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'A book which inches you through the admissions process, while also scrutinising how Oxbridge really works. It gives the kind of mentoring that many independent school pupils and a few lucky state school ones take for granted.'
Hilary Wilce, THE INDEPENDENT, 16 September 2004
'A thorough, well-researched guide to the two universities’
rather daunting entrance procedures.'
'A fascinating new study of the Oxbridge entrance
'Non-fiction read of the week. A guidebook that could make a
'Most of this
lively, fascinating book is spent teaching bright kids from ordinary
schools how to play the Oxbridge game... overall it is excellent. It
is bound to make for more clued-up teachers and
Please scroll down to read full review texts
TES - THE TIMES EDUCATIONAL SUPPLEMENT, 24/10/03
PLAY THE GAME, WIN A PLACE
By Hilary Wilce
OXBRIDGE ENTRANCE: THE REAL RULES. By Elfi Pallis. Tell Books £10.99.
Sixth-form teachers often tell their pupils Oxbridge entry is a lottery. They are wrong. It is a game, played to obscure and unwritten rules, osmotically understood by those with a lifetime's exposure to them, but baffling and intimidating to those who have never met them. That is why "access" schemes, as operated by the two universities, will never work. They just bring a few new horses to the water. They don't make these strange waters more palatable. Elfi Pallis is angry about this, and lists steps these ancient institutions must take if they seriously want to attract bright students from across the school system. But that is an afterthought. Most of this lively, fascinating book is spent teaching bright kids from ordinary schools how to play the Oxbridge entrance game.
Pallis, a sociologist and journalist whose daughter is at Oxford, has conducted extensive interviews with students, teachers and admissions tutors. She guides readers through the process, from deciding if Oxbridge is worth trying for, to what happens if a student does - or doesn't - get in. And she does it with wit, flair and the kind of down-and-dirty detail students, teachers and their families need. She looks at what applicants must have in their "kit bag" to show they are well-rounded people (arts, drama, music and volunteering are all good), and which A-levels are best for which subjects. Choosing a degree subject is dealt with in detail. Few people know, for example, that fewer than one in five applicants are accepted to do economics or law, while more than half get in to do chemistry or classics.
Picking the right college can also be crucial. It might be a good idea, says Pallis, to hunt down one that has not traditionally welcomed state school applicants, but is now being pressured to do so.
Then there is the interview. Oxbridge loves fast mental footwork, which is a disaster for anyone from a culture where it is seen as impolite to challenge elders, or who has spent the past seven years at school hiding their intellect for fear of ridicule. Pallis explains it all. What type of questions might be lobbed your way. How to treat the interview like a conversation, rather than a quiz. How to explain why you hold the views you do. How reading a single "key book" - she lists some that have worked for others - can tip things your way. She talks about dress, accent (don't change it) and even table manners, including instructions on how to deal with a whole Dover sole. "Oxbridge dons keener on wider participation," she observes tartly, "might also wish to learn something new. Fish is eaten by most of the population in the form of easily dissected, breadcrumb-covered fillets without bones. Perhaps the hall menu in interview week could take account of this fact." She moves on to look at medicine at Oxbridge, and to questions of race, class and gender. She also examines what unites "non-traditional" students who have navigated their way into Oxbridge. Interestingly, many have teachers for parents. From this Pallis extrapolates that parents who understand how schools work, and who can help their children get the most out of what's available, are the ones who lay the firmest foundations for confident, high-aspiring children. There are some slips - not all private schools are single-sex, for example, or even most of them - but overall it is excellent. It makes no false promises, and it makes available to everybody the kind of information private schools have had at their fingertips for generations. It is bound to make for more clued-up teachers and parents. And it strips bare the enduring snobberies and arrogance of Oxbridge, in a way Pallis clearly hopes will make many more "ordinary" students determined to step forward and take them on.
THE DAILY TELEGRAPH, 10th December 2003
John Clare: Any questions?
My granddaughter, who is in the lower sixth form at a comprehensive in Durham, is thinking of applying to Cambridge. She’s a bright girl but a bit shy and I’d like to encourage her. Could you recommend a book that would tell her how to apply, how to pick a college and what life at the university is like?
The answer is Oxbridge Entrance: The Real Rules; a thorough, well-researched guide to the two universities’ rather daunting entrance procedures. It is written by Elfi Pallis, who has run workshops for gifted children from state schools. In addition to three or, preferably, four A grades in academically demanding subjects, she emphasises the importance of a broad CV. “Dons privately admit that extra-curricular activities do matter,” she says, which means voluntary work, sport, music or drama, holding a position of responsibility and showing evidence of academic interest beyond the syllabus. “You need to come across as quite driven – full of genuine, bubbling, information-packed enthusiasm.” The interview, she says, is the most crucial part, a game of intellectual tennis heavily weighted in favour of middle-class applicants – a subject on which she tends to be mildly paranoid. She not only advises applicants how to eat a whole Dover sole but suggests that colleges that truly want to appear accessible should serve fish fingers. More convincingly, Ms Pallis argues that access schemes have merely broadened the field of applicants without increasing the proportions of entrants from state schools and working-class backgrounds – raising expectations only to dash them. She also claims to have evidence that state school pupils are much more likely to get in if one parent is a teacher.
