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My Top 10 Tips to Getting into Oxbridge

It’s that time again when potential future students at the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge are receiving their interview invitations. Seeing tweets over the past few days of students reveal their interview invites has not only warmed my heart with happiness, but also took me back to how I was this time last year. It feels like a lifetime ago now, which has only been amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic.

As someone who was the first ever student to (eventually) meet their grades to fulfil their offer from the University of Cambridge, and only one out of two applying to Oxbridge when I was in Year 13, I know how daunting it can be. Applying to the University of Cambridge was only suggested to me NINE days before the application window closed, so I felt even more intimidated by the people who had preparing to apply for a long time! My personal statement had to go from a barely completed first draft to the final version within eight days.

Applying to one of the two most prestigious universities is likely the most excitingly nerve-racking prospect you’ve ever faced in your academic career. It is a step into the complete unknown, especially if you come from a disadvantaged background. Stepping into your College for an interview for me was like entering into another world.

Now I’ve gone through the process and I am on a gap year, I wanted to share my top 10 pieces of advice for getting into Oxbridge. Whether you’re nervously waiting for your interview to take place, are thinking about applying next year or you’re imagining your prospects in a few years, I hope this blog post helps. Without further ado, let’s get to it!

1.) You can do it.

If you have good A-level grades plus high predicted grades and a passion for the subject that you’re applying for, you can do it. I promise you have the capacity to successfully receive an offer. It is all too easy to slip into a mindset that you are not good enough and that offers only going to students from prestigious private schools, who will always have something ‘better’ to say than you in interviews. They’ve been trained for years for an Oxbridge interview with special academic interview officers, where as perhaps you only started considering the prospect of applying last year or even a few weeks ago. While they do get trained, you should not have the mindset that they are better than you. It’s not true. If you’re from a disadvantaged background, you have the exact same capacity to give great answers to questions and impress at interview. Interviewers can tell if a student has been ‘coached’ by interviewing specialists or if they have not. The whole point of the interview is to test how your brain works when giving answers and quite frankly something impressive said by a non-coached student is more impressive than something impressive by a coached student. I promise you, you have the capacity.

2.) Don’t fall into the mindset that your grades have to be perfect.

I remember being extremely frightened reading through The Student Room in the days leading up to the date that I would find out if I got an offer or not. They all seemed to have perfect grades, achieved at all levels of their academic life.

For your current A-level grades and predicted grades, all they have to do meet is the level that Oxbridge would set as a requirement if they gave you an offer. This can be found on the websites for your course, if you do not know it. There will be students applying for your course with three A*s as their current grades and predicted grades. This isn’t the be all and end all to have, though. As long as you meet the conditions of your possible offer, Oxbridge will definitely see you as a possible offer-holder.

I needed A*AA for the course I was applying for, which was Human, Social and Political Sciences. I had predicted three A*s but was only achieving A*AB at the time. I remember reading other appliants grades in The Student Room offer-holder group chat. All of them seemed to be constantly achieving perfect grades. I promise you though, there were, and will be, many people like me!

Another point is that they all seemed to have amazing grades at GCSE. This scared me even more. I had some amazing GCSE grades, two grade 9s in History and Religious Education, but I did not have a full sheet of A*s and grades 9s like they had. I got a 6 in Maths and a 5 in English Literature! I promise you, your grades at GCSE level are only a minor factor in Oxbridge deciding if they want to offer you a place. They know that some students ‘bloom’ in later life and do not start extremely flying academically until they reach A-levels in Year 12 and 13. Try not to be intimidated by what others say about their GCSES!

3.) Remember to breathe.

Take deep breaths in the days before your interview, the day of the interview and during the interview. It’s so important to stand back and calm down as much as you possibly can. It’s an overwhelming experience, but it’s important to take a few minutes on the interview day and the days leading up to it as well.

4.) Say as much as you want when answering questions.

This may seem quite obvious and not something you would necessarily feel like you have to consider, but I feel like it is. While the interviewers were watching and listening to my every move, I felt like once I had been talking for a little while, I should stop as they wanted to move on to the next question. This is not the case! Say everything that you want to say in response to their questions.

