Ewan discusses his successful journey from Dublin to Queens' College, Cambridge, where he is in his first year of a three year Law degree.
Hi! I’m Ewan, a first-year law student at Queens’ College, Cambridge. I spent the first eleven years of my life in France, and attended the Institute of Education for my Leaving Cert. Having grown up outside Ireland, the idea of having an international experience always appealed to me. However, I had never even considered Cambridge until Transition Year. Knowing very little about Oxbridge (Oxbridge is a colloquialism for Oxford + Cambridge!), I fell victim to the stereotypes. I pictured it as ultra-competitive and full of upper-class British people that I could never relate to! Oxbridge was a pipe dream that was entirely unattainable for the Irish applicant. However, I now know that, with proper preparation, this is entirely false, and that all the above stereotypes are untrue.
After a chat with a Cambridge Law alumnus, referred to me by my guidance counsellor, I glimpsed a very different view of the Oxbridge experience. It is an experience that is academically challenging, but uniquely stimulating in its content, and rewarding in terms of your social life.
Why did I apply to Cambridge?
Talking to the Cambridge alumnus was profoundly helpful, and this is why I would encourage you, if you know anybody who has studied in the UK, to contact them – they can provide a personal and unique insight into the advantages and disadvantages of studying at a given university.
I’ll begin by summarising some of the key advantages and disadvantages I first identified when I decided I wanted to apply to Cambridge. Compiling a list like this can help you decide whether you are really motivated to apply to a university, and whether it fits your study and career aspirations, and the social university life you are looking for.
Cambridge is divided into 31 colleges, 29 of which accept students for undergraduate study. These colleges are in many ways independent – they run their own admissions process and are responsible for housing their own students. Students live, work and socialise within their college, and this community feeling really appealed to me. Colleges typically house 500-1000 students (including postgraduates).
All accommodation is typically located within the bounds of the College. This means that you are always in close proximity to your friends, so bonds are formed quickly. If you’re into going out to socialise, Cambridge has four nightclubs, which are always buzzing with students. If you prefer socialising through other activities, each College features a host of all sorts of clubs and societies imaginable for you to get to know people.
Teaching at Oxbridge is quite unlike at any other university – in Law, for instance, students take part in hour-long, bi-weekly (i.e., twice a week), small-group teaching sessions with an academic. Rather than being akin to an interrogation on whether you have completed the coursework, the college academics responsible for your teaching instead try to help you resolve the gaps in your knowledge that you will inevitably have and are more than willing to answer any questions you may have.
The reality of student life in Cambridge is quite the opposite of the extremely competitive academia that I had pictured. Year-end examinations are not marked on a bell curve in Law, and students are thus encouraged to share notes and work together in order to deepen their understanding of the Law. The academics truly have the students’ best interests in mind, and are open to new ways of learning that defy tradition. All lectures in the Law Faculty are recorded, which is invaluable for later revision and study sessions.
The year-end exams are in an open-book format – this means that Cambridge Law students don’t have to memorise long legal formulations, statutes, and case law, and can instead focus on mastering their legal critical analysis and argument-making skills. These exams are, however, quite time-pressured (4 essays of 1250 words to be written in 5 hours).
However, studying at Cambridge also has disadvantages. The workload is, of course, intense, and a high standard of writing is expected from Humanities academics. You must be thoughtful in your work, undertake thorough research, and be able to present measured and nuanced arguments. For Humanities students, these are all skills that studying LC English or History will really help you with.
It is also not cheap to live in Cambridge. Irish students are, however, very lucky, as we are entitled to UK domestic fee status. This is still a very considerable 9250 pounds, but the university provides a range of bursaries to help students out – it is often said that the university believes that finances should never be a barrier to studying at Cambridge. Colleges also try to help with the cost of living by providing subsidised meals. Queens’ College, for instance, provides lunch that costs only three pounds, which is a staple for students in my College.
It is invaluable that you undertake thorough research if you want to apply to any university in the UK, and that you are entirely sure why you want to apply to a specific course. If you want to be successful in securing an offer, UK universities differ greatly from Irish universities in that they are looking for motivation and surety that you have really thought about why you want to study a given subject. There is no equivalent of the ‘Personal Statement’ in the CAO. I will outline what supercurricular activities are below, as these are essential to a Personal Statement (this is further developed in the specific blog post titled ‘Personal Statement’ under ‘The Application Process’.)
