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Oxbridge

I am often asked by parents about entry to Oxford and Cambridge: interview preparation, the various tests and a candid assessment of the chances of their son or daughter being successful. Given that Birkdale has 12 students currently holding offers from Oxford or Cambridge, and anxiously awaiting their A level results, I feel that I have some experience in answering this question.  Here are my usual responses to parents in 6 bite-size chunks which might make the inevitable statistics a bit more readable. 

Cambridge admission statistics for 2015 may be found here (http://www.undergraduate.study.cam.ac.uk/sites/www.undergraduate.study.cam.ac.uk/files/publications/undergrad_admissions_statistics_2015_cyle.pdf ) and the Oxford numbers are here in interactive form (https://public.tableau.com/views/UoO_UG_Admissions/SchoolType?%3Aembed=y&%3Adisplay_count=yes&%3AshowTabs=y&%3AshowVizHome=no ).

Oxbridge is worth it. Oxford and Cambridge still dominate the university league tables (see for example http://www.thecompleteuniversityguide.co.uk/league-tables/rankings ) and still confer advantage on their graduates in most subjects in terms of future employment.  The regular small group teaching (supervisions) is an excellent learning model and the students are extremely able (at Cambridge 62% of undergraduates gained at least 3 A* grades at A level).

Oxbridge isn’t for everyone. Three 8 week terms bring an intensity to study that doesn’t suit all students.  There are plenty of other excellent universities with longer terms and a slightly slower pace.  Medicine at Oxbridge is more academic initially than at other medical schools and many students prefer a more patient centred approach.

Oxbridge myths. Plenty of these seem still to be around; here are statements about the more common ones.  There is little evidence that independent or state school pupils are advantaged or disadvantaged in the admissions process.  At Cambridge independently educated pupils have a success rate of 35% compared to their state educated peers with a success rate of 25%.  The equivalent figures at Oxford are 25% and 21% respectively.  This may reflect better interview preparation and support with the application process, including course choice, at schools like Birkdale.  The percentage of Oxbridge undergraduates who were independently educated is far higher than the 7% of the school population who attend independent schools but this is a direct consequence of the very high A level results achieved by this group (33% of all UK students achieving at least 3 A grades at A level attend independent schools).    There is little variation between the success rates of applications from different parts of the UK.  Overseas students still make up a minority of all undergraduates (around 25% at Cambridge and 18% at Oxford) and face more competition for their places than UK students.  The interview questions are challenging but relevant to the subject applied for: forget about stories of impossible and off-putting questions.  Such questions would yield little information for a hard-pressed admissions tutor who has to decide which students should receive an offer.  Real interview questions may be found here (http://www.ox.ac.uk/admissions/undergraduate/applying-to-oxford/interviews/sample-interview-questions ).

Choose your subject carefully. There are large variations in the chances of success between subjects and the statistics really do repay study.  At Cambridge success rates vary from 54% for Classics, 47% for Theology and Religious Studies and 45% for Modern and Medieval Languages down to 14% for Computer Science, Engineering or Economics and a thought-provoking 13% for Architecture.  At Oxford success rates vary from 42% for Classics and 33% for Languages down to 15% for PPE (important if you have prime-ministerial ambitions), 11% for Medicine, and a despair-inducing 7% for Economics and Management.  If Oxbridge really is your thing then cultivating an interest in Classics and Languages rather than in Economics would be advisable.

Choose your college carefully. There is not much evidence that any individual colleges favour maintained sector or independently schooled applicants.  The pool system at both Oxford and Cambridge does seem reasonably successful in redistributing good applicants who may have chosen to apply to a very popular college.  Oxford claims that 27% of their undergraduates were placed at a college other than the one to which they originally applied.  However, there is significant variation in the admissions processes for different colleges, with varying combinations of interviews and written tests, and this allows applicants to play to their strengths.  At Birkdale we offer individual advice to try to help prospective students find what is right for them.  The number of Oxbridge courses requiring admissions tests, mostly sat in the November of the U6, is likely to increase.  Oxford has always used tests to filter out applicants for interview whilst Cambridge relied on AS results: with the demise of the AS examinations Cambridge will switch to the Oxford model.  Inevitably tests can be prepared for, favouring the well-organised student attending a supportive school.  GCSE results, as the only completed qualifications at the time of application, will become more important.

Interview preparation is vital. Successful applicants have to show that they have huge enthusiasm for their chosen subject and that they can think and learn quickly.  Sadly prowess on a sports pitch or great musical ability will not help here.  Whilst extra-curricular activities are of interest, as they enrich the lives of the colleges and develop personalities, these skills will not make any difference in the business of gaining a place.  What counts are super-curricular activities, undertaken throughout the L6, such as extra reading and research beyond the A level syllabus, national academic competitions and relevant work experience.  The Extended Project Qualification is particularly useful here as it allows students to research a topic or question generated by them, developing expertise in a particular field and showing enthusiasm for study.  Mock interviews are very helpful as they give practice to the applicant in fielding difficult questions and showing that they can quickly combine new information with what they already know to develop their own views or solutions.  At Birkdale we provide lots of super-curricular resources and opportunities for each subject and several mock interviews with feedback for each hopeful candidate.

Oxford and Cambridge universities remain the gold standard for academic excellence; if a student is academically able it is very much worth a try, only absorbing one out of five UCAS university choices. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

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