Can Anyone Get into Oxbridge?

Oxbridge applications are often seen as extremely exclusive and competitive, reserved for only the best of the best. However, is this true?

In this extract from my upcoming book on the UCAS admissions process, I discuss the role of talent and commitment, I hope you enjoy!


During my last two years in high school, I spent quite a lot of time analysing different students and their respective university admissions. It was during the start of Sixth Form that two truths became blatantly obvious:

Truth 1: People normally got what they deserved. 

Truth 2: Natural born talent rarely influenced their success as an applicant. 

Let me illustrate these truths with a few different categories of students that we, as students, are familiar with. 

Category 1: Little Talent, Low Motivation

This is neither the smartest nor the most motivated kid in the classroom. He tries his best to get by school by doing the least amount of work possible. He’s the kid who doesn’t show up to class most of the time due to an inexplicable illness, and when he is not sick, he is looking to copy last week’s homework off his mates. Now this lack of motivation may not be due to any inherent flaw on his part. He probably looked around the classroom, saw everyone doing way better than him, and immediately thought “nope, I’m out, I’m not going to compete with these people”. 

Now don’t take this as an insult towards this type of student. In my experience, these are some of the nicest people you would meet. Firstly, they have to maintain good relationships with people to copy their homework. But more importantly, they normally like the simple things in life: play football at break, watch anime and play video games. Unfortunately, when it comes to uni offers, in line with their attitude, they often submit a half-hearted UCAS application and perhaps fail to achieve their full potential. That being said, they are probably not too irritated by the results as their mindset tells them that they weren’t meant to do as well as everyone else, and perhaps not be too effected. 

Category 2: Little Talent, High Motivation

The second category is a bit different to the first. They similarly lack talent, but they have this inner drive which makes them put in double the work as everyone else. They look around at the more talented students and are determined that with hard work, they would be able to keep up, if not out-perform those around them. 

You may not see them at the club or at the heart of social circles, but you also know that they are at home working hard, making the most of every opportunity to get a head start over their competition. 

When it comes to university admissions, these students take it very seriously and often put a lot of effort into making sure that their application is in the right place to get them into their dream universities. In my experience, these students normally do very well in their applications, oftentimes even out-performing those in the “high talent, low motivation” category. 

Category 3: Average Talent, Average Motivation

Then you have the group of kids who perform quite averagely in school. They don’t need to put too much effort to get where they want to be academically and do just enough to get respectable grades in High School. Like the students in the first category, they most likely do not expect too much from themselves and are definitely less demanding of themselves than those in category 2. 

In Year 13, they probably spend a few weeks putting together a good Personal Statement before sending it off to their five universities. Since their portfolios are most likely a mix of activities they have worked on over the years, it is probably not too bad, though, it is also most likely not to be the best optimised to get into their dream universities. Therefore, while they may not end up with the best offers, they most likely would enter a reputable institution and be happy with it. 

Category 4: High Talent, Low Motivation.

Let’s face it, we all know and find this group of people somewhat irritating. These are the kids who game or party the night before the test, but, as usual, they end up with some of the highest scores in the class and end up celebrating with more booze. They grow up surrounded by A* grades and have been taught to believe that everything in academics would be a breeze. 

As such, they often view their personal statement and their UCAS application as something which can be completed half-heartedly and still be successful. They’re not completely wrong. In my experience, some of them do get into highly respectable UCAS universities, but the majority of them end up in the same universities as the “average talent, average motivation” category. 

At the end of the day, they probably are a bit disappointed with the fact that people with low talent out-perform them, but at the end of the day, they don’t really care too much about it because they still are at a respectable university, and can perhaps party even more there. 

Category 5: High Talent, High Motivation

These students exemplify the height of what can be achieved in high school. They are quite an elusive group of students in school, like the low talent, high motivation kids, they are rarely seen at the club or out and about in social activities. They are often either studying, or working on their some mad project to save the world or have a high and lofty goal that they are working towards which the rest of us can barely wrap our heads around. As expected, these students are those who receive the best UCAS offers, these are the students going to Oxford, Cambridge or the equivalent for certain disciplines. 

Before I analyse these categories, I would like to make a quick disclaimer that this isn’t a limited list of categories. Everyone falls somewhere on an axis of talent and motivation. However, by having this image in mind, I believe it will help you develop your understanding of what makes a good UCAS applicant. When we turn to these categories and results, I believe that we immediately recognise that the differentiating factor is not about talent but about one’s motivation and hard work. By putting in the extra mile, we can see that the low talent student is able to out-compete all his counter-parts and match the results of the high-talented and highly motivated student in UCAS admissions. 

This is something I love about UCAS admissions, while schools can be ranked like a pyramid, with the symbolic Oxbridge at the top, it is a pyramid with an upper bound. Unlike the world of money where you can always earn an extra million, or billion dollars, once you get to the top of the UCAS pyramid, there is nowhere else to go. 

Let me give you a brief story about me and my good friend Warren, one of those high-talented, highly motivated students, who I had the honour to be one of his closest friends and share our university admissions journey which got us into the top universities in the world, Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Columbia, to name a few. In this friendship, I was always the less talented one. I had to put in double the work to understand the same material that he was working with, his brain functioned on a whole different level. But think about what I said on admissions being a pyramid. Yes, the lad was way smarter than me, but if you were to compare our UCAS acceptances, it is very difficult to tell the difference between which one was the high talented or the low talented one. I got into Oxford, St. Andrews, UCL, Durham, and York, he got into Cambridge, St. Andrews, LSE, Warwick, and UCL.

As you can see, it is very easy to place high-talented students on an unreachable pedestal, from personal experience, that is far from the case. This is why I wrote this book and developed the One Essay Five Offers Method, to demonstrate and motivate you to believe that anyone, regardless of their starting point, can put together a good personal statement and get into a top UK university.

Everyone can get into their dream universities as long as you commit yourself to self-improvement and hard work! Don’t give up!

Joshua Yen

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