How to get a foot in the door at Oxbridge

13 October 2009
The Times and The Sunday Times
link to original

With the deadline of October 15 looming, it’s a crucial time for students applying to Oxford and Cambridge universities. They’ve got two days to fine-tune applications and little more than a month to prepare for the infamous Oxbridge interviews.

For some parents, this time of year is the culmination of years of blood, sweat and toil: Oxbridge is the ultimate educational goal that they’ve set for their children, it is their pedagogical holy grail. They’ve spent thousands of pounds paying school fees and private tutors to give their offspring a crack at Oxbridge. Such parents, reading last week’s headlines, might be feeling very confident: recent research carried out for the The Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC), a body that represents the best-known fee-paying schools, suggests that independent pupils are “five times as likely to get into Oxford and Cambridge as those from the state sector”.

The HMC research is a classic example of bad statistics. Its calculations involved all state school and independent school applicants, rather than those who get three A grades at A-level, which is the actual pool from which Oxbridge draws its students. In fact, bright children at state schools are as successful as their privately educated counterparts, something the universities are keen to promote.

“We’re working hard to shed our elitist image,” Dr Geoff Parks, Director of Admissions at the University of Cambridge, says. “It is simply not a reflection of the reality: the majority of our students are from state schools and come from a real mix of backgrounds. We have developed an extensive range of programmes to encourage and support applicants. Every part of the country is linked with one of our colleges and we run specific projects for some under-represented groups. Through these we offer masterclasses, visits, residentials, open days and mentoring schemes.”

Andrew Munroe’s experience is similar to thousands of state school pupils who have received extra attention because they have applied for Oxbridge. The former comprehensive pupil, who is about to embark upon his second year as a medic at King’s College, Cambridge, was inspired to apply after going on a trip to Oxford and Cambridge funded by his local authority. “After that, my school, St Leonard’s RC comprehensive, Durham, was supportive,” he says, “arranging for me to take mock entrance tests, and setting up mock interviews.”

Typically, state school students who get into Oxbridge will have received the support of a diligent parent or teacher, who will have encouraged them through all the stages of the admissions process, but this isn’t always the case. For instance, both Ella Jones and Samir Hamdoud were successful applicants, although neither their schools nor their parents were particularly “on the ball” about Oxbridge.

Jones loved her London comprehensive but could see its failings clearly. “We were taught by six different English teachers for A level but, in the end, it didn’t stop me from getting into Oxbridge,” she says.

Hamdoud attended one of the worst schools in Milton Keynes and did not attain the grades that most Oxbridge candidates get in their GCSEs, but he benefited from Oxford’s rigorous admissions process and his passion for history shone through in his interview. “For the first time,” he says, “I felt that I was discussing history in depth, getting the kind of attention that even the best teachers at my state school weren’t giving me simply because they were too pressed for time.”

Of course, it still pays for parents to be proactive, particularly if they feel their child’s state school is not knowledgeable about Oxbridge. The case of one mother illustrates this. “My son’s school told me that he shouldn’t apply to Oxbridge because he was too lazy and didn’t have a chance,” she says. “However, I decided to do some research of my own and saw that the degree he wanted to apply for was not nearly as difficult to get on as some of the others such as law, with one in three applicants getting a place. I phoned Oxford, got the necessary information and insisted to the school that he applied. To the school’s astonishment, but not mine, he got in.”

The application statistics for Oxbridge, which are published online, make interesting reading. For example, according to last year’s stats, more than one applicant in two for Classics got into Cambridge, whereas only one in five were admitted for English. Public school pupils now predominate on courses such as Classics and theology, but state school students needn’t be put off from applying. “It’s not widely appreciated that you do not actually require an A level in Latin or Greek to study Classics at Cambridge,” Parks says. “Our four-year Classics course has been designed specifically for bright students who have not had the opportunity to study these languages at school. What many parents don’t realise is that these lesser-known and less-popular subjects are wonderful courses and provide an excellent preparation for many careers. Nearly half of our graduates who become lawyers have not done a first degree in law.”

