Oxford and Cambridge are among the most famous universities in the world. They are unarguably the most renowned in Europe. Gaining a place is tough, but not impossible. George Callaghan, director of Tamesis Educational Consultants, and an Oxford alumni, explains how to go about it.

First, you must choose between the two universities. You cannot apply to both in the same year. So which is best? Oxford is a little more of city and Cambridge is a little more of a town. Oxford is a tiny bit closer to London and seems to be slightly more politically connected. Cambridge has a Science Park and some people say is a smidgeon better at sciences. There is not much in it. Go to the cities – see for yourself. You will form an impression within a few hours. Click on these links to find out more about the Cambridge and Oxford Application Process.

Second of all, choose your subject. This is the crux of the matter. It should be your forte or the one that you like the most. Ideally these two will coincide. It would be a pity to spend three of four years doing something you dislike and you may well get a poor degree class because of it. It is fiendishly difficult to get into Oxford or Cambridge and there is no harm in having a crack at it. If you get in – stupendous. If not, then you have lost nothing. You will have learned something along the way and hopefully enjoyed the ride. That is the attitude that you will need to take to applying for jobs in years to come so learn it early.

Thirdly, pick your college. Oxford is divided into about forty colleges and so is Cambridge. Think of it as a federal system. A handful of colleges are for graduates students only so if you are applying as an undergraduate rule them out. Most colleges offer most subjects. It is a common misconception that each college offers one subject. Some people think one college does Medicine; another offers English and another still offers only Geography. This is not the case. For instance, St John’s College, Oxford does Law, History,  Politics, Maths, Classics etc… i.e. almost every subject available in the university.

If you honestly cannot decide then do an open application. This means do not pick a college – tick the ‘open’ box. This means your application will be sent to the college with the fewest applicants. This boosts your chances. Any college in either university is better than not gaining a place at all. Interestingly, the colleges with the fewest applicants are often the best. Christ Church, Oxford has such a splendid reputation that many people dare not apply for fear of rejection. Paradoxically, its majestic name may make it easier to win a place there.
Do I have to be a genius to apply?
No. But you will need excellent grades. Competition for Oxbridge places is fierce. Successful applicants will have at least two A* grades at A-Level in the ‘hard’ traditional subjects – and so will many of the unsuccessful applicants.

Make sure your UCAS personal statement is tip-top. Do not copy. They will spot this straight off. Be original but not crazy. They like people who are a bit different. They see too much of the same. Oxford or Cambridge may have a subject-specific exam such as the Historical Aptitude Test if you wish to read History. There are special tests for Modern Languages, Medicine, Law and several other subjects. Get a tutor to prepare you and go through past papers.

Get interview practice. The horror stories are mythical. These tales of woe and bizarre questions seldom have a name on them. Why are they curiously anonymous? Those where someone identifies themselves as being the person subjected to a terrifying line of questioning are probably cases where the person feels rancorous about rejection and invented a tale to soften the blow.

You may need to send in samples of your work. These blatantly need to be outstanding but try to make them not more of the same. For example in History the dons are fed up of reading about Hitler and Henry VIII. Do something a little unusual such as 17th century  Switzerland or Ancient Vietnam. 

Get to your interview on good time. Be calm but do not come across like you do not care. Dons take pleasure in rejecting conceited candidates. If you do not know the answer then say so. Dress formally – everyone wears a suit or equivalent.

Do not think that you will not fit in. There are all types at Oxford and Cambridge. It is not the case that there are only Etonians there and they despise everyone else. I am an Etonian and I am encouraging people from all walks of life to apply. There is of course no sense in pretending that there are no posh people at these two universities. It is true that most come from middle-class families and quite a few from upper-class families. There have always been working-class people at these universities. No one is given grief for coming from whatever ethnicity, social class, country, city, family background or whatever. You are sure to find like-minded people there no matter what your cast of mind. It was the happiest time of my life and it probably will a time of elation for you too. 

Last, but not least, apply in good time. The deadline is 15 October. Do not miss it.

George Callaghan was educated at Eton and Oxford. After teaching in independent schools for several years he founded an educational consultancy.

Tamesis Educational Consultants is dedicated to helping people from all over the world win places at top British schools and universities. Tamesis provides ongoing support to those whom it has brought to the United Kingdom. We offer advice on your needs and how you should achieve your educational aims; we provide tutoring and legal guardianship.