5.) Mention further academic reading in your interview.

This only applies to some course interviews. If you are applying for a humanities course, I suggest you try and take some of this advice on board. When you are answering their questions about the subject that you want to study, make to mention any reading that you’ve conducted outside of your academic studies that links to the question you are answering. The interviewers know very well that you’re good at your A-levels; this is reflected in your grades and you wouldn’t be invited to interview if this wasn’t the case. They are intrigued to know about your background reading as that shows the passion you have for your subject. You can bring in this further reading by simply saying ‘well, that links in to something I’ve read…’ Perhaps then say the authors thoughts about the subject or the debate, what this means in the overall argument, and say if you agree or disagree with it.

At the end of my politics interview, the interviewers asked me outright if I had done any extra reading outside of political reading. I felt confused at this question for a minute, but then I saw where they were going. My course consists of more than just politics; it involves politics, international relations, sociology and social anthology/psychology. This gave me the perfect opportunity to say about a book I read called ‘Poverty Safari’ which gives descriptions and accounts of working class life in the 21st century, particularly in London. The reading thus linked into my passion for the subject of Sociology, showing I was suited not just for my Politics degree, but for the whole course of HSPS.

6.) They’re interested in how your brain works.

It’s okay if you get one small detail wrong in your interview. I can’t talk from experience, but I think this applies for the maths and science interviews that they conduct. The interviews are not designed to produce perfect interviews from the candidates, instead they want to see how you would attempt an answer or a question as if you were already in an Oxbridge supervision. If you get attempt something and get it wrong or get a small fact wrong, that’s okay- keep attempting and keep answering.

7.) Keep revising A-level content, but don’t revise on the day of your interview.

Oooh. This might be a bit controversial and advice you won’t hear from anyone else. People all have their different approaches to how they spend the day of their interview, and my approach was to not study at all. I studied in the days and weeks leading up to the interview, but this studying was focused solely on my A-level content like always. I did some extra academic reading that was assigned to me in the days leading up to the interview, but I didn’t do any on the actual day of the interview. Instead, I talked with the individual who went with me on the train and in the College cafe about anything and everything. I was lucky in the sense that he was a politics teacher with a previous career as a political journalist so he had a lot of knowledge about the subject area that I was interested in. We talked about lots of different political debates, issues and events, particularly the 2019 General Election that was to occur in a few days time. Our conversations though were causal and instead on the basis of two people that were interested in the subject; it was not an interrogation or a test. I’d recommend this approach, if you have the chance.

I have a vivid memory of stopping at a cafe in Cambridge when we got out of the train station on the day of my interview. All around me were potential candidates with their relatives and/or teachers being interrogated on knowledge or trying to get in practice before their interview arrived. If you feel like this would work for you, then by all means go ahead, but personally it suited me to relax that day and instead engage in small talk to do with my subject.

8.)Have a music playlist ready for the day.

I feel like having a good playlist in the days leading up to your interview and on the day of it is a MUST. Personally, I found some motivational and happy songs the key to help me get psyched up. These were a few of mine that I used:

  • Call Me- Blondie
  • Dirty Old Town- The Pogues
  • Magic- Pilot
  • Why Me? Why Not.- Liam Gallagher
  • The Official Champions League theme (lol)

9.) Unfortunately, the memories will stay with you.

Whether your interview goes good or bad, the memories will unfortunately stay with you for a period of time. The strangest things will remind you of it, and memories will be provoked in the times when you least expect it. You could be eating your food on Christmas day, one of your relatives says something and BAM! suddenly you’re back in the interview room as that one particular word or saying brought you straight back to a moment that happened. If you’re anything like me, this cycle will repeat it during the entirety of the Christmas holidays. Some memories will be good, some will be bad. Try and see the big picture when these memories come back, and remember that you cannot change anything you said during your interviews.

10.) Whatever happens, you should be so proud.

You got invited to an Oxbridge interview! That’s bloody brilliant. It is a sign that the University want you at their institution and therefore you are good enough to study there. It is also a sign that they were impressed by your application. Even if you do not get the answer that you wanted when the email from your college comes through, please be proud of yourself. It’s cliche to say, but Oxbridge Colleges reject amazing, capable and impressive students each year because they are limited by the capacity of students that they are allowed to take. This varies from subject to subject, and indeed college to college.

