Supporting Geography Candidates for University & Oxbridge. Part 8: Coaching and approaches for teachers and mentors

So, we’ve talked through the technical approaches of how to prepare and support great candidates, and I’ve shared what I know about the various components of the process. In this final post, I want to share what I think is the hardest and most challenge part of it all – the emotional rollercoaster that this will take you – and the candidate – on.

The numbers are not promising.

1 in 4 Cambridge applicants are offered a place

Oxford interview 60% of their applicants, but only offer places to 20% of their applicants.

And these applicants are almost all going to be straight 9/8 students at GCSE, and predicted AAA-A*AA as a *minimum*.

The likelihood is that – no matter how talented your candidate seems in the context of your school – the odds are against them in their application. Frankly, looking back at what I did, I’m hugely humbled by the sheer dose of luck that I appear to have had in my own application, and in the support of those around me. Every year, great candidates and wonderful Geographers don’t make it. How do you collectively shoulder that, and understand the emotions in place?

I think the first thing to do is establish a culture of big picture. Doing all of the work here isn’t *just* about Oxbridge – it’s great preparation for university, A Level teaching, and the world beyond school. You’re doing this because you’re a great Geographer, not only because you are applying to one university. It’s really helpful to reduce the identity politics that come with this, and support the candidate to understand that if you can.

There’s a weight of expectation that can often come with an ‘Oxbridge candidate’. Whether it’s celebrated in school media, or whether it’s just parents, family, friends and colleagues asking ‘how’s it going?’, there’s almost certainly going to be moments when the students feel like it’s not worth it. Parental pressure can be particularly tricky to navigate, and I’ve mentored a few people who were only really applying because they felt that their parent/s wanted or expected it of them. As a mentor, you might feel on the front-line of that, and you’ll certainly want to be aware of the pressure. Where possible, you need to do as much as you can to dial it back. The opposite of pressure isn’t ‘jacking it all in, and accepting an offer from X university’, it’s ‘doing the right things’ and being confident in the steps.

Other universities might not be your friend in this.  While the ‘conditional-unconditional’ phenomenon has been reduced a bit – where universities say “we like you, and if you make us your first choice, we’ll give you an unconditional offer” – the temptation to take a safe bet early in the game can be high for students. Keep the big picture and long journey conversations going!

Talk and celebrate other offers – and recognise they’re likely to come in quite quickly for your Oxbridge candidates – and keep having the chat about the big picture. So, you’ve got four offers? Which is your current favourite? What are you thinking now? Oxbridge candidates will often have university offers starting to come by October half term, and certainly through Nov-Dec even before other candidates have applied. It’s your judgement about how you share that publicly to support and motivate your other candidates.

Where possible, it’s really helpful to talk with other teachers. Whether you’ve got candidates across your school in multiple subjects, or have an experienced UCAS, Head of Sixth, or Gifted & Talented co-ordinator, sharing your approach – and your feelings about this – are really important in managing the emotions as well as the practical support.

Just like with exams, there’s only so much you can do for candidates. They have to go their own path, and accept their chances. If you follow the advice, give them good resources and give them some help, you can really do no more. Celebrate the successes you have, celebrate the amazing universities and Geographers that you’ve created – no matter what the destination – and know that you’ve played a part in their success, but so have they.

If you’ve got to the end of this, then thank you for reading. I hope it’s been helpful. I’m always happy to have a chat and help if I can, and I wish you – and your candidates – the very best of luck for wherever they choose to apply, and their future Geography studies!

Supporting Geography Candidates for University & Oxbridge. Part 7: Preparing for interviews

Fundamentally, the biggest differentiation between Oxford & Cambridge (and a couple of other places) and other universities is the focus on dialogic teaching as the key focus of your student experience. As well as lectures, seminars and workshops that you’d have at any Geography Department, you’ll get regular discussions and debates in small groups. At Oxford, they’re called tutorials, and Cambridge call them supervisions. But at heart, you’re expected to be able – and willing – to discuss your ideas regularly with your tutor and peers, and hold your own in an academic conversation about the particular topic in question.

So, you need to be able to talk coherently about your subject. This isn’t really something that gets discussed in your initial application phases, but it’s the primary purpose of the interview phase.

Lots of resources are available through the Universities themselves:

You’ll find a lot of resources claiming to have a ‘definitive list’ of interview questions – and lots of candidates can spend a lot of time scripting and memorising the ‘perfect answer’ to some of these questions. It’s almost always wasted time.

