The Complete Guide to Supporting Students Through Their Oxbridge Applications

Becky Kleanthous  · Nov 29th 2021

‘Oxford’ or ‘Cambridge’ would be the first names to trip off most people’s tongues when considering impressive British higher education institutions.


Surrounded by essays, having lost three red pens (or green, if you’re fancy) already this evening, it’s enough to make you stare into the fire and ask yourself, "What am I doing? Why didn’t I just pursue my Hollywood dream? Or at least work in Sainsbury’s where they don’t send you home with hours of marking?" You might feel under-qualified, then, if you’re not only expected to steer your own career, but also to guide the career of others. But fear not. Because firstly, you’ve chosen a noble profession and you’ll be in bed by 2am at the latest (so best stop drinking that coffee, eh), and secondly, we are at hand with a ton of resources to get you on the careers ladder, so to speak.

If you’re feeling rising panic that your Head has simply handed you a ring-binder and told you to meet with Year 8 on Wednesday, then take a deep breath and feel reassured that there are only two real areas to think about when it comes to being an effective careers advisor: communication skills, and information. The ring-binder is probably stuffed with information (school contacts for work experience, activity ideas for choosing GCSE options…) and let’s face it, your years in teaching have probably equipped you with a couple of communication tips already. Plus, we are going to condense everything you need to know about careers information and communication right here. You are welcome. So take a seat on an important-looking spiny chair, brandish that ring-binder with pride, and get ready to say, "Hello everyone, and welcome to Careers. I actually know what I am doing."


Get on the list

Set aside a morning or afternoon to seek out and subscribe to regular careers bulletins. With authoritative round-ups direct to your inbox, it’s an easy way to keep abreast of news, resources and opportunities. The UCAS mailing list should be your first port of call, as they will badger you once a month to remind you of important dates and processes lurking on the horizon. Customise your options on a teaching hub such as TES to receive regular careers info, and sign up to BBC, Guardian and Times Higher Education pages too. Once you’ve done this, you can breathe a sigh of relief: they will be looking out for you.

Build a bank of resources

With those subscriptions under your belt, you can focus on the here-and-now, and what you need to know to get started in your very first Careers session. We wouldn’t recommend printing off every course page from the UCAS website though: your ring-binder wouldn’t cope with the 37,000 programmes on offer. Maybe just bookmark the website in your internet favourites list instead.

Speak to your line manager or anyone else in the school who has some experience with Careers advice. The chances are, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. There are probably a ton of resources, links and lesson plans tucked away in the school’s shared drive, or on the VLE, so start by working with what’s already available.

Also check with your school to find out whether they have any subscriptions to careers software or websites, or whether there’s the budget for it if not. Popular options include Fast Tomato, CareerSoft and the charity Career Connect.

There’s also a wealth of free, informative and engaging careers videos at icould and a free quiz online from the National Careers Service, which asks a range of questions about skills and interests to suggest a list of possible careers.

Know the guidelines

In 2018, the government introduced new statutory guidelines for Careers provision in schools. They now recommend that schools follow the Gatsby Benchmarks as a simple way to fulfil their legal responsibilities. These eight principles are as follows:

  • A stable careers programme
  • Learning from career and labour market information
  • Addressing the needs of each student
  • Linking curriculum learning to careers
  • Encounters with employers and employees
  • Experiences of workplaces
  • Encounters with further and higher education
  • Personal guidance

Get the full guidance along with more detailed supporting advice on implementation from the government website.

Get trained

Ask your school to release you for a CPD day or two to bring your Careers knowledge up to scratch. Find suitable courses at Career Connect, Adviza, or through your union NUT, NASUWT, ATL

Visit a conference

Attending a conference isn’t just a great way to boost your pen supply, you know. Go along to the annual UCAS conference, local recruitment fairs, university conferences, or the CRAC conference. You’ll gather a wealth of information and resources, but crucially, you’ll also get to know a few names and faces who might be able to help you out with enquiries and placements further down the road. A friend in need, and all that.


