Oxbridge Admissions - Preparing For Entry To Oxford and Cambridge
Judge a tree by its fruit, a man by the company he keeps and a school by the universities it sends its pupils to?
Well, you would miss out on the oak, the saint and many wonderful schools for ordinary children but the level of Oxbridge acceptances is still a pretty good measure of at least some of a school’s qualities.
There used to be a joke about Oxbridge entrance. At some colleges, so they said, when you went for interview, they’d throw a rugby ball at you. If you caught it, you were in.
Until recently, as well as training lawyers, clergymen and educators, the ancient universities were partially run as finishing schools for upper class young men. This is categorically no longer the case.
Finding the great and the good
Much as the two great universities may huff and puff that they always looked for the best, it has taken a great deal of effort by governments to push them into using systems that made this a reality.
Tests have now, say Oxford, ‘been designed to look for aptitude rather than acquired knowledge’, and they are moving towards a common and understandable admissions system.
The challenge for independent schools has been to respond to the changed times by equipping their students with such confidence and brilliance that they can triumph over a presumption that they are over-educated and inclined to spend their Oxbridge years partying rather than studying. Many of them have done this very successfully, which is why the percentage of independent school pupils at Oxbridge is still barely below the 50 per cent mark.
The challenge for state schools has been to find the time to make their best pupils confident, articulate, sparky, questioning, inventive and learned in the ways of the world while faced with an A level curriculum and marking system that could have been designed to extinguish all these characteristics. A state school that does well in Oxbridge admissions is really something special.
Are these the right universities for you?
For many A level students, and even more for many parents, Oxbridge is the pinnacle of their academic aspirations, the sine qua non of a university education and a recognised path to fame and fortune. But Oxbridge is certainly not for everyone – even some of the brightest – and it certainly won’t guarantee riches, or even a job.
Our main criticisms of Oxbridge are that they are interested in the academic abilities and not in the future greatness of their students, so they draw their entrance criteria narrowly, and that the courses they offer are narrow and (in some subjects) decidedly old-fashioned.
All these criticisms might also be cited as virtues – it all depends on the individual student.
There are, of course, many reasons to go to Oxford or Cambridge, not least of which is the beauty of the architecture, but the primary and central benefit of the education offered here is the tightly focused nature of the teaching. All students are taught by tutorial, either one-to-one or in very small groups.
To undergo that intensity of education you need to be thoroughly interested in a specific subject and happy to produce a heavyweight volume of work.
Many 18-year-olds are still relatively undecided about their intellectual interests (and ought perhaps to be looking to one of the great US universities - see Uni in the USA) and many too would rather dedicate the period between school and work to a more even-handed balance between study and play (in which case they can join the thousands of like-minded students elsewhere in the Russell group of universities).
No matter how great your passion for a subject, however, there’s no point applying to Oxbridge unless you are already extremely well qualified academically. It’s not obligatory to have straight A*s at GCSE but, particularly since the ongoing tweaking of the entry requirements, the higher your AS grades the more likely you are to get in. You also have had to have chosen the appropriate A levels – Cambridge in particular is getting very sniffy about some A level subjects.
What you can do to prepare
The best academic schools in the country – the ones that send 10–50 successful candidates to Oxbridge each year – often provide specialist preparation both for the application and for the interview. Helen Turner, head of sixth form at league-topping North London Collegiate School, which sends 40+ girls annually to Oxbridge, says:
‘We don’t do specific training for Oxbridge entrance but what we do offer in year 13 is preparation for a university course in a particular subject, whichever university the girl is applying for. We prepare them to be brilliant at their subject. Everyone, too, has a mock interview with someone from outside the school.’
For those without such well-developed sixth forms, the answer can sometimes lie in the specialist businesses set up to help candidates with everything from the choice of course to interview technique. Oxford fresher Jo Campbell, whose Hertfordshire comprehensive provided little in the way of application advice says,
‘I attended a one-day interview seminar which I found very useful in dealing with the kind of question I was later asked.’
The universities, not surprisingly, are unenthusiastic about these businesses and generally tell parents they are wasting their money. But, while it is, of course, essential to choose a reputable supplier, there seems little doubt that some of these outfits are well staffed with knowledgeable experts who may well further your chances of an Oxbridge place. Look at our University Links page for such as Oxbridge Admissions, Oxbridge Applications and Oxbridge Info.
Worried about the finances?
Oxford have produced a short Video - designed to reassure prospective students about finances and financial issues. A great idea, alas it requires you read hand-written posters that are barely legible - hardly ideal when trying to promote clarity but worth persevering if finances matter.
In brief, as at 2012 they say:
- Students from the lowest-income households (under £16,000) will receive an annual bursary of £3,300 as well as an initial payment of £1,000 when they start University, to help with initial costs. These students may also be eligible for a Mortiz-Heyman Scholarship, which provides a financial package including a bursary and fee reduction as well as volunteering and career development opportunities while studying.
- Students with a household income of less than £25,000 will receive a reduction in their tuition fee, which means they will only need to access a reduced tuition fee loan.
- Students with a household income of less than £42,612 will receive a non-repayable Oxford bursary to help them with their living costs at Oxford for each year of their course.
Tuition fee reductions and bursaries are automatically provided to eligible students following their regional student funding agency financial assessment.
Always consult the individual university for the latest figures and information. www.ox.ac.uk/funding
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