First, the admissions tutors can spot prepared answers a mile off, and will ask another question or take it in a different direction. They want to see how a candidate thinks and talks naturally, and what they’re going to be like to teach. They can ask any questions they want, and take the conversation wherever they want to go for that!

Second, as I’ve argued earlier in this blog series, I believe the best way of preparing is through a ‘rich diet of Geography education’ from start to finish. We want thoughtful, engaged and enthusiastic Geographers in all of our lessons – and good dialogic teaching helps to model the scholarship and communication elements. The more students can hear and see what academic Geographical discussion looks like in their day to day, the less work they’ll have to do to prepare specifically for the application phase.

I’ve set out an overview of how to prepare for an interview, including a timeline of ideas and preparation phases, but fundamentally it comes down to these key qualities:

Able to talk confidently with an adult about an academic subject.

This is a really gradual confidence building exercise. Students need to start thinking of themselves as a ‘peer’ and talking in a more formal and academic register – and there’s always an initial awkwardness and discomfort. Push through that – you’ve got to get to high quality conversations about Geography with someone they know. Once you’re comfortable with 20-30 minute conversations with them, they need to be introduced to unfamiliar adults, and be able to do the same thing.

Pairing up with other schools, video interviews, sending your students to a school to be interviewed, while you interview their candidates – these are all great techniques of getting the student confident with turning up to a place they don’t know, and talking comfortably about their academic discipline with someone they don’t know. It’s always worth reaching out to the subject community – or me, if you can’t find people – to try and get these contacts in place as you start Sep/Oct preparations.

Able to respond to unfamiliar material (sources, data, ideas) and ‘show your working’ in how you integrate them in to your understanding

It’s common to be given something to respond to in an interview. Some Colleges might give you an article 30 minutes before the interview, and use it as a prompt to talk about. Others might give you data, imagery, sources, maps, or even physical objects to work with in an interview.

In your preparation phase, it’s important to include lots of unfamiliar material and sources. Print a good map, or image – what can you tell me about this? Print an article – give it to your candidate, and get them to read it for ten minutes, and then talk through what they’ve learned and how it fits with existing ideas.

It’s key for candidates to be able to “think out loud”. If they sit in silence for five minutes, and then come out with an answer, it might be good Geography, but it’s not great interviewing. So get used to “I’m looking at this, and think this… or I can see this pattern, which might suggest… or could this be why this looks like this….”

They should also build confidence in exploring options – “I think this means X… but can I check that this isn’t because of Y?”, “I’m reading this as Z, but can I check the scale? Because if it were ABC, I might reconsider…”

It’s okay to have uncertainty and want to discuss and debate clarification. It’s how a tutorial or supervision would work, and being able to discuss ideas is critical. Candidates need to okay saying “I don’t know what this means” or “could you explain this bit of it to me?” – they aren’t expected to know all of Geography and all possible routes through it!

Able to defend and debate ideas without becoming wedded to them.

Candidates often feel like they can’t say “I don’t know”, but they’re equally unlikely to say “oh, actually, I’ve changed my mind”.

It’s important that discussions can be free-flowing and offer the chance for people to develop their thinking. Yes, it’s important you follow a line of argument – but if you’re presented with new information, or challenged, you need to be able to accept that your original arguments, or ideas might be wrong. It’s okay to change your mind. It’s okay to say “so, looking at this, I might need to re-evaluate…”

Most of this advice works and would be transferrable to almost any humanities Oxbridge interview subject (let’s leave out STEM maths skills!). So it’s important that we add the final piece of the jigsaw – that this is fundamentally rooted in a Geographical understanding and scholarship. We need to talk about ideas that are Geographical – sustainability, place, space, interconnectedness. How are the candidate’s answers showing they are engaged with the Geography underpinning the individual topic? Having a look at some of the big ideas of the discipline (OFSTED’s 2021 research review series has an overview of some of the core literature, and Teaching Geography articles and debates, and resource from the RGS and GA can be really helpful) together with the students can be really helpful – and provide nice ‘language’ to be able to ‘talk like a Geographer’.

Supporting Geography Candidates for University & Oxbridge. Part 6: Preparing for Admissions Tests – Oxford Geography candidates ONLY

Candidates to read Geography at Oxford complete a pre-interview assessment task, but this is not something that candidates for Cambridge need to complete.

