Here's some advice about getting into the big two that's a little less 'be yourself' and a little more 'prepare like so'. I graduated from Oxford a couple of years ago and while I was there I worked at University open days and for my college as an interviews chaperone. I know the system, and in my next three posts I'll reveal what you need to do to get in.
So here's the first step: how write a really good application.
Embrace Your 'Middle Material'
I'm sure you know that your personal statement needs to be meatier than a premium sausage. And you're more than capable of delivering this once you've wrestled the beast of a first sentence into submission. Schools can let you down here, they tell you that the vogue for quotes has passed and that the simply saying you're passionate about your subject 'isn't Oxbridge'. But it's hard to know what fills the gap left when enthusiasm has packed up its gushy wares.
The answer is not to write a first paragraph. Plunge straight into writing with intellectual energy about a few interesting elements of your chosen subject. For medicine that might be a paragraph on muscular dystrophy, for English one that draws out a curious moment in Zadie Smith's writing and provides some analysis of it. By doing this you're effectively writing from the middle of your personal statement outwards. But often by writing from this point you'll discover there wasn't actually any need for a conventional 'introduction'. When the word count is so miserly I don't see anything wrong with beginning abruptly with your 'middle material'.
If you do want to stick a small-talk sentence on to the beginning, then keep it short, and don't worry about cracking the perfect one liner. It genuinely can't be worse than: 'I cannot conceive of a greater way to acquire an understanding of life than by studying the literature it inspires.' And they still interviewed me.
Channel British Reserve
I'm sure you've heard that Oxbridge look for rounded individuals. They don't. Founded back when people still put 'e' on the end of most words, these universities have had many centuries to learn from the doggedly reserved British who created them. Tutors look for students who are brilliant at their subject and it's a happy and irrelevant coincidence if you can play 'Fields of Gold' on the piano and do a downward dog in yoga.
Everything you mention on your personal statement that isn't specifically connected to your degree needs to have enriched the way you approach your subject. So if you can't work out a subject-relevant way to include that anecdote about your bravery in the face of The Duke of Edinburgh (both the challenge and the man), then don't.
Find a match online
Playing the numbers game and applying to a college you predict will be unpopular this year is spectacularly pointless. If you're good and your college is full they'll send you off somewhere else to meet tutors who might be interested in you (at Oxford this happens then and there, at Cambridge you'll go home and then get a letter saying you've been pooled). But you can save yourself the hassle of a hopeful pilgrimage to another college by trying to decide for yourself which tutors you might hit it off with.
Check out your tutors online, look at what they write about, and how they write. Ask yourself if their passions overlap with yours. I'm not saying that this strategy will work every time, but it would be daft not to have a digital perve on the academics you'll spend the next three years with. It's like match.com says: 1 in 5 relationships start online.
Apply To Other Universities
Please remember to select four other options; it really will take the pressure off a tad.
My next post will be about preparing to make the most of your 20 minute interviews. And it will only take three minutes to read- bargain.