Ashbourne Oxbridge Programme

The Ashbourne Oxbridge Programme (AOP) is a year-long programme that supports all Oxbridge applicants at Ashbourne College and is run by Will Stockland and Chris Masters.

The AOP consists of twelve monthly task-sets that help Oxbridge applicants to be as prepared and competitive as possible in their applications – these can range from making sensible degree choices that clearly correspond to long-term professional ambitions to engagement with super-curricular activities that enhance intellectual abilities and A-level curricular learning.

All participants in the AOP complete a 5000-word Extended Project Qualification in order to gain independent research skills and to deepen their knowledge in a specific subject area that is relevant to their degree choice and personal interests.

The AOP also provides an opportunity for Oxbridge applicants to work closely with their subject tutors in order to develop academic ability and intellectual skills, particularly in relation to preparation for the pre-interview assessments tests, which are designed to stretch and challenge curricular learning and are an essential component of the application process.

The primary aim of the AOP is to help students to make as holistically complete an application as possible, in which the many and diverse aspects of the Oxbridge application process are considered carefully and optimised to the greatest extent.

Ashbourne Oxbridge success

These successful Oxbridge applicants took part in the Ashbourne Oxbridge Programme 2017–18.

Sam Bottomley

Economics, Corpus Chrisi College, Cambridge Universtiy

Christina Childs

History of Art, Churchill College, Cambridge University 

Mathilda Mould

Classics, Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University

Olivia Nelson

History of Art, Emmanuel College, Cambridge University

Sashika Vockrodt

Land Economy, Newnham College, Cambridge University 

How to apply to Oxbridge universities

WHY OXBRIDGE
Tutorial/Supervision System
Collegiate Structure
Reputation and Funding
Stereotypes
Is it for you?
OXFORD OR CAMBRIDGE?
Similarities
Differences
CHOOSING THE RIGHT COLLEGE
Open Applications
Pooling
The Colleges – Oxford
The Colleges – Cambridge
College ‘Personality’
APPLICATION PROCESS
Academic Potential
Personal Attributes
Application Timetable
Additional Assessments
Submitted Work
Pre-interview Assessment Tests
At-interview Tests
THE INTERVIEW
Format
Preparing for your visit
What are interviewers looking for?
FREQENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
USEFUL LINKS

WHY OXBRIDGE?

Oxbridge is the name used to refer to both Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Both universities were founded more than 750 years ago and between them have produced a large number of Britain’s most prominent academics as well as notable figures in many other fields such as politics and literature.

Theresa May, Margaret Thatcher, Charles Darwin, Stephen Hawking, Alan Turing, Benazir Bhutto, J.R.R Tolkien, Emily Wilding Davison, David Attenborough, Sandi Toksvig, Jeanette Winterton, Hugh Laurie and Monty Python are just a few examples that illustrate the diversity of Oxbridge graduates.

Oxford and Cambridge Universities currently hold first and second place, respectively, in the Times Higher Educational Supplement’s world ranking of universities.

Oxbridge students are expected to be exceptionally motivated and dedicated to fulfilling their academic potential. In order to attain a place you need outstanding academic results, ability to express your ideas, and a proven passion for your chosen subject.

Tutorial/Supervision system

Oxbridge pride themselves on their specialised teaching system which offers a more individual approach to learning and smaller group sizes than most universities. The ‘tutorials’ (Oxford) or ‘supervisions’ (Cambridge) typically take place twice a week in groups of up to three students. These sessions are usually conducted by leading experts in their field who challenge and guide students in discussion about their work and ideas.

This teaching system is not unique to Oxbridge but few other universities have the resources to support such a system on this scale and rely more on a larger work group (e.g. seminars and lectures).

Collegiate Structure

Oxford and Cambridge Universities are each made up of more than 30 individual colleges. The colleges are academic communities where students live, study and have tutorials or supervisions. Each college has its own facilities including dining halls, common rooms, library, bar and a range of groups and societies.

Applications to study at Oxbridge are made via individual colleges, so you must choose which college you would like to attend or make an open application. All colleges are part of the university as a whole and students reading (studying) the same subject will be given lectures together irrespective of their college.

Accommodation and meals are generally provided by the colleges and a large part of the social life of a student may revolve around their particular college. Colleges within the university generally have their own societies and teams and often take part in inter-college competitions. Oxbridge also have university-wide teams that compete against each other (Varsity matches) and other universities.

Reputation and Funding

Job prospects are very good for graduates who, in addition to their first-class education, benefit from the prestige of having attending Oxbridge; class and gender inequalities still remain nonetheless.

Oxford and Cambridge generally have a higher level of funding than other universities so their resources are usually second to none. This also means that accommodation and meals are often subsidised, and there are a number of grants and scholarships available.

Stereotypes

For some, Oxford and Cambridge are still perceived as ‘finishing schools’ for students from very wealthy families whereby their upbringing and independent-sector education affords them the possibility of attaining excellent academic results and the confidence to survive the intellectually and socially gruelling admissions process governed by an academic elite seeking to protect the ‘old boy’ network.

