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Oxford and Cambridge: An Insider's Guide to Applying

If you are planning to make a university application to either Cambridge or Oxford (together known as 'Oxbridge'), read on for our complete guide, based on an original article by University of Oxford staff.

Click to skip to:
What makes Oxbridge so special? • Deciding whether to apply to Oxford or Cambridge • Your Oxbridge application • Application assessments • Top tips for applying

University of Oxford panorama

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 their reputation certainly precedes them. However, there are some disadvantages as well, as their portrayal in the media has led to some popular — but false — stereotypes about what kind of students are admitted.

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 and fair application procedures designed to allow the very best candidates to shine;
  • 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 academic departments. While academic departments are responsible for core teaching and assessment, a college will be your home when studying. Colleges provide academic and pastoral support and arrange small group tuition, sometimes with a tutor or supervisor from another college.

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 university, 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.

You are able to specify a preferred college when you make your UCAS application. 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 a different college than applied to. If you would prefer not to choose a college you can make an open application.

Once you have submitted your UCAS application you will be committed to your choice of college, so do your research beforehand.

Teaching

Teaching methods are very similar at both universities as you will attend lectures, seminars, classes and laboratory work as appropriate for your course.

Unlike at many other universities, at Oxford and Cambridge you'll also benefit from personal tuition with experts in their field. You'll gain greater insight into your subject by being able discuss your developing ideas and get individual feedback.

The only difference is in the name: Oxford refers to these sessions as 'tutorials' while Cambridge calls them 'supervisions'. 

You are required to prepare an essay or other piece of work in advance of these sessions and then meet with your tutor to discuss the work, perhaps with one or two other students. Sessions may happen as frequently as once or even twice each week, depending on your course.

Further details:
Cambridge: www.cam.ac.uk/supervisions
Oxford: www.ox.ac.uk/tutorials

Cambridge panorama

Deciding whether to apply to Oxford or Cambridge

Choosing a course – check the details

The universities of Oxford and Cambridge 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 ensure you read the course details carefully for any subject you are interested in. You will be studying for several years, so it’s vital 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 through small-group tuition. Formal assessment is often 100% based on examinations.

Keep an open mind, and consider topics you've not directly studied before. Degrees like Asian and Middle Eastern Studies (Cambridge) or Classics and Oriental Studies (Oxford) will all help you to develop analytical abilities and skills attractive to future employers. Only a few professions require specific degrees. Remember, a strong personal interest in the course is essential: at interview, it will soon become apparent if you are not completely committed to the subject.

Choosing between Oxford and Cambridge

It is not possible to apply to both Oxford and Cambridge in the same year, so you'll 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, driven by your choice of degree course.

Some courses are offered at one of the universities but not the other. Check each institution’s undergraduate prospectus and website for details of courses on offer. It is important to be aware that courses with a similar title at the two universities may be different in content. Check the course details to see which one will suit you best.

Cambridge usually comes above Oxford in the Complete University Guide rankings but this is in part because of subject mix. It is down to individual choice and course content.

Visits to the universities are encouraged; each university has a number of open days and events.

Your Oxbridge application

As referred to above, you cannot apply to both Cambridge and Oxford in the same year.

Admission tutors look for applicants with the greatest academic ability and potential – and those who they think will be best suited for the course and the type of teaching at the university.

The qualities looked for include your ability and motivation to go beyond what is required for your current studies. Evidence that you can study independently, are willing to embrace new ideas, and can explore and discuss ideas and opinions in a logical and considered way. Self-discipline is also key, as university-level study requires you to manage your time well.

In all stages of your application, demonstrate how you have met the above criteria.

Key stages to your application

  1. Choose a course: be sure to check the specific details of what courses at Oxford and Cambridge will cover.
  2. Choose a college: after you have decided your course, and therefore your university, you can decide on where you would like to live. If you have no preference, make an 'open' application.
  3. UCAS application: via UCAS Apply, the deadline is 6pm (UK time) on 15 October.
  4. University forms: you may be required to complete one or more additional forms.
  5. University tests: for most subjects, additional tests will be required. These may take place before you are invited to interview, or while at interview.
  6. Written work: you may also need to submit some written work.
  7. Interview: if your application is shortlisted, you will be invited to the relevant university for interview; these are conducted in December.
  8. Decision: applicants are advised whether they are successful by the end of January.

Additional elements of the application are covered in greater detail below. Overseas students may have different deadlines to those for UK or EU students; please check with the relevant university.

Bridge Of Sighs, Cambridge

Application assessments

Many A Level Oxbridge 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.

Your application will be assessed on a combination of the following:

Entry requirements

Make sure you expect to achieve the required A Levels, International Baccalaureate (IB) grades or other equivalent qualifications. There may be specific subject requirements for particular courses, especially in the sciences; you can check these in the course requirements on Oxford or Cambridge university websites. At Cambridge, subject requirements may also vary from one college to another.