The purpose of the pre-interview assessment is to help the admissions team offer interviews to the best of the applicants. Oxford currently use the Thinking Skills Assessment (Part 1 and Part 2) for Geography candidates, and it’s an important step to prepare for. Few details are shared about what kind of threshold scores are typically required – so all you can do is aim for your very best.

For candidates:

A comprehensive guide to the test is available online for free. You can find details of the logistics, dates and costs, and lots of past paper questions and video guides to the different sections.

The test comes in two parts.

In Part 1, you complete multiple choice questions in a time window. They are designed to test problem solving skills, numerical and spatial reasoning, and critical thinking skills like arguments and reasoning using every day language. You’ll see a range of questions using different themes, and need to answer 50 multiple choice questions in 90 minutes.

In Part 2, you’re expected to write an unseen essay in 30 minutes. This requires structured and thoughtful essay planning, and effective and clear communication. The questions are not subject specific – the aim is to test your ability to think and reason clearly in a short period of time.

It’s strongly recommended that you get lots of the practice papers, and become familiar with three key aspects:

  1. The type and nature of questions. Seeing the way they ask questions, and getting a sense of the themes and types of questions that get asked will help you understand the thinking skills, and your own strengths and weaknesses to work on.
  2. This helps you to make good decisions. There are some questions where you’ll immediately know an answer and be able to solve it quickly with high confidence. There are others where you can get the answer with high confidence, but it’ll take you a decent chunk of time. There are others where you’ve got low confidence that you’ll get the right answer, irrespective of how much time you were to spend on it. Knowing what to do, to prioritise and how to approach the test as a whole piece for best scores helps!
  3. Practice against the clock. In groups, discussions, or with all the time in the world, you’re probably going to be able to get most of the questions right. But you need to get skilled at doing it in the time conditions.

To an extent, working with teachers and groups can be a helpful first starter – perhaps in the early part of summer. But as you get closer, you’ll want to build your own confidence by working through this yourself, and knowing your own approaches. Even within 2-3 Geographers applying, there’s the potential for a big range of skill sets, and it’s important that you do what works best for you!

For schools:

Teachers supporting Geographers applying for Oxford might want to work together with colleagues, other subjects, and their Exams Officer for their expertise in organising this. There’s a decent amount of logistics involved in administering the tests, and if it’s your school’s first time, the preparation for this is probably better started before the summer holiday!

The tests will need to be taken at an approved Cambridge Assessment centre, and if that’s not you, you’ll either need to get approval to become one, or support your candidate to find their nearest.

You’ll also want to think about how you can support candidates – TSA are sat by multiple subjects, so it can be worthwhile to provide space for them to think through ideas together in the early stages, and to support familiarity with the approach and type of work. You might want to provide feedback on essay writing and clarity, and be available for mentoring – but as suggested above, increasingly, it’s important for candidates to own this themselves and know their own approach to the papers!

It’s important to phase your preparation cycles so that you can start thinking about potential interviews, too. Don’t wait until you’ve got an offer of an interview to start getting ready for it!

Supporting Geography Candidates for University & Oxbridge. Part 5: September & Application Time

A huge amount of student attention is always – and understandably – given to the Personal Statement part of the application. It’s definitely the thing that students feel they can ‘control’ the most, and improve the most – but it’s not the only thing that Admissions Tutors will consider, and it’s important that the whole application is given due care and attention.

Booking additional tests and checking calendar windows in early September

All details of how to book, and information for students is here: Thinking Skills Assessments.

For most years, the candidate booking date for the TSA is well before the October 15 deadline for the UCAS deadline. Don’t get caught out by that!

For a new centre or school, these tests will need to be run in exam conditions by authorised centres only. You’ll need to apply for that – perhaps worth talking to your exams office to see if you’re a Cambridge centre already – and check details here: adminnistering TSA as a centre. The deadline is 16 September – well before the admissions deadline. Again, don’t get caught out!

Decision-making on College choices

College choices can be an important part of the decision-making choices for students.

However, it’s important to recognise that candidates don’t have to make a college choice. They are able to submit an “open application” to the subject, rather than to an individual College. The admissions team will then allocate the candidate to a College.

