As a student at the University of Birmingham, I had a pretty clear idea about what I thought it would be like to study at Oxbridge from the outside. I imagined grand dining rooms full of students in sweeping black gowns and tables topped with port decanters, exclusive social events with famous academics and exciting, intimate classes where you debate with like-minded students about Aristotle and Plato.
Indeed, having a strong preconception about Oxbridge, even before you arrive to study there, is very typical. If there’s a university institution in the UK that people have strong ideas about, without ever having attended it themselves, it is this typically amalgamated institution: ‘Oxbridge.’
After attending Cambridge for my Masters degree, I can now give an insight into what it’s actually like to study there and dispel the three major myths about studying at these world-famous institutions. If you take anything away from this article, it should be that, despite what you might think, there is no typical Oxbridge student: you do not need to be from a particular background to study there, or to have attended a certain school, and yes, you can study there and have a social life too.
Oxbridge Myth 1: ‘There is no point applying to Oxbridge unless you’re from a private school.’
Although, it has to be said, the number of private school students studying at Oxbridge has historically been out-of-proportion with the number of students actually attending these schools in the UK, only 6.5% of students are educated at private school – and state school students have taken up fewer places than they should – this is now changing.
As reported by the BBC, Oxford offered 59.2% of places to pupils from state schools in 2016, up from 55.6% of places taken in 2015. Top universities have faced calls to be open to students from all backgrounds and to support social mobility, and this is making a huge difference to the way Oxbridge is being perceived by students from state-school backgrounds.
When you compare this to only 32% of Oxford entrants coming from state schools in 1961, you can see that the pattern is definitely improving. With more and more state school students applying to Oxbridge in recent years, schools need to push the message that it is worth pupils’ time sending in their applications, even if they don’t think they match the profile of a ‘typical student.’ Once they arrive, they’ll soon find out that there is no such thing.
In addition, with the increase in social outreach schemes from Oxbridge which aim to help the students overcome the financial pressures of attending Oxbridge – both Oxford and Cambridge are both fairly expensive cities in which to live – it is definitely not worth putting yourself off from applying based on financial reasons. Oxbridge is not for rich kids, it’s for those who love their subjects and who suit the particular teaching style of these institutions.
Oxbridge Myth 2: ‘Everyone there will be cleverer than me, so there’s no point in applying. You have to be fluent in Latin and Ancient Greek to get in, and they’ll find out that I’m an imposter!’
Now, there are some brainy people at Oxbridge of course, but you are smart too. Oxbridge is not looking for people who know it all, but for people with a genuine passion for their subject and the drive to find out more.
Like many students , you will probably make most of your friends at college-level, and this means making friends from across lots of different subjects, meaning you won’t be surrounded by people in ‘competition’ over who knows the most (as you can’t really compare medicine and English!).
Some people do feel like they’re not ‘smart’ enough for Oxbridge, even after they get an offer and start studying there, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. ‘Imposter’ syndrome is very common among students, but just keep your confidence up and remember that you deserve to be there. There are so many different ways of excelling in your chosen subject within Oxbridge, so why not apply anyway, and see what happens next?
Oxbridge Myth 3: It is all work and no play!
Yes, it has to be said, Oxbridge degrees are challenging. You knew that already, and it’s one of the things that makes having an Oxbridge degree valuable: employers know that you worked hard, and they respect you for it.
With their eight week structure and small class sizes – called tutorials at Oxford and supervisions at Cambridge – Oxbridge terms are intense, and they pack a lot of learning in. However, as long as you take care to allow yourself time to rest and recuperate, you can also fit in all your extracurricular activities, if you’re a bit organised about your time (a good talking point too when you are applying for jobs and they ask you about time management skills!) You certainly are not expected to work 24/7, and it’s important to find your own studying pattern which works for you, and not to worry about other people.
What I didn’t consider before arriving is that, outside of work you can really make of Oxbridge what you want. If you want to soak up culture, both Oxford and Cambridge have more museums, exhibitions, free concerts and libraries than you could ever use. On the other side, Oxford has a decent nightlife available for students, and even Cambridge has music venues like the Junction where you can experience a completely different side of Oxbridge, away from all of the gowns and port.
So, if you want to have a classic university experience like your friends at Manchester or Leeds with clubbing and cheesy chips at 3am, this is pretty normal in Oxbridge: you’ll just have to be prepared for the gruelling supervision the next morning!
Don’t listen to the myths – See it for yourself
And finally, how right was I in my original impression of Oxbridge? Well, there are a lot of gowns, and some people like drinking port and sherry (especially when it’s free before and after formal hall), and yes, there are small class sizes as well. However, the academic opportunities at Oxbridge far surpassed my expectations: you can meet some of the world’s most influential thinkers at Oxbridge – Stephen Hawking, Mary Beard, you know the types! – and that it not an opportunity to be viewed lightly.
In my view, the best way to get a true insight into Oxbridge is to talk to current students doing your course about what they have experienced, or to attend one of the subject and college open days. Don’t just listen to the myths : come and see it for yourself, you might just fall in love!
Take the next step
We hope we’ve been able to dispel the myths and rumours related to Oxbridge. If you’re a motivated high school student interested in Computer Science, economics, engineering, or another subject, why not sign up for one of Summer School Programmes where you get taught by expert tutors from world-leading universities?