When it comes to Oxford and Cambridge, there are still many perceived barriers that can deter students from applying – and may deter others from encouraging them to do so. For school and sixth-form staff involved in supporting students with university applications, Oxford’s Dr Matthew Williams is keen to break down some of the myths…
My name’s Matt Williams, and I’m Access Fellow at Jesus College, Oxford University. “Access Fellow” means I’m an academic, and I’m also responsible for helping to open up the university to more aspiring applicants. This listicle picks apart some of the myths I hear in schools when I’m out trying to encourage young people of all backgrounds to apply.

1. “Oxford is socially exclusive.”

There’s a common perception that Oxford is socially exclusive and unwelcoming. It’s not true.
Let’s break down the myth. In 2016 59% of offers went to students from state schools. So a comfortable majority of offer-holders, and Oxford entrants, were educated by the state, and not in private schools.
The university and its colleges offer generous financial support to those who need it. For instance, in 2018, up to 175 incoming students will be offered a Moritz-Heyman Scholarship to provide them with bursaries for living costs, and money off their tuition fees.
Oxford’s intake is more diverse than is commonly portrayed. Of those who declared their ethnicity from 2014-2016, 18% of offer-holders were from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. In 2017 the university made more offers to young women than men.
We only make admissions decisions on the bases of academic ability and academic potential. We’re not judging candidates on where they went to school or what they look like. All are made very welcome in Oxford.

2. “Oxford is expensive.”

Tuition fees at Oxford are the same as other universities in the Russell Group –  that is £9,250 per year. And those fees can be reduced for students in need of help. The university and its colleges have squirrelled away money over hundreds of years, precisely so it can be invested in bright young people who could most benefit from it.
Plus, you get a lot of bang for your buck at Oxford. We not only have exceptional facilities –  including over 100 libraries – we also use the highly effective tutorial system. Students are taught in tiny groups of about two or three, usually twice a week, for their whole degree. This level of personalised attention from academic experts just isn’t possible at most other universities. Even medical students enjoy tutorials, alongside the more normal lectures, seminars and lab sessions you’d find at other universities.
Only Cambridge also operates tutorials (called supervisions there) as comprehensively as Oxford. Even the best US universities cannot usually match the tiny class sizes at Oxford.

3. “It’s impossible to get in.”

No. Roughly one offer is made for every five applications we receive. Some subjects – including medicine, law, economics and management, and engineering – are more competitive than one in five, and the applicants we receive are highly accomplished. But the point is that we do make a lot of offers – around 3,200 to undergraduates. And most students I speak to in schools woefully underestimate their own academic abilities.

4. “You have to be a genius at Oxford.”

I’m not sure what genius is, but let’s unpack this myth. You don’t need to have perfect school grades, nor an IQ of over 150 to be considered. Our offer holders do, it’s true, usually have very good grades from school. But we’re not looking for a flawless academic record. Most of our degrees require AAA at A-level (38 IB), not A*A*A*A*. Some of our degrees, such as chemistry, call for A*A*A, but for none of our degrees are students required to have straight A*s at either GCSE or A-level.
And a very high IQ is also not required. Many of our degrees use admissions tests to assess problem-solving and critical thinking skills. But we also interview about three candidates for every place, so that we can also assess motivation, passion and intellectual bravery. By bravery, I mean a willingness to think independently, and not just follow the herd. Those with perfect school grades and high IQs sometimes lack passion and independent-mindedness, and that can weaken their applications.

5. “The application process is scary.”

Our application process is longer than for most other universities. We ask applicants to submit their UCAS forms by 15 October, then there are admissions tests for most of our degree courses, then we conduct interviews in early December, and our decisions are sent out in early January.
It’s the tests and interviews that really seem to give potential applicants cold feet. But it’s not our aim (nor in our interest) to scare off applicants. The aim of our admissions process is to make best possible decisions. We collect a lot of information on each of our applicants so we can choose the very best from an excellent pool. As I wrote above, we don’t just look for perfect grades, we also want to consider the context in which applicants secured their school grades, and we want to gauge their potential to stretch themselves beyond the school curriculum. This all takes time and effort.
We want our applicants to be themselves, and at ease. Yes, taking admissions tests and attending interviews can be intellectually demanding, but it’s also very good practice for job seeking, and it’s character building!
Put it this way: deciding not to apply because the application process is a little more demanding is not a good reason. Far better reasons for not applying would be that the courses don’t suit, or the applicant would rather live and study somewhere else.

6. “It’s boring, no fun, and full of geeks!”

There are literally hundreds of clubs and societies at Oxford. Both the university and the colleges have societies for music, drama, sport, and much else besides. Each college has a packed diary of social events that will suit pretty much every different taste.
On average students will spend around 40 hours a week studying, which still leaves lots of time for fun, friends and extracurricular activities.

7. “Cambridge is for sciences, Oxford is for humanities.”

This is a myth several centuries in the making. Cambridge has had several luminary scientists such as Sir Isaac Newton, Crick and Watson, and Stephen Hawking amongst its members.
But Oxford is no scientific slouch. Stephen Hawking took his undergraduate degree with us, as did Nobel-laureate Dorothy Hodgkin. Further back, Oxford had Robert Hooke and Christopher Wren as students – both co-founders, in Oxford, of the Royal Society.
Oxford University has invested over £400 million over the past 10 years into its science facilities and infrastructure. One of our newest facilities is the Beecroft Building, a state-of-the-art laboratory and teaching facility for the Department of Physics, which will create a space for discussion, collaboration and cutting-edge science.
And, as for the present day, Oxford is very highly ranked amongst the world’s universities for its scientific teaching and research. Apart from anything else, in sciences and all else besides, there are plenty of fantastic universities in the UK, not just Oxford and Cambridge.

8. “Oxford is arrogant, and doesn’t care about its reputation.”

This is the worst myth of them all. Oxford’s strengths come from its students and staff. The pretty buildings, the money and the history are nothing without the people who daily make the university great.
So, we care deeply about opening the doors to the brightest and best, regardless of their background, personal wealth, skin colour, religion, sexual orientation and so forth. We therefore invest enormous amounts of time, money and effort to ensure that Oxford is open to everyone with academic ability and potential.
Some groups are still under-represented in our academic community and we want this to change. If you agree, then please encourage your students to apply and contribute to helping is make that change. Oxford can only be what its students make it.
Please feel free to contact me via @jesus_access or matthew.williams@jesus.ox.ac.uk
Dr Matt Williams is the Access Fellow of Jesus College, Oxford University. That means he is an academic, and works to open up the university to students from under-represented backgrounds. He came to Oxford in 2006 to take his Masters and Doctorate in political science. He has since held lectureships at seven Oxford colleges, and has written on uses of language in politics.

Coming up…

To find out more about the Oxford admissions process and how you can support more able learners with Oxford applications, join our free member meetup at Jesus College, Oxford, on 19 March 2019. Booking for all 2018-19 meetups and events will open soon, via our events listing.
Tuesday, June 5, 2018