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. Certain grades may be required at Higher Level.

The typical A Level offer for Cambridge is A*A*A for most sciences courses and A*AA for arts courses or 40–42 in the IB, including core points, with 776 at Higher Level. AAA is usually required at Advanced Higher Grade, for students in Scotland.

If you are taking A Levels in the new science subjects you are expected to complete and pass the practical assessment.

Students wishing to study mathematics (or computer science and mathematics) at Cambridge should also take the Sixth Term Examination Paper (STEP).

Personal statement

Personal statements give applicants the opportunity to show their potential to excel within the tutorial or supervision system.

If you explore your chosen subject beyond what is required for the exam syllabus, this can help demonstrate your commitment to the topic and your independent study skills. Applications and personal statements should demonstrate your self-motivation in learning, your ability to plan, structure and research your work, and show that you are teachable. Relate these to the skills required on your course.

Bear in mind that your UCAS application is to five universities, so your personal statement may have to apply to differing courses.

School or college reference

Your tutors will report your academic performance as part of your UCAS reference, including your predicted grades. This is also where some contextual information about you can be included.

University forms

Cambridge asks all applicants to complete an online Supplementary Application Questionnaire (SAQ). If you are applying from outside the EU, for Graduate Medicine, or for an Organ Scholarship, you will also need to complete the Cambridge Online Preliminary Application (COPA). Those taking a modular course are asked to report their uniform mark scheme (UMS) performance and AS Level grades (where available) in the SAQ. For students taking linear qualifications, teachers will report your performance via your UCAS reference.

Oxford does not require you to complete any extra forms, however for most courses, applicants are asked to take a test as part of the application. Tutors then shortlist applicants based on students’ applications and performance in the test.

University tests

Most tests are held at schools or colleges before you attend interview. Applicants must be registered well in advance for tests by their assessment centre.

BMAT: All students applying for the standard medicine course (A100) at either university must register to take the BMAT as part of their application. At Oxford, candidates for the graduate entry medicine course (A101) and biomedical sciences (BC98) also require this test. Ensure you note the correct date for taking this test..

Oxford requires applicants to take written tests before interview in most other subjects. Please note that separate registration is required in many cases.

Cambridge requires applicants to take pre-interview tests for around half of its courses. For other subjects, Cambridge requires a written test to be taken while at the university for interview (if interviewed). You will not need to register for at-interview assessments.

Further details:
Cambridge: www.cam.ac.uk/assessment
Oxford: www.ox.ac.uk/tests

Christ Church College, Oxford

Written work

Both universities require some applicants to send samples of written work as part of the application. At Oxford the deadline for the submission of this work is 10 November. If you're applying to Cambridge, you'll be advised by the college when it needs to be submitted (usually early November).

Further details:
Cambridge: www.cam.ac.uk/writtenwork
Oxford: www.ox.ac.uk/writwork

Contextualisation

'Contextual data' allows your circumstances to be considered. Your academic performance is still the key factor, but 'contextualisation' allows the university to assess how your school performs, your socio-economic background and more. It is part of what is sometimes referred to as 'widening participation', and is intended to give a fair platform for applicants from differing backgrounds.

Cambridge Admission Tutors consider publicly available data such as school performance and geo-demographic location, to help place students' educational achievement into context when assessing applications. In addition, teachers can submit an Extenuating Circumstances form direct to the university, providing information relating to an individual applicant's circumstances.

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.

Contextual information can also be given as part of your personal statement, or the teacher's academic reference.

Further details:
Cambridge: http://www.cam.ac.uk/contextualdata and Extenuating Circumstances Form (submit by 15 October)
Oxford: www.ox.ac.uk/context

Interviews

Cambridge interviews around 75% of their undergraduate applicants. For Oxford, where applications are around three per place, most applicants will be shortlisted. For the most competitive degrees, the applicants who most closely meet the selection criteria may have multiple interviews.

The purpose and structure of interviews are very similar at both universities. Essentially, they are like a mini tutorial or supervision, where the tutors will give you a small passage to read or perhaps set a small problem and then ask you to discuss it.

Contrary to many popular myths about the interviews, there are no tricks or mind games involved. The interview is for tutors to get a sense of how you react to new situations and how you process the information available.

It is not a matter of how quickly — or even whether — you arrive at a particular answer. There may not even be a right answer. The tutors just want to get an insight in to how you think, and how you apply your knowledge and skills.

Your performance at interview alone does not determine whether you get offered a place; a variety of factors are considered, as outlined above. However, no commercial test will influence your application success, and neither university supports nor encourages such commercial enterprises.

Top tips for applying to Oxford or Cambridge

Do

  • 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.

Don’t

  • 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?

Based on an original article by Helen Charlesworth, Head of Communications for Undergraduate Admissions and Outreach at the University of Oxford.