I got started with my Oxbridge research on The Student Room, it provides useful guides with all the information you will need to apply to UCAS, which Irish students are unfamiliar with. Trawling through Oxbridge pages in The Student Room gave me an inside track of what studying each course is like and helped me to get a feel for each college. As someone who always thoroughly enjoyed presenting arguments and writing essays, I was instantly drawn to Law.
My research into studying Law at Cambridge simply began on the university’s webpage for the subject. Cambridge provides a useful reading list for Law under the ‘Resources’ section. I bought a few books on the list and read them. This gave me a sense of which areas of Law I would be interested in. If you wish to study law, I would recommend ‘What About Law?’. It is written by Cambridge academics, and I found it particularly helpful, as it provides an introductory view into each area of Law studied at university – the key cases, debates and ideas – in an accessible format. From this starting point, I was able to find other, more detailed resources on the topics that interested me. For instance, Constitutional Law interested me, so I started reading Mark Elliott’s (another Cambridge Academic) ‘Constitutional Law for Everyone Blog’. Making sure that you maintain varied and informed interests in whatever topic you wish to study is essential. Ensure that you don’t simply ‘rote learn’ what you read – make sure to analyse it and think ‘why does this actually interest me and motivate me to study my given subject?’.
The Cambridge Admissions Process
The Cambridge admissions process can be quite rigorous, as it combines the steps required for your general UCAS application, plus extra tests and interviews exclusive to Cambridge. The first step I took was to familiarise myself with the application process – for UCAS this involved writing my UCAS personal statement, obtaining a teacher reference, submitting academic transcripts and obtaining predicted grades. For Cambridge, I had to sit an entry test, and providing my application was deemed strong, I would be invited to an interview.
The Personal Statement
For admission to universities in the UK, the focus is very much on academia, and more importantly, demonstrating your genuine interest in the subject you’re applying to study. Top universities value the aforementioned ‘supercurricular engagement’ highly i.e. your research into university-level topics beyond your school curriculum. This shows admissions officers that you’re truly passionate about your chosen topic and are willing to go above and beyond your school studies to find out more about it. I took the approach of centering my Personal Statement around three main areas of the Law that I had researched in my spare time: constitutional law, jurisprudence (the philosophy of law), and the interaction of law and public policy. I discussed interesting case law around these areas that I read about in legal books, and what insights these cases gave me into the study of Law.
A key tip that I would recommend is to try to make your Personal Statement unique. Try to find ‘niche’ interests of sorts in the subject you wish to apply to – this will provide refreshing content for admissions officers who will be reading dozens of Personal Statements each day! However, try not to make this interest forced. Organically develop your niche interests, through reading books, online journals, and even watching YouTube videos. This way, your interest in them, as outlined in your Personal Statement, will sound genuine. Make sure your Personal Statement is concise but informative. It’s okay to redraft it in order to reach this sweet spot – it took me nine redrafts!
The decision of which college to apply to is important, but I would advise not to overthink it. I simply applied to Queens’ College as it is close to the Law faculty, it has a relatively large cohort size of 8-10 law students per year, and the Director of Studies in Law seemed nice!
I chose Cambridge over Oxford, primarily due to the content of the Law course in Cambridge. Oxford’s law course is focused on Jurisprudence throughout, while I found that Cambridge provides a more balanced approach to the law, with a wider selection of modules. I thus thought that Cambridge’s broader focus would allow me to explore more diverse areas of Law, and provide a more balanced approach to its study.
Admissions Tests and Interviews
If you are applying to top UK universities, the chances are that you will have to take an admissions test. I applied to UCL, LSE and King’s College London – I had to take the LNAT for all three. I used Arbitio to practice for this test. Arbitio is an excellent resource, as it provides many sample multiple choice tests, and practice essay questions, which mirror the LNAT’s format. It is, however, a paid service, but in retrospect it was certainly worth the investment. Whether you are doing the BMAT, or any other entrance test, there will always be online resources, both free and paid, to help you prepare.
Having submitted my UCAS application in October 2021, I was fortunate enough to be invited to an online interview in late November. Prior to the interview, however, I had to pass the Cambridge Law Test, which took the form of a one-hour essay, with a selection of three questions to choose from. The CLT has, however, as of 2022, been replaced by the LNAT, so I have instead provided advice for the LNAT above.
