What Will Make You a Great Oxford Student?

The first thing to know is, there is no one image of an Oxford student. Oxford students come from all socioeconomic backgrounds, and all ethnicities. Whether you’re a care leaver, a mature student, a parent, an international student or a disabled student, there’s a place for you at Oxford.

In this blog, we’re going to cover the qualities that make you a great Oxford student. Although these qualities can be enhanced by hard work, they all come naturally, and should be an important part of who you are.

If you’re a driven and curious student with a deep passion for a particular subject, there is no reason why you shouldn’t apply to Oxford. Oxford accepts many people from a diverse range of identities, but they all have one thing in common: a tendency to think deeply about the world, and a refusal to take things at face value.

Let’s look closely at the things that make you a great Oxford student.

What will make you a great Oxford student?

The things that make you a great Oxford student are: a passion for your subject, a tendency to think deeply about the world, an ability to read widely around your subject, having an articulate and expressive nature, an academic profile that meets the Oxford admissions requirements, a desire to learn through interactive and personalised tutorials, a readiness to give everything to your studies, being determined, hard-working and self-motivated, and ready for amazing teaching and career opportunities.

Let’s dive right in, and look at these qualities in greater detail.

9 qualities that will make you a great Oxford student

A passion for your subject

Having passion and fervour for the subject you want to study at Oxford is the key ingredient to being a great Oxford student. Peter Claus, the access fellow at Pembroke College, Oxford, says:

“Naturally we’re crazy about our subjects as tutors – so we look for people of equal fervour. Demonstrating independent intellectual fervour around your subject is much more important than any Duke of Edinburgh awards. We need to see that students have gone above and beyond, and are aware of the culture of their subject”1

Claus gives fantastic insight into impressing an Oxford tutor. It’s not so much about how much information you can regurgitate, as how much passion and engagement with your subject you can get across in your personal and statement and interview.

So, how do you prove this passion, both when you write your UCAS application, and in the Oxford interview process? When it comes to your personal statement, think of the books you have read and the things you have done to go ‘above and beyond’, as Claus says, the curriculum.

This doesn’t mean you have to quote reams of Shakespeare off by heart or memorise all the functions of fluid mechanics. Just think about steps you’ve taken as a result of interest in your subject, and showcase these in your personal statement. For example, maybe you produced an EPQ on Jane Austen, or a series of calculations designed to improve the safety of commuters in London over the next ten years.

Evidence of original thought is an excellent way of proving your love for your subject. When you write about experiments you’ve undertaken or books you’ve read on your subject, make sure you express your own original thoughts on, for example, literature you’ve read, or explain how the outcome of your experiment allowed you to come to a specific conclusion, rather than just listing things you’ve done. There’s an excellent saying when it comes to impressing a university admissions team or future employer: ‘show, don’t tell’. So, don’t just repeat that you’re passionate about your subject, demonstrate by what you’ve read or done that you have a fervent interest in it.

When it comes to proving your passion for your subject at interview, an important thing to know is that, tutors aren’t looking for one right answer (except in STEM subjects, but even here they will be most keen to see your thought process and how you go about working out equations and formulas). Tutors will be looking for people who are fascinated by questions and the different possibilities of things.

If you’re interviewing for English Literature, for example, you’ll be given an ‘unseen’ piece of literature of poetry to analyse before the interview. You’ll then go into your interview and discuss your thoughts on the literature’s structure, rhythm and overall meaning.

This is a great way for you to prove your natural passion and ability for your subject, as you’ll be able to take something you have never seen before and express a fascinating stream of questions and possibilities around it.

You think deeply about the world

The ability to think deeply and come to original conclusions about issues is also what makes a great Oxford student. Reading and studying hard are good attributes, but critical thinking is what defines a successful candidate at Oxford University.

You should be able to take anything: whether it’s a newspaper article, the mechanics of an Instagram quote or an object and immediately start thinking about how it relates to the world around it, how your own perception affects the context you see it in, and how it intersperses with everything from human society, to the realm of symbolism.