If you want to choose a College, then it’s worth checking which offer Geography. Not all Oxford Colleges do, while Cambridge seems to have a wider spread. You can see details here:

Beyond ‘do they offer Geography?’, College choice is a very personal decision. You’ll get the same Geography experience and access to facilities at university level, so there’s not a huge amount of academic difference between them. It’s very much about what ‘fits’ with your own personal preferences and thoughts about your life. You might like to think about:

  • The location of the College relative to what you’re interested in (Geography Department, libraries, river, centre of town)
  • The size of the College and how many Geographers you’d be working with
  • The resources and accommodation offer of the College

The best way is often to get a sense of the ‘feel of a place’ on Open Days. If you want to make a College choice, I’d strongly suggest that you go and see a few Colleges to make an informed decision!

Ensure the whole application process is considered

Your UCAS application form will be sent – blind – to all of your universities at once. They won’t know where else you’ve applied, but they might be able to guess that a high grade prediction application that comes to them before the 15th October is likely to also be applying to Oxford or Cambridge!

You need to select a reasonable profile for your applications and choices.

First, it’s advised and likely that you will be applying for similar courses at all five universities. This means your personal statement and reference will be coherent, and align with what you think is important for those courses.

Second, to lower your risks, it’s normally advised that you should have a range of university entry requirements in your application. Let’s say you’re applying to Oxford (A*AA) – you might also want to have another 1-2 at the same grade. But you might also want to have an AAA or even AAB choice in your five, to give you an insurance offer. There’s no point having a firm choice and insurance that are the same grade – if the summer results aren’t what you want, you’ll have missed both universities!

Don’t make your entire UCAS process about the Oxbridge application – it’s just one of five, remember! Double check all of the application details, make sure all of the grades, course choices and university selections are accurate and exactly what you want before you hit send!

The school reference

It’s often helpful to have reference support, particularly if you’re writing for the first time. You’ll want to deliberately dovetail your reference to the application components. You want to ensure that the same ideas and highlights are supported exactly, and that you’re able to emphasise the core elements of an excellent application too.

You can also talk about what might overlap and link – ensuring that the candidate can free up space in their personal statement to talk about something different than you cover in the reference.

It’s also helpful to have a context statement put in place for your school. An example of the historic grade profile, and a judgement sense of the candidate (“this is the best Geographer we have seen in five years”, or “in a class of excellent Geographers, X stands far above in their scholarship and engagement. Their EPQ on…”) can help to give the admissions tutor a sense of how this person compares to other candidates.  

A high-quality academic reference can be quite tricky to write, so do seek wider support – Head of Sixth Form, any Oxbridge contacts – if it’s your first time.

Cambridge – Supplementary Application Questions

For admissions at Cambridge, all subjects complete an additional Supplementary Application Questionnaire (SAQ). This is available to candidates, and guidance is provided to support the completion. Once your UCAS application has been received by the University, they’ll send you details to the email address that you applied with.

Like UCAS, it’s an online questionnaire with lots of details – and takes time and precision to do right. Unlike UCAS, it’s highly personal and tailored only to Cambridge – including some of your additional information and an additional depth to some of the AS/A Level subject details, or further biographical information. Cambridge are slightly more advanced in their use of socio-economic data in supporting applications, so don’t be surprised to be asked details about whether you were eligible for Free School Meals etc.

You’ll also have the option of sharing further information (e.g. extenuating circumstances, particular personal or additional needs) and making additional personal statement of up to 1200 characters. It’s worth thinking about how you want to use these things – and to consider them alongside your existing personal statement. Repetition is unnecessary – and this offers you a chance for bespoke Cambridge-specific thoughts about why a particular course or structure suits you.

Most candidates will have to complete this within about 10-14 days of the original UCAS deadline, so be prepared for this if you’ve applied to Cambridge!

By early October, all of this will be well underway, and hopefully, you’ll be ready to submit on time, with any additional testing requirements, with a quality application showing the best of your Geography candidate’s ability.

You’ll also want to be considering support and preparation for the other phases of assessment that are important.

Supporting Geography Candidates for University & Oxbridge. Part 4: Preparing the Personal Statement

In the introduction post, I’ve shared some resource for personal statements – the things to think about, and a structure of a worksheet that might help people get started. There’s a lot of advice and guidance about how to write personal statements around, which I don’t intend to repeat.

In this section, I want to think specifically about how personal statements for Oxbridge candidates differ, and what you need to be aware of in supporting them.

