We are really fortunate to have a lot of supporters here at Pure Potential who are always volunteering to help us so we can offer the best advice and guidance to the students we work with. Sam Firman is an Oxford graduate and got in touch because he wanted to share some of hints and tips on applying to Oxbridge…
There are many things that deter students from applying to Oxbridge. Most of these things manifest as understandable misconceptions on the part of students, but some remain invisible as things students simply haven’t been told. The common denominator is a lack of honest, and more importantly encouraging, information.
The result is that too many bright, deserving and otherwise prospective students remain unaware that they should apply. Even for those that do apply the process can remain intimidating, confusing and difficult.
I know these things because I went through the process without having properly planned to and without really knowing what I was doing. I was lucky and got a place at Oxford despite my unpreparedness. And, having just popped out the other end, I now have hindsight to add to my experience of the application process. A very valuable combination, I think, for imparting some things I wish I’d known.
I went to a good state school that got one or two Oxbridge students per year when I was in sixth-form. If I felt unprepared, there are clearly students all over the country who need as much help and encouragement as possible to realise their potential.
This post is will not magic you into Oxbridge. Moreover, other students will no doubt have had very different experiences there to me – especially those at Cambridge. However, I truly think the reassurances below are valuable for all prospective students not meticulously versed in the Oxbridge application process.
1. Considering the different colleges is important
All Oxbridge applicants have the chance to apply one of 30-odd colleges, although many applicants are interviewed by other colleges too as part of a pooling system.
Although the vast majority end up happy thanks to the friends they inevitably make, the number of colleges means that experience from one to the next varies. As well as obvious differences like size, location and facilities, colleges differ in more important ways, such as in their speciality subjects, demographic composition and application statistics. This means two things.
Firstly, even if some colleges exhibit Oxbridge stereotypes such as elitism or male-centredness, others do the complete opposite. The year below me at Mansfield, my Oxford college, comprised 85% state school pupils, for instance. This may surprise those who have heard about Oxbridge stereotypes. But stereotypes lead to over-simplification and misconception, and considering the variety of colleges helps break those misconceptions.
Secondly, although the pooling system is designed to ensure that places go to the most deserving students, college diversity makes it naive to believe this is entirely the case. Certain applicants are inevitably better suited to certain colleges. Mansfield’s Principal, Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, attributed Mansfield’s intake statistics to the fact that Mansfield tutors are “not taken in by the veneer and polish that can be produced by a certain kind of education.” With such obviously college-specific outlooks, it would be difficult to argue that a careful choice of college is irrelevant to your chances of success, not least of all because it may make you feel more confident knowing that your college suits you.
Beyond Internet research, prospectuses and ‘alternative’ prospectuses, my best advice is to seek out actual Oxbridge students who can give candid advice. Ask family and friends, contact Pure Potential, search for the students writing blogposts like this one, or simply send emails to students from colleges, societies or student bodies that you like the sound of. Trust me, people will be happy to reward your resourcefulness with honest information and advice.
2. Interviewers are not looking for slick know-it-alls
As Baroness Helena Kennedy QC’s quote suggests, Oxford interviewers are not necessarily looking for polished, eloquent, knowledgable interview performances. Far, far from it.
Firstly, they are looking not for knowledge, but ability. They don’t want to know what you know, but how you think. Looking back to my History interview, this is very clear. They asked me to speak about a book I’d read and a painting I’d never seen before. In both instances they were looking to see how I thought about and analysed the material, not what I remembered or already knew about it. Open-mindedness, observation and considering all the arguments and reasons for things is much more important than remembering details and facts.
Secondly, they are looking for a passion for your subject. Of course at the age of 18 it can be difficult to know exactly what you want to do, but they are not looking to see that you’ve found your life’s calling. They want to see that you have thought carefully about your reasons for wanting to study your subject. I didn’t know for certain that history was for me, but I had a genuine interest in Namibia, which I had recently visited, so I read two books about Africa. It sounds simple, but my sincere and personal interest in the subject shone through.
