What should A-level students focus on this year if they hope to apply to Oxbridge?

As students head into their spring and summer terms, next year’s university applications begin to come into focus. For those seeking to apply to Oxbridge, it’s not just about getting the grades, but about doing the things that will help you stand out and making time to develop the tools that will help you get the most from the application process and (hopefully), the university experience. So what can you do now to help prepare yourself for an Oxford or Cambridge University application later this year?

Start practicing for interviews

Interviews are a big part of the application process and are a daunting one for many. At this stage in your education the number of interviews you will have done are minimal, so it’s understandable that you would need practice to feel (semi) comfortable in this environment, which will allow you to present the best version yourself. 
Rachel, who is currently at Magdalene College studying Natural Sciences, said: “I was given mock interviews at my college, there were other societies that offered them, and at CamVision they can also be arranged. I would definitely recommend doing at least one mock interview before you actually go for the real thing. For Natural Sciences we also had to take an entrance exam before being offered an interview. Then on the day of my interview I had an extra paper that I had to sit specifically for my college as well. This last one will vary from college to college, but it’s worth keeping in mind that there may be slightly different processes for each.”

Think about what you’re passionate about

At a Q&A for prospective students at Cambridge university last year, current undergraduates commented on preparing personal statements. They said: “Admissions officers at Cambridge care mostly about two things. Firstly, they want their students to be teachable. Secondly, they want to be assured that you are really interested in the subjects they have applied for. So in your personal statement you should write about things that interest you and that you would be happy to talk about in more depth during your interview. Do make sure that you can back up what you are saying. Ultimately, your personal statement is supposed to be personal, so write what you want to write about!” 

This is something that CamVision Education founder, Dr. Mengmeng Wang also feels strongly about. She says: “Passion is important but it’s also about how you present that passion. It’s passion leading to motivation. Whether you have enough incentive to study this subject, or do this job. To show it, you would have tried to find more to read over and beyond what’s required. Try to find relevant events to attend, groups to join or competitions to enter. In my experience, competition itself doesn’t really matter to universities like Cambridge, but entering shows that you are passionate enough about this subject to go beyond school activities and get involved.”

Do your research

It’s important to know what subject you want to do, but each course and university varies enormously in what and how they teach. So, take time to really research the subject, course and college you want to apply to. Former Oxbridge interviewer, Dr. Elizabeth Evenden-Kenyon, says: “The most common mistake is not doing your research on the university, the departments, and the college. The main question I have seen interviewees stumble over is: “why do you want to study at this university/college/why this course”. I would advise you don’t answer: “Because I’m the best!”. A better answer would be: “this subject isn’t taught at [the other university]” or “you’re the number one department in the university rankings”, or “because I would have the opportunity to work with a particular academic.” 

Learn to explain your thought processes

At CamVision many of our tutors and team members are Oxbridge graduates or undergraduates, and one of the things that they all reiterate is the importance of showing how you work through a problem, even if you can’t reach the answer. It’s a given that if you reach the interview stage at Oxbridge, or even if you are considering applying, that you have a level of academic attainment. However, they don’t expect you to have the answers to everything already. Universities want to be able to see how you think. 
For example, Ed, who has a BA in Chinese Studies from the University of Cambridge, said:  “I had a general interview for the college and a subject-specific interview with my future Director of Studies – the person who would be responsible for my academic development. In the general interview they asked me a question about languages, because that’s what I was going to study, and I think I spoke for five minutes, which felt like eternity. At the end I still said ‘look, I don’t know. I just don’t have the answer to this question. I can’t get to it.’ When I looked it up afterwards, I realised that even among the top scientists, they just don’t know. It’s debated. I think that is the classic example of a question – they really just want to see how you work. It’s important to think aloud and not be afraid of making mistakes.” 

Develop your critical thinking and show it

Critical thinking is not something you can’t learn from a book, but it’s essential for moving from school to the next level of education. Dr. Mengmeng Wang says: “When you are preparing to apply to your university, finding a course or activities that help develop your critical thinking is very important. You need to show that you know how to apply what you learned at school to real life situations. A top university would not want to waste their resources on training someone who might not be able to use their skills to make a contribution to society. Not to mention that at a workplace you are expected to create value for your company independently.”

Hone your exposition skills

It’s one thing to have great ideas, but to make them work you need to be able to share them so that other people can understand you, work with you and develop something new based on your concept. For that you need to develop your communication and presentation skills, whether you’re speaking to one person or a crowd. There are debate camps you can join or courses to teach you public speaking. Those are helpful, but it’s not just about sharpening your oral presentation skills.  Exposition also means that you can structure your mind and your ideas in a systematic and clear way to make other people, even those with no background in the subject, understand you. This is key when applying to universities and also to securing a job. 
If you are a student seeking to apply to Cambridge University or Oxford University this year and you would like support in developing your application, speak to our team about University Application Mentoring.