The Oxbridge admissions system demands more of its candidates than any equivalent system in the world, but it does so for a reason. It exists to unearth young historians who can do more than merely cope with the demands of studying one subject intensively for three years. It seeks out students who have the potential to learn, in every sense of that term.
I think that both universities do a fine job of finding these students, and I do not believe their system can be ‘gamed’. Given sufficient time, it is certainly possible to draw the best out of candidates, and help them to stand out among other equally talented and hardworking people. Ultimately, however, I do this by not by teaching ‘tricks and tips,’ but by helping my students to become better historians.
For many candidates, the process starts in early summer. I have developed a broad and varied guided reading programme that introduces students to the core questions of how history can be thought about and “done” that form the basis of many Oxbridge admissions interviews. The full programme comprises 30 carefully selected advanced readings, complete with exercises and questions; candidates typically take 12-15 of these with me, two extracts at a time, but are encouraged to explore others that interest them in their own time. Overall, the readings are designed to introduce them to new ways of thinking, and to some of the fresh worlds of history that exist outside the A-level/Pre-U/IB curricula – from global history and the history of emotions to “history from below”. I’m especially proud of the testimonials I’ve received from students who’ve been excited and engaged by this part of the programme (below). As one parent wrote: “The school… has its limitations and cannot, and will not, go beyond a mentality of what I would describe as 'tick box teaching’. You have given her a taste of life beyond, and she has never been happier nor hungrier.''
When I teach the Oxford HAT and Cambridge entrance (which switched in 2020 from a centrally-administered written assessment, plus interviews, to a decentralised, college-based process), my focus is on opening a student's mind to the possibilities of what can be extracted from a text with the help of careful reading and historical imagination. I'm also very alive to how little time Oxford and Cambridge candidates have to work on their responses, and how pressured the whole assessment day can be – so I teach plenty of impactful strategies designed to make sure that candidates feel well equipped to tackle whatever it is that is thrown at them.
My interview preparation, finally, goes well beyond this. I teach candidates how to think analytically under pressure, and use further carefully-selected readings, backed up by specially-written exercises, to discuss key concepts and controversies. Overall, the aim is to help students change their whole way of thinking and show them how they can engage with history at the deeper level that Oxford and Cambridge will demand of them.
When teaching GCSE and A-level, my approach is rather different. I still think that history is by far the most fascinating of subjects – after all, it's the story of us – and I believe success in this field is a direct consequence of engagement. My unusual background – an historian with a PhD who has also spent years as a professional journalist and full-time author – means that I'm uniquely well-qualified to spot the compelling detail, the unusual fact, and use it to open up new vistas and new approaches to history. But I also have the experience and know-how to explain the techniques of evaluation, argument and reasoning that are so critical to success at school, and I put a lot of stress on the fundamentals: effective, thought-through source analysis and well-structured, well-evidenced essays and coursework.