This brings me to the end of my blog post. I hope you enjoyed it and have picked up some advice that may help you in the days and weeks to come. I wish you the best of luck!

Best wishes,

Holly

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Dear Boris Johnson: Your Government Destroyed Me.

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I’ve been meaning to write this for a long time.

Dear Boris Johnson,

If you happen to read this, make no mistake that I hate you, your government, and everything that you stand for. I do not mean that lightly in a passing comment way, either. I hate you. You and your administration have severely effected by mental health and ripped my confidence into pieces. I’ve gone from a sociable, hardworking and genuinely happy individual into an anxiety ridden, under- confident mess. That is all because of you. I know I’m not the only one. I’m only eighteen years old, I turned eighteen three days before you butchered my confidence forever. How can you sleep at night?

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First of all, how can you seriously commit to the empty rhetoric you make in your press conferences? How can you possibly say you’re doing everything you can to help the COVID-19 crisis when your track and trace system has fallen to pieces and is unresponsive? That’s all on you and your administration. No one else. Stop blaming the public for your incompetency. While European countries such as Italy and Germany have effective Track and Trace Systems to help keep their public safe, more and more people are becoming infected with this deadly disease so much so that there are threats of the NHS being overwhelmed once again and the prospect of a second lockdown. The majority of people have been following the social distancing rules, the majority wear masks.

Stop trying to blame the public. A few people breaking the rules by throwing parties and holding gatherings has not caused this second outbreak. It is you. You forced schools to open. You forced universities to organise themselves to reopen with ever-changing guidelines. You recommended people to Eat Out to Help Out. You recommended shopping, cinema viewing, restaurant going. We are only doing what you told us, or as much as what we can make out from your confusing, contradicting guidelines. Yet, you have the cheek to blame us for a rise in infections and especially young people in the North. This is all on you. Stop trying to defect blame. I have no doubt you were told the risks, and predicted what would happen as you enforced these measures. The cynic in me thinks this is what you wanted all along in your herd immunity, eugenic driven mind.

I could go on and on about your chaotic handling of this country over the past year, so much so that I would run out of superlatives. I will do in another blog post in time.

You’re probably wondering how you effected my confidence to such an extent, and how you initiated what I described at this start of this blog post. I’ll tell you how, Prime Minister.

Allow me to introduce myself first. I’m an eighteen year old girl, and I went to a sixth form that branches off the comprehensive secondary school I attended. My sixth form’s last OFSTED report was “requires improvement.” I didn’t have a teacher for one of my A-levels for five months. I spent the twenty nineteen summer holidays revising, and I gave myself only one week off. I was determined to succeed even though yourself and your party expect people like me to fail. Against all of your odds and the ways in which your political party has moulded this country, I received an offer from the University of Cambridge to study Human, Social and Political Sciences. One person had received an offer before in my sixth form, but didn’t get the grades to fulfil it. I was working consistently at the grades A*A*A before lockdown. My sixth form predicted me to be on course to achieve A*A*A*. I was looking like the first student to go to Cambridge ever from my sixth form. Now you know who I am, let me take you back two months, to August.

The middle of August is always a worrying time for seventeen, eighteen and nineteen year olds in higher education as they await to find their A-level results. Normally, their focus of worries is on whether they answered a question correctly, whether they performed well enough in a particular exam, and so on. My year didn’t get to experience this. You cancelled our exams in the middle of the March. I still remember how I felt when you announced this and in the days after. I was worried sick as to how the exams would be marked and what would you use. You had no plan. You never do. I understand to an extent, though. You had other big issues to make hopeless plans for at the time. You did though have a whole five months, nearly half a year, to sort out how our grades would be handed out. Each individual would no doubt be given grades that reflected their academic ability and they could progress on to the next stage of their life. There is no way you could possibly get that wrong, with all those months to prepare and liaise with the exam boards and regulators.

