15/08/2013 05:09 BST | Updated 14/10/2013 06:12 BST

Oxford and Cambridge: A Worldly Education

In a recent article , the New York Daily News reported that 11 of President Obama's innermost circle were educated at Oxford University. In fact, of the top players in the administration, a greater number hold graduate degrees from Oxford than from US graduate schools. Nestled at the core of the Whitehouse and the Pentagon and wielding the power to influence policy worldwide, they are evidence of one thing: a degree from Oxford or Cambridge commands attention on an international scale.

At a time when emerging markets are jostling to become serious competitors to the major Western super-powers, there is one area of export in which the US and UK still dominate: Higher Education. Increased mobility is pushing international applicant figures off the charts and many universities are enjoying international interest on an unprecedented scale. But the desired destinations remain the same, with the UK and the United States receiving the highest number of international applicants every year. Applications to Oxford have increased by 55% over the last 10 years, and of applicants hoping to begin their Oxford undergraduate studies in 2012, 31.3% were from overseas. At Cambridge in the same year, 34.6% of applicants were international.

Places at Oxford and Cambridge have always been hotly contested, but with increasing competition from a flood of talented international applicants, the battle to win a place is fiercer than ever. Consider the traditional application process at Oxford and Cambridge. At the heart of selecting the best and the brightest is the all-important interview, designed to assess candidates on a personal, individual level. The admissions tutors rely on their human judgement, rather than a computerised system. Original thought, ingenuity, intellectual flexibility and the capacity to recognise nuance in thought are crucial skills a candidate needs to demonstrate to be successful. One of the reasons that Oxford and Cambridge remain among the most highly regarded institutions in the world is that they are committed to testing this in the only way possible: in meeting their future students one-on-one for an interview.

This individual and personalised approach poses difficulties when faced with rising numbers of applications from abroad. The pressure on admissions tutors to make the best selections among these growing numbers is huge. Now, fewer students are reaching the interview stage and the admissions test stage of the application process is gathering increasing significance. More and more courses at Oxford in particular are requiring a formal admissions test ahead of the interview - from the MAT, to the PAT, LNAT, BMAT, HAT, ELAT and so on.

Currently, if a student applying to Oxford or Cambridge to read Medicine fails to achieve a certain mark in the Biomedical Admissions Test, (BMAT) they are automatically rejected before interview. It is no longer an option to apply with sub-standard grades and try to make it up with sparkling wit in the interview either - you simply won't get to that stage. Less than 35% of applicants to Oxford for Medicine are invited for an interview based on their test score and grades.

This shift in the admissions process has its upsides. Each admissions tutor now considers an individual applicant with a greater variety of information, arguably enabling them to make a more accurate choice. When a tutor assesses a student, laid before them are school exam results, predictions, teacher references, a personal statement, admissions test scores and in many cases extra written submissions. In submitting this plethora of output, a properly prepared student has greater opportunity to demonstrate what they're truly capable of, and make it to that crucial interview stage.

One thing we can be sure of: the popularity of the top UK universities on a global scale results in ever-more stringent application requirements. This in turn ensures that the academic calibre of applicants winning places is exceptionally high. The news regarding Obama's administration reveals what might be described as a self-confirming cycle: graduates from these hotly contested places are desired for the most competitive roles in future careers, thus making a degree from a world-leading institution increasingly valuable and the resulting global surge in applications for those places inevitable.