  1. They’re not. Don’t forget that the same personal statement is sent to all five of the candidate’s universities, and they all see it. While they have anonymous levels of detail in the application process, and it’s ‘blind’ to a limited extent, it’s important to recognise that the same statement has to work for all of the applications that the student is making. It needs to be high quality Geography, and not perfectly and individually tailored for Oxbridge – it’s only one application of five.
  2. Generally, the higher quality candidates for Geography at university spend more time talking about Geography than themselves. They have meaningful statements about why they want to study Geography, normally connected to an experience or academic interest, and they explore how they’ve demonstrated their scholarship and engagement over their development and Sixth Form period. While there’s always a need to balance “statement” and the “personal” element in the application, typically a top Geography candidate will prioritise the academic components.
  3. Recognise that for Oxbridge candidates, it is only one part of the application process. For Cambridge, in particular, there’s a Supplementary Application Questionnaire which has further questions and the space to make an additional personal statement. They shouldn’t overlap, and the statements need to be considered in coherence.
  4. All candidates must sign to declare that their application and statement is true to the best of their beliefs, and all personal statements need to be accurate and factually correct. However, unlike most candidates, the personal statement for an Oxbridge candidate can often form the basis of easy questions to be used in an interview. So if a student were to mention a book, or a paper, or a particular concept, it is absolutely fair game for the interviewer to explore and test them in an interview. It’s also critical that you support the student in double checking their references and thinking. Look at the research interests of the likely interviewers at their College choice (if they’ve made one), and check that if their statement overlaps with the research interests of their interviewers, they know it thoroughly!
  5. The phrase “too many cooks spoil the broth” was obviously not designed to refer to Oxbridge personal statements, but it should be. The more ‘high stakes’ the outcome, the more likely you are to have multiple people look at it. This can be amazing, if the advisors are all philosophically and Geographically aligned, but more often than not, it just results in a slightly messy experience for the candidate, where they’re chopping and changing depending on specific advice and guidance. Less is more in this instance – keep a few advisers who know their Geography and, ideally, their Oxbridge statements, and try to limit the spread of the coaching process!

So, let’s revisit the ideas of Geographical scholarship we discussed earlier, and how each of the components can be demonstrated within a personal statement. 

They can demonstrate scholarship and critical engagement

Normally this is demonstrated through clear engagement with books, papers or lectures, and the ideas that they represent. These should be academically well grounded – popular literature has a place (e.g. Tim Marshall’s books), but top level students need to demonstrate their higher reading abilities. It should be well beyond the confines of an A Level syllabus – merely talking about what you’ve been taught won’t demonstrate your ability to engage with the subject beyond what you’re given! It’s important that students write clearly about what they are taking from the reading, and showing their connection and synthesis ability. This should be balanced with some kind of critical reflection – what the student has learned, what they’ve taken away, and how that helps to support their engagement and academic curiosity.

It’s important that this is selectively explored, rather than dumping enormous quantities of quasi-academic research in a statement.

Complexity and range of the discipline

This is where the second component of the scholarship thinking comes in. Encourage students to be specific in what they focus on. They shouldn’t attempt to describe all of Geography, or even all of what they’ve read or studied.

Be critical and selective – pick an idea that is interesting and has come from somewhere (e.g. an unexplained part of the A Level course, a particular experience) and work through it. It’s okay for it to be a fairly narrow and specific focus and exciting aspect of Geography. Show how some of the reading connects the wider A Level study profile, then to other parts of the reading, and how the journey and thought process of development happens. It’s important to be able to clearly explain how one aspect of the engagement leads to another, and ‘show your working’ and how the thinking develops.

This is how the final strand is important for the personal statement. The complexity and development of ideas needs to be well-woven together, and clearly communicated as a story and narrative.

Explaining and exploring the ideas

The interview phase is where students will be pushed hardest to explain their academic thinking and development of ideas. However, students can start to demonstrate their abilities to express themselves clearly in their personal statement and application.

The Geographical content is elsewhere for now – in terms of writing and writing style, my top resources are Simon Sinek’s TED Talk on ‘starting with why’ and great communication is a really good way to shake up the thinking. It’s about explaining intent rather than a litany of factual information – and it’s critical that the candidate is able to link things together to tell the story of why they wanted to study a thing, find out more, and ultimately read Geography. I’ve tried lots of ways to help students “get it” – but this is a short video that’s had quite a bit of success.

