The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge have long had an aura of being an ancient, inaccessible and elitist system. Often candidates are put off by the perception that there is an impenetrable barrier to all but the brightest students. Although there are particular requirements for applicants to Oxford or Cambridge, and the application is slightly different to that for other universities, do not be put off. If you can meet the academic standards that are set by these universities, and are prepared to engage with their methods of application, then you can consider applying to do medicine there.
The College System
Both Oxford and Cambridge were founded over 800 years ago and have similar collegiate systems with international reputations of academic excellence. Due to their similarities and competition, candidates are only allowed to apply for either Cambridge or Oxford, not both.
Accommodation: One of the benefits of Oxbridge is that some colleges offer accommodation for all 6 years of medical school, whether in college or in college-owned properties around town.
Dining: Dining is either in formal halls, with students wearing gowns and with silver service, or in dining halls in a more informal setting; you can be sure not to go hungry.
Clubs and Societies: Each college has its own sports teams, as well as there being university-wide teams for each sport. Many societies are duplicated from college to university.
Resources: Each college has its own levels of support and funding alongside gym facilities and varying food quality.
Support: Pastoral care is given by fellows and college tutors, who will be there to help support your needs through medical school.
The Oxbridge Course Structure
Years 1–2: Preclinical stage These years are based on core sciences that are relevant to medicine, such as anatomy, biochemistry and physiology; neurobiology, pathology and pharmacology and medical ethics.
Year 3: BA degree The Cambridge Tripos system allows great flexibility in doing a wide range of subjects for the third year including languages and computing and encompassing research project in some subjects. At Oxford there are a more limited number of options for what can be done. Your BA degree will be based on end-of-year exams and will be awarded a 1st, 2:1, 2:2 or 3rd class.
Application After the third year, Oxbridge students submit another application to get into clinical school. No matter which institution they started the course at, they can apply to study in Cambridge, Oxford or any one of the medical schools in London. Not everyone gets their first choice, but everyone is guaranteed a place in the system.
Years 4–6: Clinical stage Purely clinical based study with a focus on communication skills and going into wards to shadow doctors.
Teaching modality and Assessments
Lectures: The majority of the core material is delivered in a lecture hall, with the entire year group in the hall.
Practicals: Practicals include anatomy dissection and physiology practicals. Practicals are done in smaller groups.
Tutorials/supervisions: These are sessions held with supervisors, often lecturers or graduates; there may be up to four per week for an hour each time. Each session may involve analysing a core problem, resulting in a deeper understanding of core subjects. There is homework in the form of essays or set problems. The time commitment is significant, often students work 5–8 hours to prepare for each hour of supervision, and sometimes the supervision is in a ratio of 1:2, one supervisor to two students, leading to an often very intense learning environment where there is nowhere to hide.
Almost all the stories you hear of the Oxbridge interview are incorrect. You will be typically invited to interview in December based on the strength of your BMAT test score and UCAS application. There are usually two interviews:
Sometimes you may get two science-based interviews, or a mixed interview with both science and non-science questions.
Are there lists of questions that Oxbridge interviewers like to ask?
Each Oxbridge interview is different and unscripted. The interviewers are considering how the candidate will fit in with their college system, and how it would be able to supervise and conduct tutorials with the student if accepted. This means that the interviewers would like to engage the student in a grounded discussion, approaching scientific problems and seeing how the student solves problems, rather than looking for factual answers.
Because of this, the interviewer will often start with a common question that they ask all candidates, such as ‘What is a disease?’. Then, depending on the student’s answers, the interviewer will begin to focus on certain aspects, such as ‘You mentioned genetic diseases, tell me about them.’ Depending on how the student answers, the interviewer will then hone in and focus on certain diseases.
This is the Socratic method of discussion which allows the interviewer to see how students react to new information and process questions, and it will reveal the student’s thought processes in action.
However, practising such lists of previous questions can prepare the candidate to coherently think and fashion their answers. Therefore, we definitely see benefit in students looking at previous real-life answers given by previous interviewees, to see how it plays out in real life.