How To Get a Place At Oxbridge - A Guide

They are the world's best universities - officially. Times Higher Education World University Rankings in 2020 places Oxford in the top spot and Cambridge in third. But how do you get in? The Oxbridge Alumni liaison officer in the UAE gives WSA the skinny.
How To Get a Place At Oxbridge - A Guide
By Veathika
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For many parents the fulfillment of their educational dream for their child is to secure a place at one of the top universities in the UK or the US. The competition for these places is beyond fierce so how should parents and students assess whether this is the right route for them and if so how should they prepare? caught up with Gill Shepherd, who is the Schools liaison officer for the Oxford and Cambridge Alumni Association in the UAE to unlock some of the answers.

Can you tell us about the Oxford and Cambridge Alumni Association and what you actually do?

We are an alumni society so we have all been students at Oxford and Cambridge. We organise events for our members to meet one another and, of course, we offer our help to schools who have students applying to study at Oxford and Cambridge.

We also have experience of studying at the two universities. However, things change: when I applied there were entrance exams but you didn’t have to write a personal statement for instance, as you now do for all UK universities. Recently Oxford and Cambridge have introduced a lot of subject specific aptitude tests. The one thing that has not changed is the final part of the admissions process: the interview.

This is where we can offer the most support to applicants.

We are all volunteers so we give our time freely. We draw upon our time at the universities to provide insight and guidance. This usually starts with alumni speaking at talks organised by the schools, to dispel myths and encourage students to apply, and finishes with conducting mock interviews for final year students who have applied, so that they are better prepared if they are selected for interview.

There are obviously a relatively small number of schools which have a track record of applying to Oxbridge. Do you only work with these schools?

The universities want the best students, no matter where they went to school, so we are very keen to help all top students, whatever school they’re at and whatever curriculum they’re studying. We’re particularly keen to work with schools which don’t have a record of anyone getting in or even applying.

Last year we had a couple of schools that had their first acceptances for Oxford and Cambridge and that was really satisfying for us, but even more so for the schools as their younger students are seeing this is now a possibility for them.

What are the most frequent issues that arise in your discussions with schools?

One of the main questions I’m asked when I’m visiting schools is what’s the difference between the Ivy League in the US and Oxbridge – ‘Aren’t they all the same?’ is a regular comment. The answer though is that they are different in many important respects, as I have come to learn from my fellow alumni and schools liaison work.

One of the key differences is that with most of the US universities you will receive a more general liberal arts education, whereas in the UK, at all universities, not just Oxford and Cambridge, courses are much more subject specific e.g. just History or just Chemistry.

Compared to the focus of the UK system, the American undergraduate system offers more flexibility. Generally, provided you satisfy certain core requirements, you can explore various subjects before settling on your major. However if you already know what your passion is, or are not set on postgraduate studies (which is far less common for UK graduates, Oxbridge included) you may find a UK education suits you better as you can focus on what you enjoy studying: No Arts core requirements for Science students and vice versa.

Read: Oxford and Cambridge named best two universities in the world (External Link)

Is cost a factor when deciding between the UK and the US? What about scholarships?

Yes, cost and funding is one of the other big differences. If you are eligible for UK home or European home status then going to university in the UK will be a lot more affordable for you. If you’re classed as an international student then the costs will vary from course to course but will be more similar to going to university in America. Having said that, in the US the cost can be reduced because there is far more financial support on offer: scholarships, which are merit based, as well as needs based funding.

Read: Ivy League universities winning students from top UK schools (WSA UK)

There are few undergraduate entry level scholarships available from Oxford and Cambridge for students from the UAE but there are some external scholarships (e.g. based on your nationality), and there is more University funding for graduate programmes. There’s a special UAE Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, for instance, which has just been set up.

We have some very bright students from the UAE who may get an offer from Oxford or Cambridge and an offer from a US university. If you’re looking at paying international fees for the UK or taking up a scholarship to attend Harvard the difference in cost may be a significant factor in deciding between the two.

How does the application process work?

You apply early in your final year of school (before 15 October) for either Oxford or Cambridge as 1 of 5 UK universities in one common, combined UCAS application form. You can’t apply to both whereas you can apply to all of the Ivy League universities, but each one is a separate application, which of course is time consuming.

Can you explain what ‘open application’ means?

Oxford and Cambridge are collegiate universities and historically students had to apply to one of roughly 30 colleges. An ‘Open application’, whereby you apply generally to the University, rather than a specific college, is a relatively new option. Once applications close on 16th October a computer allocates each open applicant to a particular college to even out the distribution of applicants across the colleges.

There is a lot of discussion online about the importance of choosing a specific college when applying to Oxford or Cambridge. What’s your view on this?

I really wouldn’t obsess about choosing a particular college. You will study a University-wide course and sit the same exams regardless. Each year 20 to 30% of applicants receive an offer from a college they didn’t apply to as some ‘pooling’ of applicants takes place to ensure that the very best secure places. The main consideration is choosing the right course and most courses are offered by most of the colleges at both Universities, with some exceptions. For example if you want to do Politics, Philosophy and Economics you’ll have to choose Oxford; for Veterinary Science you’ll have to apply to Cambridge.

[At Cambridge you can pretty much do any subject at any college but at Oxford there are certain subjects that are only done at some of the colleges. So, if you want to do Fine Art or Earth Sciences you need to find out which college does that. If you’re doing one of the mainstream subjects such as English then pretty much every college does it.]

