Ucas applications some extra advice for potential Oxbridge applicants Is Oxbridge for you?

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UCAS applications - some extra advice for potential Oxbridge applicants
Is Oxbridge for you?

First of all you should have a careful think about how well suited you would be to study at Oxford or Cambridge. Here are some indicators suggested by the Oxford Student Recruitment team:

The single most important factor is to be passionately engaged with your subject. If you are going to benefit from one-to-one tutorials, you will be the sort of person who is already reading beyond class work at school level; maybe even someone who wishes the bus journey to school was longer so you had more time to read!
You might also consider whether you would find the tutorial situation intimidating or supportive. You will be in weekly close contact with a lecturer who is eminent in your field and required to defend your essay or discuss the progress of your experiment. This really develops your skills, especially those of oral communication.
Suggested qualities of suitable applicants are:

  • ability in and passion for subject

  • enquiring / questioning mindset

  • analytical / logical thinking style

  • proven academic record

  • self-motivated and reads outside the classroom

Oxford seriously do not care if you are an ‘all-rounder’; they want people who live and breathe their subject. Nor are they fussed about you having a confident personality.
All students average a 40-hour week – much more at exam times. There are lots of exams. Are you the sort of person who will cope well with revising 2 or 3 years of work in order to sit a number of three-hour exams? (This does of course happen at other universities too!)
Choice of subjects

Oxbridge graduates, in whatever discipline, are eminently employable. While some prospective lawyers and medics need think no further as they have always wanted to pursue that career path, others should give serious consideration to the range of subjects offered, especially those which do not feature on the school curriculum.

Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford, and Human, Social and Political Sciences at Cambridge are always popular – but fewer prospective students give consideration to Archaeology and Anthropology (Arch and Anth). In 2013 Oxford offered a new degree in Psychology, Philosophy and Linguistics. Scientists might look carefully at Earth Science or Material Science rather than confining themselves to the familiar school subject labels. If Physics is your thing, Engineers are much sought after. These are only some examples – it is up to you to research further.
Cambridge have a few informative film clips and 20 mini-blogs featuring Cambridge undergraduate students talking about studying, living in college life and extra-curricular activities, here: http://www.becambridge.com/Oxford have 100 mini-interviews here: http://www.ox.ac.uk/videowall/ - turns out a couple of them are former schools debaters …  Plus you will find some very interesting vlogs online here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qZo83T-k0gc

Remember, however, to keep focusing on the ‘passion for the subject’ point. If, for example, you think you’d like to be a lawyer, but you adore History, do a History degree with a view to following it by the Law conversion course. We are warned against the example of numbers of applicants who turn up in Oxford to be interviewed for Economics and Management with the idea that they will all go and work for Goldman Sachs and earn loads of money… but whose lack of interest in basic Economics is then shown up by the fact that they have never heard of the car scrappage scheme – nor indeed the credit crunch when it was front-page news.

Work experience / voluntary work

Work experience is mandatory only for Medicine and it is recognised that it can now be very difficult for u18s to get work in hospitals. But in fact, shadowing the hospital porter may give you much more insight into what goes on in a hospital than following lead clinician. The critical question is, as always, ‘What did you learn from it?’. Do not emulate the would-be medic who had worked in old people’s home, whose answer to that question was ‘I don’t know, I don’t talk to them much’.

Voluntary work can become a positive asset if it is undertaken in a field which may be related to your subject, such as:

Nature reserve – Earth Science

Historic building – History

Leading Brownies / Cubs etc – Medicine

Other things you can do

Go to museums, public lectures at universities etc. There was offered the depressing example of students in East London, all predicted AAA, not one of whom had gone to the Science Museum to see a fascinating exhibition on the design of trainers.

The University of Dundee runs a series of lectures each winter, which are free:


Other events may be found throughout the year


The Royal Scottish Geography Society runs talks – enquire with Mrs Vannet.