This view of Oxbridge is strongly denied by both universities who, in an attempt to respond to accusations of social exclusion, have made greater efforts to invest in outreach projects that encourage a more diverse body of applicants. They now offer more places to less socio-economically privileged pupils than ever: around 60 per cent of places are offered to state-educated students, for example. The uptake however still remains comparatively low.

One significant change in the last century has been an increase in the admission of female students. Women were not allowed to attain degrees until the 20th century. At undergraduate level, the male to female ratio is now roughly equal.

A variety of unusual and historic traditions including conducting certain ceremonies in Latin and specific dress codes for formal dinners and exams do still exist at Oxbridge.

Is it for you?

Securing your place at Oxbridge is just the beginning. You are expected to work very hard for your degree at Oxbridge:
• Terms are short and extremely intense (8 weeks)
• There are sometimes lectures on Saturdays
• There are strict rules on concentrating on your studies and not having a part-time job

What Oxbridge students have in common is their focus, enthusiasm and dedication towards their studies. If this sounds like you then you are likely be happy there. Going for a visit will help you get a good idea.

OXFORD OR CAMBRIDGE?

Undergraduate applicants cannot apply to both universities at the same time so you will need to choose between them.

Both are world-class educational institutions with reputations for excellence, and it is generally easier to list the similarities between them than the differences, but some are outlined below.

Similarities

Age and tradition
Some of the colleges date back to around 1200, with traditions dating back as far. Both universities use unique terms and names, for example:

• Sub fusc (Oxford) – formal (dark brown) academic dress worn for formal ceremonies and examinations
• Battels (Oxford) – your bill for accommodation and food
• P’lodge – Porters’ Lodge – gatehouse to the college
• Bedders (Cambridge)/Scouts (Oxford) – college housekeepers
• Michaelmas/Trinity/Hilary (Oxford and Cambridge) – names of the academic terms

Beautiful colleges
Most are historic buildings surrounded by gardens
Academic excellence
Professors are often leaders in their field. Both universities can name some of the most exalted political, business and academic figures in history amongst their alumni/ae
Social composition
College system; teams and societies; events and competitions
Outstanding facilities
Well funded; cutting-edge research centres; closely associated with research bodies and companies, especially in the sciences
Tutorial/supervision teaching system
Small group teaching; intense but effective at maximising students’ potential
Historic towns
Oxford and Cambridge each have:
• Publishing houses of global renown: Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press
• Botanical gardens
• Museums: the Ashmolean (Oxford) and the Fitzwilliam (Cambridge)
• Legal deposit libraries: the Bodleian Library (Oxford) and the Cambridge University Library
• Debating societies (Oxford Union and Cambridge Union)

Differences

Size
Oxford is a large, busy and industrial town whereas Cambridge its a rural town.
Architecture
King’s College Chapel Cambridge, home of the world-renown King’s College Choir, is considered one of the finest examples of Perpendicular Gothic architecture, dating back to 1446; while the ‘dreaming spires’ and towers of Oxford University have been made ever more famous through literature, TV series and films including Harry Potter.
Course structures
Cambridge offers a ‘tripos’ structure that allows you to study quite wide-ranging subjects over the three years, whereas Oxford offers joint honours-style courses where two subjects can be studied together.
Unique subjects
Both offer subjects not available at the other and both offer completely unique subjects not offered elsewhere at all. For example: Veterinary Science is offered at Cambridge but not at Oxford; Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) is offered at Oxford but Human, Social and Political Science (HSPS) is offered at Cambridge.
Science
Oxford offers all three sciences separately. At Cambridge, all scientists take either Natural Sciences or Engineering and choose modules within them.
Exams
At Cambridge you have three sets of exams at each stage of the tripos (end of each year – IA, IB and II). At Oxford you have two sets of exams – prelims or mods within the first 2 years, and finals at the end of the third.

Unique courses offered:
Oxford
Psychology
Philosophy, Politics & Economics (PPE)
Human Sciences
Economics & Management
Maths & Philosophy
Physics & Philosophy
Classics & English


Cambridge
Architecture
Land Economy (Environment, Law & Economics)
Human, Social and Political Science (HSPS)
Anglo-Saxon, Norse & Celtic
Veterinary Science

CHOOSING THE RIGHT COLLEGE

The Oxford and Cambridge collegiate system affords individual colleges a surprising degree of autonomy; controlling to some extent their own admissions policies, permanent staff, finances and disciplinary proceedings. Each college employs a body of Fellows or Dons whose research and teaching largely defines its academic reputation. Each college also has a large number of non-academic staff who manage the buildings and student accommodation.

Each college has a dual function

1. It is the place where you live, study and socialise.
2. It is the centre of your academic life.

The only areas affecting undergraduates where authority is centralised as a university-wide body are lectures and exams.

Colleges are also physically discrete: each has its own grounds and accommodation and, as a result of their physical and academic independence, each college has a strong character of its own, and a separate identity that its students are free either to embrace or ignore. The character of a college depends both on its make-up of students and fellows/dons, and its traditions and history, with records and stories that stretch back for centuries. Not only does this guarantee a unique experience for the members of each college, it creates a sense of diversity in the university as a whole.

