because of the prestige.” She continued: “If you get in, you are still going to have to spend three years of your life in this place, so don’t make the decision lightly. Do your research and explore the city between interviews to try and develop an appreciation of what it might be like to live there.”

2. Apply for the subject you love

Richard Thorne applied to St Hugh’s College, Oxford in 2013. After being pooled and receiving an offer from Lady Margaret Hall, he now studies history and politics at the University of Exeter and is currently on a year abroad in Paris. He wishes he’d known how uncertain and frustrating the interview process would be, and explained: “You could literally be hanging around for days with few scheduled things to do, waiting to find out whether you could go home, or whether you’d been pooled and had to stay for more interviews.”

He recommended being sure students apply for a subject they love, not one they think will be a means to an end, as this will come across in the interview process. However, he added: “I enjoyed the glimpse into Oxford life and the academic standards, and being offered a place really boosted the confidence in my own ability - even if I did end up missing the grades on results day.”

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Finally, he offered a final few words of advice: “Even if you’re doubtful you’ll get in, go for it. Better to try and get turned away than live your life wondering whether you could’ve done it.”

3. Be brave

Rob Jones applied to Oriel College, Oxford in 2013 and is currently studying English at the University of Leicester. He described the application process as positive overall, stating the challenge and excitement of going to visit the college for interview as being “really special,” and the satisfaction of being offered a place as “remarkable.”

He wishes he’d known more about questions to ask the interviewer, but said the application process was valuable as he “learned not to be afraid of new experiences.” He added: “My advice would be: go for it. Seek as much help as you can. Identify in yourself your interesting academic characteristics and play to them in the application, aptitude tests, and interview.”

4. Relax

Emili Stevenson applied to Hertford College, Oxford in 2013. She was pooled and interviewed at St Hugh’s and now studies Russian and Eastern European history at UCL. She described her pre-interview preparation as “quite intense.” Coming from a private school, in the run-up to interviews, along with her classmates, she sat mock HAT (History Aptitude Test) papers, had practice interviews, and said they were all “generally grilled by the head of the history department.”

However, if she were to apply again, Emili said she “wouldn’t be so desperate” to follow her school’s interview help down to the letter, as it was “a bit restrictive.” Instead, she said: “I would definitely tell students considering applying to go for it. At the very least, it’s a worthwhile experience.”

She also wished she hadn’t put so much pressure on herself: “At the time, it felt like the be all and end all, but it really wasn’t. I think I learned to chill out a bit more and not place so much worth on my own academic achievement.”

5. Know your subject inside out

Daniel Carr did an open application to Oxford in 2013 and is now at Bath doing modern languages and European studies. He focused on subject knowledge as interview preparation, and said: “There’s no real hidden trick or secret bit of information. I feel the only thing I’d do differently is, perhaps, start earlier. It’s difficult to prepare for, because, ultimately, it’s just a binary decision. So you just have to put the work in for as long as you can with as much effort as you can.”

Dan added that, while he did have help, “none of it was really useful.” He explained: “People can teach you things, but, ultimately, it comes down to how much effort you put into researching things on your own. People can give you the links to articles or studies, but only you can choose whether to read them.”

Overall, he described the interview as, if nothing else, “a good opportunity to have a chat with some very intelligent people.” He rounded-off: “My advice is not to worry about it too much, and not to apply for a subject because it’s prestigious, but rather apply for one you enjoy. It’s easier to do the research into the subject when you’re interested, rather than because you want to go to Oxbridge. The people who were successful, generally, were apathetic about the whole thing.”

6. Be tactical about your choice of college

Caitlin Doherty applied to King’s College, Cambridge in 2013. She now studies English literature at the University of East Anglia. Perhaps unusually, she described herself as “somewhat indifferent towards my Oxbridge experience,” adding: “While I loved and, admittedly, still adore the city, I think I was aware from the start the university wasn’t quite right for me. Yes, Cambridge would have been cool, but it certainly wasn’t the be all and end all.

“My school quite often had a pupil or two admitted into Oxbridge, so in terms of applications, practice interviews, and advice, they were as helpful as a semi-rural comprehensive could have been, and I never felt inordinately pressured.”

However, she said that, were she to apply again, she would apply to another college: “I think I was awestruck by the beauty of King’s and ignored the fact it’s the most over-subscribed college at the university. I think I damaged my chances by even considering it.”

7. Ignore the Oxbridge stereotypes

Joe Roberts applied to Wadham College, Oxford in 2013. He now studies philosophy, politics, and economics at Mansfield College, and considered the admissions process to be “overwhelmingly positive” as he ended up gaining a place at a university where “I’ve had two of the best years of my life and made great friends.”

He advised prospective applicants not to worry about the things that don’t matter, saying: “There’s no specific ‘type’ of person who gets in and many of the stereotypes are untrue.” He wishes he’d known interviewers weren’t necessarily looking for someone “wacky and extroverted,” but simply someone who had a passion for and ability in their chosen subject.

Joe said he never came across “some demeaning old professor who questioned why I bothered applying,” only experts in the academic fields he was interested in, the thing which gave him confidence in his chances. He said: “If it’s an opportunity you’d like and an institution that warrants a place in your top five - go for it.”

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