If you are the proud parent of an Oxford or Cambridge applicant, I’m here to help you do everything that you can to get them through.
I went through the process to get into Oxford and was accepted. I’m able to write this because I observed what my parents did to help me get in. I’m going to pass on what I found valuable and useful.
Before we get to the tips, I should briefly say that, although I believe my advice is universal, my experience was that of a young man from a state school who knew nothing about Oxford. Neither of my parents had attended university and neither of them knew anything about Oxford either. As such, I believe that my parents had to deal with an interesting mixture of emotions. They were proud and excited but they were also concerned and, at times, felt helpless.
I’m here to tell you that even if you know nothing about Oxford or Cambridge (or whatever university your child is applying to) you are not helpless. Follow this advice and you will be very instrumental in your child’s success. They will look back in years to come, as I am doing now, and they will be incredibly thankful to have had you there for them.
Let’s get started!
1. Believe in them (sincerely)
This really isn’t generic advice.
You absolutely have to believe in your child’s ability. You have to believe in them completely.
This is difficult but important.
It’s difficult because your child’s emotions are your emotions.
When you seem them struggling, you will feel their stress and struggle. In a sense, it may even be harder for you as a parent because you are not supposed to show them that you are stressed.
You have to be their rock. You have to be their calm center in the eye of the storm.
You will feel as though you are going through your child’s journey yourself. It’s hard not to place yourself in their shoes and it’s hard not to constantly think about what you would do in their position.
Sometimes you might question your child’s ability to do it.
You know they are intelligent but Oxford or Cambridge seem so unattainable. Can they really do it? You wouldn’t blame them if they couldn’t. But your child can pick up on doubtful thoughts like that.
This is why it’s also important for you to sincerely believe 100% that your child can do it.
You need to believe that they can do it in order to get them through the times when they don’t believe in themselves.
Brainwash yourself if you have to. Tell yourself over and over: ‘They can do it. I believe in them.’
This is not the time to worry about ‘what if’. Until they prove you otherwise, they will succeed.
2. Understand the pressure they are feeling
Even though their pain is your pain, some days life gets in the way. Some days you might forget what they are going through.
You might have a bad day at work. You’ve had an argument with your spouse. You haven’t had enough sleep.
It’s easy to be excited for someone else on the good days. The real test of how committed you are is whether you are able to remain committed on the bad days.
This is the time to be super vigilant with how you treat them.
Even if they seem fine on the surface, you need to understand they might be a moment away from crumbling. Don’t be the one to push them over the edge. Be the one to catch them if someone else pushes them over the edge.
3. Know how to motivate them
You’d think the idea of getting into Oxford or Cambridge would be motivation enough, wouldn’t you?
Well, not really…
It’s a great thought but at this stage it feels like a far-off fantasy.
When I was 17, applying for Oxford, it felt like an unattainable fairy tale.
It was too abstract.
My dad provided me with a concrete reward to strive towards. He slapped a picture of a nice red sports car on my bedroom wall next to my study schedule and said that if I got in he would buy it for me.
Funny how the mind works. Which is better: getting a car (that I wouldn’t be able to use at Oxford) or getting into Oxford University? My monkey brain chose the car. I was very motivated by this. I looked at the picture every day.
Originally he tried to motivate me by putting a picture of Oxford on my wall. The only problem was the picture didn’t really look like Oxford and it still didn’t provide me with anything concrete (I mean, spires are nice, but what about that sports car?).
This wasn’t the only motivation my dad provided. He also built smaller rewards into my working week. He was very clever because these rewards were often directly related to the course I was aiming to study.
At the beginning of the week, I knew that if I did my work, we’d go see a Shakespeare play or see a decent movie. Sometimes we would go out for dinner and we would discuss the things I was studying.
4. Know when to motivate them and when to make them relax
Preparing for Oxbridge can do some strange things to you.
One day you might wake up after 9 hours of sleep and you will feel completely depressed and unwilling to work. Another day you might have only gotten 2 hours of sleep and yet you are still trying to pull an all-nighter.
If your child is running themselves into the ground, you need to gently nudge them into relaxing for a little while. Tell them that you are proud of them and they deserve some time to rest. Tell them that they will be inefficient if they don’t relax.
If your child is complacent or feeling hopeless, this is the time to gently nudge them into seeing the benefits again.
5. Reinforce their love and passion
All of these points are connected.
For example, you can motivate your child and make them relax by doing the exact same thing. In both instances, my dad would take me to see a good movie, something with great dialogue. This motivated me to get back to my studies because it reminded me of my passion for language. This also provided me time to unwind without completely taking my eye off the prize.
If your child is going to study history, you can reinforce their love of the subject by taking them to museums. If your child is going to study a science, watch a Ted Talk with them. If your child is going to study geography, take them somewhere interesting in the country.
6. Buy them books
This is one of my favourite ones.
You should buy them as many books as you can afford.
If you want them to know the value of money, have them work for everything else but books should be an exemption. Be abundant with books.
I suggest a mixture of electronic and real books. This will help to keep costs down.
Scribd is a great resource for ebooks (they do a 14-day free trial).
Audible is great for audiobooks (they do a 30-day free trial).
If your child is studying at Oxford or Cambridge, however, a lot of the books they need will be specialist or expensive textbooks. If you can afford them, you should help them with these.
When I got into Oxford, I was given a huge reading list to work my way through before I even arrived. Luckily, my subject being English, I could keep the cost down by buying the Wordsworth Classics and Dover Thrift editions of books. But this still got expensive. I must have grabbed about a hundred books before I arrived and even if I had stuck only to these editions, the cost still would have been around £200.
7. Get them a mentor
Put them in touch with someone who has done what they are trying to do.
A good mentor will give them insider knowledge, steer them away from mistakes, and boost their confidence.
Good mentors are worth their weight in gold.
8. Research and understand what they need to do
I was completely clueless during my application process.
Without having people pushing me in the right direction I would have been in a lot of trouble.
I still did get in trouble many times and often felt out of my depth and that was due to the fact that I hadn’t researched properly.
Sometimes it’s hard to know what to research and this is why it’s good to have someone helping you.
Do your best and try to look out for them. They need as many extra eyes and ears as they can get.
9. Take and share the load
There’s a phenomenon in humans known as ‘decision depletion’.
This basically means that we can only make a certain amount of decisions a day before we start becoming stressed and exhausted. This is particularly true for big important decisions.
During this time, don’t give your child too many problems to deal with. Don’t ask too many questions because every time they answer, they lose a little bit of energy that could be better served in working towards getting into the university.
You can also help out by making some decisions for them.
If your child seems exhausted, offer to share the load and ask them what’s bothering them. When they tell you, solve the problem or just listen to them.
When I felt overwhelmed by work, my dad helped me to construct a study schedule.
Be careful only to make decisions when they need you to. You don’t want to take control of their life. There is a fine balance between being a saint and a dictator.
10. Be their friend
Perhaps the most important suggestion on the list.
Sure, you need to be a parent. But sometimes you need to step out of that role, if only for an hour a day.
My best memories during that time are of my parents being my friends. Your child might still think it’s not cool to be friends with their parents, but I promise you they will look back and cherish the friendship you offered them.
I wish you every bit of luck in the world. The fact that you are reading this tells me that you are a great parent who wants the very best for your child. I’m positive that you can give it to them. Enjoy the journey. It will be a great experience.
P.S. If your child is currently writing their personal statement, be sure to show them this guide.