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Monday, 5 November 2018


Wadham College, Oxford

The six form years are a high-pressure period for students,  which is why many Oxbridge applicants are  tempted to forget about the whole interview business just a little longer. After all, they cannot yet be certain whether they'll be offered an interview at all. However, once they do know for sure, which is at the very earliest in mid November, there may not be enough time left for any Oxbridge and course-specific preparation. So, trying to fit in just a little extra work right now can be pretty crucial.

For most STEM applicants this means, above all, that they need to thoroughly revise their GCSE science and maths. A student aiming for an MFL course, meanwhile, may want to use the time to expand her knowledge of French poetry beyond a couple of poems by Rimbaud and work on her French grammar.  Many an Economics applicant comes a cropper at the interview because she has forgotten the most relevant bits of algebra, calculus and differentiation. An engineering applicant may also want to make sure he remembers enough details about that exciting engineering project he had mentioned in his UCAS statement.

Many applicants also still want to keep an eye out for major new discoveries in their  field, reported in the papers or online, and note why such a development is important. A specialist journal such as New Scientist or STUDENT BMJ will also describe the methods by which it was arrived at. Some interest in the research methods used in your chosen field is expected of you at this stage.

Students still worried about the type of interview questions likely to come up, or about the Oxbridge question style, will this year find sample questions and mock interviews on both the Oxford and Cambridge websites. To a highly focused applicant at an Oxbridge-geared school these may be reassuring. If they aren't to you, this is the moment to raise your game a little further. The six interview chapters in OXBRIDGE ENTRANCE: THE REAL RULES will tell you how. 

Saturday, 29 September 2018


Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford

Still struggling with a UCAS statement which is too long or just not working? Staying within the UCAS-set word limit is one of the most challenging tasks ever encountered by many students. Here is how to do it and make the contents more impressive at the same time.

            1. Don't repeat  yourself. Once you’ve said that you found your  holiday job with a children's play scheme really inspiring,  you don’t need to add that you acquired valuable team-working skill and like working with people. However, mentioning that it has taught you about something course related, such as child psychology, is worthwhile.

            2. Do say what drew you to the course. Was it a lesson, a book, a school research project, an excursion, a talk or some TV programme?  How are you trying to find out more? Is there a science book, poetry collection or article on the latest stone age finds you have enjoyed? What you want to show here is that you are capable of intellectual activity beyond or  independent of what you're doing for school.

            3. Don’t list everything you have done. Just mentioning six different extra-curricular activities is pointless. You just want to show that you are organised enough to do a couple of challenging things alongside your studies. Have they taught you any skills useful for your course? Do they suggest particular strengths or character traits?  Also, are there any prizes you have won or  disadvantages overcome?

            4. Avoid space-filling generalisations such as “politics is a truly fascinating subject”. Just tell the reader what fascinates you personally about it. By briefly mentioning personal concerns or life experiences you may become more convincing, as well as more memorable.

            5 Don't focus on your degree subject in terms of your future career. Far too many Oxbridge applicants write that they chose Economics because they are "hoping for a career in finance”. What admissions tutors want to know is which course-related financial, social or mathematical problems are of interest to you and how you are already exploring them.
            6. Write in clear, non overly long sentences, using correct subject terms. As strong writing skills are prized by most  admissions tutors, it's alright, though, to mention a well received essay or research report (which the school may be asked to send in).

                  7. Don’t try to solve your space problem by copying a UCAS statement found online. Admissions tutors now have the software to identify plagiarism. Asking a well-educated relative or family friend to write your statement for you is not a good idea either:  any admissions tutor can tell the writings of a middle-aged graduate from those of a sixth former. Also, the type of student Oxbridge seeks has considerably changed over the years!
                  8. Now re-read, and re-read again, and not just for spelling errors.  Have you said too much about the future you are aiming  for, but too little about what you bring to the course? Are your extra-curriculars  taking up more space than your academic interests? Since what university students do most is read, did you remember to list any course-related book(s) or article(s)? Most importantly, don't leave checking all this to the last moment, as the result could be not just typos but a muddled narrative or fatal omissions.
Still unsure how to make a strong, memorable application? For more detailed, course-specific advice on this and on tests and interviews read the new edition of OXBRIDGE ENTRANCE: THE REAL RULES

Wednesday, 4 July 2018


Keble College, Oxford

With exams over, many Oxbridge hopefuls will be moving on to  their next worry either before their Open Day visit to Oxbridge or soon thereafter. Visitors' most common worries are social ones. The very sight of so many palatial buildings in one place can make a state school student panic about whether, even if admitted,  unposh people like her might hopelessly stick out. What if there won't be anyone else from her (or his) school, neighbourhood, ethnic origin or class background?  

What state school students need to know is that they will actually be in the majority: in 2017, state schoolers made up 64 per cent of UK students admitted to both Oxford and Cambridge,  as against 36 per cent of privately educated ones. The latter, incidentally, do not bite. They too are at Oxbridge for a course they are excited by, for a chance to acquire some sporting or drama skills and to meet someone they fancy.

