An insider's guide to applying to Oxbridge
Helen Charlesworth works in the Undergraduate Admissions and Outreach Office at the University of Oxford. Below she provides a guide for those preparing their Oxford or Cambridge applications ahead of next week’s deadline.
Oxford and Cambridge universities hold a special place in many people’s imagination. With several hundreds of years of history and countless appearances in novels, films and television programmes, the two institutions are very well-known across the globe.
This can be a great advantage in attracting applicants as our reputation certainly precedes us. However, there are some disadvantages as well, as our portrayal in the media has led to some popular — but false — stereotypes about what kind of students we admit.
In truth Oxford and Cambridge Universities:
- Seek to attract the best and brightest applicants regardless of background, which they seek out via extensive access programmes across the UK, as well as visits overseas.
- Have highly rigorous application procedures designed to allow the very best candidates to shine; and
- Are diverse and vibrant places to live and study.
What makes Oxford and Cambridge such special universities?
The collegiate system
Both Oxford and Cambridge universities are made up of individual colleges, as well as different subject departments. A college will be a student’s home and their central focus of teaching for much of their time at university. Each college will have a diverse range of students — usually including both undergraduate and graduate students — studying across a range of subject areas.
The college system offers the benefits of belonging to a large internationally renowned institution, and also to a smaller, interdisciplinary academic college community. You will have access to your college’s facilities, such as an extensive library and IT provision, as well as the resources of the wider university.
Whatever you may have heard, college choice does not matter! Each college offers the same excellent standard of teaching and has the same very high academic standards. Both universities work hard to ensure that the best students are successful in gaining a place, whichever college they’ve applied to. This means that you may be interviewed by more than one college and you may receive an offer from any of them.
Teaching methods are very similar at both universities as students will attend lectures, classes and laboratory work as appropriate for their course. Unlike at many other universities, students at Oxford and Cambridge also benefit from highly personalised teaching time with experts in their field. The only difference is in the name: Oxford refers to these sessions as “tutorials” while Cambridge calls them “supervisions”.
Students are required to prepare an essay or other piece of work in advance for these sessions and then meet with their tutor to discuss the work, perhaps with one or two other students. Tutors are often world experts in their field so this time is extremely valuable to students in developing their understanding of the subject.
Is it for you?
Check the course details
Oxford and Cambridge universities agree that the most important decision a prospective applicant has to make is the degree they wish to study, not which university they want to apply to. So it is important to read the course details carefully for any subject you are interested in. You will be studying for several years, so it’s important to choose something that you are really passionate about.
Oxford and Cambridge courses tend to be traditional academic courses, with a strong emphasis on personalised teaching and formal assessment is often 100% based on examinations.
Choosing between Oxford and Cambridge
It is not possible to apply to both Oxford and Cambridge in the same admissions round, so students will have to choose one or the other. Both universities are world renowned in teaching and research in both arts and science subjects, so the decision is largely an individual one.
Some courses are offered at one of the universities but not the other. Check each institution’s undergraduate prospectus/website for details of courses on offer. However, it is important to be aware that courses with a similar title at the two universities may be different in content. It is therefore important for students to check the course details to see which one will suit them best.
Make sure you expect to achieve the required A-levels, International Baccalaureate (IB) grades or other equivalent qualifications. Conditional offers for Oxford range between A*A*A and AAA (depending on the subject) at A-level or 38-40 in the IB, including core points. Most conditional offers for Cambridge are A*AA at A-level or 40-42 in the IB, including core points. There may also be specific subject requirements for particular courses, especially in the sciences.
How to apply
All students must apply via UCAS by 15 October. (The process may vary for international students.)
Cambridge also asks all applicants to complete an online Supplementary Application Questionnaire (SAQ) after submission of their UCAS application to ensure consistent information about all applicants. Oxford does not require students to complete any extra forms.
You may also need to take a written test as part of your application, or perhaps submit some written work. If your application is shortlisted, you will be invited to the relevant university for interview.
The Extenuating Circumstances Form, which has recently replaced the Cambridge Special Access Scheme, gives teachers the opportunity to provide contextual information about applicants so they can be fairly assessed. In addition, Cambridge admissions tutors are provided with publicly-available school performance data to help them contextualise educational achievement when considering applications.
Oxford encourages teachers to include details of any special circumstances or other relevant information in the main UCAS application. Oxford also uses publicly-available information to indicate those applicants who may have experienced educational or socio-economic disadvantages. Where applicants demonstrate the necessary academic aptitude for Oxford, they are likely to be considered for interview and seen in addition to students identified through the normal shortlisting process.
Many A-level applicants are predicted to achieve top grades and many also have excellent references. It’s therefore not possible for Oxford or Cambridge to select the best students based on their UCAS applications alone. Each university has a slightly different approach to differentiating between applicants.
Oxford asks applicants for most of its courses to take a test as part of their application. Tutors then shortlist applicants based on students’ applications and performance in the test. Where applications are around three per place, over 90% of applicants are shortlisted. For the most competitive degrees, this may fall to 30% to allow those who most closely meet the selection criteria to have multiple interviews. AS-level grades and Uniform Mark Scheme (UMS) scores are not a key element in shortlisting.
Cambridge makes less use of pre-interview tests and interviews around 80% of their undergraduate applicants. AS-level grades and UMS scores are considered, alongside all the other information available to selectors, both in deciding which applicants will be invited to interview and which will be offered a place. Only applicants for medicine and veterinary medicine are required to take a test before interview.
Tests before interview
All students applying for the standard medicine course (A100) at either university must register to take the BMAT as part of their application, as must candidates for the graduate entry medicine course (A101) at Oxford.
All students applying for the veterinary medicine course (D100) at Cambridge or biomedical sciences at Oxford (BC98) must also register to take the BMAT as part of their application.
Cambridge does not require students to take any other written tests before interview.
Oxford also requires applicants to take written tests before interview in several other subjects and separate registration is required in many cases. These tests are usually taken in your school or college.
Tests at interview
Both universities require some applicants to take tests during the interview period.
Both universities require some applicants to submit samples of written work as part of their application. At Oxford the deadline for the submission of this work is November 10. Applicants to Cambridge will be advised by their college when it needs to be submitted.
The purpose and structure of these interviews is very similar at both universities. Essentially they are rather like a mini tutorial or supervision, where the tutors will give students a small passage to read or perhaps set a small problem and then ask the student to discuss it.
Contrary to many popular myths about such interviews, there are no tricks or mind games involved. The interview is for tutors to get a sense of how the student reacts to new situations and how they process the information available. It is not a matter of how quickly — or even whether — the student arrives at the right answer. There may not even be a right answer. The tutors just want to get an insight in to how the student thinks.
Top tips for applying to Oxford or Cambridge
- Choose a course you are really passionate about.
- Read widely around your chosen subject. It’s not enough just to do well at school or college. Tutors have often devoted their life to their subject, so of course they want to teach students who share their enthusiasm.
- Practice talking about your subject: not just with your teachers and fellow students, but with other friends and family members. Talking to non-experts is an excellent exercise as it gets you thinking in new ways and helps you to find new ways of expressing the concepts and issues involved.
- Stretch the truth on your application form. Tutors may ask you about anything you include in your application, so make sure it’s all correct.
- Spend time worrying about which college to apply to. There are far more productive ways to spend your time.
- Lose heart! The application process is very competitive, and sadly there just are not enough places for all the people who apply. However, the only way to guarantee you will not be successful is to not try at all. Why not go for it?