As the sweltering summer heat dies to embrace the birth of spring, another batch of eager teenagers will begin their arduous preparations for the annual university admissions, each one more hopeful than the next for a nod from their university of choice.
Every year, it gets tougher - students become smarter, the competition, stiffer and the expectations, higher.
Every year, more and more aspiring applicants want to know the secrets of cracking the Oxbridge puzzle. And so, they seek out people like me, people who have successfully gained entry into the lush emerald lawns of Oxbridge, and interrogate us as if we had all the answers.
But the truth of the matter is that whilst we try to give some useful advice, we do not have it all figured out and sometimes in quiet introspection, the very thought of our accomplishments humbles us deeply. Because we also once did not believe that we could do it, the barrier feeling every bit as impenetrable as the universities' cold yellow brick walls. But somehow, as if by sheer luck, we made it to the other side.
Nevertheless, there are a few constructive guidelines that aspiring applicants should consider if they have dreams of studying in two of Britain's greatest universities.
1. Choose your subject over university.
Many applicants make the mistake of being blinded by reputation, aspiring for Oxbridge solely for the prestige - the rich intellectual history and ancient quadrangles with spires that pierce the seamless skies being all that they see. So much so, that they pick Oxbridge before their subject. This can be dangerous.
We must always remember that Oxbridge is, at the end of the day, a couple of institutions that provide services in education. And like other universities around the world, the quality of their teaching will differ from subject to subject. We should be more concerned with getting into Oxbridge for the quality of education they can provide. If it isn't for this reason, it might then be prudent to think twice about your application. After all, tertiary education is an expensive investment.
Furthermore, choosing your subject first means that you will likely be pursuing one that you love. This is important when applying to Oxbridge because passion is what admission officers are looking for in potential students and fortunately or unfortunately, passion cannot be faked. These admission officers have an uncanny ability to weed out the apathetic and the pretenders, only because of genuine concern that these individuals would not be able to handle the intensive curriculum and pressurized environment at Oxbridge - conditions that require nothing less than honest and raw passion to see one through to graduation day.
Besides, the subject you choose to study at university will demand at least 3 years of your life and beyond that, will likely shape your career. So always remember to choose your subject over your university unless you're prepared to gamble with your future.
2. Give it a shot.
For a lot of people, applying to Ivy League schools and to Oxbridge will feel far from organic. Plagued by doubt and a lack of self-belief, they remain mere dreamers, dismissing their ambitions as impossible foolish nonsense.
Refuse to fall into this trap. Leave the judgment to the institutions. Just submit your application and give yourself a chance, put yourself in the running and take everything that follows as a learning experience - indeed, that is all you can do.
After all, you should do everything in your power to chase your dreams, no matter how audacious they are. Coming from a high school with not too many "success stories", I had plenty of reasons to believe that my dreams of getting into a top university were futile. But I am glad I did not let my insecurities get the better of me. And I cannot begin to tell you how getting into Oxbridge has changed my life.
3. Be teachable, passionate and inquisitive.
A large proportion of applicants who meet the minimum academic requirements will interview with full-time professors, tutors and lecturers at Oxford and Cambridge for a spot in either universities. These interviews can be thought of as a mock tutorial or supervision (a tutorial as it is known in Oxford or supervision, in Cambridge is basically a session where Oxbridge students discuss their subjects with their tutors/supervisors, who are often world leaders in their field), where your interviewers will assess you based on how teachable, passionate, and inquisitive you are.
Being tutors/supervisors themselves, the interviewers would naturally prefer students who are teachable and receptive to new ideas. They look for genuine interest in their applicants and want students who critically question the basis of new ideas before accepting them as true. They are not interested in students who can memorise answers and they want you to contribute to the interview as much as possible even if you might not know the answers to their questions.
If you're a hard worker who is passionate about your subject and if you follow these 3 guidelines, with a bit of luck, you'll receive that prized envelope and some of the most amazing years of your life. But if you don't, do not be too disappointed. A rejection from Oxbridge does not indicate incompetency or failure - it just means that you're not suited to the system. There are plenty of other opportunities out there to enrich your life and prepare you for a successful future.
Let us not forget the multitude of people who have achieved immense success without having the luxury of the name of an Ivy League school on their resume - Oprah, Abraham Lincoln, Steve Jobs.
But before you accept this reality, give Oxbridge a shot and apply this summer. Expect nothing, but give everything. Good luck!