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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 and the saint, but the level of Oxbridge acceptances is still a pretty good measure of at least some of a school’s qualities. Arguably all pupils, not just Oxbridge hopefuls, benefit from an academic culture of high aspirations and teaching that goes beyond the syllabus. That’s why we include this information (along with other university destinations and degree subjects) in our school reviews – you will find it under the heading ‘Exit’ towards the end of each senior school write up.

Much as our two greatest universities may huff and puff that they always looked for the best, it has taken a great deal of effort by government to push them into using systems that are broadly fair to candidates from different educational backgrounds. Tests have now, say Oxford, ‘been designed to look for aptitude rather than acquired knowledge’ and the admission requirements for every subject are explained very clearly the on universities’ websites.

Are these the right universities for you?

For many A level students and their parents, Oxbridge is the sine qua non of a university education - a golden ticket to fame and fortune. But Oxbridge is certainly not for everyone, even some of the brightest, and certainly doesn’t guarantee riches, or even a job. 

Critics say that Oxford and Cambridge are too focused on academic ability and that the courses they offer are narrow and (in some subjects) comparatively old-fashioned, especially compared to the wide and wonderful degree titles on offer elsewhere. Such criticisms can equally be cited as virtues. 

The defining feature of an Oxbridge education is the tutorial system. Students attend tutorials, usually in pairs, where their knowledge of that week’s reading is pushed to its creative limits. Terms are short (eight weeks) and extremely intense – on average a humanities student is required to research and write 11-12 essays of 2 – 3,000 words during that time. Internal exams are held at the start of every term in addition to any degree examinations and tutors provide termly progress feedback.

Many 18-year-olds are still undecided about their intellectual interests or may not wish to spend three years working harder than they have for A levels. If this is the case then Russell Group or other UK universities provide a more even-handed balance between academic study and play. Likewise colleges in Europe or the US.

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 to apply, although in practice are large proportion of candidates do. Currently universities look at a candidate’s GCSE grades, AS scores and predicted A2 grades, but schools are predicting that current confusion over changes to AS and A level exams may lead to more universities setting their own entrance tests.

It’s not just about grades, students must also ensure that they study the appropriate A levels – Oxford, Cambridge and some of the leading Russell Group universities are very sniffy about what are perceived to be ‘less academic’ A level choices such as critical thinking or general studies. Information on the subject combinations that universities look for is available on their websites.

What you can do to prepare

  1. Oxford University sets tests – either subject specific or general aptitude – for 36 out of 46 of its courses, including history, geography, economics, PPE and classics. These are designed to reveal aptitude rather than knowledge, but it’s safe to say that if you haven’t already immersed yourself in your chosen subject then the questions will rumble you. Candidates sit the tests at their schools and those who achieve over a certain percentage are invited for interview.
  2. Cambridge sets tests for subjects such as medicine, veterinary medicine and law but interview performance and predicted grades (A*, A*, A is the minimum requirement for almost half the degree courses at Cambridge) will determine offers for other subjects. Some candidates are given tasks just prior to interview – for instance prospective English literature students may be asked to comment on a text.

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, subject aptitude tests and for the interview, but approaches vary:

We don’t do specific training for Oxbridge entrance,’ said Helen Turner, previous head of sixth form at league-table-topping North London Collegiate School, which sends more than a third of its girls to Oxbridge. ‘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.’ 

Interview technique

Independent school pupils must be able to demonstrate academic excellence without seeming over-prepared and impress at interview without letting slip a hackle-raising sense of entitlement. Many do this very successfully, which is why the percentage of independent school pupils at Oxbridge is still barely below the 50 per cent mark – and indeed why their top pupils (with three A* grades) are more likely than similarly gifted state school pupils to be offered a place. 

The challenge for state schools is to prepare their best pupils in the same way but to do it with limited time, resources and sometimes lower levels of parental support. A state school that does well in Oxbridge admissions is really something special. 

So what should students expect if they are called to interview at Oxford or Cambridge? Acting director of undergraduate admissions at Oxford, Dr Samina Khan told the Good Schools Guide:

Tutors simply want to see how students think and respond to new ideas. We know there are still lots of myths about the Oxford interview, so we put as much information as possible out there to allow students to see behind the hype to the reality of the process.

We now have mock interviews online, video diaries made by admissions tutors during the interview process and lots of example questions to help students to familiarise themselves with what the process is – and isn’t – about’.

There are plenty of anecdotes out there about interviewers asking questions that seem intimidating or confrontational, or even downright silly. We hope that seeing some of the less obvious questions will reassure prospective applicants that tutors aren’t trying to catch students out, or see how quickly they get the “right” answer, or demonstrate their specialist knowledge.’

And what’s it like to be on the receiving end? One student, now in his first year studying history at Oxford, told us:

You can’t revise your way to interview success. Interviews are, by design, similar to tutorials - more of a discussion than an interrogation. Of course you are expected to know about whatever you wrote in your personal statement and, if applicable, submitted work, but interviews are designed to show your brain working in a rigorous academic environment, rather than test your ability to amass information. Similarly, you can’t plan for an interview, and any pre-prepared interview tactics undermine the exploratory nature of interviews (and tutorials).’

Outside help

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. This kind of service is not cheap, prices start at around £300 for half a day .

I attended a one-day interview seminar,’ says Oxford fresher Jo Campbell, whose Hertfordshire comprehensive provided little in the way of application advice. ‘I found it 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 the chances of an Oxbridge place for those whose school doesn’t provide adequate support. Look on the web for such as Oxbridge admissions, Oxbridge applications and Oxbridge info.

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