The naked truth about Oxford & Cambridge entrance

The naked truth about Oxford & Cambridge entrance

Winning a place to study as an undergraduate at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge remains the ultimate academic achievement for many students. Oxford and Cambridge (often referred to as Oxbridge) remain two of the top 10 ranked universities in the world. For an English-speaking undergraduate the only other comparable university would be Harvard. The joy and economics are clear.

The success rates for admission at Oxbridge are ferociously low. It reflects the huge demand for only the 3,500 places available annually. Also the entrance requirements are demanding and particular standards are set. These requirements are clearly set out and strictly adhered to by the respective universities.

There is a great deal of information written about gaining a place; one needs to clear way the rhetoric to get at the naked truth. The joy is palpable as this Harvard applicant’s video shows.

So what can be done? The following two sections set-out the broad requirements as well as suggested preparations to meet them. Trading choices between Oxford and Cambridge is difficult but the approach is similar.

Broad Requirements.

From the outset it is not about perfect academic grades from school, although that helps. Grades reflect one’s academic capabilities. What Oxford is looking for in a candidate is: an ability to think and reason. It is the foundation that will contribute to the student’s own development as well as the academic reputation of the institution. It is often stated by Dons (college tutors) and faculty at Oxford that they wish to “hone the mind” of the student. It is not knowledge but how one uses information to achieve a purpose.

These entrance criteria can be summarised as a combination of 5 sets of factors

1. Meeting the academic standards.

School grades are the basis followed by the entrance examination, set by each university and subject faculty (such Geography). It tests the applicant’s innate reasoning skills.

  • Excellent academic scores from school; not necessarily perfect (that helps) but above average. Good grades are a reflection of the applicant’s from own abilities, being attentive at school, diligent with homework, reading widely, formulating views and sharing.
  • The applicant must submit a completed entry form. It is surprising how often this is not done.
  • Also the applicant’s school will be asked to prepare a form of recommendation letter. This letter is very important as it summarises the school’s view with regard to the candidate’s performance as well as potential.
  • Doing well in the entrance examination. This consists of two parts to test innate reasoning as well as skills in synthesis, logic and organization.
    • Part one is similar to an IQ test. This tests takes a number of forms but the most common is the Thinking Skills Assessment (TSA). Practice helps but one possesses the ability or not. Do practice.
    • Part two is the essay. It really is where one can shine. The 30- minute essay is a canvas to display one’s ability to logically structure an argument in a cohesive and compelling manner. It is not the factual content that is important but how the writer’s argument is cogently presented, formulated and expressed. There is NO correct factual answer. Amazingly few follow the simple advice ATDQ – Answer The Damn Question! There are better ways to answer these. Practice is invaluable. Sample questions ae published by the universities and some web-sites and bloggers enjoy posting their ‘answers’. Visit sites such as Justin Jenk, Raktas or the Student Room.
  • The interview. If one is fortunate enough to be “called to interview” that is a positive sign. The “Dons” (faculty tutors resident in a college) would not waste the candidate’s nor their own time on weak applications; nor to be abusive. If the essay was your canvas, the interview is your stage. Perform! Be natural! Engage in a dialogue that allows you demonstrate all your capabilities. The interview is all about fit, as opposed to the exams which are about function.

2. A positive assessment by the college’s tutor(s) and faculty.

Each student applies to a college which will be his/her future ‘home’ and which already houses tutors (dons) who are faulty members of the chosen subject: say History at Christ Church. Assuming the academic standards are met then the Dons will assess applicants along the following broad dimensions.

  • Will this student benefit from the Oxford experience – its teaching and residence?
  • Will this student be one that is rewarding to teach? In the sense of flowering, exploring and expanding the limits of the subject. Good manners and disciplines help here but they are not the metrics for selection.
  • Will the tutor enjoy teaching this young adult to explore their intellectual boundaries?
  • What are the prospects that this student could be awarded first class honours (top 1-15% of the class) upon graduation? This achievement is significant: as a form of academic recognition as well as reflecting on the academic capabilities of the tutors, the colleges and faculty.

3. Other attributes of the student

There is a great deal of misconception here.

  • Charm on its own is insufficient.
  • Even if one is an Olympic medallist, concert performer, recognised ‘do-gooder’ or prolific intern; unless the smarts are in place and proven these worthy attributes do not compensate. However they can complement; distinguishing between two competing applicants, with similar academic merits, competing for that one slot.
  • Parental donations do not help – in fact the reverse: they are a hindrance for Oxbridge at this stage of one’s educational career. On the other hand, that a family member has attended Oxbridge is a good Darwinian sign. Such a domestic setting should have nurtured a sense of comfort and achievement which are hallmarks of Oxbridge students.

4. Choice of course and college.

Further misconceptions here. Choses the subject and college that suits the applicants interests and character. Yet a student can exercise a level of tactics. Acceptance rates and other information are published by the universities. Candidates should assess this information as part of their research. For example if the acceptance rate for Classics is 50% compared to PP&E and there are two vacancies at Pembroke but ten at Keble then logic dictates that the less stellar student should perhaps consider applying to read classics at Keble. Such a decision assumes that the student has the demonstrated academic skills in the subject and appreciates Keble’s architectural merits, style and location. Tactical choices do not make up for poor academics, exams results, interview or assessment.

5. Luck.

This force is ever present. It casts its net over Oxbridge as with the rest of life.

Suggested preparation.

Some candidates maintain they never did any: they are the gifted rarities of life. A few suggestions to consider.

  1. Be a good student. Read both deeply in your chosen subject and widely on others. The engineer should have read a poem and understood a Shakespearean play. The Linguist should enjoy doing Sudoku.
  2. Structured preparation. Read beyond your subject, read reviews of classical texts, read reviews of reviewers. Synthesize your views: practice short essays. Discuss and debate topics with friends, family even strangers. Remember the use of logic to purpose. Marshall your thoughts. Do several practice exams: both the logic tests as well as writing essay. There are websites (such as Justin Jenk) that contain posts of sample answers (to the writer’s opinion). They offer a benchmark.
  3. Do what you are good at to the best level you can. It will help develop you academically as well as a person. Modern Society does reward those who are ‘the best’, ‘top of the class’, ‘winners’, ‘acclaimed.’
  4. Do your research thoroughly. Visit the universities, colleges and departments. They all make a strenuous effort to be transparent, informative and helpful. Ask relevant and insightful questions. The answers will help you learn and decide in the best course of action. Don’t forget they want the best students to apply and the applicants to be on their best. Speak to alumni. Search Oxford’s the Student Room.
  5. Determination and preparation are powerful tools to influence luck’s throw.

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Justin Jenk is business professional with a successful career as a manager, advisor, investor and board member. He is a graduate of Oxford and Harvard. Justin can be found at

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