*Note: This post was written in 2015 so university application processes may have changed since then. In my application to the UK I focused mainly on Oxford (PPE). The UCAS application allows you to apply to 5 universities, so I applied to another four universities off. As I was applying to the US as well, I could focus just on Oxford as my first choice for an UK university. I got into Oxford but ended up choosing to head to Stanford for college, because the liberal arts system there allows the freedom to pursue more than just one course. My interests have always been interdisciplinary, so I relished the chance to to take classes and harness synergies across disciplines.
That being said, I still have things to share about the UK Application process!
Applying to the UK differs vastly from the US. Whilst the US colleges and universities view admissions as a holistic process, the UK focuses predominantly on academics. In fact, I would venture to say that basically 100% of the process is based on academics/academics-related stuff – whether through your grades, your personal statement, or your interview (provided there’s an interview for your course).
University admissions in the UK is also very quantitative. In most schools, they actually give you a quantitative score for your grades, your personal statement, and your interview. For this reason, UK schools are probably more straightforward to get into for academically strong students (in comparison to US schools), simply because admissions is more predictable and you can be (somewhat) more certain of getting in once you reach a certain academic target.
Applications to the vast majority of UK schools (if not all, I’m not entirely sure) are through the UCAS system. Your school counsellor should be able to guide you through the procedure of setting up your UCAS account, although it is very much possible to apply privately without linking it to your school. All students are allowed to apply to 5 schools in the UK (with the exception of medicine – you can only apply to 4), and you can key in your choices on the UCAS portal. You only write one personal statement through this portal that goes to all of your schools – which basically means you can only apply to one course (or at the least, very similar courses), with the exception of medicine.
The sort of grades required to get into a specific course/college/university vary from course to course and from university to university. It would be a good idea to check out the website of the course you’re applying to – usually they mention a rough guideline on how much students have to score (whether in the A levels or the IB) to get into the course. Sometimes having a good score basically guarantees you a spot. Other times, though, academics only plays one part (albeit a major part) of the decision – Oxbridge has a very strong emphasis on the interview process.
As for writing the personal statement, I found the series by JamoeMills on Youtube particularly useful.
Unlike Common App essays for the US, personal statements are almost completely academic and do actually have a structure. Therefore it is very useful to look at sample PS; however, do not lie and do not copy from other personal statements – even if you do actually get an interview offer, this will definitely blow up in your face in the interview if you haven’t done what you said/ read what you purported.
I would take the personal statement very seriously. It’s the only “personal” part of your application (apart from the interview, if there is one), and the only chance for admissions officers to distinguish you from the throngs of other people purportedly ‘interested’ and ‘passionate’ about your course.
Some courses require additional testing. Most of these tests are administered by the British Council (if you’re applying from Singapore). For example, I had to take the Oxford Thinking Skills Assessment in November (which happened to fall during my IB examinations), which goes towards their assessment of your application. For my test, I had to do a multiple choice section as well as write a 20 minute essay.
Most courses in Cambridge and Oxford require an interview, and all medicine candidates have to fly to UK to do their interview. I viewed the interview as the most important part of my application as it gave me a chance to see whether I liked studying at Oxford and whether I would get along with my tutors (professors). I loved interacting with my tutors – I thoroughly enjoyed each of my 20-minute interviews with my tutors.
The style of interviews vary from college to college even within Oxford itself. I applied to Oriel, and the PPE tutors there have a standardised interview for every single candidate, meaning that every single candidate gets the same reading material and the same questions. This does not hold true for all colleges – some tutors end up asking questions about your personal statement, or a specific area of interest that may be more catered towards your passions, etc. For my interviews, however, there was a set structure – we were required to come to the preparation room 20 minutes before our interview and then given some reading material. For philosophy, this reading material constituted of an article and a separate set of unrelated questions – a dialogue about objects existing out of our minds, and a set of questions about lying and morality. For politics, I was given a three page argument about stealing and asked to dissect the argument. For economics, I was asked to generate equations about asymmetric information (it was basically all maths).
I thought I did the best for my economics interview, and didn’t feel too good about the politics one. But Oxford actually took the time to send me feedback on my application, and apparently I excelled in my politics interview!
As you can see from the tutor’s comments, they look at the way you assess arguments rather than the content of your answer/ extent of your knowledge, although I’m pretty sure having a basic knowledge of political/philosophical theory will give you a good structure to start tackling those arguments and be aware of different limitations/points of view. But the danger of that is to fall into the trap of regurgitating knowledge without applying it to the topic at hand, or even worse, regurgitating impressive-sounding things that actually have nothing to do with the passage you were given.
As for how to prepare for the interviews, there really isn’t any set material that you can memorise or revise from and then be assured that you’ll do well. The best you can do is read, read, and read. It’s good to have a general idea of your intended course of study (although prior knowledge is not required), and the aim of this is to keep your mind sharp and open to different perspectives. The Oxbridge interviews are designed to test how you think, not what you already know. Get someone to argue and debate with you over interview questions (you can find these online). Hone your mind. And be yourself! The tutors will do their best to put you at ease because they’re not looking to see how you respond under pressure, they’re looking to find out how you’ll interact with them on a daily basis should you actually go to their college.