Oxford and Cambridge Universities are widely regarded as two of the best in the world, due to their high teaching standards, illustrious history, and very successful graduates. Unsurprisingly, this means that they are also two of the most competitive Universities in the world, with Cambridge University bagging spots 1-8 of the Telegraph’s most competitive UK university courses. To uphold their image, they attempt to choose the best students for their courses by a wide range of criteria. Both of them look at GCSE grades “contextually” (i.e. in comparison to others at your school), your predicted grades, your school reference and your UCAS Personal Statement, and, for certain subjects, they may ask you for one or two essays as well. Cambridge currently take AS-level grades taken in the May/June sitting of Year 12 heavily into account, and asks students for their UMS scores for each paper before inviting them up to interview. However, they will be forced to change this practice soon, as Michael Gove’s reforms to A-levels mean that most papers will have to be taken in the summer of Year 13, and so Cambridge won’t be able to factor AS grades into account. Cambridge also requires candidates to write another statement, specifically saying why they want to apply to the course offered at Cambridge, whereas Oxford has pre-interview tests for many courses. Another key difference is that when invited to Oxford interviews, you go up for several days and may have interviews at colleges other than the one you applied to while you’re there, whereas you will normally just be invited to Cambridge for your interviews at your chosen college, and extra interviews will take place later on for those not accepted by their chosen college, but not rejected out of hand by the University either.The percentage of applicants who get called to interview varies hugely, from over 90% for Classics to less than 30% for medicine. Having recently experienced the interview process, I have to say that they are never quite what you expect, no matter how much you prepare. An important thing to remember is to make sure that you are really clued up on everything you wrote in your personal statement as well as any essays you may have submitted, be prepared to answer questions on any given sentence in your personal statement- you never know what they’ll ask! Don’t think that everyone will be asked the same things: different colleges with different tutors will have widely varying styles, with some interviewers asking generic questions such as “Why do you want to study X?” while others might spend the whole interview discussing a topic from your Personal Statement or a text or object they’ve given you. The system isn’t fair, and many good candidates fail to get offers due to applying to a heavily oversubscribed college, an uncharacteristic bad mark or just a personality clash with the interviewers. My interviewers were really friendly compared to what I heard about some from other colleges, so don’t take anything too personally. Chances are if they are being really tough on you, it will be the same for everyone! The most important thing is to prepare, through mock interviews, discussing your application with your friends, family and teachers and reading up on your college, course and University, as well as knowing your schoolwork and personal statement really thoroughly. There are some really good books out there too, like Oxbridge Entrance: The Real Rules by Elfi Pallis.
In the end, there’s only so much you can do, and if you’re really set on going to Oxbridge but don’t get in, you can always reapply, checking out successful application rates for different colleges and courses, taking interview training courses and doing relevant volunteering, work experience or other activities to improve your chances. Even so, you should remember Oxford and Cambridge aren’t the only well-renowned Universities, and don’t offer every course. Start thinking about what you want to do and where you want to do it long before you making an application – you’ll only have a few weeks back at school in Year 13 before your school will want your UCAS personal statement if you’re applying to Oxbridge. Read course descriptions from different Universities carefully, go on Open Days, and make sure that they offer what you want, it’s very likely that somewhere else offers a course more to your taste. Make sure that you’re prepared for any eventuality, but don’t let the process overwhelm you, you need to keep working in your school subjects too, if you want to meet an offer!