The colleges also provide a close, friendly and familiar environment. Whilst college life tends to be warm and inclusive, none of the activities that bind a given college are ever compulsory, and some people choose to participate mainly in university-wide or external activities. Broadly speaking, the collegiate system offers all the care and individual attention of a small establishment, with the resources and academic reputation of a large one.

There are more than 60 Oxbridge colleges including some that are for mature students only. For undergraduates there are 29 at Oxford and 25 at Cambridge to choose from.

There are several factors you need to consider when choosing a college:

Subject
◦ Does the college offer your desired subject?
Architecture and atmosphere
◦ Gothic, Renaissance or 1960’s concrete? Historical or modern environment? What is the college like?
◦ Does it have a spacious garden or is it compact? Are you allowed to sit and relax on the grass?
◦ Is it tranquil and intimate or busting and active?
◦ Do you fit the ‘personality’ of the college? Would you feel comfortable there?
Facilities
◦ Gardens, accommodation, computer facilities, gym, sports, theatre, choir and chapel. What facilities are you looking for?
◦ Is accommodation available for all three years?
Location
◦ Proximity to the town centre/your faculty/transport links.
Single-sex colleges
◦ Newnham and Murray Edwards Colleges in Cambridge are both female-only colleges.
◦ Does this environment suit you?
◦ What is the male to female ratio at mixed colleges? Does this matter?
Size
◦ Small colleges can be more friendly but also insular.
◦ Large colleges may feel intimidating or they may offer more diversity.
◦ Is the college one of the more famous, e.g. Trinity or St John’s in Cambridge or Christ Church in Oxford; will there be tourists walking through the college daily and would this be a problem?
Library
◦ How well stocked is the library?
◦ Would it be a good environment for you to work in?
Social life
◦ Are there regular events and parties?
◦ Is there a thriving junior common room (JCR)?
◦ How often does the college hold formal dinners (formal halls)?
◦ Are there sports facilities? (sports ground, boathouse, etc.) Where are they?
◦ Does the college have a team for your sport? Is it competitive?
◦ Is there a choir or orchestra?
◦ Does your college have its own bar? Is it subsidised?

Open Applications

If you have no preference of college you can make an ‘open application’. This will allow all colleges to consider your application and you will be allocated a place accordingly.

Your choice of college does not necessarily need to be the defining feature of your Oxbridge experience. Lectures are university-wide and many students prefer to base their social life around pubs, clubs and societies within the city/town itself.

Pooling

This is the process where students are put into a central ‘pool’ and any college many select them (i.e. you may end up being interviewed at, or accepted by, a different college than the one to which you made your initial application).

The pooling system occurs in different forms at both universities. Colleges will pool candidates only if they have an exceptionally strong series of interviewees for a very limited number of places and they feel that another college could benefit from seeing someone who they have not been able to accept.

At Oxford you are often interviewed by another college when you go for interview. Cambridge, on the other hand, has a ‘Winter Pool’, which you may enter after your first interview and from which you may be subsequently called back for an interview at another college.

The Colleges – Oxford

  • Balliol– Well situated, in the city centre
  • Brasenose– Castle-like appearance with a deer park
  • Christ Church– Largest and touristy; Harry Potter was filmed here
  • Corpus Christi– Small, pretty, near the river
  • Exeter– Nice atmosphere, small and friendly, musical
  • Hertford – Friendly and central
  • Jesus– Small and friendly, good social life and sports teams
  • Keble– Unique architecture (red brick), theatrical, large dining hall
  • Lady Margaret Hall (LMH)– Away from the centre, large grounds, less daunting, tennis and football pitches on-site, has its own punt house
  • Lincoln– Small and friendly, cosy and relaxed atmosphere
  • Magdalen (‘Maudlin’) – Beautiful, spacious, deer park, May Day traditions, quite touristy, popular bar, world-renowned choir
  • Mansfield– Smallest college
  • Merton– Oldest college, one of the top colleges of the academic inter-collegiate league table
  • New– Beautiful gardens, well equipped, good for sports
  • Oriel– Small, sporty, good drama and sports, one of the top rowing colleges
  • Pembroke– Friendly, lots of events organised, good bar
  • Queen’s– Good choir, sporty, croquet played on the lawn in the summer! Traditional roots in the North of England
  • Somerville– Relaxed convivial feel
  • St Anne’s– Out of the centre, more arty / drama than sporty, relaxed
  • St Catharine’s (‘Catz’) – Large, modern, young, liberal environment, diverse and friendly
  • St Edmund Hall (‘Teddy Hall’) – Popular rugby college, good atmosphere, cosy and active bar, very sporty
  • St Hilda’s– Has its own punt house, good bar
  • St Hugh’s– Extensive grounds, less traditional, out of the centre
  • St John’s– One of the top colleges in the inter-collegiate academic league tables, central, beautiful grounds
  • St Peter’s– Central, sporty, small and compact, friendly
  • Trinity– Small, large lawn, theatre perfomances in summer
  • University– Traditional, central, good sports teams, can be touristy
  • Wadham– Down to earth, historically left wing, less traditional but beautiful buildings
  • Worcester– Beautiful grounds and a lake, 2 bars! Sporty (especially women)