Check the press and the local bookshops for notice of authors coming to give talks at Dundee University.

Admissions tutors might wish for a magic formula to get 16/17 year-olds to read more! The average reading requirement on an English Literature course, for example, may involve 4/5 Dickens novels in a week. Arts and Social Science courses may expect 1/2 essays per week; that’s a lot of preparatory reading and note-taking.

Applicants in all disciplines should develop the habit of reading newspapers with a critical approach. If you are unaccustomed to this, try reading the tabloids until you find yourself in disagreement with their point of view to the extent that you are shouting at your screen (cheaper than acquiring a paper copy). Now transfer that approach to a broadsheet. BBC News Online has lots of side links which explore the background to headlines; follow these up. Finally you could exploit ‘Sunday afternoon syndrome’; with all homework finished and work in order for the coming week - read something extra related to your subject. See further suggestions on p5.

Putting together your application

Our tried-and-tested ‘formula’ for a successful and coherent PS goes as follows:

Five main paragraphs

1. An attention-grabbing opening sentence, designed to jolt the cynical academic reading it out of his/her boredom with piles of applications, all of whose authors are equally brilliant, and make him/her think s/he would like to have a meeting of minds with the author of this one. That’s maybe rather over-stating the case but you definitely want to start by convincing them that you actually care enough about their subject for one-to-one tutorials with you to be something that both parties would enjoy. Now you absolutely have to write your own - copying other people’s will get you nowhere except caught in the plagiarism filters. But to get you started thinking, here are a few examples, accompanied if possible by the destination of their authors:
History has always held a teasing fascination for me.

1st from Oxf; PhD from Edin

I have long been fascinated by the science of the human body. Studying medicine promises the opportunity to develop this interest in a particularly rewarding and worthwhile way.

Oxf medic

I have chosen to study the above courses for two main reasons: to study the various factors which influence the major policy decisions of the modern world and their relationship, past and present, to the economic principles that allow these decisions to be put into practice, and to continue to develop the analytical skills which I have acquired through school work.

2:1 in PPE from Oxf

mathematics is a subject with which I feel a particular empathy, as it appeals to my logical nature. I find the derivation of a mathematical solution very satisfying, as it involves an elegance and perfection which are not found in any other discipline.

Oxf Maths

The study of Law is unique among university courses: it is the confluence of all academic disciplines, demanding the precision and logicality of the Sciences combined with the fluidity of language and analytical reasoning needed for the Arts.

1st from Camb, BCL Oxford, barrister

Physics is a subject that can offer answers about the workings of our world to a depth and accuracy like no other, and the reasoning that is required to arrive at these conclusions appeals strongly to my logical nature. In particular, I have found myself acquiring an interest in the concepts encountered at the forefront of modern theoretical Physics…

Oxf Physics

I wish to study Physics and Philosophy because they are the most fundamental of all the disciplines, in arts and science. Physics examines our thoughts about the most basic aspects of the universe; philosophy, meanwhile, concerns itself with the framework in which to express those thoughts. Both offer a chance to develop the skills of analysis, logical reasoning and problem-solving that offer me such an academic thrill.

1st in Phys / Phil from Oxf , BPhil leading to DPhil

All of these more-or-less-opening statements went on to discourse further about the particular attraction of that subject for that pupil and why. Some of them mentioned further reading; others, work experience which had inspired them. What you want to do is to get the core of your opening paragraph sorted out and then carry it around with you in your head, giving it a little polish when you are in the shower or brushing your teeth. However, as mentioned elsewhere, do not ask anyone else to write it for you; you are going to be called for interview and if your oral register of language is markedly different from that of your PS they will notice.
2. Then you move on to telling them why you are academically well suited to their course, mentioning your AAAAA and segueing into which subjects you have chosen for this year, and why, and why that’s appropriate to your choice and what you are enjoying about the courses (without, of course, patronising your very clever reader by stating the obvious…).
3. From there you can develop into all the other ways in which you have excelled at school – times featured on prize list, maths competitions won etc. Of course this leads on to debating achievements (!) / international recognition and so on. Avoid simply listing books which you have read. Instead, consider ‘What was it about that book that made you…?’
4. The fourth paragraph is all the other stuff beyond the academic – being Head Girl / House Captain / whatever (and taking care to explain this was an election by one’s peers), working towards one’s DofE Gold, playing for the firsts etc etc. Do however take great care that all your co-curricular material focuses on transferable skills and in no case exceeds 30% of your word allocation. Word it so that it demonstrates time management / organisational skills and emphasises undertaking responsibilities. Consider the following:


Response evoked

I enjoy swimming


I currently swim for the GB squad

Well done you. And …?

Every week I train with the local swimming team

and help the junior team to develop their technique

commitment / time management

team work / caring nature

If you think carefully, you can, for example, tie in a passion for playing pool with an application for an Engineering degree; how many times will the ball bounce off the cushions before it stops? Someone has to design it to do that. Do not, however, go as far as attempting to persuade your reader that serving in a tearoom in Forfar is going to be of benefit for studying Law in Oxford. 

5. Finally there should be just enough characters left in your allocation for you to round it off in style with an arresting sentence which is the equivalent of ‘For all these reasons, Mr Chairman Ladies and Gentlemen, you’d be daft not to take me.’

The UCAS form gives you five choices

You must remember that you may not get in to Oxbridge; your place elsewhere, without an interview, may depend on those 700 carefully-chosen words of your PS. There is some evidence that universities other than Oxbridge may semi-routinely bin early applications because they don’t want ‘Oxbridge rejects’. Note that few other universities in the UK run courses called PPE or HSPS, so the use of either of those initials will scream ‘Oxbridge’. Better to refer to the discrete elements of the course as disciplines which interest you, and space out the references to them. You might also want to adopt the ploy of leaving one choice until after 15th October has passed and adding, say, Durham at that point.

You will be interviewed

It may be worth restating the obvious; do not put anything in your PS which is not actually the case or which you cannot substantiate. If you are called for interview, clearly a reasonable starting point for the person on whom your admission may depend is what you have chosen to declare about yourself. If you mention an impressive volume which you have read, be prepared to discuss it at an elevated level. If you claim work experience, make sure that you have in fact done it and that you have sorted out your thoughts about what you have learned from it. Having beautifully polished your opening statement, consider whether you actually believe what it says and are able to develop these assertions further.

Additional reading

Any of the Heads of Department at School will be delighted to help you to apply to read their subject, or an extension thereof if you are going for a course which does not feature on the school curriculum. You should approach them as soon as you can to ask for guidance on further reading / more sophisticated problems / suggestions for work experience, and get on with these there and then. Suddenly it will be November and you may get only 2 weeks’ notice of interview - sometimes even less.

As mentioned above, read the newspapers. Depending on your subject, read the Economist / New Scientist / National Geographic / medical journals. You might be asked at interview about something which has just been the focus of discussion. See also the booklists provided on the school website, and ask Miss Owens in the library to direct you to the Reading Outside the Box shelves.
A great deal of advice is to be found on college websites; take the time to read it all very carefully. It is also your responsibility to check up on various other demands colleges or courses may make; over 80% of applicants to Oxford are now required to sit one of the Admissions Tests. See the AT supplement and then check and double-check what applies to your course and how you register for the test.
Finally, before you embark on this process, make sure that you will be able to cope with a potential rejection. If your exam results suggest application to Oxbridge, it is quite possible that you have never until now failed at anything. We all know, not only at our own school, of excellent pupils who have been rejected; occasionally we hear of people who have been accepted on less than the standard AAAAA. It is most definitely worth giving it a go; but …

  • don’t build it up to be the end of the world if you don’t get in

  • have a Plan B! Good luck!


Aug 13

UCAS applications 1314

Oxbridge applicants

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