Social life at Oxbridge encourages mixing. Students from very different homes and schools  live on the same college floors and eat in the same college dining room. Those missing their mum's food meet others in the same plight at the  communal student kitchens.  Shared lectures, tutorials, lectures and seminars bring people together in a collective grumble over the shocking amount of knowledge they are meant to absorb. Each of the two universities also funds almost a hundred different student clubs, enabling you to have a go at anything from kick-boxing to journalism and from comedy skills to strategy games.

Students not feeling at home yet can join a society for people from their own ethnic, religious  or social background. This can mean something like the Chinese, Hindu or Aeronautical Society. Some student societies offer their members not just reassurance but also a chance to raise issues like discrimination. Black students, who are very under-represented at Oxbridge, run an ongoing campaign on this issue. Oxford's recently founded ClassAct Society seeks to address the specific concerns of undergraduates from working class, comprehensive school, low income and/or  first generation university backgrounds.

What, though, about the financial side? Well, the £9,250 annual tuition fees are the same almost everywhere and covered (until you start earning) by a government loan.  Rent and food are covered by its additional £8,700 maintenance loan wherever you study. In addition, though, both Oxford and Cambridge offer struggling students very substantial grants to make up for this. Oxbridge rents are similar to those charged in London and other big cities, but note that they vary greatly among colleges. So, you may want to email an appealing one for details about  its accommodation cost. You also need to know that students, once admitted, are not expelled if they become unable to afford the rent. There are college hardship grants for that purpose.

In short, if you get in (which depends  largely on your hard work and appropriate preparation) the odds are you will be absolutely fine.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018


Emmanuel College, Cambridge

One trait shared by many successful Oxbridge applicants is the ability to think ahead. A Year 12 student aiming for a degree course starting in 2019 may therefore want to start scrolling through the Oxford or Cambridge prospectus right now. Not only does it spell out the formal entry requirements of each course in terms of A-level subjects and grades, thus clarifying a student's real options, but it also lists the wide range of careers which this may lead to. As some course names  (think Land Economy or Materials Science) will mean very little to parents, this could reassure them that you are making a sound choice.

To both help you choose and enable you to become a promising  applicant,  Oxford and Cambridge also run a huge number of university-based events, often combining a general introduction with a course-specific taster, followed by questions and answers. You may  also get the  chance to quiz current students about their experience. Some events include funding information, a college tour or a lab visit. While most of these (usually free) events take place in the summer months, students may need to apply or just register for them very soon. So, do check the deadlines!

·     CAMBRIDGE OPEN DAYS (5th and 6th July 2018)

Cambridge also runs course-specific DEPARTMENTAL OPEN DAYS 
Held between March and September, these again are free but advance booking is sometimes required.
Held throughout the year, these are stimulating, course-specific talks by university academics which include questions and answers, plus admissions advice. There is a £20 charge,  but the events are very good value. Past attenders even attributed their success to them.
These are entirely free, residential, course-specific summer schools which combine intensive learning with tours and social activities. Aimed at high-achieving state school students, priority is given to disadvantaged applicants and those living in areas in areas with low progression to higher education.
(Applications are now closed).
      These academically intensive, free one week courses held in individual colleges enable state school students to engage in intensive study, interspersed with local tours and social activities. Applicants need five  or more 6 to 9 grades at GCSE, or 5 credit passes at  Standard Grade.
Year 11 students thinking even further ahead may want to explore the FOUNDATION YEAR run by an Oxford college, Lady Margaret Hall, for bright applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds or held back by unfortunate circumstances. 

·    EVENTS FOR BAME STUDENTS Lastly, special events for BAME students, a still much under-represented group, are now  officially run for both Oxford and Cambridge under the umbrella of a separate, external organisation,  TARGET OXBRIDGE.

Readers will find lots more suggestions on how to prepare for the Oxbridge admissions process in my best-selling guide, OXBRIDGE ENTRANCE: THE REAL RULES. 

Thursday, 23 November 2017


If the the very prospect of your interview still gives you bad dreams,  yet more preparation will calm you down. Start by googling your prospective interviewers.  Not only will they seem less like strangers when you meet, but a special interest mentioned can suggest topics that might come up.

Don’t, though, try to plough through an interviewer’s book at this stage. It may still be well above your head anyway. Focus on practical things instead. If your Oxbridge interviews involve an overnight stay, pack something that will take your mind off the challenges ahead. For some people, that will be a thriller, for others Rescue Remedy or their favourite chocs.

Once up, get to know some of the other candidates (who may become fellow students), rather than just viewing them as potential rivals. Some will have read books or explored subject areas you never even heard off, but don’t worry now. Interview questions can usually be handled by drawing on a variety of sources.

If a term or author mentioned really baffles you, have a quick look online, but don’t spend hours trying to catch up. You want to stay fresh enough to display your own knowledge and engage with new ideas.

Still worried you might embarrass yourself in front of those super-clever interviewers? Remember that this is actually not what they’re trying to achieve. They’re just experts looking for yet more good learners keen on the much loved course they teach.

