Some extra considerations are necessary if you’re applying to Oxford or Cambridge.
First of all, as you should already know, you can’t apply to Oxford and Cambridge in any given academic year. (This is for the obvious reason that if you could apply to both, everybody would and so each university would have twice as many applications to deal with. For UCAS purposes, at least, Oxbridge really is just one place.)
If you are going to apply there are three questions to consider:
1. Should you apply at all?
2. If so, should you apply to Oxford or to Cambridge?
3. Which college should you apply to?
The first question is by far the most important.
SHOULD YOU APPLY AT ALL?
You may think you’re a strong candidate, or you may worry you’re a weak one. But the first thing to get into your head (you’re not going to like this) is that Oxbridge admissions are a lottery. There are far too many qualified applicants for the very limited number of places available. If a given college has 30 applicants in a particular subject, and three places to offer, and you come fourth, then you’re not getting it. You were better than 26 other applicants, and you’re still not getting in. (OK, you might get pooled and rescued by another college, but you’re not getting into that one.)
I’ve seen excellent candidates get rejected and I’ve seen frankly pretty weak candidates get accepted. I still find it impossible to predict reliably whether a student will be successful.
Does it matter if you don’t get in? I suspect it matters a lot less than you think. There are plenty of people living happy, successful, fulfilled, purposeful lives despite not getting into Oxbridge. And there are plenty of miserable, not obviously successful people who did get into Oxbridge.
As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been both rejected by Cambridge (when I applied to read Maths) and accepted by them (the following year after my A levels, when I re-applied but for Law). I’ve also said that going to Cambridge is the biggest regret of my life: it was the wrong place for me. At the same time, I’ll admit to liking the fact that I’m a Cambridge graduate. It impresses people. It often gets you a foot in the door. It’s certainly helped me get some great jobs. And it’s quite an experience. One that I guess I’m pretty glad I had.
On which subject, what is it really like to be at Oxbridge?
Frankly, it’s a head-fuck. When they were at school, Oxbridge students were the brightest and best: they came top in all the exams and they won all the prizes. But once they get to Oxbridge, they can’t all still be top of the class. They realise pretty quickly whether they’re genuinely brilliant and headed for a first class degree (i.e. the best you can get). And, when they realise they’re not (because, necessarily, most of them aren’t) they panic and desperately search for something to be brilliant at.
So every sphere of activity is intensely competitive. Everyone wants to be captain of something, or president of something. Or they drive themselves insane trying to impress their tutors and catch up with the genuinely brilliant. One of my friends tried that. No-one worked harder than him for his final exams. His revision notes were a one foot high stack of A4 paper, written on both sides. He still ‘only’ got a 2.1 (i.e. the second best grade, not the best). It was literally a tragedy.
On the other hand, there is something faintly Hogwart’s about Oxbridge and that can be quite fun. Dressing up in gowns and black-tie, attending dinners and balls, listening to world leaders at the Union Society, living in ancient, beautiful buildings (and, in some cases, even modern, beautiful buildings), having someone make your bed for you every day (they’re not called ‘bedders’ for nothing), striding across beautiful quadrangles whilst waltzing past tourists who aren’t allowed beyond the gates, punting up and down the Cam . . .
It can be very easy to get a vastly overinflated sense of your own importance and the likely trajectory of your life and career. While it’s true that an astonishing 41 out of 55 UK prime ministers were educated at Oxbridge, it does not follow that you are going to be prime minister some day. Indeed, it’s overwhelmingly likely that you won’t. Lots of my friends were certain they were going to be MPs. The more arrogant of them assumed they’d become cabinet ministers. None of them are.
What you will get is access to outstanding, world-class academic (and other) facilities. For example, the University Library at Cambridge, and the Bodleian Library at Oxford, are ‘copyright’ libraries. This means they are entitled to receive a free copy of every book and magazine published in the UK. Their collections are huge and you’ll have access to them. If you are of a genuinely academic bent, that prospect should be incredibly exciting. Similarly, you’ll be taught by outstanding, world-class academics, though not all of these will actually be any good at teaching. (I remember my constitutional law tutor sometimes had to miss tutorials because he was away writing constitutions for other countries.)
But will you fit in? One of the saddest moments of my teaching career was when I took a group of state-educated students for a residential week at Cambridge. The intention was to encourage them to apply by immersing them in the reality of the place. There was one student in particular who I really hoped would apply. But after the week was over he said, “Cambridge really isn’t for people like me.” He’d formed the view, as many people do, that Cambridge is a stuck-up, public school-infested place that is far detached from the reality of ordinary people’s lives. There is some truth in this. But it is much less true than it used to be. (That particular student went on to study Mathematics at Leeds. He had a great time, graduated with a first class degree, and is now training to be an actuary in London. As I’ve said, there are other universities.)
Another very difficult moment in my teaching career was when I advised one of my own students not to apply to Cambridge. I said I doubted that she’d get in and that, if she did, she wouldn’t do very well. She ran out of the room in tears. (My judgement was based on my sense of her true strength as a mathematician. She had achieved very high grades in exams more through hard work than by profound mathematical ability. For most universities that’s enough. But not for Cambridge.) It turned out I was wrong on the first point (she did get an offer and she got the grades required) but right on the second (she struggled with the material at Cambridge and ended up with a 2.2, which is below the standard most graduate jobs require). That being said, she had a fantastic time there, and she’s now settled in a good job that she enjoys. It was difficult for a while after she graduated, but the degree you get is not the sole determinant of the success or otherwise of your life.
Incidentally, I don’t make a habit of advising people not to apply to Oxbridge. I strongly believe that if you want to apply, you should. Indeed, I supported a student early in my career who wanted to apply, even though all his teachers were opposed to it. He didn’t have the grades and was a very weak candidate, but he wanted to give it a shot and I wasn’t going to take that away from him. He didn’t get in, but at least he could say that he tried. He now lives in Thailand, with his wife and children. He’s happy and doing well. There’s more to life than Oxbridge.
So . . . should you apply? Yes, if you want to. If you don’t have pretty much all A and A* grades at GCSE, with the majority at A*, then you’re very unlikely to get an offer. If you’ve done your AS exams and you have any module scores below about 97%, then you should prepare for disappointment. (One of the most impressive students I’ve ever taught was rejected for this reason. He applied for Economics at Jesus College, Cambridge, and they explicitly said this was why he wasn’t offered a place. He ended up with A*A*A* in his A2 exams, with an A in Further Maths AS. He’s just graduated from Durham, having got a first in all three years of his degree, and he’s already racking up impressive internships. He’s going to be hugely successful, despite not getting into Cambridge.)
Given that you are going to apply, the next decision is: Oxford or Cambridge?