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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