How do I get into Oxford or Cambridge? An admissions expert offers preparation advice for students

Joe Hall
Follow Joe
Getting into Oxford and Cambridge is a challenge but not impossible with preparation and planning (Source: Getty)
As teens up and down the country shut themselves off from the outside world to revise for GCSE and A Level exams, the most ambitious students will likely have one goal in mind - secure the results needed to get into Oxford or Cambridge.
However, winning a place at one of the UK's most prestigious universities requires a lot more than a good day in the exam hall says James Gold, the founder of the Oxford Summer College, which provides an immersive course to equip students with the skills needed to get in.
Gold, who has a master's degree from Cambridge himself, explains how to give yourself the best shot possible of being granted a place at Oxbridge.
If you're looking to apply to Oxbridge, where should you begin the application process?
Early preparation for an Oxbridge application is absolutely essential. Your knowledge and thought process will need to extend far beyond your A Level curriculum. Look to increase the breadth and depth of your knowledge in order to fuel both your understanding and interest in your subject.
For instance, if you are a history student studying the Civil Rights Movement, you should consider studying the Anti-Apartheid Movement for comparison. Also, try to keep on top of the news and consider how it relates to your subject.
Is the importance overstated of extracurricular activities overstated?
Academic curiosity carries greater importance than extra-curricular activities in the case of Oxbridge admissions. Students will be entering an elite academic environment and will often participate in an impressive range of extra-curricular activities, although this is not the principal criteria upon which they are selected. Oxbridge academics are world leaders in their field of study. They are looking for students who share their passion and curiosity for a subject to which they have themselves dedicated decades of study.

How do you stand out to an admissions tutor?

Admissions tutors are looking for intelligent, academically curious and interesting students. Simply having straight A*s at A Level doesn’t necessarily mean you are right for Oxbridge. Students should seek to develop their confidence and knowledge such that they can have a broad-ranging and challenging discussion that will pique the interest of an admissions tutor.
I often advise students to be creative in their preparation. We would reasonably expect any students looking to study law to have visited a court to see the judicial process in action. A more creative student may have attended the House of Commons or investigated the legal system in foreign jurisdictions to understand points of connection and contrast.

Read more: The world's best universities for law

Is it best to choose a degree which leads to a career path?
It is best to study a degree which you find interesting and enjoyable. It will form a large part of your life over the next three to four years. It is always possible to take conversion courses after an undergraduate degree, for a career in law for example, and many careers do not require a specific degree subject.
Should younger readers, such as those sitting their GCSEs, or their parents be thinking about their Oxbridge application?
It is never too soon to be thinking ahead about your university choices, but students currently sitting GCSEs certainly shouldn’t worry if they have not yet given the topic much thought. The summer after sitting GCSEs is an ideal time for students to start thinking more seriously about whether they wish to apply to Oxbridge.
Residential summer programmes, such as our four day Oxbridge Admissions Programme, can be an excellent way of gaining an inside understanding of the admissions system, understanding whether Oxbridge is right for you and building a road-map towards a successful Oxbridge application.

Related articles