Updated: Sep 28
Conor explains his personal experience of getting an offer to study law at Selwyn College, Cambridge.
Hey! I’m Conor. I’m currently in my first year of law at Selwyn College, Cambridge. When I first began researching Oxbridge, I found the process really daunting. The prospect of getting into any Russell Group University let alone Oxbridge felt impossible due to the lack of information available. The purpose of this guide is to emphasise that getting into Oxbridge is not the impossible task that it can seem and that with a bit of guidance it is very much achievable!
An Overview of the Process
I think the best way to illustrate that getting into Oxbridge is a tangible goal that you can work towards is to give you an overview of the process. As a law student, my overview will be tailored towards law, but the timeline is generally applicable to most subjects.
I had thought about trying to apply for a while, but it was only until February of Fifth Year that I began taking an application seriously. From February until June I did around an hour of law reading a night and an essay a week on a potential LNAT (law aptitude test) topic. Coming up to my summer exams I stepped back from the law work for a bit because I knew my exams would be used for my Oxbridge predicted grades. In the summer I really focussed in on LNAT preparation and wrote some drafts of my personal statement. I took my LNAT in September before school started. September and October were mainly spent working on my personal statement as well as a smattering of Cambridge Law Test preparation and more reading. After submitting my personal statement by the 15th of October, I was free to focus on interview and Cambridge Law Test work. I took my interview and Cambridge Law test in late November. After two months of painful waiting, I heard back from Cambridge on the 26th of January!
The Application Itself
If you have done some research into UK university applications, you are probably already familiar with the term personal statement. In brief, it is 4,000-character piece detailing your motivation and aptitude to study the subject you are applying to. While an important part of the Oxbridge application process, it is not as crucial as the interview and aptitude test and so it is important not to worry excessively about it. This section will give you some insights into the way I went about reading, writing, and engaging with extra curriculars for my personal statement.
Before I detail what I actually included in my personal statement, I thought it important to note that most of the legal material I read didn’t actually go into my statement. While this may sound counterintuitive, I really believe that exposure to academic material will train you to think in the way that your interviewers want you to. Reading widely on your subject will help develop the language and thinking processes that will become invaluable during aptitude tests and interviews.
This is of course easier said than done and choosing where to begin your reading is often the most difficult part. In my opinion, the best introductory book for any law student is ‘What About Law’. It gives a great insight into every core legal subject through the lens of some interesting debate in the field. While I might be slightly biased as one of the authors, Janet O’Sullivan, is my Director of Studies, it is a great jumping off point for choosing a legal topic to focus in on. ‘Letters to a Law Student’ is also helpful for tips on legal reading and writing. Two other books that are often recommended as suitable for new students to the law are ‘The Rule of Law’ by Tom Bingham and ‘Justice’ by Michael J. Sandel. I enjoyed these books so much that I spent most of my time exploring the field of Jurisprudence and Ethics that they had introduced to me. I also read several Oxford ‘Very short Introduction’ books on law as they were invaluable for getting a quick insight into a specific field before embarking on deeper reading. This was exactly what I did for international law, reading Vaughan Lowe’s ‘International Law, A Very Short Introduction’. I also would not shy away from academic journals, and I included Samantha Besson’s ‘Sovereignty, International Law and Democracy’ in my personal statement to show critical interest in academia. It is important to note that there is no right way to do a personal statement and I have met people who read both less and more than me. It really is just about following your interests!
With regards to writing, there is no set formula. However, there are some things that I did that might give you a sense of possible directions to go in. I really liked the idea of structuring my paragraphs around a central legal idea. I felt that the thematic ties between topics within paragraphs gave it academic weight. I began my personal statement with a short ‘genesis story’ which explained the overall narrative of my piece. I ended the personal statement with a short paragraph on my applicable legal skills from school and work experience. It’s important to note that these last paragraphs are not that important and work experience for law is in no way necessary. The core of my personal statement consisted of three paragraphs which each centred on an idea: objective legal theory; autonomy and welfare; and justice respectively. Within these paragraphs I sought to illustrate the academic journey I took with regards to the legal principle I was focussing on. I wanted to show the development of my own views and hopefully demonstrate that I’m teachable in the process! Because I homed in on my own views and critical thoughts, I only included around two pieces of reading in each paragraph, much less than you might initially think! Over the course of 7 months, I wrote 13 drafts of my personal statement before I was ready to submit it.
