The Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge is the most famous and longest running competition between the two oldest UK universities. Many famous faces have been down the 4 mile and 374 yard (6.78km) course including Sir Steve Redgrave, Sir Matthew Pinsent, Hugh Laurie and the Vinklevosses (of ‘The Social Network’ fame), but for everyone who takes part, it is the most physically demanding race in the world and every contestant needs talent, stamina, commitment and determination in order to be successful.
So…a bit like applying to Oxford or Cambridge then?
I would argue yes, and in fact, this year’s Boat Race is even more like the 2011 application cycle than any other. And here’s why:
Just like applications to Oxford and Cambridge, winning the Boat Race is becoming more competitive every year. Back in 1860, Cambridge could still win with a time of 26 minutes and 5 seconds, whereas now, crews need to be completing the course in under 16 and a half minutes in order to be in with a shot. Rowers are getting, bigger, taller, heavier and more experienced and the same can (sort of) be said for the applicants to Oxbridge (in intellectual terms I mean…). But there was some good news this year. With the Olympics coming in 2012, all the big, international rowers were back home training with their national teams, leaving the way free for lots of undergraduates to take part, which is usually much more difficult. The prospect of a rise in tuition fees is likely to have the same effect on applications this year: Oxford and Cambridge saw an unprecedented increase in the number of applicants in 2010, and predictions say that lots of the top applicants will have chosen to go to university last year rather than taking a gap year or reapplying. This means that competition is likely to be a little less fierce than last year, and you, like the rowing undergraduates of Oxford and Cambridge, will have more of a chance to shine.
Did you know that the rowers in the boat race put in two hours’ training for every stroke they take in the boat? With about 600 strokes over the course of the race, that’s some pretty solid commitment! You could think about your application in the same way. It’s easy to think that you can just do a practice paper in preparation for you Admissions Test, or quickly brush up on current affairs in time for your interview, but this 1:1 ratio of preparation to performance really isn’t going to make you stand out. You should be thinking about your strategy and revising for your Admissions Test well in advance. Be sure to put time and effort in to this as, for many subjects, this is the first hurdle you need to jump to be invited to interview. Likewise, you should be reading up on your subject and the ideas that interest you so that you can absorb the information and be ready to pull it out at the right moment in your personal statement, your Admissions Test and your interview. You’re brain may not be a muscle, but you still need to do some training to ensure it can lift those academic weights without breaking out in a proverbial sweat!
If you watched the boat race, you may have seen Oxford get ahead of Cambridge and take up the middle of the stream. This is where the current is fastest, and it becomes near impossible for the crew behind to overtake. Following this strategy, most crews try to go fast as early on as possible to take up the place in the middle of the stream in front of the other crew and secure a victory. Only three times in the last ten years has a crew who was behind at the half way point gone on to win the race. Following the boat race’s example, now is about the right point in time to be sitting down and working out a timetable for the coming months. When are the open days? When do you need to register for your Admissions Test? When do you need to get your personal statement in? When is your interview likely to fall? If you can do the research in advance and the preparation well before, you’ll pull yourself into the lead and dramatically improve your chances of success.