A Conversation for Applying to University

Oxford and Cambridge

Post 1

Mammuthus Primigenius

Oxford and Cambridge are the oldest and best known of British Universities. While it is questionable whether they offer the best education, one thing is certain; they are the hardest to get into.

If you are predicted to get top grades, the chances are your school will push you to apply for one of them, their budget is indirectly related to how many people they can get them. If you decide to go ahead, here are a few tips.

Colleges

If you do accept a place at either institution, your college will be the centre of your life for at least the next three years, (possibly longer, in some cases for the rest of your life). It's where you eat, sleep, study, and socialise. Colleges are the main thing that makes O&C different from other universities. They do create academic community where students and lecturers live and work together, but if you don't fit in, it can be difficult to escape. Therefore it's important to pick the right college when you apply.

This can be difficult, as despite being quite different, the descriptions in the prospectuses will all sound the same. If you know any students already there, or any graduates, talk to them about it. Ask your school for the names of any previous students who went there and look up their email addresses. They may just tell you that their college is the best, but you can always ask them about any concerns you have.

Consider whether you want to go to an old college (founded centuries ago) or new college (founded decades ago)? The old colleges usually have more impressive buildings, but they can be more formal and have peculiar traditions. Some have formal dinners (in academic dress, with Latin speeches) several nights a week. Some people like this, others don't.

Private accommodation in both Oxford and Cambridge is very expensive; this is partly because the universities own most of city. If you're concerned about money, apply to a rich college which can offer you accommodation for all three years (but check that you want to spend three years there).

Interviews

As all applicants will have top grades and an excellent extracurricular record. The interview is when the admissions staff decide who to give offers to and who to reject. It will be tough. The sort of questions asked vary a lot depending on the subject you're applying for. It's best to ask your teacher in that subject for advice. If you're applying to study science, chances are you will be asked some pretty technical questions, and asked to solve problems on a blackboard or sheet of paper. Prospective arts or social science student will probably be asked more general questions, often related to the news and current affairs.

If you are offered a place, do think about whether to accept it or not. Your school and possibly your parents will tell you it would be stupid to reject an offer. But don't let them push you into it, Oxford and Cambridge are great universities, but they may not be the right place for you.

The teaching quality is generally rated as about the same at other good UK universities (e.g. Liverpool, Durham, Warwick). However the college system and one-to-one or two-to-one tutorials will give you much more contact with lecturers; and some of your lecturers will be world leaders in their fields.

An Oxbridge degree is a lot of work, do not underestimate it. The terms may be only eight weeks, but the teaching is intensive and you will have to put in many hours of private study to keep up. The universities both think that they're the best in the world, so they feel obliged to make the examinations especially difficult.

However if you are organised, you will have some free time, and the cities are both great places to live. Less crowded and polluted than major cities, but with a good selection of entertainment: pubs, museums, art galleries, theatres, cinemas, concerts. And when you need to relax, go punting.


PS I failed to get into either as an undergraduate, although I now work in Oxford. This is based on conversations with students, applicants, and admissions staff from both institutions


Oxford and Cambridge

Post 2

Emily 'Twa Bui' Ultramarine

Hmmm... Oxford rejected me last year, but I'm sufficiently foolish to try again this year. Durham beckons, methinks... smiley - erm


Oxford and Cambridge

Post 3

Mammuthus Primigenius

Durham's a great city. And a better place to study than Oxford - fewer distractions.

The comments I made about colleges also apply to Durham.


Oxford and Cambridge

Post 4

Emily 'Twa Bui' Ultramarine

Hey, don't put me off just yet - I haven't had time for me second rejection. smiley - winkeye


Oxford and Cambridge

Post 5

Bagpuss

That's just greedy. The rest of us made two with just one. (Unless you count the fact that two colleges interviewed me)


Oxford and Cambridge

Post 6

Felonious Monk - h2g2s very own Bogeyman

Well I went to neither Oxford, Cambridge or Durham, but ended up at a provincial university (by choice) and then went and did another five years doing research at another. One rude awakening to which you might be exposed anywhere, but probably more so at Oxbridge, is the 'fish in pond' syndrome. You might well be the top achiever and cleverest person in your sixth form but odds on you won't be when you get to university. You go from being a big fish in a little pond to a little fish in a big pond.

If academic achievement has been you entire life up to then (as it was mine) you will probably hate every minute of an Oxbridge education *unless* you broaden your outlook. So, either work on a more balanced, harmonious and generally 'sod-it' attitude towards life, or don't apply to a highly competitive institution. As Kipling said: 'if you can cope with both success and failure, and treat those two impostors just the same...'


Cambridge 'Alternative Prospectus'

Post 7

The Jabberwock

My knowlege is quite out of date, but in my day (1990) the Cambridge University Student's Union did an 'alternative prospectus' This was invaluable as it has descriptions of colleges that let you distinguish between them. According to the official prospectus, they're all friendly and informal and have an excellent accademic standard so you have to chose based on size, year of foundation, colour or some such. (The most popular reason for chosing Christ's, my college, was that it came first in alphabetical order) The alternative prospectus lets you decide on criteria such as quality of bars, where like-minded people are going and other important criterea.

