Why grades alone won’t get you into Oxford
When Oxford admissions hits the headlines, you can be sure of two things: first, the university has been accused of failing minorities (‘social apartheid’ is the latest charge) and second, the ensuing debate will ignore the most obvious pitfall of the selection process — the form and content of A-Levels.
Having experienced both sides of the admissions process for mathematics, I can tell you that A-Level grades serve as nothing more than a box-ticker; a crude filter for weeding out the weakest candidates. Good A-Level grades are necessary to get your hat in the ring and even then, tutors recognise that some of the best mathematical minds get lost in an ether for lack of top grades. Exam performance and problem solving are distinct capabilities; the latter is what Oxford maths tutors are interested in. They realise that A-Level grades reflect only a sliver of mathematical talent.
Oxford has its own entrance exam for maths, which works off the same knowledge foundations as the A-Level curriculum but consists of novel problems that require flexible applications of knowledge.
The ultimate exam is the Oxford interview; a 25-minute exercise in pure, unadulterated problem solving.
The pleasantries are usually dispensed with right away because the tutors are interested mainly in your ability to think, reason and solve problems. A graceful tutor will warm you up with a routine question, but will swiftly extend the problem in ways you could not have conceived. The purpose of the interview is to see how you confront the unknown; tasks are designed to get you stuck, to see how you go about becoming unstuck. The tutors will plant carefully scaffolded prompts that test your ability to integrate new inputs within a solution strategy. You are expected to articulate your reasoning, to justify your assumptions, and to reflect on any mis-steps. The successful interview is not the one where you breeze through the questions, but one where you show tenacity and resolve in the face of uncertainty, along with a flair for problem solving.
The Oxford interview is a dress rehearsal of the undergraduate tutorial, where you are expected to think and behave like a mathematician. Competency in A-Level Maths and Further Maths is a tame approximation of what it takes to thrive in this environment. Tutors are gauging your ability to cope with 3–4 years of hard-edged problem solving, and they cannot rely on your A Level exam grades as a strict guide. I have interviewed straight-A* students who unravel the moment a non-routine problem is presented to them. The grade disguised their inability to confront the unknown; to think and reason; to be mathematicians.
Privately educated students are not immune to the threats of narrow curriculum and assessment. Their advantage resides in the coaching and support they receive outside of the standard A-Level syllabus that helps mould them into the problem solvers tutors are seeking.
I attended a struggling state school, which could not hope to offer this support (or even Further Maths, for that matter). But I was an unusual case in that my brother had bucked the trend in both the school and the family by securing a place at Oxford two years earlier. Through his connections, I enjoyed targeted interview preparation from existing undergraduates — the kind of support that many privately educated students can expect to enjoy, and the kind that, while no silver bullet, can make the difference between earning your place at Oxford and receiving the dreaded rejection letter. This is where the inequality of the Oxford admissions process resides — not just in the disparity in exam grades, but in the support available to students to punch out of A-Levels.
A valid criticism of Oxford admissions tutors is that they do not always strive to account for the varied level of support available to candidates. A Levels are intended to level the playing field, but fail to do so because they do not differentiate at the top end of talent.
If state education is to be the great equaliser for maths, it must address the pitfalls of how the subject is taught and assessed through to A-Level (I suspect the same holds for most other subjects.) The Oxford admissions gap will not be bridged simply by raising exam grades, but by what those grades represent. To systematically raise educational standards will necessitate a rethink of how we develop and assess mathematical talent throughout the system. There are no easy answers because the most reliable and effective way of assessing talent is also the most holistic and costly — in mathematics, it involves speaking to students, engaging them in problem solving and observing the nuances of how they respond to the unknown.
Nobody said it would be easy.
I am a research mathematician turned educator working at the nexus of mathematics, education and innovation.
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