How to get into Oxbridge: 5 ways to prepare for an Oxford and Cambridge University admissions test

Past test papers allow you to, not only understand the types of questions that will be asked, but also to understand which of the areas you feel you are the weakest in

Rohan Agarwal
Monday 15 August 2016 16:50
Cambridge University, pictured
Cambridge University, pictured

For Oxbridge applicants, the summer is a time to start considering the content of the perfect personal statement, or possibly undertaking some voluntary/work experience, all in an effort to bolster an already full-to-the-brim application for academic excellence.

Due to the recent changes in the way A-levels are tested, Oxford and Cambridge no longer have the luxury of being able to rely on AS grades. This has two implications. Firstly, it’s extremely likely you’ll need to sit an admissions test of some form, and, secondly, admissions tests will be more important than ever before. These generally take place either in early November or mid-December, during the interview period.

Although it’s frequently said that you can’t revise for an admissions test, this doesn’t mean you can’t prepare for it. With such fierce competition, it’s paramount you prepare comprehensively and rigorously for these tests to get your dream place. So, here are five steps to follow to successfully get ready for your Oxbridge admissions test:

1. Research

As with all things in education, research is the key to success in an admissions test. A simple Google search will show you just how much information there is available online including websites, e-books, and admissions companies. Unfortunately, due to the nature of the tests, it can’t be guaranteed every website lists the correct and up-to-date guidelines, deadlines, or comprehensive information required in 2017.

The best place to start is the website dedicated to whichever test you need to take. For instance, the UKCAT and LNAT both have websites with a wealth of information and resources to start you on your way. In addition, Cambridge and Oxford offer electronic information about the tests, including lists indicating which subjects need which test to proceed with their application - or if they even need a test at all. This is Oxford’s, and this is Cambridge’s.

Knowing which test you need to take is the most important part of the research journey, because it allows you to understand what exactly is expected of you and, although some of the tests do not differ greatly in terms of structure, they do differ in the abilities they are trying to test.

2. Learning the content

Ensure you know exactly what you will be examined on. Don’t just assume you’ll have covered the content at school. For example, many medical applicants will end up taking the UKCAT and BMAT, both of which test vastly different skills. If you are going to take more than one test, it is important you have a clear and concise plan on how to prepare for the different elements of each paper.

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At the research stage of your preparation, you should have already looked into the particulars of the admissions test you’re expected to take. For instance, the LNAT consists of 42 multiple choice questions which are based upon 12 argumentative passages. In contrast, the UKCAT is split into five different areas which examines innate skills such as: abstract reasoning, situational judgement, and decision-making. Therefore, it is imperative you spend some time learning exactly what will be expected of you in each section of the test.

3. Past papers

Past test papers are an incredibly useful way to practice and learn the content of your admissions test. They allow you to, not only understand the types of questions that will be asked, but also to understand which of the areas you feel you are the weakest in.

As these tests are built to challenge your individual skills - rather than curricula based information, although there are exceptions to this rule - it is important to know exactly which area of the test is going to be most difficult for you. Understandably, it can be difficult to admit your weaknesses, but it is important to address this sooner rather than later, and this can be done with past papers.

Find a friend or colleague that will sit with you, and put yourself under exam conditions, have the same friend mark your scores, and then work from there. There are numerous places to access past admissions test papers, the best being the websites previously mentioned.

4. Other resources

There are a plethora of companies who offer private tuition, additional papers, both online and face-to-face courses, and instructional videos. Each company has its own niche in the market, some specialising in specific courses while others do a more generic overview of each test. If cost is an issue, there are certain schemes designed to help cover costs in an effort to appeal to the widest spectrum of candidates.

If tuition or courses aren’t to your liking and you’re a good independent learner, then it’s a good idea to at least get hold of an up-to-date textbook on your test. A quick search on Amazon or Waterstones will yield multiple results ranging from test questions, comprehensive tips, to mock tests.

5. Essays

While some tests are all multiple choice, some also require an essay. For example, the LNAT requires students to type an essay using a PC within a stringent time limit. In this case, it is worth practising touch-typing before going into the test.

The best way to prepare for an admissions test essay is to practice planning, structuring, relevant content, and writing introductions and conclusions. While writing an essay under exam conditions, it is easy to ramble and lose cohesion and relevance, which will mean you are not actually answering the question. To make things worse, some tests can penalise you for this. The BMAT, for example, places a strict restriction of one A4-page of prose - any more isn’t marked.

Thus, it’s important to be concise and to the point. Avoid simply regurgitating everything you know, and, instead, allow some time to plan your essay properly and finding relevant arguments. Make sure your essay is creative, concise, and clear and - most importantly - that you are actually answering the question with original examples that will make your point of view stand out.

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

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