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MAR 11, 2020 • 8 min read
Oxbridge promises unrivalled academic tutoring, arguably the most reputable degree in Europe, and a network comprised of some of the world’s brightest minds. Therefore, it is no surprise that application figures grow year on year and these two prestigious universities received over 36,000 hopeful applications in 2017 alone.
And what does this mean for you?
Ever-climbing figures entails fierce competition and an even more rigorous admissions policy. Indeed, of those 36,000 applicants just over 6,500 got their place at an Oxford of Cambridge college (this is little over 18% of all applicants from a self-selected pool!)
So what’s the catch? How come the vast majority of hopeful candidates are rejected in spite of their perfect grades? And how can you make sure that you are one of the select few?
Earlier this week, after a Crimson seminar in London, I was speaking to Rich James – Crimson application mentor and previous Cambridge interviewee – about the veil of mystery that surrounds Oxbridge admissions. And although there will be always a certain air of mystique with these ancient universities, there are ways to make these most esteemed universities in the UK want you.
First and foremost: grades. If you don’t have the grades, you will not be considered for admission.
An Oxbridge student’s grades will, of course, mostly consist of As and A*s. That isn’t to say no Oxbridge student will ever get a couple of Bs or Cs, but those letters certainly don’t make up the majority of their results. Nor will be scoring anything below the 70th percentile on your pre-interview exams.
It’s important not to see good grades as the exclusive requirement for an Oxbridge application – there’s much more to it in this new, highly competitive climate. Good grades as well as high scores on your pre-interview exams are standard; each one of those 36,000 applicants mentioned earlier will have all the top grades to boast about – the problem is that this is just not enough to get you through the door anymore.
This brings me onto the second aspect of the Oxbridge process: the wider application.
How are your dream colleges going to distinguish you from the thousands of other straight A students also applying? Well, your wider application is how.
The standard UCAS application will require you to write a personal statement detailing exactly why you are an ideal candidate for their university and for that degree.
So it is time to get arrogant (yet, sensible, please). These Oxbridge personal statements are unlike any others in their rigour. Individualise yourself; be consistently academic and show all the promise that you can offer the best university in the country.
Here’s a few tips to follow: show your unique capabilities show your intense drive and unwavering passion for your subject tell them about your charitable endeavours that have transformed lives and changed perspectives. stand out from the standard applicant You have done incredible things – now tell the admissions officers about them!
In addition to the Personal Statement, you may be required to supply supplemental essays, too.
The Oxbridge supplementary essays, if required, are nothing to worry about. These are subject essays of your choosing that many humanities applications will ask to see.
Select the essays you are most proud of: Rich’s was a philosophy essay on the paradox of the stone and how it may present a problem for religious believers. It was an interesting subject, related to his intended degree, and he executed it with depth, concision and professionalism.
If you are unsure of what essay to use, ask your teachers which essays they think best demonstrate your skills is a place to start. That being said, there is no one better positioned to help with this aspect of your application than your Crimson Oxbridge Strategist.
Feel free to book a consult with a strategist to discuss how they can help with your oxbridge application.
Once all that’s out the way and you have shown your academic prowess you are onto the third and final stage: the interview. Don’t blow it now!
The interview is, for most hopeful applicants, the hardest part. During Rich’s rounds of interviews they whittled down 18 highly qualified applicants to just 3 for his degree course! It’s cut-throat and it can be intense, but if you believe you are worthy candidate and you deserve to be there. Now prove it.
Most Oxbridge interviews consist of at least 2 interviews: one general interview, one academic.
The general interview wants to assess your academic drive and test your aptitude for life at a top university. Consider:
A lot of the myths about the general Oxbridge interviews are hyperbolic and plainly false. They are not looking to intellectually terrorise you. They may, however, ask you unanswerable questions. For example:
Questions like this best exemplify what the Oxbridge interviewers are looking for with their questions. Not the answer, but your methodology.
It is impossible to answer questions like this with any plausible accuracy, but you can offer some interesting methodology and thinking. How many homes might you estimate there are in London? What are the average number of bathrooms per home? What might the time of day mean about the likelihood of the light being on, and then that light being left on?
Your actual answer – the figure – really doesn’t matter at all. It is about how your mind works and responds to tough situations; tough situations like those you will be constantly challenged with as an Oxbridge student.
The academic, subject-specific interview is likely to pose to you the most pressing and even unsolved issues of your degree. Rich was asked for a solution to the problem of personal identity in philosophy (a famously unsolved issue).
This interview may also contain some pre-decided materials: extracts, graphs, statistics, that the interviewer would like your immediate opinion on. Appear well-informed, confident, researched, and driven for your subject.
The truth is that in order to succeed in the Oxbridge interview there is no mystery, and instead it is all about 3 fundamentals: preparation, preparation and preparation.
You first need to prepare by understanding the subject matter and structure of the interview. This is where having mentors that went through the exact same process as you can take you to the next level.
Often students believe that the support they receive at school from an advisor that has not studied the same subject as they are intending to study or have gone through the process decades earlier is enough, but it is not. Let me put it this way, if you were in a Formula 1 race, who would you want to change your tire during the pit stop, a mechanic who changed 200 tyres the day before or a retired engineer?
Which brings me to the second aspect of preparation, once you’ve understood the structure and content, then it becomes about the delivery. You never know what an interviewer will ask you, but if you understand the structure and content, then you can predict the general flow of the conversation. Just like professional interviews, you should be rehearsing answers to some of the most likely questions you will get. Please don’t take this as me saying you should be reciting anything verbatim, but rather have bullet points of potential answers to questions that may come up.
Last but not least, the third aspect of preparation is practice. We have found that most successful students have had at least 5-8 mock interviews sessions with our mentors. Have you ever had a situation that you froze on the spot and didn’t know what to say? Well, mock interviews are specifically designed to remedy this potential hurdle. Even if you are the most eloquent public speaker, this still may happen. Both Rich and I can speak to that. In fact, when I delivered my first Crimson seminar, I was prettified and once the anxiety kicks in, it just gets worst. I didn’t run off the stage, but every ounce of my body wanted to and I am sure that I did not please the crowd. I know it is not the same, but when you care about something so much, nerves can kick in. So, please, do yourself favour and start practicing those answers!
Being accepted to Oxbridge can be broken down into 3 components: grades (academic and pre-interview exams), application, and interview. But there is one last component that people often forget that sits across all areas of the application and is the only thing Crimson cannot help you with – time.
If your goal is go to one of these institutions do not leave any of the above to the last minute. You can’t speak about extracurriculars and academic interests you haven’t pursued; You can’t choose essays that you didn’t write and you can’t practice something you haven’t learned. So don’t shoot yourself on the foot and leave all of this for the last minute because as one of my favourite sayings go “all battles are won in the preparations made.”
Good luck and godspeed.
Carina Cunha is Crimson Education's UK & Ireland Country Manager and holds a B.A. in Economics and Political Science from Columbia University, where she graduated a year earlier than expected, and a Postgraduate degree in Differential Psychology from the University of Edinburgh. Through her work with Crimson, Carina has helped hundreds of students achieve their academic and career goals.