Carina Cunha, MD of Crimson Education UK, reveals why top grades are not enough to secure you a place at Oxford or Cambridge universities, and what actually is.
As tens of thousands of students have just completed fine-tuning their personal statements in time for this year’s Oxbridge applications deadline on 15th October, many of those a year or two younger will also be firming up their plans for university and wondering what it really takes to get in.
For those just starting their A Level or IB courses, or in the full swing of study, it’s a chance to reflect on what efforts they need to make over the next year or two to join some of the greatest British thinkers, scientists, musicians and entrepreneurs who have graced the lecture halls of Oxford or Cambridge.
An average of 37,000 students apply to Oxbridge each year, and fewer than 7,000 are accepted. That works out at a 20% chance of getting in.
So, what can students do now to increase their chances?
It’s about more than just top grades
Most students and parents believe that getting high grades is the one key factor for success. And while it’s certainly true that a student is unlikely to be considered without a sterling academic record, it’s not the only deciding factor.
Think about it from the position of the applications team at the university. They are desperately trying to filter through thousands of applications to find the right candidates.
But a browse through any list of Oxbridge hopefuls’ academic records will reveal that pretty much everyone will be on track to secure three As or A*s at A Level or scores of 40 in the IB diploma.
Many will have strong GCSE and iGCSE results too, to show they have always been academically strong.
Perhaps their school has encouraged them to take part in the Duke of Edinburgh scheme, run the debating club, and work hard at their musical interests. All these are fantastic activities to have participated in. They will certainly improve the confidence of any child and therefore their ability to impress the admissions team.
But, and here is the rub, if you are part of the Oxbridge admissions process, these amazing extra-curricular activities start to become somewhat everyday.
The sheer volume of candidates that have raised money for charity, completed the three peaks challenge or studied piano since the age of seven means that often the admissions team is looking for the extra-ordinary rather than the extra-curricular.
So what is is about then?
For this reason, it’s often those who show through their extra-curricular activities that they have a genuine love of their subject, which goes beyond wanting to get good grades or choose a career. The students who spend time outside of school developing the deep knowledge of their subject that cannot come from the classroom alone.
It is this that sets one high-achieving student apart from another.
Let’s take the case of one of the students I have worked with who wished to study English at an Oxbridge college. Not only did she have a good academic record, but she also set up a blog site where aspiring writers could submit their own works in progress to be encouraged and critiqued by other hopefuls.
Learning from others not only enriched her own knowledge of good writing, but also showed she was willing to help her peers and that she wanted to be part of the writing community.
The admissions team would have noted that she showed leadership in identifying a problem – she wanted to improve her writing – and found a novel way to solve it.
When you take this a step further, to the interview stage of the Oxbridge application process, you start to see that this experience helps far beyond the point of applying for a place. When this candidate was interviewed, she had so many more experiences to talk through than her peers.
Needless to say, she was offered a place and is now studying at Oxford University.
The key with this example is that the student used her love of her subject to think beyond the ordinary and create extra-curricular activities tailored to her own skills, character and knowledge.
So, if you are the parent of a child who is keen on an Oxbridge education, encourage them to think about why they love their subject so much, and urge them to come up with different ways of exploring that. Whether it is to create a community of like-minded individuals, help out in a local business or research project or start something up for themselves.
Carina Cunha holds a B.A. in Economics and Political Science from Columbia University and a Postgraduate degree in Differential Psychology from the University of Edinburgh. She is MD of Crimson Education in the UK, which helps students gain acceptance to the world’s best universities and achieves a 60% acceptance rate for entry to Oxford or Cambridge. You can find more advice on applications at www.crimsoneducation.com/uk
Read our handy guide on the university application process here