The Colleges – Cambridge

  • Christ’s– Quiet but central, strong academically, bar closes early! Strong Christian Union
  • Churchill– Friendly and unpretentious, slightly out of centre, sports-based social life, modern
  • Clare– Strong musical side, less sporty, friendly, well-renowned bar (Clare Cellars)
  • Corpus Christi– Very small, sense of community intimate, not very sporty
  • Downing– Large grounds, peaceful, strong at sports
  • Emmanuel (‘Emma’) – Friendly, lovely gardens including a duck pond and an outdoor swimming pool, active societies and bar
  • Fitzwilliam– Non-elitist, sporty, slightly out of the centre, less traditional
  • Girton– Quite far out of town, strong sense of community, extensive grounds, indoor swimming pool
  • Gonville & Caius (‘Keys’) – Traditional, sporty, central, good music and drama
  • Homerton– Friendly and laid-back, facilities all on-site but out of the centre
  • Jesus– Excellent sports facilities, beautiful grounds, quite central, balance between traditional and relaxed
  • King’s– Large, central, touristy, world-renowned choir and carol service
  • Magdalene (‘Maudlin’) – Small but pretty, central and bustling
  • New Hall– Female only, friendly, unpretentious, less traditional buildings, slightly out of the centre
  • Newnham– Female only, good for sports, close to the arts faculties
  • Pembroke– Friendly, strong drama society, quiet gardens, close to the science faculty
  • Peterhouse– Oldest college, small and traditional, sports clubs are very active
  • Queens’– Medium-sized, central, academic, famous ‘mathematical bridge’ over the Cam, good drama society, sporty
  • Robinson– Modern, slightly out of the centre, good community spirit, supportive atmosphere, good film society
  • Selwyn– Next to the arts faculty, attractive and sociable, quiet – not very vibrant, not very sporty, good music society
  • Sydney Sussex– Small, close – knit community, sociable, active Students Union, central, notorious drinking societies!
  • St Catherine’s (‘Catz’) – Well – balanced, central, friendly, very sporty, can be insular, good choir
  • St John’s– Large, central, touristy, traditional, well renowned male choir, competitive, sporty, good facilities, lots of variety
  • Trinity Hall – Small and friendly, strong musically, bar and library quite small
  • Trinity– Largest college, central, traditional, touristy, beautiful gardens, diverse range of students, extensive facilities, strong choir

College ‘Personality’

The sporty one: Lots of teams at all levels, kits in college colours, sports teams, drinking societies, team formal halls, trips to Varsity matches.

The arty one: Well established drama society, music groups, film nights, art loans, theatre productions, band nights in the bar.

The traditional one: Majestic buildings, accommodation steeped in history, quirky traditions. Often wealthy and well funded, but pressure to succeed or compete. Touristy.

The modern one: Less majestic buildings (often 1970’s concrete). Laid back and relaxed, less pressure.

The small one: Cosy atmosphere. Friendly. Everyone knows everyone else. Can be cramped and noisy. Usually city centre, close to shops/bars/faculties.
The large one: Sprawling grounds, relaxing, ‘escape’ from the bustle of town. Often a walk from the city centre. Usually on-site facilities. Greater diversity.

The social one: Active Junior Common Room/student body (JCR/MCR). Frequent events, attracts people from other colleges. Thriving ball committee. Drinking and social societies. Can be noisy. Possibly less academic.

The academic one: High in inter-collegiate league tables. Pressure to succeed. Sports and drama lower on the agenda.

APPLICATION PROCESS

As Oxford and Cambridge are in the top ten global universities the application process is one of the most competitive in the world.

Academic Potential

Predicted grades are an essential indicator of academic potential and play an important part of any university application – they must meet the minimum entry requirements of the course. At Oxford this will range from AAA to A*A*A and at Cambridge this will range from A*AA to A*A*A. Most Oxbridge students will achieve an average of 2.5 A* grades at A level.

Personal Attributes

The colleges are looking for individuals who show outstanding academic ability, exceptional intellectual potential, great enthusiasm and interest in their subject, very high levels of motivation, an excellent work ethic and a true desire to learn in their subject area.

Additional Assessments

Colleges will further assess your suitability through some or all of the following:

• Supplementary application forms
• UCAS Personal Statement
• UCAS reference
• Supplementary school work
• Interviews
• Subject-specific further examinations, such as STEP
• Pre-interview assessment tests (further information below)

Application Timetable

Finalise course and college choice
Attend open days: colleges; departments; faculties; Oxford (late June); Cambridge (early July)
April-July
Complete personal statement June-September
Submit application to UCAS 15 October
Pre-interview assessment tests September-November
Submission of written work (if required) By mid-November
Interviews Early December
Oxford applicants notified Late December
Cambridge applicants notified Early January

Visit Oxford University website for a full list of available subjects and their specific entry requirements.

Visit Cambridge University website for a full list of available subjects and their specific entry requirements.

