23/10/2015 06:55 BST | Updated 22/10/2016 06:12 BST

What It Really Takes to Get Into Oxbridge

The Oxbridge interview is a daunting event. There's so much mystique around it. Everyone knows that these esteemed universities want you to have amazing exam grades and an enormous capacity for hard work. But, other than this, no-one seems to be clear on what they're looking for.

Many people suffer from the illusion that you have to have been to Eton and already own not only black tie but white tie as well. They think you need social connections, to talk with a plum in your mouth (not literally!) and possibly parents who've been to the university before you. None of this is true. You don't need to be a proto David Cameron raring to join the Bullingdon Club or debate at the Oxford Union. But, if this popular image of the archetypal Oxbridge candidate isn't what they're looking for, what is?

Put yourself in the shoes of a Cambridge Fellow for a minute. I know it's hard to imagine being a stuffy middle aged academic in tweeds, but try... you've spent your entire student and working life studying a narrow academic field because you're passionate about it (Anglo-Saxon and Romano-British burial practice anyone?). Through the interview process you're hoping to find similarly passionate candidates who it will be a joy to teach, not just at undergraduate level but possibly at post-graduate level too. You might even be interviewing future colleagues.

It's not just passion that a Cambridge Fellow is looking for. Enthusiasm to engage in rigorous intellectual debate in the candidates is key. The supervision system at Cambridge and the tutorial system at Oxford set the universities apart. You're taught either one-on-one or in groups of up to three students at least once per week. If the Cambridge Fellow or Oxford Don is going to get any job satisfaction out of this experience they'll want you to actively engage in the discussion. If you love talking about your subject, not just having a chat but diving deep into the nitty-gritty issues and arguing it out until dawn, then you'll thrive in this environment. You'll also shine at interview.

Oxford and Cambridge are the birthplace of paradigm-breaking ideas. From Newton to Darwin to Hawking revolutionary ideas have been dreamt up by precociously clever young people. They had the audacity to challenge received opinions and theories. The universities want more of these people in their ranks in order to preserve their places in the top flight of the world's most esteemed academic institutions. If you like challenging the ideas of those in authority and see holes in the ideas and theories you have learned about in your subject you're ripe to join the great thinkers at the great universities. (Although you do have to keep off the grass...)


Part of having these new and revolutionary insights is having an imaginative and creative intelligence, along with an ability to spot patterns in the information in front of you. You may think you have to be an artist to be creative or a novelist if you're imaginative. However, the greatest minds in maths and physics also display great creative intelligence - they come up with new ideas from looking at the patterns they see in the data before them. Do you love this kind of challenge? Then Oxbridge is the place for you.

The final thing to add to the mix is a certain level of confidence in your own intelligence. Whilst many Oxbridge students will have a healthy level of insecurity about their abilities (for the first time in their lives they're surrounded by people on their own intellectual level) this base level of confidence is far more important than social poise.

If you're waiting to be offered an interview at an Oxford or Cambridge college (or hope to be in that position in years to come) then bear these things in mind as you prepare. Stop stressing over your Brummie accent and not knowing which fork to use. Start focusing on how to showcase your full intellectual potential. Oh, and remember not to walk on the grass...

Lucy Parsons is a graduate of Cambridge University and a qualified teacher. She now empowers 15-18 year olds to achieve their academic dreams. Find out more about how to get into Oxbridge on her website.