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I remember at the start of August reading an article from The Telegraph about how your administration had chosen to hand out A-level grades. It detailed the fact that an individual’s school, and the grades that pupils had achieved in that school in the years before, would have an influence on the grades that were handed out for this year. I felt sick instantly. No one from my sixth form had ever achieved high grades in my subjects. Would that be the one thing that would hold me back from going to Cambridge? How was that fair? I frantically emailed my tutor who had helped me throughout the Cambridge admissions process and he tried to reassure me. He explained to me how the grading system in the UK normally worked, and it didn’t look like I would be affected in any negative way. According to him, some grades for A-level had been lowered only by one grade, most not at all. I would be fine. Any sane person with any common sense would have made sure myself and everyone in the same position would be fine. Not you though. Of course not you, Prime Minister.

As I went to sleep the night before I found out my grades, I felt sick with worry. My disadvantaged situation had always been what had spurred me on to achieve, and now it might be the one thing that held me back.

I opened up UCAS the following morning, sick with nerves about how you had handled my economic status, and how you had treated working class students. It took forty minutes to finally load the webpage as it had crashed that morning. I should’ve seen this as a sign, as it set the precedent for the events that I was going to experience. I logged on and found that my University of Cambridge application had been ‘unsuccessful.’ I was upset, of course I was. This unfortunately happens to students every year. I also felt confused. What else could I had done academically? I worked, and worked, and worked. I calculated in February that on average I spent one hundred and ten hours studying a week for my A-levels. In this unique year when I didn’t have official exams to prove myself, what else could I have possibly done, Prime Minister?

I walked downstairs from my bedroom to meet my mum in the living room and it felt like taking the walk of shame. I didn’t just felt upset, I felt confused. More than anything, I felt powerless. As I started crying into her hug, it wasn’t too long before my upset turned into anger within a matter of milliseconds. I kicked over living room furniture as I cursed your horrible elitist methods. It was lucky my dad was also in the living room as I would have most likely thrown my studying chair out of the living room window. He had to stop me as I raged over my economic status and the subsequent label that you placed on me because of that.

I then had to face going up to the sixth form, which was for the first time a daunting prospect. Before lockdown I walked the corridors happily, buzzing to learn and study more and more until I reached my final goal. I walked through the doors on Results Day with my head down, my head heavy with confusion, rage and upset all at once. I felt sick as I opened my grade paper and found out I had been downgraded twice in Sociology and downgraded once in Politics. Thus, I had achieved a A*AB. A*A*A*. Not exactly the same, are they? Not bad by any means, but not enough to fulfill my goal. In my last two Sociology mock exams in November, I had achieved 96% in Paper One and 92% in Paper Two. I rarely dropped more then one mark in homework and assigned essays. Somehow, that warranted a B-grade. In my most recent mock exam in Politics, I had achieved an A*. Somehow warranted a downgrade.

We all know why. The average grades for my school in years before had been Cs and Ds. I had been judged according to my background, and I had been disadvantaged. I wasn’t judged on my individual ability as I was promised I would be. It made me feel pain that I cannot describe. You’ll never understand what that feels like, your future handed on you based on your background. Like many people across the year, I was just another statistic to you. You didn’t handle my case on an individual basis, you passed me through an algorithm with no hesitation. I’ve read enough of his blog posts to know that your special advisor favours statistics and statistical modelling above anything, Prime Minister. He’s convinces it’s the right way of doing things. Tell me, is this right?

I then went through plans about what would happen next. My tutor mentioned an appeals process, but no one had any idea as to what that would involve. It would be announced Monday, apparently. The day was Thursday. What would we do until then? What would I do until then? There was no plan. As I said before, you never have one. When I back into my sixth form hall the Head Of The Sixth Form came up to me and excitedly said that my performance was top 15% in the county and I was thus a Norfolk scholar. It meant nothing to me. In terms of the day itself, I felt deflated. This is the one day that I had looked forward to the entirety of lockdown. It was written in permanent marker on my calendar, and I was certain it would be a celebratory one as I was certain I had ‘done it.’ Why shouldn’t I have felt like that? All the hours that I had put in would finally be celebrated. Instead, you left me horrified, confused and upset with a stabbing pain in my stomach.