3. The workload will not make your life miserable
Firstly, a distinction needs to be made here between how much Oxbridge students should work and how much they need to work. Let’s make ti clear that students from anywhere should work as much as possible: the more you work, the more you benefit from and enjoy your studies.
However, most students considering an Oxbridge application seem more concerned with how much they need to work to keep up. So what’s the real answer?
Firstly, the idea that Oxbridge students are doomed to spending ten hours every day behind a pile of books in order to stay on the academic treadmill is a complete myth. Our introductory talk recommended we work 40 hours per week – surely less than school hours including homework.
The most reassuring bit? I know nobody who averaged 40 hours per week. It would be a lie to pretend that most students heeded that advice.
The reality is that providing you’re relatively focused when you are working, you can comfortably get by working considerably less. I averaged around 25 hours and got an upper 2:1, as did many friends.
Don’t get me wrong: I genuinely regret not working more, and absolutely advocate doing so. But the notion that everybody is working 40+ hours per week and the university will get you if you aren’t is a myth. And I don’t think this myth simply encourages people to work harder; its also causes much unnecessary anxiety and deters worthy students from applying to Oxbridge.
Yes, work as hard as you can. But for anybody motivated to do well and disciplined enough not to get drunk five nights per week, the workload, although demanding in a good, challenging way, does not live up to its notorious status.
4. Oxbridge is normal!
Many people, imagining Oxbridge life, picture pristine lawns, champagne, dusty libraries, tweed, arrogance, ‘posh people’, croquet and tales of the Bullingdon Society. In a nutshell: elitism. Sure enough, Oxbridge has all of these things more than any other university in the world, and they are etched into our minds as symbols of Oxbridge elitism. However, symbols are over-simplified images of reality, and actually these things only give all the more reason to apply.
Firstly, apart from Bullingdon tales, all of these elitist features are to be found at universities all across the country. All university nightlclubs exhibit groups sat around sipping chilled champagne; the library at my local, modern university is dustier than any Oxford library I’ve seen; and I often honestly remark that Oxford Brookes students seem as posh (and tweed-clad) as Oxford students. Indeed, Oxford and Cambridge are not at all in a league of their own in terms of lowly state-school intakes.
Secondly, privilege (and these things are privileges) does not equal elitism. Privilege should not be taken for granted, but neither should it simply be renounced. It should be genuinely appreciated as something that not only adds richness to our lives, but helps us generate an understanding of how fortunate we are. Truly appreciating our privileges does not make us elitist.
This might sound a bit deep, but it’s an important point. To renounce privilege by not applying to Oxbridge simply allows that privilege to perpetuate; it responds to the issue of elitism by simply ignoring it. Moreover, it forgoes an opportunity to see close up how that elitism really operates in order to effectively work against it. Marc Zao-Sanders, for example, went to Oxford and then founded Pure Potential! How can we work against something if we don’t know how it works?
We should use our appreciation of privilege to combat hardship, and Oxbridge, especially for those who have had to work the hardest to get in, offers an unrivalled opportunity to cultivate that mindset.
Finally, and most importantly, you are not alone! Most Oxbridge students will share your concerns and confusions about these stereotypes. Oxford is full of ‘normal people’ wearing t-shirts and trainers and enjoying the things you enjoy. It is full of people who scrimp along on student budgets and laugh at the strange gowns. It is full of normal things like buses and shops. It even, shock horror, has two Wetherspoons pubs!
I really implore anybody who has reservations about applying to Oxbridge to be open-minded and see past the stereotypes. At the very least, if you still have reservations after reading this, send me an email and I’ll be happy to help reassure you. There is so little to lose in applying to Oxbridge, but so much to gain – for yourselves, for Oxbridge and for society.
A big thank you to Sam for this great blog! We have a lot of advice on our website on how to make a high-quality application to the most competitive universities. We also have plenty of free university & career events taking place throughout the year, so if you haven’t signed up already, make sure you do.