Lee Elliot Major on the top tips for getting into Oxford and Cambridge

I spent an enjoyable evening in a pub with a bunch of state school teachers in Cambridge a few weeks ago. A lively debate ensued over an age-old academic question: what are the key things state school students need to know when applying to Cambridge and Oxford?

These teachers were the lucky ones. They had seen Oxbridge from the inside, during an intensive two-day Sutton Trust pilot teacher summer school (sponsored by the Wolfson Foundation).

But the conversation inspired me to ask other Oxbridge experts for their golden tips: past students, academics, advisers, admission officers. Below is a summary of the pearls of advice that emerged. This does not amount to official advice, but this simple guide will, I hope, be useful to every state school teacher, particularly those in charge of six-formers.

1. Get the insider’s view

Pick up the phone and talk to an Oxbridge admissions tutor. Nothing beats knowledge from the inside. They’re likely to be willing to help. There will be both an Oxford college and a Cambridge college working on outreach activities in‎ your area. Ask if they are running events near you. Find out your Oxford and Cambridge link colleges here.

2. Depth not breadth

Admissions tutors often stress the importance of ‘super-curricular’‎ work not ‘extra-curricular’ work. This means focusing on depth not breadth in your sixth form study: exploring and reading around your key subjects.

3. Stick to traditional subjects

Stick to the traditional academic subjects at A-level: English, Maths, History, Chemistry, Physics, French etc. Admissions tutors have far greater respect for these traditional subjects where a lot of analytical thinking is required.  An A-level in law is not needed to be a lawyer. An A-level in general studies will not cut the mustard. Official lists of preferred subjects can be found here and here.

4. Loving your subject

Students should show a love for their subject. Remember you are auditioning for the chance to be taught by tutors who are top in their field and have dedicated their lives to their discipline. Admission to Oxbridge is on made on purely academic grounds: your personal statement should be a ‘love letter’ to your chosen subject, not an autobiography!

5. Interviews: it’s about argument not facts and figures

Interviews are not a test of how much a student can remember facts and figures, and not even about whether they are right and wrong on a given question. Academics want to see how a candidate can debate and argue and think on their feet. ‎The whole point is to stretch a student beyond their comfort zone: taking on new ideas, making connections, being analytical. Above all else remember they are judging whether they want to teach someone‎ as a future student.

6. Similar but not the same

Oxford and Cambridge are similar but not the same. Cambridge for example will request your UMS (uniform mark scale)‎ marks at AS level, while Oxford will place greater emphasis on GCSE results and the marks on their own admissions tests (if required for the course).‎ There are many other differences, so do your homework. ‎A candidate can only apply to one and not the other. They must be prepared to justify the choice they have made.

7. Select course first, college second

Admissions tutors advise applicants that choosing the right degree course is more important than choosing the right college, and that their choice of college shouldn’t affect their chances of getting a place at Oxford or Cambridge.

Saying this, students can make informed choices about which college they apply to. It is worth finding out about how many students in a subject a college takes each year. If a student can’t decide which college to apply to, they can make an Open College application, and they will be automatically assigned to a college. That college will never know it was an Open Application, and it won’t harm the chances of getting a place.

8. Be prepared to defend your statement

Students should not include anything in ‎their personal statements which ‎they would not be happy discussing further. The statement will inform a significant proportion of the applicant’s interview.  Students should check whether any of the college academics in their subject are experts in – or the authors of! – anything they reference in their statement.

9. Never under-estimate the impact of a well written teacher reference

It will really help an applicant if a teacher writes an excellent reference highlighting their particular talents in their subject and suitability for an academic career at Oxbridge. The same rules apply to personal statements: the more original, compelling and well-written the better.

10. Phone admissions officers after A-level results

Ring the college admissions officers to talk through candidates who may have missed a grade, particularly if there are mitigating circumstances. A significant proportion of candidates who don’t meet predicted A-level offers still get in to Oxbridge.

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