Extra Curriculars and Other Resources
I think there’s a misconception, perhaps due to the way applications to American universities work, that to get into Oxbridge you must fill your personal statement with extra curriculars, positions of leadership and charitable engagement. In fact, I did not include any school extra curriculars in my personal statement. Oxbridge places emphasis on what they call ‘super curriculars’. These are extra-curricular activities that directly relate to your subject. In my personal statement I included my participation in European Youth Parliament Ireland, Model United Nations, Debating Competitions, and the Robert Walker Essays in Law Competition. While not a huge part of the application, super curriculars can demonstrate a practical interest in your subject. Other resources such as podcasts, news and online lectures can also be included.
Admissions tests were one of the most daunting aspects of the application process for me. However, with a solid strategy and lots of practice it is very possible to do really well in them.
The National Admission Test for Law (LNAT) is the aptitude test that most Russell Group Universities will require law student to take as part of their application. It consists of two sections. Section A is a multiple-choice section consisting of 42 questions. You are required to read a passage and then answer between 3 and 4 questions on the arguments and content in the passage. Section B consists of an unprepared essay.
Section A really just calls for as much practice as you can fit in. I would also recommend making a note of the correct logic in questions that you answer incorrectly. I started with Mark Shepherd’s book ‘Mastering the LNAT’ as a nice introduction to the format of the section before moving on to a website called Arbitio. This website was invaluable to my section A preparation as it structures its online tests in the actual format of the LNAT and has accompanying feedback for each question. It is important to remember that Arbitio can be difficult and not to be disheartened if your scores seem low.
Section B requires both practice and a solid ability to argue. While the often-ethical questions in the test seem impossible to prepare for, there are some strategies you can employ. For example, in almost every essay question you can explore the contention between autonomy and welfare or make consequentialist or deontological arguments. By establishing a simple ‘for and against’ structure while populating each section with intriguing supporting points from ethics, politics, law, and legal theory, you can create a very strong argument.
The interview is the final – and perhaps greatest – hurdle in the interview process. However, this too is a manageable step. It is important to remember that the interviewers want you to do well and will seek to draw your best out during the interview. I had two interviews, the first was subject specific and the second was a general interview about my personal statement and motivations. The general interview is quite simple to prepare for and really requires you just to have a firm grasp on why you want to study your subject and your motivation for applying. If you prepare a general narrative, you should be able to mould it to any question they throw at you. The subject specific interview is more difficult to prepare for. The best advice I can give for it is to read widely on your subject in the months beforehand. Additionally, it can be helpful to try and figure out when your interviewer is challenging your views because they want to see you defend them or when they are challenging you because you have gone too far down the wrong way. Interviewers often have a conceptual destination in mind!
In hindsight, Cambridge is not the ivory tower I thought it was. People come from various cultural, socioeconomic and academic backgrounds. I have yet to meet a ‘genius’ but I have met an abundance of people who enjoy learning and work hard. A good work life balance is very much achievable here and there are so many opportunities to get involved in sports and societies. The experience of living with so many like-minded people in a really inclusive place is truly exceptional. If you are considering Oxbridge, I would truly encourage you to apply.
If you are thinking of applying or need some help with your application, please do not hesitate to reach out to me. You can contact me on LinkedIn or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Summary of Resources
The ‘Think Cambridge Law’ Blog has some great advice. I have attached a link here to a particularly helpful article by Dr Jonathan Rogers. It is worth noting that he views the Supplementary Application Questionnaire as completely optional for Law. I took his advice and opted not to do it!
Introductory Law Books: What About Law, The Law Machine, Letters to a Law Student, The Rule of Law, Learning the Law
Jurisprudence/Ethics: Justice (Sandel), Philosophy of Law (Wacks), Justice (Wacks), On Liberty, A Very Short Introduction to Utilitarianism, A Very Short Introduction to Immanuel Kant, Human Rights and Common Good (Finnis), Introduction to Normative Jurisprudence (Besson)
Criminal Law/Human Rights: Eve Was Framed, A Very Short Introduction to Human Rights
Podcasts: BBC’s Law in Action, Law Pod UK, UK Law Weekly, Politics Weekly (Guardian), The Daily (NYTimes), In Our Time: Philosophy
Newspapers: The Economist, The Financial Times, The Guardian (Law Section), NYTimes
Mark Shepherd’s Mastering the National Test for Law
Arbitio LNAT Prep
Matt Williams, How to Smash the LNAT