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Cambridge University building

At this time of year, the Lower Sixth pupils are beginning to think about university application. I am often asked by parents about entry to Oxford and Cambridge: interview preparation, the various tests and a candid assessment of the chances of their son or daughter being successful. Given that SGS has plenty of success at seeing students gain offers (six this year), I feel that I have some experience in answering this question.

Here are my usual responses to parents in six bite-size chunks which might make the inevitable statistics a bit more readable. Cambridge admission statistics for 2019 (2020 was a strange year because of Covid) may be found here and the Oxford numbers are here.

Oxbridge isn’t for everyone. Three eight-week terms bring a furious intensity to study that doesn’t suit all students. There are plenty of other excellent universities with longer terms, offering a less concentrated experience, and with academically rigorous courses and very high standards. Medicine at Oxbridge is more academic initially than at other medical schools and many students prefer a more patient centred approach.

Oxbridge is worth it. Oxford and Cambridge still dominate the university league tables (see for example) and still confer advantage on their graduates in most subjects in terms of future employment. The regular small group teaching (supervisions) is an excellent learning model and the students are extremely able (at Cambridge 55% of undergraduates gained at least 3 A* grades at A level with 58% achieving this feat at Oxford).

Oxbridge myths. Plenty of these seem still to be around; here are statements about the more common ones. There is little evidence that independent or state school pupils are advantaged or disadvantaged in the admissions process. At Cambridge independently educated pupils have a success rate of 25% compared to their state educated peers with a success rate of 21%. The equivalent figures at Oxford are 21% and 17% respectively. This small advantage for independently educated candidates may reflect better interview preparation and support with the application process, including course choice, at schools like SGS. The percentage of Oxbridge undergraduates who were independently educated is far higher than the 7% of the school population who attend independent schools but this is a direct consequence of the very high A-level results achieved by this group. There is little variation between the success rates of applications from different parts of the UK. Overseas students still make up a minority of all undergraduates (around 24% at Cambridge and 21% at Oxford) and face more competition for their places than UK students. The interview questions are challenging but relevant to the subject applied for: forget about stories of impossible and off-putting questions. Such questions would yield little information for a hard-pressed admissions tutor who has to decide which of the very able students should receive an offer. Video demonstrations of interviews can be found (including some interesting questions) here.

Choose your subject carefully. There are large variations in the chances of success between subjects and the statistics really do repay study. At Cambridge success rates vary from 49% for Classics, 38% for Archaeology and 38% for Modern and Medieval Languages down to 9% for Computer Science, 15% for Engineering and 14% for Economics. At Oxford success rates vary from 44% for Classics and 40% for Languages down to 11% for PPE (important if you have prime-ministerial ambitions), 9% for Medicine, and a despair-inducing 6% for Economics and Management. If Oxbridge really is your thing, then cultivating an interest in Classics and Languages rather than in Economics would be advisable.

Choose your college carefully. There is not much evidence that any individual colleges favour applicants from either maintained or independent schools. The pool system at both Oxford and Cambridge does seem reasonably successful in redistributing good applicants who may have chosen to apply to a very popular college. Oxford claims that 27% of their undergraduates were placed at a college other than the one to which they originally applied. However, there is significant variation in the admissions processes for different colleges, with varying combinations of interviews and written tests, and this allows applicants to play to their strengths. At SGS we offer individual advice to try to help prospective students find what is right for them. The number of Oxbridge courses requiring admissions tests, mostly sat in the November of the Upper Sixth, continues to increase. Inevitably tests can be prepared for, favouring the well-organised student attending a supportive school. GCSE results, as the only completed qualifications at the time of application, are also important.

Interview preparation is vital. Successful applicants have to show that they have huge enthusiasm for their chosen subject and that they can think and learn quickly. Sadly, prowess on a sports pitch or great musical ability will not help here. Whilst extra-curricular activities are of interest, as they enrich the lives of the colleges and develop personalities, these skills will not make much difference in the business of gaining a place. What counts are super-curricular activities, undertaken throughout the Lower Sixth, such as extra reading and research beyond the A-level syllabus, national academic competitions and relevant work experience. The Extended Project Qualification is particularly useful here as it allows students to research a topic or question generated by them, developing expertise in a particular field and showing enthusiasm for study. Mock interviews are very helpful as they give practice to the applicant in fielding difficult questions and showing that they can quickly combine new information with what they already know to develop their own views or solutions. At SGS we provide lots of super-curricular resources and opportunities for each subject and several mock interviews with feedback for each hopeful candidate.

If a student is very able and interested in academic courses Oxbridge is worth a try, only absorbing one out of five UCAS university choices. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. It is worth remembering, however, that unsuccessful students are still very able and will be snapped up by other excellent institutions.