Coupled with the impacts of COVID-19 itself, this year’s exam results mean Oxbridge entry is harder than ever. Paarul Shah looks at the challenges and how schools can support their students to make the transition

This year’s exams arrangements pose unique problems for Oxbridge applicants, both successful and unsuccessful. What’s more, applicants for quantitative STEM subjects, especially maths, will likely be hardest hit.

Unsuccessful Oxbridge applicants first face a problem of timing. Those who have missed their offers have the option to replace their current grades with the results of the autumn exams, but they will not get the results until after the Oxbridge start of term has passed, so even if they are successful they will need to wait a year. If they are still unsuccessful and want to reapply, the Oxbridge application deadline (usually October 15th) will also have passed, so they will have to wait for a second year on top of that.

So it seems that offer holders who have missed their grades will have to wait at least a year to be able to win a place at the university of their dreams.

This gives rise to an issue specific to STEM applicants. Gap years are broadly discouraged for mathematical subjects, especially by Oxbridge, because taking time away from maths means that you forget it easily. A Cambridge professor at an open day is quoted as responding “You won’t be coming to Cambridge, then” when asked by a student about their gap year.

With at least one gap year almost forced onto students who choose to resit, what will they do in the meantime? Devoting a year to keeping up their mathematical study, while a romantic thought, isn’t necessarily practical – in this corona job market, students who need a job to keep afloat will have to take whatever comes their way.

A second issue for STEM applicants is that students who take further maths often sit maths A Level early, in year 12. I spoke to a parent whose son’s predicted A*Maths grade was downgraded to an A, meaning that his hopes of applying for maths at Oxford have been dashed, an A* in maths being an absolute requirement. I hope Oxford and Cambridge encourage such students to apply and resit, going on predicted grades, admissions tests and interviews rather than this year’s results.

Even successful Oxbridge applicants will face problems once they arrive in October

One further problem for STEM applicants is specific to students who were required to take the Cambridge maths admissions test, STEP. One of the few external exams to have run this year, it is notorious for culling 50 per cent of applicants come results day. After being hurriedly moved online this June, some students – especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds – were thrown off by tech issues or difficulty finding a quiet and undistracting exam environment.

Meanwhile, even successful Oxbridge applicants will face problems once they arrive in October. Every year, Oxford and Cambridge over-offer, knowing a certain number will miss their grades. This year, the strategy hasn’t worked out: in spite of a huge number of downgraded results, the percentage of A*s has increased by 28 per cent, so more students than expected have met their offers. Organising accommodation and other amenities would be hard enough in a normal year. This year, however, Oxford and Cambridge are constrained by the need to reduce person-to-person contact, sorting their students into virus-inhibiting ‘bubbles’. Some Oxbridge colleges are reportedly refusing accommodation to their postgraduate students in order to help safely house their undergraduates.

There are likely to be academic difficulties besides these logistical ones. As hard as teachers have worked, schools will differ in the amount of support they will have been able to provide over lockdown, meaning that successful applicants’ readiness for the intense Oxbridge courses will vary. I worry particularly about students applying to study quantitative STEM subjects, where a grasp of further maths and advanced physics topics is crucial to hit the ground running.

To their credit, some Oxbridge colleges will be phoning their incoming freshers to determine what education they have received over the last few months. Hopefully, this will lead to a more personalised learning experience, allowing all students to start from a common point. Even so, it would be wise for the 2020 Oxbridge cohort to use the next month to ensure they are up to speed with all of the A level content. Teachers’ advice to their year 14’s will be invaluable here.