By the way, your second and third choices of colleges need to be unpopular ones. 2nd and 3rd choices make almost no difference (if your 1st choice don't want you, your application theoreticaly goes to all other colleges), but colleges are more likeley to pick you from the pool if you've put them down 2nd or 3rd, and obviously places like Robinson are looking for more people from the pool than places like Trinity. Once you've decided your second and 3rd places, decide the official reasons why you want to go there...


Cambridge 'Alternative Prospectus'

Post 8

Bagpuss

A lot of unis do alternative prospectuses (prospecti?), which you may be able to get through the post. I think it's best to visit the university, though, in which case they should be availiable in the student union building somewhere. They are certainly worth getting, as they are likely to be rather more "warts and all" than the official ones. Anything it says about how great the Union bar is is probably a lie, though.


Cambridge 'Alternative Prospectus'

Post 9

Emily 'Twa Bui' Ultramarine

'Prospectuses' is perfectly legitimate as a plural, Bagpuss - like 'omnibuses', only a bit longer. smiley - smiley

How go things in Canada, then?


Cambridge 'Alternative Prospectus'

Post 10

Bagpuss

Going okay thanks. Just had an algebra test and I could do most of it, which is better than most of the alternatives. Plus I got some money today.


Cambridge 'Alternative Prospectus'

Post 11

Emily 'Twa Bui' Ultramarine

That's good. smiley - ok Hmmm... money... I could do with some of that... smiley - erm


Cambridge 'Alternative Prospectus'

Post 12

Uncle Heavy [sic]

*beats head against wall*

(hes applying)


Cambridge 'Alternative Prospectus'

Post 13

Cupid Stunt

But prospectus is from the latin, and ends in -us. Shouldn't it be like loci (pl. of locus) and the like?

Anyway, the Cambridge alternative prospectus is still available and is mush more help than any other source I've found for choosing colleges. In my opinion anyway.


Cambridge 'Alternative Prospectus'

Post 14

Xanatic

So did anyone get in to either place?


Cambridge 'Alternative Prospectus'

Post 15

Cupid Stunt

No. I was interviewed by Downing College Cambridge, but it didn't come to anything. They said they would let me know in January, but I got the rejection letter the day after Boxing Day! Festive greetings to them too. For anyone who hasn't yet heard the story of my application...

When I emailed the admissions office to get them to send me an application form, I forgot to take my signature off of the email. This was at the time "Aunty Mary had a canary up the leg of her drawers", Which I'm sure didn't help matters.
Then, when I was filling in my UCAS form, I dutifully filled in D for Downing in the campus code column. When I got the acknowledgement letter form UCAS, it had O, which is the code for New Hall college. This happens to be one of their all female colleges, which for some men would be a dream come true, is no use to me. When I got all that sorted out, I was informed twice by letter that I would be told my interveiw date at leat two weeks in advance. The week before, I telephoned to ask, and they said that it was in the post. I got it eventually, but it clashed with an interview at Bristol, which I had to reschedule.

So all in all, WHAT WAS THE POINT!


Cambridge 'Alternative Prospectus'

Post 16

Emily 'Twa Bui' Ultramarine

As they say, 'it was an experience'. It's all a lottery, Cupid Stunt; I got rejected by Oxford last year, I got in this year. A friend of mine has just done the same with Cambridge. She's one of the cleverest and most interesting people I know and she got rejected last year when I know a good many people less bright and less interesting got places. If it's Cambridge that you really want, don't let anyone tell you that there's no point in re-applying - just be sure that you have something that you'll feel is worthwhile doing for the year, just in case it doesn't work out as you hoped.


Cambridge 'Alternative Prospectus'

Post 17

Cupid Stunt

I don't think I'll bother. It can only get worse. Mind you, having said that, did everyone else get told it was much easier to apply for deffered entry if you intended yo do a year out? Not specifically for Oxbridge, in general. I remember hearing this over and over, and the people I've talked to who didn't, but applied the during their year out, have got in to a lot more places. I.e. one person I talked to has lower grades than I am expecting, applied to similar standards of universities, and as far as I remember he now has six unconditionals. I on the other hand have four conditionals to worry about. *fliches as mothers voice enters head - "Baths nice..."*


Cambridge 'Alternative Prospectus'

Post 18

Emily 'Twa Bui' Ultramarine

One one hand, that's true; the thing is, if you apply in your year out, you've got your grades in hand, and they don't need to worry about whether you will get what you are *predicted*. Last year I got two rejections and four conditional offers for English, all AAB, and they were pretty slow coming (as the big subjects tend to be) - and that was with a five-A prediction. This year I've already got four unconditional offers, and I got 4 As and a B. They have to be unconditional though, since it can't be conditional on one's achieving a certain grade - so don't worry about that bloke with the six unconditional offers. smiley - winkeye


Cambridge 'Alternative Prospectus'

Post 19

Cupid Stunt

No no, I just meant it takes the worry out of it, not getting the grades you want and all. I'm not worrying, he was a very nice bloke anyway.


Cambridge 'Alternative Prospectus'

Post 20

Xanatic

Well, congrats Emily. So what did you get in to study? You'll probably have a great time, meeting a whole bunch of geniuses.

I'm going to try and apply for UCD instead.


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