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Dispelling the myths around Oxbridge

We all know why many students consider applying to Oxford and Cambridge, but there seems to be a lot of myth and circumspect round these esteemed establishments. Surbiton High School’s Terry McDermott, Director of Careers and Head of Oxbridge, looks to debunk some of those pre-conceived ideas.


I won’t have fun” – there’s a vibrant social scene with all the clubs and music venues you’d expect from medium-sized cities.  On top of that, you have the club nights, balls, sports, theatre, etc.. which go on at a university level but also, crucially, at college level. Arguably Oxford and Cambridge are more fun and vibrant than similar sized cities as a result of the college system.  Further, Oxford and Cambridge are only an hour or so from London by bus or train, so if you’re desperate for the megacity experience, it’s not difficult to find it.

“It’s more pressured” – you will likely have more work than at many other universities, but students there compare the hours to what you do in SHS Sixth Form.  One said she was more surprised by how little some of her other friends were doing at their universities than how much she was doing at Oxford.

“I won’t be good enough” – Oxford and Cambridge put a lot of effort into selecting their students.  They look at interview performance, use tests, look at schoolwork – all this is designed to select people who are going to thrive.  As a result, Oxford and Cambridge have the lowest drop-out rates of any universities and students achieve amongst the most higher degree classifications of any university.

“I’m not suited to it” – perhaps not, but if teachers are indicating they think you may be, you have little to lose by applying since you get 4 other university choices anyway.  If you are vaguely realistic as an Oxbridge applicant, it is very highly likely you will get offers elsewhere.

It’s not diverse” – this is something I’ve been hearing more recently – perhaps the old buildings and centuries of history embody privilege in the age of BLM and #metoo?  However, around 70% of students are from state schools.  Approximately a quarter of students at Oxbridge identify as BME, similar to the national proportion of BME in the 17-25 age group and far more than the overall proportion in the UK.  Just over 3% of students identify as black, again similar to the overall national percentage. At Cambridge, 19% of students identify as non-heterosexual compared with 1.5% of the wider UK population and Cambridge has been called the UK’s “gayest university”.  The gender balance is approaching parity with 47% of students at Oxbridge female.  While these stats over-simplify the situation and there are still improvements to be made, Oxbridge is more diverse than many top UK universities.


Choose the right degree subject: sometimes the right degree course for you isn’t one of your A-levels or isn’t obviously career related like law or medicine. Stop and really consider what makes YOU curious.  If that’s Anglo Saxon Norse and Celtic Studies, knock yourself out and yes, you can still get a good job!

Similarly, be open minded to new options.  Some of the less considered degrees are relatively undersubscribed precisely because they are not on everyone’s radar like the most popular subjects. This does not mean you should apply strategically, but with subjects like theology or archaeology be open minded to really exploring them if there’s indications you could be suited to them.

Make the right choice between Oxford and Cambridge: some degrees are only offered at one or other university, in which case this isn’t a factor.  However, if there is a choice, think carefully about differences between the courses and the differences in the way they select you.  For example, the economics related courses at Oxford and Cambridge suit different people and the selection approaches are quite distinct – you could be a competitive applicant for one and not the other.

“Read” – you should be “reading” beyond your GCSE and, particularly, you’re A-level studies.  I say “reading” because this could also be doing academic competitions, attending galleries, lab work experience, MOOCs (mini university courses online) and watching lectures.  It is anything that is meaningfully helping you to explore your subjects.  It is particularly important to do this super-curricular work in subjects you don’t study at school, such as law, engineering, archaeology, anthropology, etc., since no course page on a university website will give you a true flavour of the degree.

Talk to other people about your subject and ask them to challenge you:  this will help you develop the critical verbal skills for the interview – read an article with a friend or family member and then ask them to speak to you about.  How would you summarise it, what do you think about what it’s saying and above all, get them to challenge your point of view.

Understand how your Oxbridge application relates to your other university applications: you have one personal statement for five Universities, so you will need to apply for roughly the same course across your choice. However, it is possible to write a thematic personal statement so that you could viably and successfully apply for Theology at Oxbridge and English and Theology elsewhere.  You should focus your personal statement at your Oxbridge personal statement choice and then cover your other different choices thematically.  If this proves too difficult, check that your other university will accept a supplementary personal statement – many do.  And some may not even look at your personal statement.

Don’t focus on the wrong things:  for example, being a great rower or Head Girl are worthwhile things to do for many reasons but they will not directly aid your Oxbridge application. Oxbridge – and most other universities for that matter – are interested primarily in your academic passions and abilities. With this in mind, if you are seriously interested in Oxbridge, I would encourage you to think carefully about how much extra-curricular (as opposed to super-curricular) you take on.

Similarly, don’t agonise over college choice. For the most part, it isn’t very relevant in determining whether you will get a place or not. Therefore, choose a college that you think you will be comfortable at but don’t be too wedded to the decision since many students end up at other colleges anyway through the various pooling systems Oxbridge operate.  Everyone ends up loving their college!

About the Author:  Terence McDermott, holds a degree in law from Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge and is Surbiton High School’s Director of Careers and Head of Oxbridge. He also leads an Oxbridge project with state academies within United Learning, and founded the careers and higher education consultancy www.londoncareeradvice.com

Surbiton High School is a leading Independent School in South West London / Surrey borders, catering to boys (age 4-11) and girls (age 4-18). This year they have bucked the trend of declining Oxbridge offers against the backdrop of an extremely competitive environment this year with 8 students in receipt of offers


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