Whether you’re an aspiring mathematics, science, art of literature student at Oxford, it’s not enough to just read, recall and regurgitate information. Oxford tutors want to know how you perceive things, and how what you’ve read or studied informs the way you approach the theories of Physics, or the literature of Samuel Johnson, for example.

A useful way to practice your original and critical thinking skills, are to regularly evaluate the information you take in. So, if you’re reading a newspaper article or a piece of academic research, think widely about it, what it could mean in different contexts, and what it says about the world. See if you can come up with your own evaluation, argument or theory around what you’ve absorbed, as tutors will generally present you with a piece of information and ask you to assess in in your interview, so they can see how your thought process works.

You read widely around your subject

Reading widely around your subject, above and beyond the curriculum, is key to being a great Oxford student. Having read a lot around the topics you want to study shows that you are so interested in your subject that it absorbs your attention outside of school hours.

For Oxford tutors and top academics, the subject they teach isn’t just a job: it’s a vocation, so if you can show you have a genuine fascination with your subject through the books you’ve read on it, this will lead to an interesting conversation about your thoughts and wider theories and issues on the subject in your interview, which is what Oxford interviewers want to see.

Ask your teachers at school to recommend books on the subject you’re applying to study at Oxford, which go beyond the material you’re covering in class. For example, if you’re learning about Socialism in History and you know you want to study History at Oxford, you could start reading the original works of Marx, so that you can prove you’ve taken initiative in learning more about your subject. It’s a good idea to do extra reading only on the subjects you are really interested in, because your engagement with these topics will come naturally, and you won’t come across as forced in your Oxford interview.

You’re articulate and expressive

You can be the most fascinated person in the world by your subject, and have read a thousand books around it, but if you can’t get this across to your interviewer, they won’t know what a great Oxford student you will make.

The ability to clearly communicate your ideas it vital to being a great Oxford student. It doesn’t matter if you’re not the most naturally gregarious person in the world, just make sure you practice speaking your thoughts aloud as much as you can. As a bright student, you will have plenty of original observations, you just need to find a way of articulating them.

Ask your teachers to practice with you, starting off having a simple conversation about an idea you’ve had in response to a piece of academic criticism, or a book on your subject. You can then ask them to give you a more formal practice interview. If you know anyone who went to Oxford, you can ask them to put you in touch with one of their friends or acquaintances who is studying your subject at Oxford, and could help you practice discussing your subject aloud, or give you a mock interview. Make sure you check out the Oxford Student Union website for detailed information on how to prepare for your Oxford interview. You can also watch this video on how to excel at Oxford interviews, created by the Access and Outreach team at St Edmund (Teddy) Hall, Oxford.

You can meet the Oxford admissions requirements

Obviously, being able to meet the academic admissions requirements for Oxford is crucial to being a great Oxford student.

If you’re studying UK qualifications, an Oxford offer will usually require you to get between A*A*A and AAA, depending on the course you’ve applied for. If you have any practical components as part of your science A-Levels, you’ll need to pass these.

Oxford will also take GCSEs into account when considering your applications, although the university stresses that this is only part of what they consider for your application. Most successful applicants to Oxford do have a high amount of A and A* grades, or 7,9 and 9 grades, but Oxford looks at the whole GCSE performance of the school or college where you studied to put your grades into context, and you may well be able to make a competitive application to Oxford with lower GCSE grades than you know you were otherwise capable of, especially if you had serious disruption to your learning, such as a bereavement or homelessness.

If you have international qualifications, for example, the International or European Baccalaureate, Oxford will expect the following grades to make a competitive application: a total score of 38,39 or 40 points (depending on your course) with 6s and 7s in Higher level subjects for the International Baccalaureate, and an average of 85% or above in the European Baccalaureate.

You’ll also have to pass English language tests, for example, the IELTS if English is not your first language, and take specialist admissions test for Oxford, for example, the BMAT for medicine or the ELAT for English Literature.

You like the idea of interactive and personalised tutorials

If you love the idea of being taught in small, select groups and have interactive and personalised teaching, you’re likely to make a great Oxford student.

