Judge a tree by its fruit, a man by the company he keeps, and a school by the universities it sends its pupils to? Well, you would miss out on the oak, the saint and many wonderful schools for ordinary children, but the level of Oxbridge acceptances is still a pretty good measure of at least some of a school’s qualities. You can find full details of each school’s Oxbridge successes (and indeed of the other universities that they send pupils to) on our website.
There used to be a joke about Oxbridge admissions interviews. At some colleges, it was said that when you went for an interview, they would throw a rugby ball at you. If you caught it, you were in. Until recently, as well as training lawyers, clergymen and educators, the ancient universities were partially run as finishing schools for upper-class young men. This is categorically no longer the case.
Much as the two great universities may huff and puff that they always looked for the best, it has taken a great deal of government effort to push them into using systems that made this more likely. Oxford now says, ‘Tests been designed to look for aptitude rather than acquired knowledge’, and that they are moving towards a common and more understandable admissions system.
The challenge for state schools has been to find the time to make their pupils confident, articulate, sparky, curious, inventive and learned in the ways of the world while faced with an A level curriculum and marking system that could have been designed to extinguish all these characteristics. A state school that does well in Oxbridge admissions is really something special.
Are these the right universities for you?
For many A Level students, even more so for many parents. Oxbridge is the pinnacle of their academic aspirations, the sine qua non of a university education and a recognised path to fame and fortune. But Oxbridge is certainly not for everyone – not even for some of the brightest students - and it certainly won’t guarantee riches, or even a job.
There are, of course, many reasons one would choose to go to Oxbridge, not least of which is the beauty of the architecture, but the primary and central benefit of the education offered here is the tightly focused nature of the teaching. All students are taught by tutorial, either one-to-one with tutors or in very small groups. To undergo that intensity of education you need to be thoroughly interested in a specific subject area and happy to produce a heavyweight volume of work. Many 18 year olds can still be undecided with regards to their intellectual interests. Some universities offer degree courses which are reasonably broad in their areas of study during the first year or two and allow the students to specialise in a particular subject as they progress to their final years of study. Whichever University or degree course you choose, it is vitally important to establish an appropriate balance between work and play. Ultimately your University experience will be what you make of it.
No matter how great your passion for a subject, however, there is little point in applying to Oxbridge unless you are well qualified academically and have the aptitude and discipline to make the most of it. It is not obligatory to have straight A*s at GCSE but, particularly since the ongoing tweaking of the entry requirements, the higher your AS grades the more likely you are to get in. You also have had to have chosen the appropriate A-levels – Cambridge, as an example, is very particular about A-level subjects and entrance requirements for specific degree courses.
What you can do to prepare
The best academic schools in the country - the ones that send 10-50 successful candidates to Oxbridge each year often provide specialist preparation both for the application and for the interview.
‘We don’t do specific training for Oxbridge entrance’, says Helen Tumer, head of sixth form at league table-topping North London Collegiate School, which sends more than a third of is girls to Oxbridge. ‘But what we do offer in Year 13 is preparation for a university course in a particular subject, whichever university the girl is applying for. We prepare them to be brilliant at their subject. Everyone also has a mock interview with someone from outside the school.’
For those without such well-developed sixth forms, the answer can sometimes lie in the specialist businesses set up to help candidates with everything from the choice of course to interview technique.
‘I attended a one-day interview seminar.’ says Oxford fresher Jo Campbell, whose Hertfordshire comprehensive provided little in the way of application advice. ‘I found it very useful in dealing with the kind of questions that I was later asked.’