Most will try hard to make you feel welcome, but don’t be put off by an interviewer who seems unfriendly or glum. It does not mean that black-gowned figure hates your accent, school or cutting-edge haircut. The poor soul may simply be exhausted after interviewing a dozen students in one day. Other great minds, however well-meaning, merely lack the social skills to put a stranger at ease. Either way, they will still be taking in everything you say and discuss it with fellow interviewers later.

So, keep relating to what you are being asked, instead of fretting about the feel of the event.  And, if you really want to be liked, practise speaking up; whispering, mumbling students are the bane of a don’s life.

While doing so, keep in mind one more,  absolutely key interview skill: answering the question actually asked (rather than the one you would like it to have been). Also, remember that interview questions are meant to be hard, so don’t despair if you got the odd answer wrong. 

Lastly, wise students are aware that interviewers expect fairly detailed answers. Just yes or no is never what they're looking for.  So try to  cover "what, why and how" if possible.  Can you explain events, analyse texts or calculate outcomes? Show a knack for logical or lateral thinking? And, if a totally unfamiliar scenario is put in front of you, can you draw on what you do know to engage with it?

For yet more advice, check out OXBRIDGE ENTRANCE: THE REAL RULES, still available by one-day delivery from Amazon.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017


Still limbering up for your approaching interview? Here is the key advice. For a start, do remember that the interview itself is not a life-or-death matter. Your personal statement, school references and, in most cases, test results will co-determine whether you are offered a place. So, instead of fretting, you may want to just  raise your game a bit further.

Try to at least skim any book (s) you mentioned in your UCAS statement, this time focusing on methods rather than findings or facts. How exactly did Gregor Mendel discover the genetic basis of heredity? How might an archaeologist research the lives of illiterate, long dead people?

While being familiar with the periods covered in your A-level history is essential for subject applicants, of course, you may also want to ask yourself why some events within those still hugely resonate with us, while others don’t.

An applicant for a course requiring students to solve maths problems may need to practise showing (on paper or board) how they arrived at the solution. It is not enough to just verbally present the interviewer with it.  

·    Make sure, too, that you can understand, define, spell and confidently use the main subject terms. You don’t want to muddle up fission with fusion (or allusion with illusion) on that long, stressful day.

     Google-check you are up-to-date on major developments in the subject area you expressed an interest in. Have there been great new discoveries in cancer treatment or the causes of hurricanes?

·    Practise speculating when faced with an unfamiliar scenario. The idea is to draw on what you know, but also use your imagination (or an appropriate calculation). What would have happened if Churchill had died in 1939? Why might an economic theory not work in real life? 

In fact, recent sample questions released by Oxford suggest that these are  steadily broadening to make up for very unequal class sizes and academic support, an approach shared by  Cambridge: while interviewers will still  expect a familiarity with the structure of organelles (or the definition of an iambic pentameter), the ability to give strong reasons for your views or look at an issue from more than one angle does count for much. 

What this means is that a law applicant may have to state why she believes a common type of behaviour should (or should not) be illegal, while a would-be philosopher might be asked to suggest ethical reasons for caring about the environment. The idea is to see if the student can apply what (s)he has learnt to a different context or problem.

Reassured that these are far from insurmountable challenges? If so, the next step is to remind yourself of the five crucial interview skills:

·     1. Listen carefully. Does your interviewer want you to discuss what happened in 1914 or in 1941?  Are you being asked for a fact, an explanation or your opinion?

·    2. Order  your thoughts before replying in a few reasonably short sentences. Don’t just ramble on, hoping that the right answer will eventually come to you.

·    3.  Always use proper subject terms, avoid text speak and write in full, grammatically correct  sentences in any  written test. 

4.  If applying for  for Economics or a STEM-related course, make sure you can do quick, basic sums  in your head.  You should also be able to draw a simple numerical table and make sense of one you are shown.

5. Speak in a clear, audible voice rather than whisper: there is no point in giving a brilliant answer if your interviewer cannot hear it.

Well, that's pretty much it, though you'll  find much more detailed advice in the six interview chapters and three course-specific sections of OXBRIDGE ENTRANCE: THE REAL RULES. Best of luck!

Monday, 13 November 2017


University of Oxford

Is the result of your students' Oxford or Cambridge applications too often disappointing? Or is Oxbridge a new ambition for your school? Our well-established STATE SCHOOL TO OXBRIDGE interview workshops are uniquely geared towards schools with a high proportion of applicants from non-university and/or minority ethnic backgrounds.
As the author of best-selling guide OXBRIDGE ENTRANCE: THE REAL RULES,  I know that success takes preparation. While the free Oxbridge Access events cover some of this, even the brightest “non-traditional” applicants often need more targeted help to display their abilities. Our  school-based, one-off interview workshops  strengthen  subject-specific knowledge, articulacy and the broader academic skills top universities seek.  Each event includes both interview practice and individual advice. Teachers have described our workshops as “invaluable”.

Cost is still just £150 for a one-off 90 minute (or two hour) workshop, designed to provide you with the frank, strategic guidance Oxbridge staff cannot give. The result for participating schools tends to be recurrent Oxbridge success.

For more details about this and other STATE SCHOOL TO OXBRIDGE workshops, just call 07791 574 866 or email us at with any questions you have.