I recently took a group of students (mostly from my Form) to Regent’s Park College, University of Oxford so they could learn more about the application process and speak to current staff and students. It was a fantastic day and I have to thank Victoria Condie and current undergrads Alex and Holly for their warm welcome. The students really enjoyed the day and as we made our way back to Hertford, I began to think about an Oxbridge programme that was effective, did not take up too much staff time and enabled the students to be prepared.
Part of the proposed programme below is based on my experience of working in the independent sector and the work that is done to support students in their application. It also draws on the work done by Lucy Helmsley and her research on Oxbridge preparation classes for history students (I highly recommend you read her research on the Oxford University Research Archive).
It is true that fewer students from non-selective state schools study at Oxbridge than independent/selective state school peers. The suggested programme is designed specifically to support students from non-selective state schools. It is also true that A-Level courses by themselves do not provide adequate preparation for Oxbridge applications; imagination, flexibility and independent thought are not necessarily rewarded. The programme tries to build this in and and also support for students and parents. This is one feature that is normally undervalued when it should be of equal importance. As a parent, my child is the most precious thing to me in the world. A school that understands this and provides support to me and my child is invaluable. After all, it takes a village to raise a child and prepare them for the challenges they face.
Ideally, there should be two societies for prospective Oxbridge candidates in Year 12. One should be a departmental society and the other a school-wide academic society. Both societies should be coordinated by staff (session titles, timings) but actually led by the students who every week or every two weeks, give presentations on topics and invite comments/challenge from their peers. If students have no experience of giving presentations, taking them to events such as the Battle of Ideas, debating competitions and even watching TED talks will provide pointers on preparation. The student presentations should be on issues that they are passionate about in their subject or wider studies.
Running the programme after Christmas in Year 12 gives students time to settle in and allows staff to help Year 13 students prepare for the interview process and the entrance tests.
Alongside the societies, in the Summer term of Year 12 and the start of Autumn term in Year 13, HoDs or nominated teachers should plan a series of seminars that cover the ‘big’ ideas in the subject and that are not necessarily covered in the syllabus at A-Level/IB/Pre-U. These sessions are not lessons but tutorials where students are asked engage with set material through discussion. This will help them understand that a different type of learning and teaching is expected and that it is intellectual in character with no set answers/grades. Additional reading/viewing material should be provided and ideally link to the following sessions. Lucy Helmsley’s research above provides an outline for a historical based seminar series but it could be adopted for any other subject.
Working with Parents and students in Year 12.
As mentioned above, this is important. Students and parents should be made aware of the programme, the commitment required from the students, what can be expected from the School and managing expectations from the outset regarding possible disappointment. Ideally, parents and interested students should be invited to a meeting in January of Year 12 where the above is explained. There are two reasons for doing this as early as possible. The first is that it outlines to everyone the communal work and support needed to provide a competitive application. The second reason is that breaks down the challenge into manageable pieces for all involved and that review points/discussions can be agreed over the course over the coming months. During the meeting parents/students are encouraged to visit the colleges and details of an admissions visit organised by the School should be shared (should be rotated between Oxford and Cambridge).
The other suggestion I would make for the end of Year 12 is that personal statements should be in before the end of term. Doing so allows the teachers and students to make tweaks over the school holidays and at the beginning of Year 13. The October deadline for submission should not be taken as a brief to work on the statement until then. Teacher references and checks have to be completed well in advance. In schools where students have left their personal statements until the last minute, the process becomes fraught and the possibility of everyone doing their best work is diminished.
Before students leave in July, they should also be given a number of past papers for the entrance tests to work through. I strongly believe that the break should be used for recharging the batteries. It should also be used for steady preparation too. Leaving it all until September causes unnecessary pressure for students and can harm their prep for the interview.
Once the application is submitted, preparation should focus on the completion of the seminar programme and working through as many test papers as possible (which may form part of the seminar programme). It should be used to discuss with a teacher the type of written work that should be submitted (if required). Discussion about the piece means that the demands are clearly understood (alternatively, a piece of work from an EPQ or Extended Project can be submitted). Finally, time should be spent on preparing for interview. I would suggest an internal interview for candidates to be organised in late September/early October to give them a sense of the task. Once students have been shortlisted by the colleges, I suggest arranging an interview exchange with another school (set up in the academic year when the students are in Year 12) with experience of the Oxbridge process. This is incredibly useful as the students are placed in an unfamiliar context and asked questions by someone they do not know. Feedback should be provided and any areas for development should be tested again just before students attend the final interview. This may appear to be too much but in my experience interview rehearsal, feedback and additional performances allow students to feel relaxed and ready for the real thing. It also mirrors what happens in the independent sector and the figures of independent school acceptance to Oxbridge should provide enough justification. One non-selective state school that I worked in only gave students an interview the week before the actual interview which made them feel slightly nervous and unprepared as they did not have the chance to correct any errors. The purpose of the interview preparation is not to hot-house students by giving them the ‘right’ answer (this will fail because the admissions tutors will see through this if stock answers are used). Rather, it is suggested as the best way to provide the opportunity for students to show what they can do in a setting they feel comfortable in
Once students return from interview, ask them to note down the interview questions they have been asked and anything else they experienced. All of this should be noted and fed into the process for the following year/build up institutional knowledge. It is important to reiterate to them that regardless of the outcome, they have demonstrated the commitment and dedication to do well wherever they end up.
When applicants are informed in January, I would recommend that schools ask for feedback on the unsuccessful applications. This information will help to refine the support for the students in Y12 and provide any further support to unsuccessful students and their parents.
If you feel that anything is missing, please let me know. Feedback is very welcome!