Lee Elliot Major revisits his popular top ten tips for teachers on enabling their students to apply to Oxford and Cambridge.
Sutton Trust surveys have suggested that less than half of secondary state school teachers would advise their highest pupils to apply to Oxford and Cambridge universities. I’ve always thought that it is one of the most shocking bits of research we have published. Often the teachers simply don’t think their students stand a chance of getting in.
The Trust has had a strong partnership with both Cambridge and Oxford over the years to help dispel myths about the ancient universities, provide subject enrichment for state school students and offer practical tips for the application process. When I speak to the students we support (many of whom end up at Oxbridge) I always tell the story of my own Cambridge interview many years ago and how this blew away all my misconceptions about it being a place ‘not for the likes of me’. Sadly, those outmoded views still persist among many state school students today.
The question for state school teachers should be: what do you and your students need to know when applying to Oxford and Cambridge to maximise your chances of studying at one of the best universities in the world? Over my ten years at the Trust I have spoken to Oxbridge experts about their golden tips: past students, academics, advisers, admission officers and below are the pearls of advice that have emerged.
This does not amount to official advice, but I hope this simple guide will be useful to every state school teacher, particularly those in charge of sixth-formers. If you are interested in finding out more about the wider debate about Oxbridge Admissions, I would read our research brief here which was published earlier this year.
- Get insight from admission tutors
Both Oxford and Cambridge universities run outreach programmes with schools and colleges around the UK, you can find out if there are any activities near you, by checking the websites Oxford and Cambridge.
- Demonstrate passion for the subject
A student exploring and reading around their subject is more important than lots of different ‘extra-curricular’ activities. It is important to show you are passionate for your key subjects rather than presenting a breadth of activities.
Students should remember they are auditioning to experts who are at the top in their fields. Academics have a much more prominent role at Oxbridge than other university admission processes and they have dedicated their lives to their discipline. Students should display their love for their subject when writing their personal statement. I would suggest instead of an autobiography the student writes a ‘love letter’ to their subject.
- Traditional subjects are favoured
Admission tutors have a greater respect for traditional subjects like English, Maths, History, Chemistry and French at A-level. The reason being, they are subjects that require a lot of analytical thinking. A-Level’s in General Studies or even an A-level in Law may not cut the mustard.
- The interview: debate rather than state facts
If your student is invited to an interview, the academics will want to see how the student can debate and argue on their feet, stretching your student out of their comfort zone. They want to see the candidates discuss new ideas, make connections and be analytical.
It is not about the student being right or wrong. Remember, they are judging whether they want to teach someone as a future student!
- Differences between Oxford and Cambridge
Although we often merge the two universities names, the institutions are similar but not the same.
Cambridge is planning to introduce new written tests as part of their assessment of potential candidates as it will no longer be able to use AS-levels for most students for entry from autumn 2017 whereas Oxford will place greater emphasis on GCSE results and the marks on their own admissions tests (if required for the course). If you study at Oxford, the final degree result is based on exams taken at the end of the last year, whereas at Cambridge, students are assessed in more than one year of the course.
There are many other differences so I would suggest you do your homework. You can only apply for one and not the other, so the student must be prepared to justify the choice they have made.
- Course choice is top priority
It is advised that students choose the right degree course rather college. Admissions tutors say that their choice of college shouldn’t affect a student’s chances of securing a place at Oxford or Cambridge.
However, it is worth taking into account how many students a college takes on each year in each subject. If students cannot decide on their college, they can make an Open College application, where the student will be automatically assigned to a college, and the colleges will never know that it was an open application.
- Students should be prepared to stand by statement
A student should be comfortable discussing what they have written in their personal statement, especially if they refer to the work of the academic interviewing them! One should be aware that the statement forms a lot of the interview process and academics who interview may well be experts in the area. Therefore, the student should only write about subjects they are comfortable talking about.
- Do not under-estimate importance of your reference
You should never underestimate the power of a teacher’s reference. If you write an excellent piece highlighting the student’s particular talents in their subject and suitability for an academic career at Oxbridge, it will really help. The more original, well-written and compelling the better.
- A-Level results day: call admissions office
When the day comes, it really is worth ringing the college admissions officers to talk through candidates who may have missed the grade, especially if there are mitigating circumstances. A large number of candidates who do not meet the expected A-level offers still get in to Oxbridge.
- You are not alone
Remember: around 60% of students who study at Oxbridge come from the state sector. The latest figures show a record 59% of Oxford students entering this year came from state schools along with 62% at Cambridge in recent years.