The application process for Oxford and Cambridge is similar to most universities in general: you apply via UCAS and must write a 4000-character personal statement. Oxford and Cambridge have two additional components that sets them apart as two of the toughest application processes in the world. For most courses you must sit an additional admissions test after applying and give interviews. It is these two components that admissions tutors use to differentiate between good candidates and the very top.
Most applicants to Oxbridge have strong references, personal statements and top predicted grades. The admissions test is used as a way to discriminate between these strong candidates and decide which students will be shortlisted for interview.
Each subject has their own individual test, all following the same concept – the tests evaluate a candidate’s natural aptitude irrespective of their background knowledge or the quality of their education. Although this may imply an inability to prepare for the test, preparation is crucial to maximise your score.
Each test has its own individual structure and thus preparation is different for each test. Many of the tests, however, have overlapping sections with similar questions e.g. Section 1 of BMAT and Section 1 of TSA. Within these sections, the questions may be unfamiliar to you and require a certain technique to answer them. Thus, preparation can occur in two parts: i) familiarising yourself with the exam and ii) completing high volumes of questions. There are a number of styles of question that the exams use each year and mastering the identification of the style alongside the application of the correct techniques quickly can enable your success. In the latter stage of your preparation, past papers are the most effective way to practice for the admissions tests. By exposing yourself to a high volume of questions you become more familiar with the style of questions being asked and can identify what techniques are best to use to tackle each question. When doing past papers, beware when marking and giving yourself that year’s score. Each cohort is different, and most candidates fluctuate in their pre-test scores and it is not a good barometer of your success on the day itself.
When Should I Begin Preparation?
A common question student ask is, “when should I begin preparation for the test?”. Although it is tempting to start early this may not be the best option. Studies have shown that the law of diminishing returns applies in the preparation for an exam of this kind. For a month of intense preparation, your ability will improve steadily and consistently, however after a month preparation starts to have no effect on your ability. Your improvement plateaus and may even decline over time regardless of the preparation put in. Ideally, you want to aim to peak in performance around the test date and whilst this may differ between individuals a month’s preparation should allow this. Furthermore, this test is not one where studying more means better results as there is no knowledge element to it. There is also a limited number of past paper questions and exam-style question banks which you do not want to deplete too far in advance of the exam. You can reuse past papers you have already completed but they will not provide the same preparation as fresh, unseen questions.
The most difficult part of most tests is the time pressure. Each test is highly time pressured because it seeks to test one’s innate thinking skills. Not only is doing a high volume of questions important but also answering under timed conditions is crucial. It is difficult, almost impossible, to recreate the actual pressure of sitting the exam but try to emulate the exam environment as much as possible to test your ability under stress. As part of your strategy try and limit the time you spend on each question. This way you can aim to at least attempt every question on the paper. Unlike other exams, it may be useful to skip difficult and time-consuming questions, in order to focus on potentially easier questions later on. The difficulty of the test remains the same throughout the test and so it is important not to miss out on marks later on due to an ambiguous or long question early on. Part of your preparation should be identifying when you are struggling on a question and feeling comfortable in moving on and coming back to it later.
Read The Question
Critical thinking and problem-solving questions are difficult and require a good technique for answering. These questions may involve abstract or quantitative reasoning or may be based on a passage. It is important to read the question carefully to understand exactly what they are – some questions are designed to trip you up, and so often the obvious answer may not be correct. Highlighting words in the question can be useful, however, this can take up time. The aim of preparation is to train your ability to understand the question accurately and quickly. Your preparation should also look to train your eye to analyse passages efficiently and to pick up on trigger words that may be relevant to the question or signpost the answer.
On The Day
On the day it is important to stay as relaxed as possible. Cramming is not necessary for most tests so try to get a good night’s sleep the night before and going about your normal routine on the morning of the test. It may also be a good idea to get into a habit of waking up at the time you need to on the day of the test for the week prior, and then attempting a past paper at the exact time of the test for a week. This way come test day, your mind will be sharp and tuned at the correct time, ready to ace the test.
Remember to bring water in with you and go to the toilet in advance, you don’t have time to take a break during the exam. It is also advised that you take a stopwatch with you to prevent you having to look up at a clock and working out how long is left. Use your stopwatch to be strict on how long you spend on each question and allow yourself to move on without hesitation. Even if you are running out of time do not leave the multiple-choice sections blank. As there is no negative marking it’s best to at least guess the last few to try and hopefully pick up some extra marks, if you’re lucky.
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