Submitted Work

Colleges often ask you to submit some school work so that they can see evidence of your ability. You may be asked to send this in advance of your interview or take it along at the time. You need to check whether they want:

  • a piece of school work that has already been assessed and marked
  • a piece of work put together especially for the interview (they may provide a title or choice of titles)

With either of these scenarios you will need to:

  • Provide genuine work – you will be easily found out in an interview
  • Read any instructions carefully and stick rigidly within the constraints of the title and specifications (word counts, etc.)
  • Send or make photocopies – the work won’t be sent back
  • Know the subject well and in further depths as you will have to expand on the topic at interview and explain any opinions put forward.

Pre-interview Assessment Tests

Almost all courses now require a pre-interview assessment test to be taken at Oxford and Cambridge.

Here are some examples of pre-interview assessment tests:

  1. STEP Mathematics
    Almost all conditional offers in Mathematics-related subjects at Cambridge require students to sit STEP (Sixth Term Examination Papers) Mathematics. This may apply to offers in the following courses: Mathematics; Computer Science with Mathematics; Mathematics with Physics; Chemical Engineering; Economics; Engineering and Natural Sciences.STEPs are extra exams that you take at the same time as your A levels. They are based on the A level syllabus. Have a look at some past papers. There are five grades: S (Outstanding), 1, 2, 3 and U (Ungraded).
  2. BMAT – Biomedical Admission Test
    This is required for Medicine and Veterinary Science at both universities. The test can be taken at Ashbourne, or another test centre, and the grade sent to the university. It has three sections and tests both your background scientific knowledge as well as problem solving and data analysis skills. You register online; the registration number must be included on your UCAS form.
  3. LNAT – National Admissions Test for Law
    This is required for Law at both universities. It is an on-screen test taken at your local centre between September and November; register for the test online in August. The test is a mixture of multiple-choice questions and an essay; your results will be sent directly to the university. You must include your test registration number on your UCAS form.
  4. HAT – History Aptitude Test
    This test is specifically for those applying for History at Oxford. It is a two-hour test in which you have to read two extracts and answer a total of four questions about them. It is a test of your comprehension of arguments and ideas and your capacity to apply those ideas to historical situations. You can take the test at your college. Your invitation to interview will depend on the outcome of this test.
  5. ELAT – The English Literature Admissions Test
    This is a test specifically for those applying for any English Literature at both Oxford and Cambridge. It is a 90-minute test in which you must write one essay to compare two or three pieces of unseen poetry or prose. It is not a test of wider reading but you are expected to have read certain standard texts by this point. You can take the test at your college.
  6. TSA – Thinking Skills Assessment
    Oxford applicants hoping to read Economics and Management, Experimental Psychology, Geography, Human Sciences, Philosophy and Linguistics, Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE), Psychology and Linguistics, Psychology and Philosophy must sit the full test; applicants for Chemistry, and History and Economics sit the first section only. At Cambridge the test is required for Land Economy.It is a 90-minute test comprised of 50 questions. Its aim is to test your critical thinking and problem-solving skills rather than specific knowledge. There are some practice tests on the website and also some recommended reading if you want to learn more about the style of the test.For Oxford applicants you sit this test at your local centre; you must register online. For Cambridge applicants you sit the test at interview.
  7. PAT – Physics Aptitude Test
    All students applying for Engineering, Materials Science and Physics-related courses at Oxford must sit this test. It is a 2-hour test for which there is a syllabus and past papers. Note that calculators are not allowed, so practise your mental arithmetic.The test is taken your local test centre and the results sent to Oxford. You must register for the test online.
  8. MAT – Mathematics Aptitude Test
    Applicants to read Computer Science, Computer Science and Philosophy, Mathematics, Mathematics and Computer Science, Mathematics and Philosophy, and Mathematics and Statistics at Oxford must sit this test. There is a syllabus and past papers. Register online for the test and sit it at your local centre.

At-interview Tests

Some colleges may ask you to take tests at the interview stage.

THE INTERVIEW

The Oxbridge interview is legendary and almost mythical: obscure, bizarre, and surreal stories of students’ experiences abound. In reality, however, seemingly odd situations or questions make more sense in the full context of the interview dialogue because interviews are designed to challenge students to think out of the box and on their feet, to argue and defend their ideas, to apply theories to new scenarios, to consider different views, and to think out loud and show an eagerness to learn; just as they might do if they were to attend an Oxbridge tutorial.

Above all, interviewers want to see students have a passion for their subject and commitment to reach their potential.

Oxford has an interview guide (PDF).

Format

Oxbridge interviews usually take place over a few days. Your food and accommodation during these days will usually be provided by the college.

Panel interviews are more common at Oxford than at Cambridge.

If you have submitted work or taken a test then at least one of your interviews will be based around this. This is often with a Professor or a Director of Studies. You may also have another ‘subject-based’ interview (with a tutor/graduate student) and additionally perhaps an interview based around your personal statement and UCAS form (often with a Senior Tutor Head of College).

The subject-based interviews can often be ‘practical’ in nature i.e. you are given something to look at and think about e.g. a poem (English) or scan/x-ray (Medicine). These are triggers for discussion not for ‘getting the right answer’.

In general the interviewers will guide you towards answers, offer you clues; they are not trying to trick you but nor do they want students who are too proud to learn, so do not be afraid to say ‘I don’t know’.

