I’m often asked ‘should I apply to Oxbridge?’ Firstly, there’s no such thing. There’s either Oxford OR Cambridge. Secondly, that question is like asking – ‘I’m very tall, should I play basketball?’ That is not to deny that Oxford and Cambridge are different to other UK universities. Indeed, it is because of their differences that students should consider applying there. But the questions students need to ask of themselves are rather more challenging.
Another analogy: when I think of a ‘type’ of student who will thrive at either Oxford or Cambridge, I think of a sprinter. Term is eight weeks long – times three. Your year’s education is delivered at an exhilarating exhausting pace that has you at full stretch every minute of the day. The more in-depth reading you do in ‘holidays.’ And notice that I said ‘thrive’ not ‘cope’. You can be a very intelligent student for whom this method of delivery is just not optimal. That doesn’t in any way negate your intelligence – it is a stylistic preference.
Then there is the teaching itself, and, my mind, what makes Oxford and Cambridge special – the tutorial or supervision system (same thing different language) – a one to one or very small group dialogue of what you’ve just learned. A viva voce every single week. You don’t need to be an extrovert, you do need to love to learn and to respond to teaching – ‘ooh, that’s interesting – I didn’t think about that.’ It’s not about being a push-over and idealizing your teachers, but engaging with them to develop your own distinct voice and argument. This is not regurgitation, this is creating an individual response to problems posed.
Both universities excel in the transparency of their admissions criteria. They both provide ample advice and guides on making an application. So, if I’m asked ‘should I apply to Oxbridge?’, I will ask the student to look at the COURSE (it’s only ever about the course) at both universities. I will ask them if they are genuinely independent curious learners who love to go beyond what is covered in class. And if a student has the track record or predictions that meet the entrance criteria with that independent drive and commitment to learning, then yes, absolutely you should apply to Oxford or Cambridge.