Of course, certain degrees do demand certain Oxbridge A levels: physics, says Parks, is a prerequisite of the university’s engineering course, and further maths will make students “more competitive” for several courses. But the bottom line is that Oxbridge wants the best students, not the students with the best connections.

Working the System by Francis Gilbert is published by Short Books.

How to prepare for the Oxbridge interview

1. Download the detailed Interview Guides produced by both universities: last week Oxford updated its guide to include sample questions.

Oxford University: see here
Cambridge University: see here

2. Think of all the obvious questions that might come up such as why you want to study at Oxbridge and why you want to study your subject. Do not prepare set-piece answers except to the predictable warm-up questions. Many applicants make the mistake of trying to shoehorn prepared set pieces into responses and this always comes across as false and sometimes bizarre.

3. Read widely around your subject, looking at newspaper articles, websites, journals and books.

4. Think out of the box about your subject, seeing all sides to an argument.

5. Reread your personal statement.

6. Do a mock interview. This could be with a teacher or someone else who is familiar with his or her subject, but preferably not someone you know well. This will help you to get more experience of talking about yourself and your work in an unfamiliar environment.

7. Revise what’s been covered in Year 12: learning should be for life, not just exams.

8. In the interview, don’t feel pressured into blurting out the first thing that enters your head. Interviewers are much more interested in the quality of your thinking than your speed of response. It can be very helpful to the interviewers to describe your thinking as you ponder a question. If you think silently for 30 seconds and then just give an answer, you are likely to be asked how you reached that conclusion.

9. Don’t panic. Part of what is being assessed at interview is how well you assimilate and use new information to move an argument or the analysis of a situation/problem on. Questions will have been designed with this in mind. Most successful applicants assume their interviews were a disaster because the interviewer “had to” prompt them, whereas in reality the interviewer prompted everyone and what mattered was how well they responded.

10. You will not be assessed on your dress sense, your haircut or your accent, so just be yourself in the interview.

11. You will be given the opportunity to ask questions of the interviewers. If there are things you genuinely want to know do ask, but don’t feel obliged to do so. Asking something that could be answered by reading the prospectus does not create a good impression.

12. Make sure you also review the options available on your chosen subject. A really bad answer to the question “Which courses do you think you might do in the first year if we admit you?” is “What are the options?”

Advice for next year’s propective candidates

1. Work hard!

2. Explore all the options of what’s available, particularly if you’re not sure about what subject to take: read prospectuses, go on open days, look for taster courses, etc

3. Identify the right courses: subject choice should precede university choice not the other way round.

4. Explore your chosen subject by reading widely and going to relevant museums, galleries and institutions.

5. Do remember that going to an academic university is not the be-all and end-all. Some of the universities with the most employable graduates are the newer ones that specialise in vocational degrees such as golf course management. Also, remember that some of our most successful citizens such as Lord Sugar and Sir Richard Branson left school at 16.


  1. Absolute nonsense!
    Our very bright daughter with her full collection of GCSE A*’s and an absolute passion for her subject (ancient history) was rejected by Oxford in favour of public schoolboys.
    She went on to collect A*AA at A level and is heading for a first at her uni but the sense of unfairness still rankles with us.
    She went to our local comprehensive and untutored as we were in the process we didnt research which colleges were most likely to admit a state school student nor arrange interview tuition- learning points for any parents following in our footsteps.
    Inspection of the websites of schools such as Westminster which proudly claim that 50% of their 6th form go on to Oxbridge clearly gives the lie to the claim that it doesn’t matter which school you go to.

    from Eileen Monaghan
  2. Statistically, the chances for state school students applying to Oxbridge is improving, with state schools recording the highest percentage for Oxbridge this year: I am sorry that it didn’t work out for you, but generalising that Oxbridge is “anti-state school” from one example is ignoring the statistical evidence.

    from francisgilbert
  3. Hi Gilbert,
    From what we have been reading in the various media and from what our politicians have been saying, it will be difficult for many people to believe that Oxbridge is admitting more students from State schools. If this has started happening, it is a great breakthrough for the high achievers from State schools who did not have opportunity to attend Independent schools and denied the opportunity to study in Oxbridge

    from Nick Nunayon

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