Bear in mind that the tougher an interview appears to you, the better it may be going. If the interviewer has to work hard to push you to the limits it demonstrates a good level of potential. Try and back up your arguments with examples. If you can no longer defend your argument then back down; the interviewer knows their subject backwards and there is no shame in them proving you wrong.

Preparing for your visit

Take advantage of this great opportunity to explore the college, meet current students and get a feel of whether it’s where you would like to study.

Give yourself plenty of time to get to the interview, ask at the porters’ lodge if you are unsure. You may be asked to attend two or three interviews. At Cambridge they should all be within the college you applied to; at Oxford you may be sent for an interview at another college as well; this is standard practice.

Unless specified there are no official dress requirements so wear something comfortable and do not feel that you have to wear a suit.

What are interviewers looking for?

Subject passion

You should be able to speak about your subject as if it really matters to you. Your enthusiasm should come across in the extra curricular knowledge you can bring to the conversation and being able to discuss new ideas.

TIP: Read beyond A level, volunteer information, enjoy it!

Logical, critical and analytical ability

You are expected to develop a ‘rigorous critical mindset’.
Oxbridge teaching aims to instil an ‘enlightened scepticism’ and an ability to ‘deconstruct’ problems in order to understand them fully, i.e. lateral thinking. So they are looking for a measured and intelligent approach to a question and the capacity to appreciate different sides of an argument. You will need to order your answers and not just say the first things that come into your head.

TIP: Break down questions, look for wider issues, don’t answer directly, and structure your answers. Watch the news, read newspapers/books critically, do you agree?

Independent thinking

Can you use questions as a stimulus to your imagination; can you come up with new ideas? You need to be bold in offering new solutions. It doesn’t ultimately matter if you are right or wrong but you need to be confident in what you say.

TIP: Practise forming links between topics; mind-maps may help.

Listening and ‘Teachability’

The interview is practice for the tutorial system. Listen to the question being put to you and answer that question not another one. Ask for clarification if you don’t understand (this actually demonstrates confidence and humility). Be flexible and ready to revise your ideas based on new facts and opinions.

TIP: Discuss topics with teachers or friends. Get used to talking about your subject.

Knowledge

Knowledge is important but not necessarily a reliable indicator to academic potential. You are not expected to know everything about your subject but you are expected to show that you have a great interest in the subject and a genuine desire to learn more.

TIP: Revise your subject well. Back up points with an example or fact. Don’t ramble or directly avoid questions. All answers need to be relevant.

Interview Question Examples

Archaeology & Anthropology

  • Where do you think the Elgin Marbles should be, London or Athens?
  • How does studying History link with archaeology?
  • Why do we still celebrate Christmas? What do you think makes Christmas such a long-lasting and widely celebrated holiday? Why is it so special?
  • What are the roles of archaeologists and museums?

Architecture

  • What is the importance of light in architecture?
  • How much do you think architecture changes views in society?
  • Who do you say is the most important architectural writer?
  • What is your favourite building?
  • Who is your favourite architect?
  • Questions about your portfolio (submitted at an earlier date).

Anglo-Saxon, Norse & Celtic

  • What is the difference between literature and history?
  • How can we date a source when we don’t know when or by whom it was written?
  • Which ASNaC papers are you looking forward to studying most?

Biochemistry, Molecular and Cellular

  • How do amino acids behave in both acidic and basic conditions?
  • What is the significance of the Humane Genome Project?
  • How does DNA fingerprinting work? What is its use?
  • Why are there so many steps in the cascade of reactions?
  • What are the differences between a human enzyme and the enzymes of bacteria that live in a hot spring?

Biological Sciences

  • Give me an example of how specialist biological knowledge has helped food production.
  • What is a mitochondrion? Why do you only inherit mitochondrial genes from your mother?
  • Why is carbon of such importance in living systems?
  • Why is there a higher probability of being killed by an asteroid collision than by a heart attack?
  • What kind of changes would occur to the environment if a large asteroid impacted Earth?
  • What are the arguments for preserving biodiversity?

Chemistry

  • Why does the boiling point of water rise as salt is dissolved in it?
  • What makes drugs physiologically active?
  • Explain the bonding in benzene.
  • How would you calculate the inter-atomic spacing of particles in this room?
  • Explain why iron rusts and how to stop it rusting.

Classics

  • Why do you think Ancient History is important?
  • How civilised was the Roman world?
  • When would you start a book about the history of England?
  • What is the difference between a debate and a philosophical conversation?
  • Do you think that Tacitus was biased in his writings, and if so, does that render them useless?
  • Are history and myth compatible?
  • What underlying messages are there in the Aeneid suggesting that Rome and its foundations were not very secure?

Computer Science

  • Tell me about binary searches. What about their efficiency?
  • It is a fact that, apart from the peripherals, the whole of a computer can be made from NAND gates. The Egyptians created NAND gates using marbles rolling down chutes and then used them for booby-trapping pyramids. Did, then, the Egyptians invent the computer? If not, explain fundamentally why not.

Earth Sciences

  • Suggest a list of conditions necessary to sustain life on Earth.
  • What do you believe would be the major differences on Earth if: no atmosphere had ever evolved? There was no water? Plate tectonics did not exist?
  • What would you expect to see at a compressional/extensional/passive margin?
  • List a number of possible different methods for dating a rock specimen.
  • How do mountains originate?