Story telling is critical. Assembling that CV of all the things they’ve done feels positive and seductive – like a safety blanket. The brave and difficult decisions are about how you decide what to leave out, and where you spend more time explaining how you learned from something, or how you connected it to something else!

As ever, there’s got to be a balance between “personal” and “statement”. While a more academic applicant will normally have more academic content than their extra curricular or evidencing personal characteristics, that doesn’t mean that it can’t reflect who they are, and what they’re interested in. The statement must help the tutors to understand the person they’re going to offer an interview to, and be interesting and informative for them to read!

As with all personal statements for UCAS applications, remember:

  1. It always takes longer than you think, and;
  2. It always takes more drafts than you think, but;
  3. It’ll never be “done”. At some point, you’ll just stop writing.  

So, getting candidates started early, showing them good examples, good guidance is really helpful. Ideally, get some ideas on paper (even if it’s just the worksheet) before summer, and get some thinking and revision time over summer – so that September is starting with solid ground work.

There’s a lot to do in that month, and it’s important that you’ve got a heads up of the attention to detail and preparation that’s needed for September. The transition in to interview and test prep (if appropriate) will start sooner than the application deadline – so it’s worth ensuring you’ve got a plan to hit the ground running.

Supporting Geography Candidates for University & Oxbridge. Part 3: Laying the groundwork for Geographical scholarship

Great candidates to read Geography at university have a deep and meaningful relationship with aspects of the subject and discipline. They are, fundamentally, motivated to study Geography at university, because they’ve found parts of it intellectually fascinating and enjoyable – and great applicants are able to demonstrate this in their application.

I think there are three key components that make great Geography candidates:

They can demonstrate scholarship and critical engagement.

This is simply a sense of reading and thinking about what you’ve read. The best Geographers – even just when we consider this in terms of an A Level essay, for example – are able to recognise lots of ideas, lots of case studies and examples, and evaluate and think about what that means. They don’t accept ideas at face value, but are able to thoughtfully incorporate them in to their existing understanding.

And, just like in our A Level experience, the best Geographers are able to play at a level above their existing understanding. They’re able to demonstrate engagement with undergraduate quality thinking (or beyond!), rather than sticking closely to the confines of their specification and taught course. Most often, this is demonstrated in an application through reading or engagement activities (e.g. RGS lectures, speaker events etc.).

Complexity and range of the discipline.

Geography is a huge subject, and there are lots of areas of it which have their own focus and specialisation. A great Geography candidate is able to recognise that there’s a lot of ideas out there, and that you *don’t* have to engage with, or indeed, be an expert on all of them.

In an application, then, it’s often better to show deeper engagement with a smaller slice of the discipline – I am interested in X, so I read Y, and followed that up with Z, and explored that further with A, B and C – rather than trying to show that you know all of the bits of Geography in a very limited or superficial way. Again, this is really about critical and sustained engagement – rather than brief and light touch!

Explaining and exploring the ideas.

Fundamentally, the biggest differentiation between Oxford & Cambridge (and a couple of other places) and other universities is the focus on dialogic teaching as the key focus of your student experience. As well as lectures, seminars and workshops that you’d have at any Geography Department, you’ll get regular discussions and debates in small groups. At Oxford, they’re called tutorials, and Cambridge call them supervisions. But at heart, you’re expected to be able – and willing – to discuss your ideas regularly with your tutor and peers, and hold your own in an academic conversation about the particular topic in question.

So, you need to be able to talk coherently about your subject. This isn’t really something that gets discussed in your initial application phases, but it’s the primary purpose of the interview phase.

I’ve said before that I believe the best way of doing this is through a ‘rich diet of Geography education’ from start to finish. We want thoughtful, engaged and enthusiastic Geographers in all of our lessons – and good dialogic teaching helps to model the scholarship and communication elements. The more students can hear and see what academic Geographical discussion looks like in their day to day, the less work they’ll have to do to prepare specifically for the application phase.