I would, however, recommend visiting Oxford and Cambridge if you can as many applicants find this really helpful in choosing which University to apply to and which college.

What other factors need to be considered when deciding whether to apply for the Ivy League universities or Oxbridge? How important is the interview process at Oxbridge should you be fortunate to be invited to attend?

Another important difference between Ivy League and Oxbridge is the style of teaching. This factor is often overlooked by students. If you’re the type of student who prefers to sit in the back of the auditorium, take detailed notes, and study alone then you might be better off in the US as a lot of the teaching is done in lectures with 200 or 300 students.

You may not like the Oxford and Cambridge tutorial method of teaching which is one on one or one to two. It is a much more intensive and interactive experience. Often you will only have one or two tutorials a week but there will be a lot of reading and self-study to prepare beforehand and in that tutorial room there is nowhere to hide.

For that reason, the interview part of the application for Oxford and Cambridge is a critical part of the selection process. No matter how bright you are, they need to find out if the tutorial system will suit you so your interview is, in effect, a mini tutorial.

They want to see that you are passionate about the subject; if you can work with new information, how you deal with it. They don’t want to be teaching someone who just sits there and takes notes. They want to teach pupils who engage with, and are happy to explore, the subject.

There may be issues beyond the purely academic which could affect your choice of Oxbridge or Ivy League. Is that right?

Absolutely. If, for instance, you have family in the UK or the US, cultural connections with either country, or visa considerations, you may prefer one over the other. Or if you’re looking to apply to work after university for an American company or a UK company it may be advantageous to have studied in that same country. If you say ‘Yale’ Americans think Ivy League but some British people may think of a company that makes locks and keys. In the UK everyone knows Cambridge as a world class University but in the US they may think of it as simply the suburb of Boston where Harvard is located.

What are the differences between the offers granted by Oxbridge colleges and Ivy League universities?

For a start, the application and offer timetable is different. Oxbridge applications need to be in by the 15th October, assessments are in November and interviews in early December. Offers are made in early January. Unless you’re applying through early admission for the US it’ll be a December/January application and offers will not be coming in until February through early April.

Another big difference is that if you secure an offer from Oxford or Cambridge, that offer will always be conditional on you achieving certain grades in your end of school exams (unless you’re applying after you finished school). The US offers, however, are generally unconditional. All that you have to do is graduate school once an offer has been made to you.  

One reason that Oxbridge and all UK universities make their offers conditional is that academic ability and passion for your subject are of key importance, because the course is subject specific. You need to show you have a certain level of knowledge, understanding and interest to do the course on offer. That’s another key difference between the US and Oxbridge.

To get into one of the top universities in the US, whilst you’ve obviously got to be strong academically, I’m told they also look for a well rounded person with a full CV – leadership roles, sporting achievements, musical ability – all of these things are going to help your application by showing how you will contribute to university life in general. At Oxford and Cambridge the key consideration is always going to be your academics.

I’ve heard admissions staff at Oxford openly say that when writing your personal statement (which is the same for all UK universities) you should dedicate about 15%, at the bottom, for your extra-curricular activities ‘for the other universities’. That’s what they openly say! However if your extra-curricular activities are relevant in demonstrating your passion for your subject that’s different. So let’s say you’ve helped set up a charity for sick children and you’re applying for medicine that would be of interest.

Are there any other differences that students and parents need to consider?

Another difference is that at Oxford and Cambridge it is far more about academic performance in end of year exams, whereas I am told the US system is more about ongoing assessment throughout the course, so if your strength is not exams you may want to consider a North American option. And of course, there are the SATs for entry to just about any US university, whereas the Oxbridge aptitude tests are often only for those universities.

People do apply to both the US and UK but it’s really time-consuming at a very important period in your schooling. My advice would be if you can choose one country over the other I would do so, and focus all your energy on that. You can always study as a postgraduate if you really want the benefit of both an Oxbridge and Ivy League education.

What do you think schools can offer to children who are thinking of applying to Oxbridge?

If the school has a track record of applying to Oxbridge the teachers and careers counsellors can offer excellent advice. Parents should listen to the school. If the school doesn’t believe the student is strong enough to apply then it is very unlikely their application will be successful. If they are not predicted to achieve the minimum grades for the particular course it is simple – they are not going to get an interview and they are wasting one of their five UK university applications.

Teachers have a further important role as they can suggest other activities, reading, competitions, etc to help students go above and beyond the curriculum which is vital if students are going to be able to show a passion for their chosen subject by the time they apply. Of course, this needs to start long before the final year of school when the applications are being made.

If you don’t receive an offer for Oxbridge is it worth re-applying?

You can re-apply after completing your schooling (IB, A levels, whatever) and success rates are a little higher, so if you nail those grades in the summer then it may be worth thinking of having another go the following year. However if you do so, the universities say it is best to apply to a different college, and make the most of that gap year.

Any final piece of advice for parents and children considering Oxbridge?

My principal piece of advice for applying to Oxford or Cambridge, and life in general, is simple – follow your passion. If you’re passionate about something you’ll give it your best, work hard and you have a greater chance of being not just successful but happy in your life, because you enjoy what you do. And really, if we parents had to choose one thing for our children, wouldn’t it be happiness?

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