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Wasted opportunities: Are Oxford and Cambridge applications worth the effort?

The Sutton Trust educational charity recently published the results of a poll of 561 secondary teachers which indicated that 40% of them would rarely or never advise their most academically-gifted pupils to apply to Oxbridge. The tone of their press release, and the subsequent media coverage, focused in particular on the high number of surveyed teachers who under-estimated the number of state-educated students at the two universities, with a quarter believing that fewer than 20% of students came from the state sector.

Whilst the story was used as a means to promote the Trust’s residential teacher summer schools (a laudable initiative to challenge the mythology and stereotypes that abound over admission to selective courses and universities) it also served to highlight the level of misinformation that exists around the admissions process, although any suggestion that somehow the teachers were at fault is in my view misplaced. In most schools and colleges in any given year there are likely to be only a small number of potential Oxbridge applicants – an analysis of A-level results suggests that in any given year at least 20% of secondary schools are unlikely to have any students achieving AAA grades or better, that would be the required minimum level of attainment to make them potential applicants to Oxford. If schools have only a few potential candidates it is easy to see how staff members may lack the time and inclination to put substantial resource into supporting a few candidates who will have on average only a 20% chance of actually receiving an offer, given the high number of applicants relative to the low number of offers that Oxbridge Colleges make.

My experience after eight admissions cycles at Oxford suggests that where a student has a genuine interest in a course that we offer, and is showing the academic potential to secure the grades required for entry, the effort and time spent in making an Oxbridge application is generally a useful and productive undertaking.

There are of course some caveats. Students need to see their Oxbridge application as one of their five university applications, rather than seeing the Oxbridge offer as the only one that is of significance. The high numbers of very well-qualified candidates who do not secure an offer every year (because there is no scope to over-recruit on numbers in the collegiate structure we have) means that students must be resilient, and be ready to accept that they may not be destined for Oxbridge. This can be a very hard lesson for both students and parents if they are used to being amongst the most academically-able students in their school or college. They must be prepared to take responsibility for organising their application, checking to see if they are required to undertake an admissions aptitude test or submit some examples of existing coursework, rather than assuming that their teachers or parents will fulfil this role. And they must be prepared to do enough additional reading around their subject so that if they get short-listed for interview they will be able to engage in an academic discussion with their interviewers in their chosen course. All of this activity will also enhance their confidence and preparedness for their other UCAS choices, and should not be viewed as wasted effort.

Both Oxford and Cambridge recognise that in preparing candidates for making a competitive application we are asking a lot from both students and their teachers. Both universities have invested significant resources in outreach activity designed to support students and teachers– in particular. Schools should take advantage of the College link schemes that exist at both universities, with each local authority in the UK partnered to an Oxford and Cambridge College. This can be a first port of call for schools with limited experience of supporting students, and can form the basis for extended preparatory work, with both universities now working with pre-16 as well as post-16 year-old students. Both universities publish very detailed and comprehensive on-line teacher guides that are full of suggestions on how to support candidates, run free residential summer schools for prospective students, hold regular free teacher conferences in locations around the UK, have regular teacher e-newsletters, and provide a range of talks and activities designed to enhance subject knowledge and build upon existing curriculum content.

Oxford and Cambridge are not right for every student (not least because the two universities at best offer only around 60% of the subjects that candidates might be interested in studying as undergraduates) but where there is a genuine interest from an applicant in taking one of our courses, and evidence that they have the academic ability to cope with the demands of the tutorial education system that underpins our teaching, then we will do everything we can to support applicants and their teachers in making a successful and competitive application. We work with other universities to support their outreach work, in addition to carrying out our own activity, as it is not in our interests to deter any candidate who has the ability and potential to flourish at either Oxford or Cambridge. In fact, the only guarantee of not getting a place at either Oxford or Cambridge is never to apply in the first place.
Useful resources for teachers


Information on the teacher’s e-guide, e-newsletter, link Colleges scheme with local authorities, school competitions

Free on-line teaching resources for KS 2-5 via TES Connect


Publications (including the teacher guide), admissions research, and behind the headlines articles

Information for teachers

Posted by Mike Nicholson on Thu, 2 Feb 2017

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Mike Nicholson is Director of Undergraduate Admissions and Outreach at the University of Oxford.

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