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I nearly fainted in my school reception due to this combination of emotions as I tried to contact my admissions tutor for my College. At the time, I was angry at them too, but looking back I am not. They were chucked in this mess that you created just as much as me, and there was nothing that they could do until you announced a plan for resolving this mess. You didn’t have this, of course. Your Department of Education Minister didn’t either, who is somehow still in his job to this day.

When I got home, I tried to get myself together. However, the pit in my stomach, which had now turned into anger, knew that I could simply not keep silent over this. I tweeted about my cause on the A-level results day hashtag, which got significant attention and started to reach more and more people. It was the power of the people, Prime Minister, that gave my cause attention. That is something you always underestimate. If not for people caring about young people’s stories, I am confident that a U-turn would never have happened. It wasn’t long before my direct messages on Twitter started filling up with journalists wanting to share my story. I didn’t reply to many of them. My trust levels with people were generally at an all time low, which was the start of my confidence dipping. When I woke up the next morning, my tweet had reached astonishing figures and 1.5 million people had viewed it. I woke up just in time to see both James Felton and Matt Haig retweet my cause, which was quite the moment.

For the large part though, I was left in the dark about what would happen next. There was no hint of any remorse from you or your ministers. All of your government ministers were too concerned about toeing the party line and trying to up your self confidence in your administration than you were to fixing our problems. I watched your colleague Gavin Williamson say that there would be categorically no U-turn in terms of A-level grades, and I broke down. 40% of grades had been downgraded, most I would assume wrongly. Why would you do this to us? What was the reason? To halt social mobility?

As I watched you, Prime Minister, in an interview also defend the algorithm that had put us in this place saying it was ‘robust’ and that most pupils had received the correct grades, I felt despair. I had never felt like I did then. I was questioning why I should ever study and pursue an academic path, as there was no point. I was convinced I would always be disadvantaged. I would always have this label on my back, and you had shown that in big, bold colours. This is what you did, Prime Minister. I watched Newsnight to view the special report on the A-level grading chaos and I heavily despaired over interviews of students who were in the exact same position around me. We all felt a collective sadness, despair and hopelessness over our positions that we could not change. I would not wish that feeling on anyone. No one, apart from you.

I was lucky that at the time I had something to indulge myself in (Chess The Musical) which was a distraction from my current heart wrenching situation. A musical about a Chess championship in the middle of the Cold War set in Merano and Bangkok produced in the eighties was and felt like an entire world away, and was an escape from the time I found myself imprisoned in. I still listen to this masterpiece and remember how I felt when blasting these songs as my escape route.

It didn’t always work, however. As the interactions on my tweet began to slow down and there was still no news about what you would do, I tried revising. There was rumours that some students would have to take exams in the Autumn, and therefore I had to prepare for them. I realised my normally successful way of revising wasn’t working. I couldn’t concentrate. In my mind, there was an omnipresent voice screaming that I wasn’t good enough. My grades were proof I was not good enough. All the confidence that I built up concerning my studies over the past two years had gone. The information that I had gone through countless of times before wasn’t sinking in, and my mind put up a mental block on trying to remember it again. It was then I realised the imprint that your algorithm had put on my brain, Prime Minister. It’s not as strong, but it’s still there, and I feel no way near as confident as I used to be. It would be later on that I would realise my confidence was affected in all areas, and in some regard, I am still a shadow of my former self. I did not do anything to initiate this. This is all because of you. Again, I ask, how can you sleep at night? You’ve left an imprint on my confidence that I cannot shake, you placed a label on me and convinced me that’s what I was. That’s what the exam paper slip said, after all.

That night I was gripped to the social media site of Twitter, searching and hoping for any update on a possible U-turn. I felt a pain on my lungs and hurt every time I breathed. It hurt even more if I thought about what happened. It was getting to the point where I was so devastated, confused and horrified that I physically couldn’t breathe. I tried to write a post for my blog about how I was feeling but I couldn’t bring myself to do anything. The title was ‘an illness is on my lungs: the illness of social disadvantage’ which was undoubtedly how I felt. I felt broken. I was a broken person. All the talk about the reduction of class importance within the UK in the past few years, in my view, has been contradicted. Class barriers are very much still present in society, and you, Prime Minister, and your team in government reinforced them to an even further extent in the year 2020. You just didn’t make it a label or a status, you made it our defining factor, our definition . You make me feel sick. How did you let this happen?

