Oxbridge applications: a don’s guide

The following article featured in The Daily Telegraph is entitled “Oxbridge applications: a don’s guide”.
Oxbridge dons describe the admissions process as ‘exhaustive and exhausting’. Cambridge admissions tutor Mike Sewell and Oxford college access don Peter Claus take us through it.

Many aspects of your Oxbridge application – not just the notorious interview – will determine whether or not you secure a place at these world-class institutions.

We asked Mike Sewell, the new director of admissions at Cambridge, and Peter Claus, the first full-time access don at an Oxford college, what students need to know to maximise their chances. Here is their step-by-step guide:

Choosing a college

MS: Students need to remember that subject matter and exam regime will be identical across the colleges. Colleges also trade teachers – it’s a myth that needs busting that you will always be taught by teachers from your own college. The academic experience is the same. One-fifth of our applicants submit open applications.

The college is home. Some considerations students should make are whether they want to live next door or half a mile from their department; and whether they want to live in an old, beautiful base but which attracts tourists, or further out from the centre. Those are legitimate considerations. Something like one quarter of students are at colleges they didn’t choose.

One question we forbid all our interviewers from asking is “why did you choose this college?” It would disadvantage open applicants – but also, we’re not sure we could glean any helpful information from the answer. In contrast, motivation for choosing the subject is very important.

Personal statement

PC: Naturally we’re crazy about our subjects as tutors – so we look for people of equal fervour. Demonstrating independent intellectual fervour around your subject is much more important than any Duke of Edinburgh awards. We need to see that students have gone above and beyond, and are aware of the culture of their subject.

Admissions tests

MS: The extra tests give a fuller sense of the type of academic, problem-solving and critical-thinking skills the students will need for the course itself. It’s not a barrier – it allows a reduced emphasis on other aspects of the application process such as the personal statement.

The tests are designed not to be susceptible to higher performance due to preparation. They are not like the SATs in the US, which preparation and extra sittings clearly help. They are designed to work from what students would know from their curriculum and general knowledge, and to test how they solve problems and think critically.

Submitted essays

PC: I would be less impressed by their best mark. I’m not impressed by a big A. They should submit the essay they are most confidant talking about and going further with. If they think “I got a B but I still found it fascinating” I would much rather see that one. It’s more of a discussion point for the interview – it’s not a deal-maker or a deal-breaker. It absolutely won’t prevent you getting an interview.


MS: The most important thing is that the interview is not the be-all and end-all.

One thing that dies very hard is the idea that weird questions are asked. If I took any given question you might ask me outside of the context of our conversation it could be made to seem weird. All these stories usually come from specific questions taken out of their context of a subject-focused discussion.

A history interviewer might conceivably ask a question about burnt cakes – but only in the context of talking about King Alfred! Likewise in a chemical engineering interview, “what happens when I boil an egg” might be a reasonable question. Taken out of its context it sounds crazy.

…even the famous “tell me about a banana?”

That was not an anomaly. The student’s personal statement had mentioned doing some work with plantains. That’s a very good example.


MS: The most important element of the application is what you’ve done in exams, particularly in sixth-form exams. The interview is a piece of the jigsaw – it doesn’t overrule it.


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