The interview can seem very daunting. For me, it took the form of a half-an-hour discussion with an academic, during which I talked about the academic aspects of my application and was asked questions about my subject to make me think “outside of the box”. Practice for the interview is key – I familiarised myself with the topics in my Personal Statement and could elaborate on them if necessary. I really enjoyed the interview – the academics who interviewed me were very friendly, and the topics of discussion were genuinely interesting.
How was I successful?
I think that thorough preparation helped my application. I researched widely into UK Law, and incorporated aspects of Irish Law into my Personal Statement, to build a coherent narrative of how my extracurricular interest in various legal systems has developed.
In the interview, I attempted to put my thought process into words. Some of the questions can be quite difficult, and the academics by no means expect you to be able to deliver a perfect answer to them. In many cases, they can be theoretical questions to which there is no answer! It is more important that you show your willingness to face up to the questions posed and demonstrate your genuine engagement with them. Instead of worrying about having a right or wrong answer, focus on expressing your thoughts. I think it’s important to remember that especially for Cambridge, the academics who undertake interviews will be the interviewee’s future teachers. They are thus looking for the interviewee to be engaged and personable.
By demonstrating my genuine interest in Law through my Personal Statement, and thanks to thorough preparation for the general UK law admissions test (the LNAT), I also received offers from the three other universities I applied to: UCL, LSE and King’s College London – this is more attainable than you might think!
What advice would I give to Irish applicants about UCAS?
I think the best advice that a UCAS applicant could receive is to foster a genuine interest in the course you wish to apply to. Seek out areas of university courses that interest you, look more deeply into them, and instead of repeating the information that you find, give your own opinion on it. Engagement with material beyond the school curriculum could involve reading books, doing online courses, watching online lectures – there is a great diversity of online resources that could help you. For the courses that have an essay-based admissions test, it is key to become comfortable with writing essays and expressing your ideas cogently, in a clear essay structure. Great advice I received was to remember to state your point, explain it, and link it back to the essay title.
Regarding extracurricular activities, especially for admission to UK universities, extracurricular activities are not valued in isolation. For an extracurricular activity to benefit your application, it must be linked to an insight it gave you into your chosen course, or a skill relevant to the course it taught you.
How have I found life in Cambridge?
My first term in Cambridge was truly fantastic. Between preparing for my supervisions, I found a surprising amount of time to get involved in things I am interested in. I learned that succeeding in Cambridge does not require you to sacrifice your social life. I still found time to go on nights out with friends on a weekly basis, and there’s also plenty of social activities in college, from formal dinners to football games. At Cambridge, there is something for everyone to get involved in. As someone who enjoys debating, I’ve particularly spent a lot of time watching debates in the Cambridge Union, the University’s debating society. The Union gets great guest speakers – Brian Cox’s lecture was a highlight of the term.
I’ve found the academic content legitimately enjoyable (although studying the Latin terms of Roman Law can be frustrating at times, to be honest). The academics in my college have been very supportive – it is this personal interaction with academics, through supervisions and essay feedback, which I believe truly sets Oxbridge apart from the crowd.
Cambridge is a beautiful place to study, and there are so many ways to admire the town, whether it is on walks to lectures, wandering around colleges, or punting on the river Cam with friends!
Tips, in hindsight
In hindsight, I realise that it is important to get started early if you want to apply to Oxbridge, so that your application does not interfere too much with your LC studies. Try and make your decision truly informed – applying to Oxbridge because of prestige shouldn’t be your only motivation. Picture yourself actually studying there and consider whether it would be a good fit for you.
To reiterate what I said before, make sure that you foster a genuine interest in the subject you are applying for. Get involved in activities which can demonstrate this interest, and if you are a prospective Humanities student, make sure that your arguments are well-presented and coherent. For Oxbridge, and any other university in the UK for that matter, research, above all else, is key. Many of my Irish friends applying to the UK didn’t undertake sufficient research into what UK universities are looking for. Make sure that you are well-informed about every step of your application.
In conclusion, I would encourage anyone who has an interest in studying abroad to at least consider Oxbridge. As I have come to learn myself, the stereotypes surrounding Oxbridge are not true. Remember that achieving an Oxbridge offer is doable. Top UK universities are not looking for geniuses, only for motivated students with a good work ethic!
If you have any questions about applying to Oxbridge, feel free to contact me on my socials below: