How to get into Oxbridge 101

Oxbridge summer camps claiming to know the secret to admissions benefit nobody but the companies themselves

The Queen's College, Oxford. Source: Wikimedia Commons

As students are forced out of their colleges as soon as exams finish in week nine of Trinity term, college accommodation is desperately sought by all sorts of enterprises and institutions. Among them are several private companies which organise residential summer camps in Oxford and Cambridge, giving well-off prospective applicants the chance to experience the life of an Oxbridge student for a fortnight.

With costs easily reaching over £2000 per week, expectations for such summer camps are inevitably very high. Parents around the world willingly disregard the words of warning hastily crammed at the bottom of the company’s webpage in barely visible italic characters: “We are in no way affiliated with the University of Oxford or its constituent colleges”.

Students and parents alike believe that these camps can give them what they truly seek: the secret behind an infallible application. Whether it be wise words to improve a wonderfully spontaneous “personal” statement, mock interviews or simply the fact of physically being in Oxford, the success of these camps relies on convincing families around the world that participants will have a much higher chance of getting into Oxbridge than would otherwise be the case.

Countless internationals like myself will have at least been tempted by such summer camps, particularly when their Facebook news feeds are filled with aggressive targeted advertising for such experiences. Undoubtedly, the daunting price tag must have sparked up discussions at dinner tables all around the world. During these conversations, the sneaking thought may have arisen: “What if my child is given a magic formula which will pave their way straight into Oxford? Surely, then, this investment would be worth it…”

And so it is the case that bus-loads of 17 year olds from across the globe wind up together for two weeks admiring the spires, punting and dreaming of what being a student in such a place must be like. To their dismay, no special secret of success is handed out to them because, as we know, there simply isn’t one. Two weeks and a few grand later, they head home realising that the only secret behind getting in is hard work, dedication and, perhaps, a considerable amount of good luck.

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I will not deny that a similar (but thankfully cheaper) experience made me feel rather misled. I spent two weeks at an academic summer camp at a high-performing UK school, and whilst I had a fantastic time, it did not alter my application prospects at all. The truth is that these camps exist because they are incredibly profitable for both the organisers and for the colleges, not because they benefit participants’ application chances.

Is this really the best that colleges can do with their free rooms over the summer? By letting these private summer camp companies rent college rooms, colleges themselves are complicit in duping prospective applicants into departing with large sums of money for no benefit. And if these camps do somehow advantage participants in the Oxbridge application process, would it not be fairer for colleges to focus on giving students from less privileged backgrounds similar experiences? For instance, colleges could rent rooms to these summer camps on the condition that they give free or discounted places to students from low income households. Regardless, Oxbridge summer camps provide little benefit to students and solely serve the interests of the firms themselves.


  1. Purely to anyone that reads this thinking of applying to Oxford based off of the headline (or the parent of someone thinking of applying), some informal and unofficial comments from an admissions tutor:

    1) Don’t believe the headlines about Oxbridge as only for white hetrosexual men that went to Eton, it’s not even remotely true. We strongly encourage applications from all regardless of background, and as an admissions tutor, we care much more about your passion for the subject you apply for and your academic abilities; indeed the current SU president has said “I never thought I could succeed here, let alone end up leading the student union.”. What we assess in admissisons and care about can be found here:

    Additionally, it needs to be said that there is a stereotype of Oxford as conservative, stuffy and repressed. This quite honestly is a pervasive myth. Oxford is very diverse and ironically very socially liberal. While it is keen on it’s traditions, nobody expects you to know Latin or anything like that (expect of course for those doing classics or perhaps history or theology); indeed I still don’t despite having been here for four years. The traditions are just a bit of good natured fun that isn’t expeccted to be taken seriously, and the smart clothes worn to exams are a) often as cheap as possible, b) only compulsory at exams/graduations/matriculations, c) viewed as a way to equalise things for students d) no different to school uniform. You don’t even need to wear them to interviews!

    2) We know full well that interviews can be incredibly stressful for you, and we don’t mind at all if you suffer from a bad case of nerves in the interview. If it helps and doesn’t sound too bizzare, view the interview as a friendly conversation about your subject, if one with people far more knowledgable than you. Aim to enjoy the whole of the interview process and experience of Oxford if you are called, and not just the interviews.

    3) If, or rather when you are unsure how to answer an interview question, please don’t go silent. One of the things that we try to assess (generally speaking) is how you respond to unfamiliar concepts, and reasoning out loud is a good way for us to assess this. Also, it’s very likely that we will ask you something you don’t know the answer to test you; interviews are meant to be similar to the tutorial system here to see how you would respond to it. I say this not to cause anybody to freak out, but so that you have some insight into the thinking of an interviewer. And do note that it is not only acceptable, but encouraged for you to correct your answers in the interview if you think you made a mistake. It’s not like we wouldn’t realise anyway!

    4) I don’t think I can condone any sort of interview preparation strategies that would give an unfair advantage, but note that we can usually tell very quickly if you have been coached with answers to standard interview questions. This in my view is something I would arguably view negatively if I struggle to tell whether answers about enjoying the subject are authentic. I am aware of one school that from what our college can tell gets the candidates to say what questions we asked upon returning and passes the information along to future years, but suffice it to say that such a practice in addition to being unethical is not going to be of much use anyway; we change the questions each year to prevent anyone having an unfair advantage via cheating.

    5) You may find books of Oxford interview questions or about the admission process more generally for sale, but I don’t recommend attaching undue weight to them (not least as no interviewer is going to reuse problems where the answer is widely known). Some of the better books may provide useful insight on what would constitute good answers, but you should still treat them with a healthy degree of skepticism. I recommend the official advice here: instead.

    6) This one may not be relevant to all by any means, but please don’t try to contact us after the interview until such time as final admissions decisions have been made. This may seem unintuitive to some readers depending on cultural background, and I at least understand that those thanking us for the interview are purely being polite, but trying after the interview is over to appeal to us by mentioning things such as our research will not come across particularly well; so please don’t do it.

    7) Have a firm grasp of the deadlines and requirements for applying, and don’t leave this purely up to the school to manage (where applicable); parents please note that I cannot stress enough the need to make sure you have a very good grasp of this and don’t leave everything up to the school. You can find a timetable here; note in particular the UCAS deadline of October 15th. You also need to have organised tests by this point as well for applicable subjects, so get organising.

    8) The official prospectus is here: You may also like the student Union’s alternative prospectus

    9) I imagine that my comments would also by and large apply to Cambridge, and far less so outside of Oxbridge. But please apply here instead of Cambridge. 🙂