Economics

  • Should governments subsidise agriculture?
  • What are the consequences of charging interest rates?
  • What is the point of privatisation?
  • How would you make a hypothetical sandwich stall more profitable?
  • What is a monopoly? What are the advantages/disadvantages?
  • Relate Keynes’ work to the dot.com boom.
  • What is the difference between a correlation and a cause and effect relationship?

Economics and Management

  • Consider a production line. What could be done to help the worker to get away from the routine?
  • Discuss the interaction between fiscal and monetary policy.
  • Are large or small companies more successful?
  • Why does Rolls Royce build cars by hand, and Toyota by machine?
  • What is the basis of performance-related pay?

Egyptology

  • What first interested you in Egyptology?
  • How was Egyptian mythology recorded?
  • Describe how the Egyptians preserved their dead.

Engineering

  • Show the forces acting on a ladder.
  • Explain the following to someone with no knowledge of physics: force, momentum, power and work.
  • What are the fundamental differences between engineering and physics?
  • If you had a cylinder, sealed at both ends, with the pressure rising inside, would it blow at the end or split along the side first?
  • If I am in a room with five people and guess all their birthdays, what is the probability of getting (only) one correct?
  • At what altitude (h) above the North Pole is the weight of an object reduced to one half its value on the Earth’s surface? Assume the Earth to be a sphere radius R and express h as a fraction of R.

English

  • Read and date this short, anonymous poem. Who do you think wrote it? Comment on the use of imagery used and its effect; does this poem remind you of anything you’ve read?
  • Do you think the ending of The Mill on the Floss is poor?
  • Is George Orwell’s 1984 still relevant? How does it relate to the media, politics and surveillance?
  • What is the difference between a simile and a comparison?
  • What is a tragedy?

Experimental Psychology

  • How would you design a scientific experiment to show that a certain substance is addictive?
  • How come a painting by a four year old of ‘a tiger amongst tulips’ (as described by the child) doesn’t look like a tiger despite the child studying a tiger at the zoo the day before and being satisfied with the outcome?
  • If a man has no hair (n) he is called bald. If we add hairs to his head using the formula n+1, he would still be called bald. Is this correct?
  • Discuss the origin of phobias (nature vs nurture).

Geography

  • Explain cliff formation after looking at a photograph. How can computers aid geographers in understanding such processes?
  • What is the relevance of physical geography to human geography?
  • Are there any articles you’ve read in the paper recently that are relevant to physical geography?
  • What are the advantages for retailers to concentrate their activities in malls rather than disperse through towns?
  • Do you have an interest in saving the environment? What evidence is there for human influences on climate?
  • If you could take a non-geographer anywhere in the world to convince them geography was important, where would you go and what would you say?

History

  • Do you think that all of history is a history of thought?
  • Would history be worth studying if it didn’t repeat itself?
  • Is national character a useful concept in history?
  • How can one define a revolution?
  • How would you differentiate between power and authority?
  • How does a historian gather information?
  • How do today’s interpretations of democratic values differ from those of the 19th century and how have they evolved?

History of Art

  • Discuss restoration and conservation. Are they good or bad?
  • What is your opinion on the Turner Prize and Brit Art?
  • How does art reflect its society?
  • What work of art would you most like to own?

Land Economy

  • What kind of transport policy could be implemented in Cambridge?
  • Why is traffic so bad in cities and what would you do about it?
  • Should fox-hunting have been banned?
  • Why are wages higher in London?
  • What do you think are the implications for shopping with the phenomenon of the internet?

Law

  • If someone is acquitted in Criminal proceedings, can they, and should they, still be liable to be sued in Civil Law?
  • How do you think the House of Lords should be reformed?
  • Summarise an article of 1,300 words in 150-200 words.
  • What have you read in the papers recently that relates to the International Law?
  • What is the difference between intention and foresight?
  • Smith sees Jones walking towards the edge of a cliff. Smith knows Jones is blind, but doesn’t like him, so allows him to walk off the edge. Is this murder?
  • Should judges have legislative roles?

Mathematics

  • How many 0’s has 30 factorial?
  • If X is odd, prove X squared – 1 is always a multiple of 8.
  • Draw a graph of y=(x-3)(x-2)/(x-2)(x-1)
  • A body with mass m is falling towards Earth with speed v. It has a drag force equal to kv. Set up a differential equation and solve it for v.
  • Prove that any number consists of prime factors or is a prime number.

Medicine

  • What makes a good doctor?
  • Can you describe and experiment to differentiate between a normal and a multi-resistant strain of bacteria?
  • How would you determine whether leukaemia patients have contracted the disease because of a nearby nuclear power station?
  • What would life be like without enzymes?
  • What interests you most about current advances in medical technology?
  • Why is it that cancer cells are more susceptible to destruction by radiation than normal cells?
  • What is the normal level of potassium? What is it used for? How does it move in and out of cells?

