Oxbridge applicants let down by poor personal statements

Students applying to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge often fall at the first hurdle of the personal statement, according to a company that runs an Oxbridge preparation access scheme.

Rebecca Williams, head of programmes at consultants Oxbridge Applications, says students turn the personal statement into “a patchwork of mini essays”.

It is crucial that students demonstrate wide reading of their subject outside the syllabus, “but they shouldn’t try to make analytical points about the academic ideas they raise; they should use them to demonstrate their interest in the subject”, Williams says.

The advice is part of a feature in the 26 June issue of TES, in which the five most common mistakes and misconceptions about Oxbridge are addressed. Three are listed below. Read the full article for the other two.

1. Courses

In the past few years, Oxford and Cambridge have become much more explicit about the qualifications they prefer. Colleges at both institutions list the combinations of subjects they require for specific courses on their websites.

The most common ones are, as you might expect, pretty traditional. But teachers may be surprised at some of the subjects that aren’t very widely accepted. These include psychology, law, government, business studies and sociology.

2. Colleges

On application, students can specify the name of a college or leave the choice open. Williams advises students to choose.

“They will spend at least three years of their life at a college – so it makes sense to try to get into one that best suits them,” she says. “Most colleges are varied enough to accommodate all types, but they are different.”

Ask your students to do some basic research before they apply.

“Courses in some colleges are more oversubscribed than others,” says a sixth-form tutor with experience of both universities. “Past success rates per college are published on their websites.”

3. The interview

Oxbridge interviews are designed to test how a student will learn, rather than how much a candidate knows or whether they have read the “correct” texts.

“Tutors don’t want candidates to ‘download the answer’, they want to see how they think,” a former tutor says.

As a result, it is impossible to rehearse interview questions, experts say. So how can teachers help? It’s crucial that they encourage students to read widely outside of the exam syllabus.

Understandably, most young people aren’t familiar with communicating an academic subject at an advanced level. Although admissions tutors are prepared to look beyond this, the more that students practise discussing advanced ideas with others, the less nervous they should become.

This is an edited version of a feature from the 26 June issue of TES. You can read it on your tablet or phone, or by downloading the TES Reader app for Android or iOS. Or pick it up at all good newsagents.

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