i-Learner Education Centre

Overseas Admissions Articles

Are UK Schools the Best Path to Oxbridge?

Hong Kong ranks in the top 10 globally in maths, science and reading, with PISA scores above those of the UK, the USA and many other countries. However, only a small number of students earn places at Oxford and Cambridge.

DSE requirements are 555 at Oxford and 555* at Cambridge for most subjects. In 2019, 3,291 candidates achieved 5 DSE subjects at grade 5 and above. Cambridge gives admissions data broken down by country, revealing that 537 Hong Kong candidates applied to go there that year. However, these students only had a success rate of 14.3%, with 77 students earning places.

Home students (those from the UK or with long-term residence there), had a 21.4% acceptance rate in 2019, and those giving Chinese as their ethnicity had a success rate of 27.5%. That means students of Chinese origin in the UK have almost double the success rate of the academic high fliers from Hong Kong.

Universities in the UK, unlike those in the US, pay relatively little attention to extra-curricular achievements, so it isn’t these that might explain the difference. In fact, there is really only one main stumbling-block that Hong Kong students face: the interview.

Oxbridge interviews are mock ups of the teaching provided at those universities – small-group tutorials in which students are expected to do much of the work. In the interviews for these universities, students will be asked to talk about topics there is little possibility of them knowing about, and ‘I don’t know’ is not a suitable answer.

The interviewer’s goal is to explore how students respond to and learn from the discussion they have. Cambridge University has provided a short overview of the process and also recorded a full interview. As can clearly be seen, textbook knowledge is of little use to candidates here.

This style of discussion-led and critical-thinking based teaching is something that’s far more familiar to students in the UK than those in Hong Kong. Throughout their education, students in the UK are encouraged towards higher-order thinking and problem solving, which puts them at a significant advantage in Oxbridge interviews.

At i-Learner, we have several courses that follow the Oxbridge tutorial model in order to start students on this journey. Taking Critical Reading and Writing, Voyage, Discovery, and other courses from our International Programme gives exposure to this style of teaching. There are also many international schools in Hong Kong, particularly those offering the IB curriculum, which will help students on this part of their path to Oxbridge.

However, the most notable thing about studying in the UK is that all schools use critical-thinking based teaching, giving students from a range of backgrounds the opportunity to succeed in applying to top universities. Not only this, but many schools have a teacher who attended Oxbridge themselves, which is a great source of insight to candidates. i-Learner Overseas Education Services has asked students from a variety of UK schools about the support they received when applying to Oxbridge, and it’s clear that these schools give students a real edge.

Willow Hewitt attended the state-run Aquinas College, which did not have a strong history of sending students to Oxbridge. ‘There were about 800 students in my year, and I was the only one who went to Cambridge. Luckily, one of the teachers ran an after-school group to prepare us for Oxbridge interviews, and I think going to sixth form helped as there was a strong focus on independent thinking there.’

When Ceri Moss was studying at Sale Grammar School, she had many teachers who helped her successfully apply to study Education with English and Drama at Cambridge. ‘They encouraged me to complete extra reading and work to prepare me for my interviews and advised me on which course to apply for.’

At Colchester Royal Grammar School, Hannah Patient found that one of the school’s best features ‘was the preparation they gave for people applying to Oxford and Cambridge. About sixty sixth formers at CRGS apply to these universities each year, and usually around half get in. The school runs plenty of assemblies, trips and mock interview sessions for people applying to Oxbridge and medical schools. Most individual subject departments also offer free interview and exam preparation – the support I was given by my English teachers was outstanding.’

Rory Alexander also received exceptional support at the independent Sevenoaks, which helped him when ‘applying for a scholarship to attend the Ameson Chinese Elite summer programme in Beijing in my final summer holidays. This scholarship was really helpful when it came to applying to universities, and undoubtedly helped me land an offer from the University of Cambridge to study Asian and Middle Eastern Studies.’

To get your child on the path to Oxbridge, contact an i-Learner Overseas Education Services consultant to learn about applying to UK schools.