As we come towards the Sixth Form, though, I think it’s worth having some strategies in place for explicitly raising the level of engagement and scholarship, and making it accessible and normal for students to explore the world of academic Geography:

  1. Consider whether your school can support and subscribe to journals or publications so they can regularly be visible to students. You might like to get them to explore the GA’s GEO platform, or some of the additional resources on the RGS website
  2. Can you subscribe to the Royal Geographical Society so that you have access to lectures and speaker programmes?
  3. Alternatively, can you set up a Geographical Society for Sixth Form students to speak – and hear guest speakers – in your own school, or nearby schools? If you’ve got good connections with careers leaders, or former students, they can be really helpful to push towards interesting topics to cover! If you have students doing EPQs, or extended essays and similar thoughts – then getting them to show and talk about their work can be really powerful as a demonstration of academic thinking.
  4. Depending on your school and Department context, it’s interesting to think about what access to books and reading your students might have. You might be able to work with your library team, if you have one, to get great material in. If that’s not an option, a few books each year can soon build up a Department library of great reading material that can be kept in one of your classrooms, or a shared office space. Having the ability to say “oh, yes, you should read…. this book on that interesting question”, and be able to recommend and hand the student the book sends a really powerful message about academic reading, and makes it part of the normal process.

This helps to prepare students for the three parts of excellent Geography, and gives them interesting points for research to make decisions about what to apply for, and exactly what to look for in their decision-making process.

It’ll also be a key part of preparing for the personal statement process, and I think should be the key focus for Year 12 and the summer period.

Supporting Geography Candidates for University & Oxbridge. Part 2: What are the timescales?

Realistically, a lot of the process for applying to Oxbridge is no different to other universities – you’ve got to make good decisions based on your research and thinking, and then prepare a high quality application.

So, what’s different?

First, the timescale is accelerated. Unlike other university applications, the first phase of UCAS needs to be done by October 15th. This means that a lot of the work needs to be done in between Year 12 and Year 13, rather than purely at the start of Y13 as you might be able to do for other application cycles.

Second, there are often additional requirements involved. This might be the submission of work, the completion of pre-interview assessments (Thinking Skills Assessments for Oxford, traditionally), and the interview process. These all take time to prepare, and it’s helpful if you can have a clear sequence from start to finish in your mind.

I’d recommend something like this:

Year 12, Spring TermStudent: Decide whether you are interested in Oxbridge Student: Decide which one, and why – this might involve course research, topic knowledge, or even structural thoughts about interview and approach. Teacher: Clarify timescale and expectations of work that’s needed Teacher: Start thinking about reading and wider experiences
Year 12, Summer TermStudent: Focus on high quality of reading and wider experience, start developing first draft of personal statement Student: Look at additional requirements and plan accordingly – you may want to acquire TSA prep materials for Oxford candidates, and start thinking about how to support that. Note that Oxford and Cambridge have broadly consistent approaches across their whole cohort (i.e. Oxford Geography requires TSA, Cambridge doesn’t), but they might have some individual needs depending on College (e.g. submitted work). Check carefully! Teacher: Check in with your exams officer about what might be needed (and when) for entry to additional tests if required. Teacher: Agree a timescale/drafting process for PS drafts – normally want “a good one” by first week back!  
Year 13, SeptemberStudent: complete normal UCAS application proforma Student: draft and complete Personal Statement Student: start thinking about any additional requirements – e.g. submitted work or SAQ answers Teacher: support with PS draft Teacher: support with transition to test prep if required
Year 13, OctoberFor Oxford: test preparation for TSA Normally takes place at the end of the half term, or in the first week back. Check carefully on deadlines for entry and on the date of the test – it *must* be done in person on that day, so holidays can’t happen!
Year 13, NovemberYou may or may not know if you have an invitation to interview. But prepare as if you do – lots of conversations, practice interviews, and scholarly reading exercises
Year 13, DecemberInterview window is normally first two weeks of December, although decisions might not come until January!

This is an idealised timetable. No matter when a student decides they want to apply to Oxbridge – and in the days of AS/A2, we’d have some who’d realise they were good enough after their AS results day in August….! – they can always make a good application in a shorter time-frame.

However, as with anything, the more time you have available to prepare and think, the better the outcome is likely to be, and the lower the stress for candidate and teachers respectively!

So, I’d encourage starting early to lay the groundwork. This builds on the principle of ‘the rich diet of Geography education’ and allows developing and meaningful conversations to happen over the timetable!

Supporting Geography Candidates for University & Oxbridge. Part 1: Raising Aspirations

Part of our job as Geography teachers is always about raising aspirations of our students – whether that’s in the completion of an individual task, discussion or exercise, the grades that they can achieve, or their eventual destinations that they can move towards.

