10 tips for candidates applying to study at Oxford and Cambridge University

I wrote this as a contribution to the Oxbridge Society of Poland group on Yahoo. I decided to repost it to a wider audience

My father John Lucas spent a lot of his working life interviewing candidates for PPE Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford . I used a lot of what I learned from him when hiring people for my businesses.  I also used to be involved in a movement called Target Schools to encourage pupils from State Schools to apply to Oxford and Cambridge in the 1980s. I believe in diversity.

So here are my top tips

1. Be genuinely interested in the subject you are applying to read/study, or at least some aspect of it.
“I want to go to Oxford to get a good degree and a job in Goldman Sachs” may be true but it won’t get you a place. If you aren’t interested in Economics, don’t study it.

2. If you don’t know the answer to the questions they ask, don’t panic. The tougher the questions, the better you are doing. It’s OK to say “I’m not sure, but I suppose this might be the right approach” or “my first thought is that the answer is this, but I can see a problem with that point of view which is….”.  You are aiming to show that you have thought about the subject in the past and you are able to think quickly. If you haven’t thought about why it makes sense to study History of Art, and why you want to, don’t apply. If you were sick when a certain topic was studied in your school, don’t say “I was ill so I don’t know”, say “I didn’t cover this topic at school,  but it’s interesting. What I think is xxxx and suppose yyyy is relevant and I would really like to know more..”.

3. Have some good questions – if you are going to be interviewed by historians at Jesus College…. Use the College web site to find out who is going to interview you, read some articles they have written,  and think how you can challenge them. If you can’t be bothered, why are you applying? Don’t be afraid to ask “Which one of you is….John Smith?”  – in your book on xxxx when you said yyyy, why didn’t you address the argument zzzzz. ?” this shows you are smart, interested – and may be interesting to teach.

4. Be friendly, and think of ways of demonstrating that you have a high internal energy level and some kind of inner spark…
(not “I like reading”) but ” I really like Philip Pullman’s books – and set up a reading club at school, I’ve tried to find that seat where Lyra and Will were going to meet by Magdalene Bridge in the Botanical Gardens” (provided you have read The Amber Spyglass). Be ready for a random question – like  “what didn’t you like about the book?”

5. Hint at interests and ideas that you haven’t had time to discuss. If we had more time I could tell you about the way I would like to do x, y and z. One thing I think I’d like to devote more time to is ……

6. Don’t get caught talking rubbish. If you mention a hobby or put it down on your CV,  have something true/interesting to say about it. If you say you are learning Chinese, someone might ask “how do you say “thank you” ?

7. Play to your strengths. If you like Football, then say “I really like soccer, there isn’t really enough time to do it as much as I’d like to but I make sure manage to play for a few hours a week, and watch the professionals play when I can.” It makes you sound focussed and good at prioritization.

8. Be enthusiastic. If you don’t care, don’t apply. Quite often school pupils have a (sub) culture of it “not being cool” to be into your hobbies, interests, and school work. To the extent that that is true it is a disaster to have that attitude during interview. Leave it behind at the College gate. You are talking to people who have devoted their lives to the study and teaching of their subject and for them it is really good to meet a young man or woman who is also into it….

9. It isn’t Brideshead Revisited. The buildings and atmosphere can create a very misleading impression and encourage you to think that they are all fuddy duddy old buffers who are into port, brandy cigars and “the old school tie”. It may be true of some but most of these people are not like that at all…

10. Don’t be shy. Everyone is a bit nervous, it’s normal. Remember there are no prizes for nervousness. If you are the right person for them, they are lucky you are applying. It’s win/win.

In summary
Focus on the people interviewing you, being yourself and why you want to study there….If it is because “everyone says these are the best universities and Mum and Dad will be happy, and it will help me get a job” then think a little more deeply… These reasons may be true, and they are valid reasons… but not enough to get you a place.  If they ask “why should we give you a place?” How about “because it is so tough to get in I hope to be studying with people who are as interested in economics as I am” – and then follow some question about economics that still puzzles you” I’ve always wanted to understand more about why some of the nastiest people I know are rich… or how some rich people are nice”, or “why some people are happy without having much money” or whether the Euro is going to be like the Gold Standard”, or “why Monetarism doesn’t seem to work any more” or some other genuinely interesting question that you have some ideas about. They are almost certain to ask you what you think if you ask a rhetorical question like that.

Good luck.

I re-read this article on 26th October 2016 after a conversation with Jamie Miles whose Youtube channel is full of good advice on the same subject

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

One comment on “10 tips for candidates applying to study at Oxford and Cambridge University

  1. Rafal Z. Sep 5, 2012

    Having conducted undergraduate interviews for an Oxford college last December, I agree with Richard’s sound advice.