So, there’s only one thing you want to read: our secret formula for getting in. The formula to auto-complete your dreams, propel you into a life of punting, formals and strange rituals and secure you a high-profile career.
Parents, pick up your pens: students, read carefully. This is important.
Yep, that’s it. There is no formula.
Let’s get one thing straight first. Applying to Cambridge or Oxford does not make you any better than someone who doesn’t. Cambridge isn’t the right environment for a lot of people – whether it be stress, course or the city itself – and just because you might happen to like it doesn’t mean anything. You’re not applying for a league table position, for a collection of arguably arbitrary numbers – you’re applying for a place to live for possibly 4 years, for a place to study in, to enjoy and to bear. If it isn’t right for you, don’t apply, just the same as any other university.
First things first, look on the websites. Although the internet may have been invented by an Oxford graduate, it’s still pretty useful. As well as the University itself, all the colleges and faculties have their own websites with lots of useful information including course details on them.
The prospectus is also good, but by far the most valuable are open days. Whilst the general Cambridge open days in July can be hectic and confusing, each college and often each faculty will have a specific open day, so you can really think properly about the feel of each component without having to rush around.
If there are any essay competitions, definitely enter them – it’s not only good for your UCAS form, but you might get the chance to meet your potential lecturers and it could help you to choose a college.
There may seem like a lot of choice for colleges, but don’t worry if you can’t really decide. People choose colleges for very odd reasons – they liked the ducks at Emmanuel, they approved of the banter of Trinity’s chair leg, they had a nice lunch from Queens’ at an open day – it really doesn’t matter!
If you’re good enough, you’ll get in, courtesy of the pooling system. Pick your favourite college, whatever your criteria might be. There’s no point ending up at one you don’t really like, which you chose tactically, when you could have got into your favourite.
Now we come to the crucial part: the UCAS personal statement. Forget any tricks you were told might work. Be truthful. That means not only actively avoiding any actual lies, but being true to what you are – what your strengths are and what you’re interested in. Don’t pretend to love the War of the Spanish Succession because you think the First World War is too mainstream; likewise, don’t go on about Tolstoy if actually you’d prefer to talk about Putin. If you get an interview (which you probably will if your grades are decent), it’ll be based around your interests, so if your ‘interests’ aren’t true, you’re probably stuffed.
Keep it relevant, and try to be original but don’t sacrifice truth for originality. Spend time getting it right – it’s important – and don’t let other people tell you what you should put if you don’t agree. Some courses such as MML are very broad, so you can focus on what you like – there is absolutely no need to fake a love for literature when you do actually love linguistics, for example.
You also have to complete the SAQ after you’ve submitted your UCAS form, which contains an optional short additional personal statement. Use that to tailor your interest towards the specific Cambridge course and opportunities that offers, such as breadth and variety. Double check you put in all the numbers correctly, because it’s an easy mistake to make, and check you send all the forms your college requires.
Check your college website and any information they send you for details about any essays you might have to send. Depending on your college, these might matter a bit, a lot or not really at all, so check TSR for advice, but in general pick essays you found interesting which are relatively recent.
If you do get an interview, don’t waste any time in getting ready for it. Ask for accommodation if you’re eligible (most people probably will be, depending on college). Going the day before will remove most if not all travel-related stress, relax you into the environment and give you more chance to make connections with people and the place – don’t forget you have to decide if you want Cambridge as well! If you’re settled, you are much more likely to do your best than if you’re frazzled after a train delay and confused about where you’re going.
It’s meant to be an enjoyable experience, so enjoy it! Socialise as much as you can – there’s no point wasting your energy on jealousy and competitiveness – and be positive about everything you learn.
For those of you with preparatory studies, don’t worry at all – they’re perfectly approachable and are a tool to display your ability. It’s a good idea to annotate a text you might be given, and also anything you’ve read, heard or seen which you can link in in case you forget through nerves.
The interview itself is designed like a supervision, so treat it like a conversation about your favourite subject. As long as you took our advice and didn’t lie on your paperwork, you’ll be fine – if it gets difficult, that’s when it really starts, so think rationally and creatively and reason answers through. They’re interviewing you, not your textbook, so be original as well.
There’s no such thing as a typical candidate! Don’t write or say what you think they want you to write or say – it probably won’t work and you’ll get yourself into difficulty.
And that’s why we put a blank space earlier. Yes, there’s no formula, but there is a space full (oxymoron) of opportunity for you to fill it with what you want.
In the words of esteemed Cantabrigian Professor Stephen Hawking, “There should be no boundary to human endeavour.” Try in earnest if you want to, but only if you want to. It’s worth it.