Alright, now that you’ve passed Careers 101 and you’ve got a bit of knowledge safely stashed away, it’s time to communicate it effectively. And who better to communicate with than teenagers, famed for their love of opening up?! Put that cattle-prod down, now. We have other ways of making them talk.

Listen up

The first step is to listen. Easier said than done, sometimes, but don’t assume you know best. In fact, don’t assume anything! Listen to what your students have to say about their goals, interests, obstacles, and doubts. You can’t possibly guide them with big decisions if you haven’t allowed them to paint a full picture of their life and dreams for you. Additionally, listening well will give students confidence that your advice comes from a thoughtful and meaningful place, and they are more likely to heed it as a result.

But what constitutes good listening? Is it enough to simply remain silent and stare intently as someone else holds the floor for half an hour? Or perhaps, without even realising it, you’re trying too hard to demonstrate active listening and therefore constantly interrupting or overlapping the student’s speech? It’s really hard to be reflective when it comes to our conversational behaviour, so it can help a lot to observe another member of staff in conversation, noting down feedback about strengths and areas to develop, and to have someone do the same for you. It’s much easier to recognise flaws and assets in other people, for some reason! If you’ve got recording equipment at school, and a student’s permission, then filming yourselves in conversation is another excellent way to pick up on what you’re actually doing - not just what you think you’re doing! Watch it back afterwards to focus on how the conversation flowed.

Here’s how the ideal dialogue might look:

  • Asking questions or for follow-up information
  • Large portions of time where you are quiet and the pupil is speaking
  • Open, receptive body language (eye contact, legs pointed towards pupil, arms in lap or by sides - not folded across chest for long periods)
  • Sometimes summing up or clarifying longer points the pupil has made
  • Stepping in to query when the pupil has made an assumption, mistake, or been overly negative
  • Providing relevant information and ideas according to what the pupil has said
  • Ending the conversation with a clear direction, such as agreeing on the next steps to take.

A good attitude

As much as you might have had it drilled into you that you would never make it as a singer / astronaut / chef to the Queen, it’s important not to let these prejudices seep into your student interactions. You haven’t forgotten how it felt to be diminished, have you? Neither will they. Be positive and encouraging in all your interactions, as far as possible. Do consider circumstance though; pupils may not always have the resources or support to travel further afield for university, for example.

On the other hand, your student might not have a crystal clear ambition to aim for. They might be entirely aimless, drifting like a satellite in orbit. That’s totally fine too. Many people don’t know what they want to do until later in life, so give students time and space to think and discuss different ideas, dipping their toes into a range of areas to get an idea of what suits them (career quizzes, volunteer days, shadowing older students and browsing prospectuses are all useful for uncertain pupils).

Reaching out

So far, we’ve looked at one-to-one conversations with students, but communication is also imperative within the wider school (and indeed, wider world).

  • Invite parents along for a Careers evening, and/or include a regular column in the school newsletter. Guardians will be happy to see that there is some solid life input at school.
  • Use memos, newsletters, assemblies, VLE and social media to keep students informed of upcoming events and deadlines.
  • Keep your headteacher and governors informed with information such as school-leaver statistics, and where they go on to in the world of work or university.
  • Team up with local schools to organise events. Some subjects, like Medicine, may only have a couple of applicants from each college, so outside visitors are more likely to come and see a bigger crowd compiled from all local wannabe-medics.
  • Keep a directory of contact information for past students when they move onto pastures new: having someone who actually went to Learn more Academy come back and talk about life at Cambridge or as a concert conductor will be so much more meaningful and inspirational for current Learn more students.
  • Make friends with admissions departments at universities, and stay updated about what they are looking for in their students, and what taster days they might be offering to young people.

When all said and done, it’s actually pretty exciting, isn’t it? These are conversations that students, on the whole, really want to have - even if it doesn’t register in their demeanour. As a new Careers advisor, you’ve got the opportunity and privilege of reaching out into much wider networks, working with universities, workplaces, parents and past-students to provide enriching and inspirational experiences for your students. So, yeah, the pile of marking at 1am is not the best life choice you’ve made. But take comfort in the fact that amongst the rabble you’ll be career-coaching next week, there are a few future teachers in there. Suckers!

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