Tutorials are the backbone of teaching at Oxford University. They are academic conversations between one to three students, and an expert tutor. Oxford University tutors are at the very pinnacle of their fields, and are often world-leading experts on the subjects you’re studying, whether you’re reading Geography or International Relations. The chance to have an equal discussion and learn from them is a real privilege. If you know you’ll thrive in an intense academic setting, where the focus is all on you, your thinking and the exchange of ideas between yourself and your tutor, you’ll do well as an Oxford student.

The skills you learn from a tutorial: making and defending arguments and insights, constructively challenging the opinions of others and listening and learning from other people’s views won’t just make you a great Oxford student, they will also make you a great candidate for the career of your dreams.

At Oxford, the style of teaching and your tutorials differ depending on your subject. If you’re studying a STEM subject like engineering at Oxford, your learning will be more focused on lectures,, as well as tutorials. After you’ve attended a set number of lectures, you’ll then be given a ‘tute sheet’ with questions for your to answer. Your answers will highlight your understanding of the topics you’ve learned in lectures, and your tutor will then go through any areas for improvement in your tutorials.

In humanities and social sciences subjects at Oxford, there is less of a focus on lectures, although they are still vital in terms of gaining different perspectives on themes you’re studying. You’ll usually be set essays before a tutorial, which you’ll then discuss in-depth in your tutorial. A great Oxford student always prepares extremely well for a tutorial, so that they know what questions to ask and can take part in discussions in a way that enhances their learning and academic performance,

You’re ready to give everything to your studies

Oxford is nothing if not intense, and a commitment to your studies is what makes a great Oxford student. As a humanities student, for example, you’d be expected to complete one or two several thousand word essays a week, with a heavy amount of critical as well as primary reading to produce an adequate piece of research.

The requirements of learning at Oxford are twofold: you have to have an incredibly detailed understanding of what the pioneers and critics of your subject theorised and discovered, but you also have to take this information and come up with your own original research on the matter. So, there’s no way you can skive off by regurgitating a few critics’ opinions, you have to have an in-depth knowledge of the scholarship around your subject, to produce a decent essay or project.

Oxford terms are packed into extremely intense 8 week terms, and Oxford is renowned for its high workload. There are also examinations at the start of each term (called Collections), so you have to make sure you study enough for these in the vacations. However, if you’re totally dedicated to your subject and ready to give everything to your studies, you’ll make a great Oxford student.

You’re hard-working, determined and self-motivated

It goes without saying that to be a great Oxford student, you have to be hard-working, and able to motivate yourself. Oxford University courses involve a lot of independent learning, because Oxford is best university in the world for research.

The people who teach you are absolute pioneers in their fields, discovering world-changing medical solutions or historical theories, and you will be expect to conduct yourself in the same way: as someone who is unafraid of delving deeply into things, and coming up with your own opinions and discoveries.

Oxford is one of the top academic institutions in the world, and while studying there is exhilarating, it’s not easy. It’s important that you’re determined as a student, because you will need resilience to succeed. It’s OK to make mistakes and not be perfect, because no student is. What matters is that you pick yourself up after you fall, and keep trying.

You’re ready for amazing teaching

Ranked as the best university in the world by Times Higher Education, you an only expect the best teaching at the University of Oxford. If you’re ready to grasp the amazing opportunity of being taught by the very best academics, you’ll make a great Oxford student. If you’re a science student, you’ll most likely be taught by the people who invented and produced the AstraZeneca vaccine against Covid-19. If you’re a literature student, you’ll learn from the people who have written the very books you study. As Rebecca Henderson, English Literature graduate of St Anne’s College, Oxford, said in 2013:

“There are many great things about Oxford: the best libraries, stunning colleges, emphasis on welfare, serious kudos with employers… But there’s one aspect really, truly beyond compare: the people. The tutors have read and written the books – but they want to know your opinion, and you can challenge, as much as be challenged by, international experts”

Now that we’ve gone through 9 qualities that make a great Oxford student, we hope you’ve found this a useful read. Remember that it’s not the school you went to or your ability to memorise information that makes you a great Oxford student: it’s your capacity for original thought and a genuine passion for the subject you want to study.