We do this all the time by:

  • Having high standards of Geography – always encouraging people to think deeply and explore more perspectives.
  • Extended and enriched ‘diet’ of Geography – trips, visits, competitions, reading, modelling a wider and deeper engagement with the subject at all levels.
  • Modelling interest and passion for our subject, and encouraging them to share the same excitement about their understanding of the world
  • Showing our own journey, and being open about our experiences that made us Geographers, or helped us. For some, it’s about talking about specific moments, decisions, or travel experiences – for others, it’s about university experiences.
  • Connecting further to our friends and peers who have studied Geography, and gone in to careers that aren’t “being a Geography teacher”

These help students to understand that ‘Geography is worth studying’ and that it’s a valid and approachable option for them. Hopefully, it’s part of what we’re all doing in our classrooms right from Year 7 onwards – and this “rich diet” narrative will be really important for the creation of high quality Geography students over their curriculum experience. You simply can’t do it all in Sixth Form.

If you are specifically looking to raise aspirations towards Oxbridge, then it’s worth considering:

  • Access and outreach visits from Oxbridge tutors and admissions teams. Most Colleges have specific parts of the country that they’re responsible for, and specific connections. If you can get multiple schools together, then it’s worth them coming to you.
  • Access and outreach visits to Oxbridge are really valuable in providing an insight in to the people and places – they can be complex to organise, and support from the outreach teams is invaluable. It’s normally worth having a multiple-subject approach – for your school, or for groups of schools, rather than trying to make it subject-specific. They can be hugely helpful in allowing students in Y12 to make decisions about picking Colleges, or deciding between universities, for instance.
  • However, it’s often worth considering this in Year 10/Year 11 for students – the motivational push for GCSE grades, or in helping them to select their A Level subjects can be really valuable. And, as we said before, it’s sometimes worth having the idea planted before reaching Sixth Form.

If you can, getting former students who’ve had success in their interview or application process is a really valuable connection between “the students” and “people like me” getting success and making it real.

The other component of this is the “have you considered?” kind of conversation – with talented students who haven’t potentially considered themselves as Oxbridge candidates, and encouraging them to think about it or look at it. I know this was my own experience – Mr Phipps and Mr Russell as gentle guide encouraging me to think of these options. Often, this is a combination of confidence building – students with excellent GCSE profiles and likely A*/A at A Level, having a chance to think about what and where they might be able to study.

There’s a difficult balance to strike between raising aspirations and putting pressure on students. Some people will find the support welcome – and others might resist it. Like any other Sixth Form experience, the relationship and understanding your students (and their context, their parents, their motivation/aspiration) is critical.

So, assuming a rich diet of thinking has taken place through the Geography curriculum, what kind of timescale are we talking about? Let’s have a look.

Supporting Geography Candidates for University & Oxbridge: Introduction

When I was 16, I didn’t think I was going to definitely go to university. But my other plans were derailed, and I started to consider applying for universities on the suggestion of my Geography teacher. I was the first in my family to go to university. My parents have the equivalent of three O Levels between them. So, we needed great guidance and support from the teachers at my school, and we were really lucky to have that support.

I was lucky enough to be offered a place at Oxford to read Geography, and since then, in my teaching career, I’ve been really fortunate to be involved with UCAS and Oxbridge admissions for a number of years across a whole range of schools. I’ve supported candidates for Geography, Earth Science and similar disciplines – together with broad candidates from other areas – and my university advice has been some of the most impactful and meaningful work I’ve ever done.

But what if you’re a teacher who wants to support candidates, and you don’t know where to start? I’ve specifically tailored some advice here to the Oxbridge application process, but it supports a lot of Geography candidates for all universities, too.

I want to signpost some resources that are helpful for all students considering university applications first:

Hopefully, in this series of posts, I can give you some ideas and support – and you can always drop me a DM if you want to chat further.

I’ll look at:

  1. Raising aspirations – and thinking about how and when you start encouraging students to consider Geography at university, or at Oxbridge.
  2. Becoming a serious candidate – what are the timescales?
  3. Laying the groundwork – scholarship in subject
  4. Preparing the personal statement
  5. Making the application – all of the other bits
  6. Preparing for admissions tests
  7. Preparing for interviews
  8. Coaching and approaches

Let’s have a look at what each of these components might be.