This question is about becoming an air traffic controller at National Air Traffic Services or NATS.

NATS is a UK company which runs air traffic control services. NATS makes sure aircraft can fly safely across Britain, and that aircraft can take-off and land safely at British airports. NATS is a private company, but the government owns 49%, just under half.

In a BBC documentary - BBC Skies Above Britain - Series 1, "London Skies", Episode 5, it's said that to pass a exam at NATS to become an air traffic controller is harder than to earn an admission in the prestigious universities such as Oxford or Cambridge. Below are the excerpts.

It's little wonder a path to becoming a controller is so tough. Each year just half a percent of the thousands who apply are accepted. Making getting into Nats making it harder than winning a place at Oxford or Cambridge.

I know that the job of air traffic controller is among one of the most difficult jobs in the world and needs extensive efforts from side of candidates to get one. But it's also very difficult to earn a place in UK universities like Oxford and Cambridge, which are world renowned and AFAIK, equally difficult.

So the question is – is it really harder getting into NATS than Oxford or Cambridge?

  • 6
    Note that applicants to Oxford or Cambridge are self-selecting: they know roughly what the academic standards are and have an idea of whether they are close to them; application has a cost as it reduces the number of other universities you can apply to (and unless you play the Organ, you cannot apply to both). So applicant success rates are not a good measure of difficulty.
    – Henry
    Nov 21 '20 at 16:59
  • 4
    The word "harder" is very vague and ambiguous. As used here, the implication of "hard" is that even with a great deal of personal preparation and skill one still might not be accepted. But the supporting facts that follow are simply the acceptance rate, which is not the same thing at all. Nov 21 '20 at 19:51
  • This question is possibly comparing apples to oranges. Most colleges charge small application fees. While small, they are enough to deter completely bogus applications. Most companies do not charge application fees. One example, from one of my employers, was a cover letter where an applicant wrote "While I sell used cars for a living, my life's dream has always been to be a rocket scientist." The applicant wanted that employer to fund his aerospace engineering degree. He was charged nothing for his rejected application. Nov 23 '20 at 10:04
  • 2
    No, the success rates of applicants says pretty much nothing about how hard a particular exam or tribulation is. For example, applying the same logic would mean that becoming an air traffic controller is a lot harder than winning the Olympic 100m final (12.5% success rate). Nov 26 '20 at 22:33
  • @user2705196- Agree , but the question is about what's claimed in quote. And we have to validate that. If you are interested go ahead to post an alternate answer that will open that quote bit further.Thanks. Nov 27 '20 at 4:58

Going by admission rates, the claim is true:

  • NATS’ college in Fareham, Hampshire has “around 3,000 applications” per intake, and only accepts “around 20“ students according to a 2016 interview, which is less than 1%.
  • Oxford has detailed admission statistics. In 2019, 23,020 applications vs 3,280 admitted is over 14%, and that doesn’t include any students who got accepted but decided to not go.
  • Cambridge also has detailed admission statistics. In 2019, they had 19,359 applications and 3,528 acceptances, which is over 18%.

Both Oxford and Cambridge let you see older numbers, but the conclusion is the same no matter which years you look at: a smaller percentage of applicants are accepted into NATS than either Oxford or Cambridge.

  • 1
    You have not said what the conclusion is. These figures suggest that a smaller proportion of applicants succeed when applying to NATS. They also say a higher number of applicants fail when applying to Oxford or Cambridge than to NATS. Neither tells you which is "harder", as they are all based on who applies.
    – Henry
    Nov 23 '20 at 8:58
  • 2
    Speaking as a Cambridge graduate, my experience is this; if you don't stand a chance, you don't bother applying. This is a self-selecting set. But the entrance exams were not harder than A-levels and the interview was friendly.
    – RedSonja
    Nov 23 '20 at 12:10

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