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Ask the experts: Applying to Oxbridge next year? Is there anything you can do in advance to improve your chances of getting in?

The Ucas application deadline for 2016 entry to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge passed in October, but for those of you who are thinking of applying for 2017 entry, the earlier you start to think about your application the better.

Not only do Oxbridge applicants have an earlier deadline (October 15) but there are often more steps to the process, for example, aptitude tests.

Last week: Will private or state better cater to our son’s disability?

To avoid a last minute rush to cram as many books as possible before your interview – should you get one – start your preparations now.

This week, one sixth form student asks our panel if there is anything they can be doing to help improve their chances of getting into these notoriously competitive institutions

Here the experts offer their views.

Get in touch with your own education question and see it featured on Telegraph Education (details below).

Question: How do I improve my chances of getting to Oxford to study history?

I am going to apply to Oxford next year to study history, what can I do now to improve my chances of getting in? Should I sign up to one of those summer schools to help with interviews, and should I try and get work experience?

Dr Sarah Mortimer: Broaden your horizons with history books and popular history magazines

Oxford tutors are looking for students who are really passionate about history, and who can demonstrate their engagement with the subject above and beyond whatever they have studied at school or college.

The best way to prepare for a history degree is to read the history books which interest you, and be prepared to discuss your views of those books and their arguments. You can follow up on references made in your text books, or ask your history teacher to recommend further reading.

Another good way to broaden your historical horizons is to read one of the popular history magazines: History Today or BBC History, which has weekly podcasts.

You may like to look at books which are being reviewed in the quality press, for example at You may also like to explore the websites of public institutions which have excellent links to historical materials, such as the British Museum or BBC Radio 4 archives.

“Another good way to broaden your historical horizons is to read one of the popular history magazines: History Today or BBC History.” Sarah Mortimer

Work experience would only be useful if it helps you to develop your ideas and understanding of history, or helps you to meet the selection criteria in other ways. You could also delve into historical sources independently by exploring literature, art, music or even films produced by different societies, and consider what these can tell us about the people of that time.

As for summer schools, there are lots of organisations who claim to offer advice on the application process but please be warned that these businesses are not affiliated with the University of Oxford and they may charge for their services. We encourage you to take advantage of the many free opportunities the university is offering to find out more.

For example, our UNIQ summer schools are an excellent way to experience life as an Oxford student (

There is also plenty of free advice and guidance about our interview process, including sample questions, at

Dr Sarah Mortimer, associate professor of early modern history, University of Oxford

Shaun Fenton: Don’t see Oxbridge as the only goal

Please do not to see Oxbridge as the only goal. There are many top universities in the UK, on the continent (where courses are taught and examined in English) and in America, and new universities such as NYU Abu Dhabi.

Even for top students, Oxbridge is a lottery as there are more A-grade candidates than places. To change the odds in your favour you need the help of your school, so ask – ask early and ask for a lot. They will have an Oxbridge co-ordinator who will be able to give you specific advice.

  • The EPQ (extended project qualification) helps with the interview and application form. It is an excellent way to structure wider reading and thinking beyond any A-level course. Wider reading is the most important thing you can do.
  • Your preparation for the History Aptitude Test (HAT) is vital, and once AS examinations are over you should be practising and reacting to formative feedback from your school.
  • Work on your personal statement early; give your first draft in before the summer so you can follow up on any feedback.

“To change the odds in your favour you need the help of your school, so ask – ask early and ask for a lot.” Shaun Fenton

  • Take advantage of your school’s history society (if they have one) or other academic discussion groups as it helps develop knowledge, understanding, mental agility and reflection.
  • Work experience is vital for some subjects but not necessarily history, although a real live archaeological dig might be impressive. Oxbridge colleges decide on academic matters, and no amount of work experience or violin exams will make a difference.
  • If you are doing AS exams this summer, be aware that they will be taken very seriously, more so by Cambridge; only top UMS scores are likely to be considered.
  • Interviews matter. Practice them at school and research examples on YouTube. Be prepared to answer questions you haven’t ever considered yet.

The value of summer schools depends on the quality of provision, so do your research. Some students thrive in a summer school structure, whereas others benefit from more flexibility. On balance, time focused on reading history and thinking about history is a good thing.

Many students are called to Oxbridge for interview, but few are chosen: Oxbridge degrees do still open doors of opportunity but there is much more to a great education than those perceived ivory towers. Do you need a bit of luck to get in? Of course you do, but the harder you work the luckier you’ll be.

Shaun Fenton, headmaster of Reigate Grammar School

Vivienne Durham: The EPQ is one way of deepening your subject knowledge

Admissions Tutors at most Oxford colleges will emphasise to potential applicants the importance of intellectual curiosity and enthusiasm for your chosen subject, rooted in reading and subject knowledge.

As I am sure you know, applicants for history at any Oxford college have to sit the two-hour History Aptitude Test (HAT), in addition to having excellent GCSE grades and A-level (or IB) predicted grades. Advice about preparing for the HAT, and a sample paper, can be found on the Oxford University History Faculty website:

Anything that enables you to deepen your subject knowledge and analytical thinking skills, in addition to normal A-level work, is useful preparation in applying for Oxford. Work experience is unlikely to make you a better history candidate, although it will give you valuable life-skills. Admissions tutors are unlikely to recommend summer schools.

“Anything that enables you to deepen your subject knowledge and analytical thinking skills, in addition to normal A-level work, is useful preparation in applying for Oxford.” Vivienne Durham

Does your school offer the EPQ (Extended Project Qualification) in addition to A-levels? The EPQ is an opportunity for independent research, beyond the A-level syllabus. The EPQ also counts as half an A-level – 70 points – in the Ucas tariff. The EPQ is one way of deepening your subject knowledge.

It is important to attend an Oxford open day, if you have not already done so. Dates are published on the websites of all the Oxford colleges and on the Oxford history faculty website.

You should take the opportunity to pose questions to the admissions tutor(s) whom you meet and also talk to the undergraduates who will be available to answer queries and tell you more about the realities of student life, such as the tutorial system. Good luck!

Vivienne Durham, schools advisory director at Enjoy Education and former head at Francis Holland School, Regent’s Park

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