YORKSHIRE POST, 23/9/04
APPLY YOURSELF... AND PASS THE OXBRIDGE TEST
"Once you have kids, even good news can be bad," my mother, one of life’s worriers, would murmur with a sigh. If you’re the parent of a teenager who achieved top exam results this summer and has visited Oxford or Cambridge through one of the new Access schemes aimed at Yorkshire pupils, you may well sympathise.
Being asked by your now officially super-smart offspring "Mum, do you think I should try for Oxbridge?" as she walks in from school can make you feel like a dimwit yourself. How on earth are you supposed to know? Most parents of our generation, after all, did not go into higher education and those who did rarely attended the only two British universities known as one.
So, when it comes to entrance advice, more than one mother I met while researching my family guide, Oxbridge Entrance: The Real Rules, confessed that she found herself almost wishing away this embarrassing option. Even fathers who had picked up bits of Oxbridge lore at work often doubted the wisdom of applying. Wasn’t their teen most unlikely to get into a place wanting only geniuses and/or super-posh kids?
Having interviewed dons involved in the admissions process and students who were admitted from all sorts of homes, I know that Oxbridge is more realistic than that. Geniuses, while extremely welcome, are somewhat rare in this world and, between them, the two universities each year have some 7,000 undergraduate places to fill. And while being posh does no harm, it is not a sufficient entry qualification. Oxbridge has unique, personalised two-to-one teaching system and none of today’s dons wants to spend her time slowly funnelling droplets of knowledge into the rich but dim.
Being able to offer students not just bedsits tucked under medieval ramparts but also individual coaching by top academics, though, Oxford and Cambridge also shop for a few extra qualities. At the top of their list is intellectual curiosity, meaning a wish to learn more about a familiar subject and to find new subjects to explore. The right candidate, dons say, is interested in problems, not just solutions. A highly motivated young person, she (or he) has a flexible, creative mind.
These are very impressive qualities indeed and if your teen does not have quite all of them, don’t despair. At the tender age of eighteen, almost nobody else’s kid does either. Like the girl who dreams of Leonardo di Caprio but ends up dating the gawky boy next door, Oxbridge has to make do with the talent available in the real world.
Getting the formalities right
There are also formal qualifications that count. To be accepted for an undergraduate course, candidates should, ideally, have A-level grade predictions of at least two As and a B, in addition to good GCSEs. Unlike many other universities, Oxbridge also cares greatly which A-levels students have picked. Dons shudder at the words media studies. What they like are A-grades in academically demanding, 'hard' subjects like English, maths, physics or history.
Even if your teen is an exam wizard, though, she (or he) needs to find more ways to shine in this competitive world. Oxbridge does not regard a university place as a reward for always having done your homework. Dons pick students who, in addition to this, manage to talk with informed, bubbling enthusiasm about their chosen course when they are interviewed. To do that, a student must have read at least one serious, grown-up book about some intriguing aspect of (say) physics or fine art. Parents should make it clear that reading only school hand-outs will not do.
You can become even smarter in your teen’s eyes by adding that Oxbridge also likes candidates involved in extra-curricular activities, though not of the clubbing kind. Being a member of a science club goes down well, even if it’s just an online one, as do volunteering, music and sport.
Stung by the criticism that these informal requirements put independent school pupils at an advantage, both Oxford and Cambridge have in recent years made gradual changes in their admissions process. Most importantly, they have introduced written, scientific entrance tests in a handful of popular subjects. These are designed to spot natural aptitude for a course, irrespective of how well a student has been taught. If your bright young thing is attending a struggling comprehensive, being tested could improve his odds.
But, assuming your teenager gets in, will she be happy there? Well, students who thrive in a “work hard, play hard” sort of atmosphere tend to love these small, clever towns. And although TV programmes like Inspector Morse show an Oxbridge dominated by Hooray Henrys and Henriettas, both universities have had a (very slight) state school majority for several years. As a result, today’s students are less likely to communicate by clipped vowels than by that great leveller, the text message.
While all this may reassure the most hesitant teen, mothers and fathers are likely to have one more worry. Can their family afford Oxbridge? The answer is that studying there currently does not cost more than elsewhere, that is £1,150 a year. Top-up fees of around £3,000 a year will be introduced in 2006, but these will be slowly paid off by working graduates, not pre-paid by parents. And since these fees are likely to be charged by all major universities, Oxbridge with its huge, worldwide reputation remains a pretty good deal. So, do encourage that bright girl or boy to bring home an application form.
Elfi Pallis is the author of Oxbridge Entrance: The Real Rules (Tell Books, 2004) ISBN 095459441X
Click here to read Elfi Pallis' reply to Cambridge