It was nearly midnight when the news spread around the social media like wildfire that the page on OFQUAL, introduced earlier on in the day outlining a grade appeals process, had been taken down. I couldn’t believe it. There was no plan. No one knew what was going on, and those who were meant to be sorting out our problems seems to be just as much in the dark, despite having five months to prepare for this. This broke me. I sobbed to my parents and had multiple panic attacks that night because I couldn’t handle it anymore. I was in a ball on my bedroom floor, shaking like a leaf, punching the floor as I experienced a series of panic attacks, something I have not experienced in a long time. The words that I kept repeating to my parents were half audible apologies that I didn’t do enough. “I didn’t work hard enough. I didn’t achieve as much as I should have. I’m sorry.” This is how you made me feel, and I have not recovered, Prime Minister. Ever since that night, my confidence has been shot and it has not been the same.

The next day I watched the footage of student protests come through and I felt proud, but also kept a substantial amount of anger within me as the cause was not yet over. Finally, The Labour Party started piping up and were pressuring you to hold an emergency meeting and conference over this crisis. And then, the next day, we all know what happened next. The U-Turn happened. This is what Williamson had previously said, forty eight hours ago, would never happen. Of course, there was well deserved jubilation from students all across the country. Not for me though, I had to wait a few days until my place was finally confirmed.

This is amazing, but then, why was all the suffering necessary? Why did you have to enforce the classist, elitist algorithm in the first place? It is disgusting the way you treated me and my fellow peers, mostly in a disadvantaged position, and the suffering you put us through. Even if you decided to use the wretched algorithm, why didn’t you have a method of appeal sufficiently put in place when things inevitably went wrong? It’s because all of your incompetence. You and your administration, and only yourselves, caused all of this. It didn’t have to happen. The indescribable suffering that I and many others went through never had to happen if you were always going to U-turn like the calamitous government you are. If someone said turn left, you would turn right thinking you’re better, inevitably realise you’re wrong but wouldn’t want to admit it, and then eventually turn back. Your whole administration is like a father who thinks he can operate on a car holiday journey without using the map because he thinks he knows best. You’re a disgrace.

I’ve wanted to write and articulate my experience for a while, but it was meeting a government minister in person for a photo for them to use as silly PR that pushed me to finally start writing. The photo was used so they could pose with the first ever offer holder from my sixth form. I found that revolting. The experience is hard to talk about, as the effect for me is still here. I do not still feel like I am good enough, no matter what anyone tells me. The imprint will be left on my mind and especially my academic pursuit for a long while. This was not inevitable. It could have been avoided.

I’m sure I’m not the only one. Many have suffered because of your actions, or they did suffer in that time. I would not be surprised in the slightest if at the time it got too much for some young individuals, with young minds, with all their future ahead of them. Think about that for a moment. Again, this was avoidable. We didn’t deserve what happened to us and how you treated us as we put through a horrendous algorithm.

Of course, many people have moved on, as there are many other pressing stories to talk about, mainly caused and due to the incompetence of your administration. The effect and the experience will stay with me for a long time. I have had nightmares about reliving the day I found out, and sometimes I shut my eyes and remember how hard it was to breathe because of my suffering, all because of you. To quote my favourite musical, it was a case of ‘playing games… using our lives for nothing’ in reference to politics activity, and that rings true with you.

I am now in an intermitting year because of many factors but one of them is because of this. I remind you again that the suffering you put me through, and the mindset that is now with me, was all avoidable. This was never meant to happen. It’s sad that this is one of your failures, and so many more people have been affected in different ways due to your actions and the country that you are failing to handle. It’s disgusting. It’s every awful superlative you can think of. I worry they’ll be more horrendous actions that you’ll take that will have disastrous consequences while you’re in power.

You never truly understand what other people have been through in expense of governments until you experience the pain yourself.

I ask again: how you can sleep at night?

—— Holly.

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