Modern Languages

  • Why do you want to study a literature-based degree?
  • Do you notice any differences between English and English Literature? If so, why might these exist?
  • What do you think Voltaire meant by “Il faut cultiver notre jardin”?
  • What are the differences between Spain and Latin America?
  • How does Le Monde differ from British broadsheets?
  • Discuss current affairs issues relevant to the countries you hope to study.

Natural Sciences

  • Discuss ways in which plants are adapted to dry conditions.
  • Why are big, fierce animals so rare?
  • How does the immune system recognise invading pathogens as foreign cells?
  • Write down an organic reaction you have studied at school and explain its mechanism?
  • What makes some chemicals explosive?
  • When an ice cube melts in a glass of water, does the water level increase, decrease or stay the same?
  • Explain how we know centripetal force exists and how we can prove the presence of its forces.
  • Why is the sky blue?
  • How does depressing a piano key make a noise?
  • How is a rainbow formed?
  • How does the glass transmit light?
  • Why does metal expand when it’s heated?
  • Which reached the bottom of the hill faster, a ball rolling down the hill or a ball sliding down the hill?

Oriental Studies

  • Give me a brief case study of an area of Middle Eastern politics that has interested you.
  • How many cultures are grouped together under the label ‘China’?
  • Please construct a sentence using the word ‘up’ as verb.

Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE)

  • Is it a matter of fact or knowledge that time travels in only one direction?
  • Would you agree that ‘if P is true and S believes P, then S knows P’?
  • Differentiate between power and authority.
  • Why do you think communism was unsuccessful in the Russian countryside?
  • What would you say to someone who claims women have equal opportunities already?
  • Why do we need government?
  • Discuss perfect and imperfect competition.
  • Would it be feasible to have an economy entirely based on the service sector?
  • Can faith in quantum physics and invisible forces tie in with the faith in an invisible God?
  • What are the origins of wage inflation?
  • Is profit maximisation the only objective of a business?

Physics

  • Explain how we know centripetal force exists and how we can prove its presence.
  • Why is it not strictly true to say that one planet orbits another?
  • Why does metal expand when it is heated?

Social and Political Sciences

  • Does the welfare state trap people into poverty?
  • Distinguish between a society, a state and an economy.
  • Should museums be free?
  • Is there tension between British Nationalism and local patriotism?
  • Should children always be educated in a co-ed environment?

Theology

  • What is the best reason you can think of for believing in God? Do you think this course could be persuasive on the matter?
  • Do the Gods command it because it is great, or is it great because the Gods command it?
  • How valuable do you think the Bible is to us today?
  • What are the moral implications, if any, of voluntary euthanasia?
  • Discuss the mechanisms underlying sensory adaptation.


Veterinary Medicine

  • Why do dogs behave badly?
  • Would you prefer a large or small animal practice?
  • How have vets lives changed in the last 30 years?
  • Is selective breeding tantamount to genetic modification?
  • Can you describe an experiment to differentiate between a normal and multi-resistant strain of bacteria?

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

Q: Will applying to Oxbridge affect my other university applications?
A: No. Other applications cannot be viewed by a university on your UCAS form. Other universities may guess you have applied to Oxbridge as your application has to be in earlier but this should only really stand in your favour as they should see that you are a committed, ambitious and motivated applicant.

Q: If I do not achieve my grades can I pick up a place through clearing?
A: No. There will be no clearing places for Oxbridge.

Q: Can I still apply if my GCSE grades are not all A* but I am a predicted straight A’s at A level?
A: Yes. You can still apply – especially if the lower grades are in unrelated subjects to that you are wishing to study.

Q: Should I be doing more than three A levels?
A: No. Interviewers may prefer that you have a deeper understanding and passion for your chosen subject rather than a wider knowledge base across different subjects. If you have a genuine interest in studying more than three subjects however and can achieve the grades required then there is no reason why you should not do this. Taking an extra A level may also benefit some applicants, for example those applying for Maths and science courses might be encouraged to take Further Maths.

Q: Can I re-apply if I do not get in?
A: Yes. But think carefully about this: the Oxbridge colleges are good at choosing people who have the potential to fit in and do well in this very specific environment. If they reject you it may just be that it would not be the best place for you to maximise your potential. If the college is over-subscribed but still think you worthy of a place, then the pooling system would make sure that you are not rejected out of hand.

If you think your application could have been better prepared then it might be worth reapplying; you do not need to mention your previous application but do not reapply to the same college as you are likely to get re-interviewed by the same tutor(s).

Q: Do Oxbridge accept GAP year applications?
A: Yes. But always double check the college policy on this. Some tutors believe you may go ‘off the boil’ during a GAP yea. Engineering is an exception – GAP years are actively encouraged.

Q: Is it an easier option applying for a joint course at Oxford?
A: No. These are traditionally popular and competitive. You need to be equally outstanding in both subjects. If you are poor in one but strong in the other you may be offered single honours; or you may be rejected and told to apply for a single honours in the following year.

USEFUL LINKS

Oxford University
Oxford application process
Oxford Interview Advice
Cambridge University
Cambridge application process
Cambridge Interview Advice
(there are some downloadable videos of interviews which are useful for getting an impression of interview format.)
Oxbridge Applications independent consultancy offering guidance, support and resources for prospective applicants.