Demystifying Oxbridge education

May 11, 2022 09:47
University of Cambridge  (Photo: Reuters)

I get a lot of enquiries these days about studying at Oxbridge. As someone who has spent 7 years at Oxford, starting as a wee undergrad and climbing (I suppose) my way through to the postgraduate stages of education (now reading my DPhil and doing some teaching on side), I’m of the view that there exists a perilous volume of misconceptions and incorrect mystifying concerning education at Oxbridge. Much of this is not helped, either, by the industry-scale engendering and propagation of a ‘cult of Oxbridge’ by popular media and journalistic outlets – the weight that Oxford carries in Hong Kong has been seemingly converted into personalised clout, to be appropriated and wielded like a stiff battering ram, shoved down the throats of any and all who would listen.

I find that… bizarre. It’s high time we dispelled (not “dispel with”, to a certain ex-Presidential nominee who short-circuited and repeated the latter thrice in a debate) the myth that Oxbridge are inherently impossible to get into unless one is a three-time Olympic fencing champion, straight-A student, and/or the founder of multiple global NGOs. That’s a lie, and it’s a sweet and shameless lie oft-propagated to render those who make their ways into the institutions seem more prestigious and qualified than they are. Don’t get me wrong, it ain’t easy getting into Oxbridge, but it sure ain’t Herculean, either.

So over the next few articles, I’ll be seeking to demystify Oxbridge education – chiefly, with the aim of tackling some of the most egregious lies I’ve had the fortune of witnessing over the past few years.

The first myth I’d like to bust, is this: one can only be accepted into Oxbridge if one has an absolutely perfect GPA at high school. Nonsense. Obviously, grades matter. Obviously, examination results matter. Yet I’d posit that the extent to which ‘it’ matters is of a thresholdist nature – e.g. beyond a certain, comfortable margin, it truly doesn’t matter how many A*s one has in GCSEs, or how many A*s one is predicted to score at A-levels. It is fair to say that there are grade combinations that would likely disqualify one – yet the bar for such disqualification is far higher (or lower, in terms of net-aggregate results) than what popular narratives seem to allude to. Academic excellence is a necessary but insufficient condition for admission into Oxbridge. Yet superb examination grades are neither necessary nor sufficient – as indicator, as proxy, or as prerequisite, for academic excellence. To parents and students who think, “Oxbridge is not for me/[insert name of one’s child], they don’t have 15 A*s or perfect SAT scores.”, think again. If you’re intellectually open-minded, adamant, and resilient in your ability to apply yourself to new and unfamiliar academic territory, well – sounds like you’re the right match for Oxbridge!

The second myth is as follows: Oxbridge only accepts students from ‘elite schools’ – e.g. posh, expensive schools costing upwards of HK$200,000 for annual school fees. Whilst this might have been the case… 20 to 30 years ago, both Oxford and Cambridge alike have undertaken active and sizeable steps to dismantle the bastions of privilege and systemic barriers that have rendered them previously exclusionary and plausibly unjudiciously biased (though this is a strong judgment, for which I shall reserve a reasonable level of reservations) towards those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Things are changing for the better – even if at times slowly, even if plausibly to the chagrin of those who prefer “the way things were”. As we may have noticed rather recently, all old things must perish – and in comes the new. The new may not always supersede the old, but we must learn to live with the times. In the case of Oxbridge, at the very least, however, I am of the view that these nascent changes are encouraging, and should be deemed as encouraging invitation for those who had previously ruled themselves out to contemplate making a bid. If one never tries, one can never succeed. If one tries, at least one would be a few steps closer.

The third, and arguably most frustratingly incorrect myth, is this: one can only be admitted into Oxbridge if one has exceptional extracurriculars, is an all-rounded individual, and captains one half (or more) of the school teams at one’s secondary institution. This is complete bollocks. Here at Oxbridge, tutors aren’t looking for folks who would excel at each and every one of these ‘extracurricular’ fields – indeed, wholesome, holistic development is to be welcome, but by no means the most important metric in admissions. Oxbridge is attracted to, and attracts folks who care deeply and meaningfully about their planned areas of specialization. English students are admitted and given an offer not on the basis of whether they can speak Spanish or French, or ace Mathematical Olympiads (don’t get me wrong, these virtues are important, they certainly matter to US admissions, but they aren’t likely to bear direct impact on how admissions work over here). Instead, the offer is made on whether the student possess curiosity, inquisitiveness, willingness to respond to and address prompts, and a genuine acumen and exuberance for literature across all periods.

Thus concludes part 1 of the myth-busting series. More to come – stay tuned!

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Assistant Professor, HKU