Applying to Oxford and/or Cambridge is not an especially simple process. At the undergraduate level you must apply to either one or the other, not both; whereas at the graduate level you can apply to both universities. Likewise, at the undergraduate level you apply to a specific college, which either accepts or declines your application; but as a graduate you apply directly to the faculty and upon acceptance are guaranteed a place at a college (though not always of your choosing). Given that readers of this article might be at various stages and ages in their application process, I’ll keep to the more general advice that should be applicable for both Oxford and Cambridge, as well as undergraduate and graduate studies.
Should I apply?
The first thing to note is that Oxbridge is not the Ivy League: you don’t need a mountain of extracurriculars on your application. Oxford and Cambridge are primarily interested in your proven and potential academic abilities. This includes, but is not limited to, having the prerequisite grades and providing references who can speak to your strengths as a student.
Just as importantly, applicants should possess a burning passion for their subject, which can be evidenced by having read about or explored their intellectual interests beyond the boundaries of their classroom. Likewise, they ought to possess (or are cultivating) the ability to articulate (both in writing and speaking) their passion and curiosity for their chosen subject.
How do I succeed in the application process?
Given the tutorial system employed at both Oxford and Cambridge, the ability to communicate engagingly about your subject is of paramount importance. That is not suggest that charisma is key. I’ve seen many an awkward wall-flower get in. Rather, interviewers are looking for students who can communicate intelligently (which is not the same as authoritatively) about a given topic or question—usually through the medium of a two-way conversation, rather than a grandstanding student monologue. This does not come naturally to everyone, but I’m never met an applicant who did not benefit from various forms of practice.
The personal statement is of paramount importance in the application process. This is where you are given the opportunity to demonstrate your aptitude, experience, and enthusiasm for a course. Writing successive drafts and acquiring editorial comments to help improve your statement is vital. I would also recommend getting up-to-date with leading scholars in your field, reading their most accessible works so that you can reference the kinds of ideas and debates that are of contemporary interest to your field. This enables you to show that your interest in your proposed programme of study is more than skin deep.
Lastly, I would recommend investing a lot of time into deciding which college to apply to. Each college has its own ethos and priorities. Some, for instance, pride themselves on admitting more state school applicants. Others have a larger intake from public schools. There are some which admit an above average number of international applicants. Similarly, there are some which have higher intakes of humanities students and others who focus more on the sciences. All of this information can be found on college websites. But it’s important to do your homework, as there is no point prioritising a college for which you may not be a natural fit.
Most of all, it is important to choose a college that feels like it could become your home. To that end, I would highly recommend visiting colleges in person and reaching out to their admissions offices about opportunities to speak with current members. The students they can put you in touch with have been where you have been and felt what you might currently being feeling: hearing their stories and learning from their experiences could be highly valuable.
How can Think Tutors help?
If this all sounds a little daunting, don’t worry. Think Tutors is well equipped to assist with each stage of the application process. If it sounds all too easy, be mindful that a mixture of humility and hard work goes a long way. After all, only about 14% of undergraduate applicants are awarded places. Naturally, there are no guarantees. Perhaps the brightest of all my tutees made it through to the interview stage at Oxford only to be rejected—and then accepted at Harvard with a scholarship! The one thing that I can advise, however, is that solid preparation and expert advice can go a long way in making your Oxbridge dreams a reality.