Being set on the idea
Of getting to Atlantis,
You have discovered of course
Only the Ship of Fools is
Making the voyage this year.
– W.H. AUDEN
Getting to Oxbridge is probably marginally easier than getting to Atlantis, but is still tricky. If it weren’t, it wouldn’t be half as good. Obviously, the best way to maximise your chances of getting in is to read and read until you turn blue – only by demonstrating a real passion and awareness of your chosen subject will you convince the admissions team that you are worthy of a place. Nevertheless, I hope some of these (non-academic) tips will help make the process of application more comfortable.
- If you want to go, apply
I mean it. If you want to go, and you have vaguely appropriate grades, apply even if you don’t think you have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting in. On the one hand, you just might succeed. On the other, if you fail, applying will give you some useful experience of an academic interview process. Plus, all it costs you is that you have to apply a month earlier – and perhaps do an extra form or two.
- Pick a college
Yes, I know you can make an ‘open application’. Don’t. You get put in the same position as the ‘open’ people anyway if you meet certain academic requirements but don’t make it to your chosen college, so at least give your favourite college a crack. It’s not as if all colleges are the same, anyway. They are all microcosms of universities, with their own cultures and customs, ranging from the vehemently traditional to the achingly hipsterish. Go and visit. See which one you like.
- Talk to someone
Viz. ‘Go and visit’ – obviously, the open days are a must, but one of the drawbacks of talking to the students on the college information desks is they are likely to try to tell you that their college is wonderful in every way. Try to talk to someone who hasn’t drunk as much of the collegiate Kool-Aid. If you’re very lucky, there will be someone from your school (or someone else you know) who attended an Oxbridge college this century. They might give you a more nuanced picture of the different colleges and their cultures. If that’s not an option, try the alumni association in your area – in my experience, they’re very nice and honest.
- Don’t lie in your personal statement
When it comes to the interview, your interviewer will probably ask you about something in your personal statement. They do this because they are trying to be nice – the alternative would be to ask you a variation on ‘What happens if you drop an ant?’. For God’s sake, don’t mention a book you haven’t read. You most likely will not get away with it.
- Dress smartly for interview
Not everyone will, of course. But it might subliminally make the interviewer see you as a more serious candidate. Just as importantly, it might make you act more seriously and professionally. Having said that, if you find the idea of smart clothes very intimidating, then don’t wear them. What you say is far more important than what you wear.
- Be relaxed
Try to get on with your interviewer, who is considering you as someone he or she wants to spend a significant portion of the next three years with. Think before you speak, but when you do speak, expatiate – don’t give curt answers. Don’t be frightened when you are presented with a question which you cannot answer. In fact, if the interview is going well, this is pretty much guaranteed to happen. Don’t let it throw you.
I know plenty of people now at Oxbridge who would have benefited from some of this advice. Frankly, so would I. Hopefully, you’ll now have a better berth on the Ship of Fools- a cabin with a porthole, perhaps, rather than stuck by the galley. Good luck!
P.S. I use the ‘Ship of Fools’ metaphor not to suggest that you are fools, but that the application system has its foolish aspects – for all the dons’ protestations to the contrary, it can be random and wasteful.
Failure does not necessarily mean you are not good enough.
Do you have any more tips for getting into Oxbridge? Tell us in the comments below!
Photo: Ed Brambley / Flickr