(Original post by H&E)
This FAQ aims to cover the main areas of confusion about applying to Oxbridge. It won't answer your every question, and it certainly won't get you in, but hopefully it'll make your life a little easier if you do decide Oxbridge could be right for you.
To apply or not to apply?
Why should I apply?
Most people really enjoy their time at Oxbridge. The courses are well put together and brilliantly taught, the extra-curricular opportunities are second to none, and the doors opened for later life are numerous. So basically, they're popular universities because most students there have an enjoyable and successful time. If you think the same could apply to you, you should apply.
You should not apply to improve your job prospects, because your parents want you to, or because your head-teacher insists you do. If the course, teaching methods or environment at Oxbridge aren't right for you, you'd be happier and better off elsewhere at another university.
Is there any point in me applying?
Almost definitely yes! If you're predicted or already have AAA/AAB at A-level, you have a chance, no matter your previous record is like. Every year people get in with supposedly 'useless' GCSE's/AS's etc. It'll only take up one of your six choices on the UCAS form, and who knows, you might just get in - over 6,500 people do each year! What's more, most applicants do enjoy the application process. It's a chance to challenge yourself, show off what you can do and, at Oxford at least, be put up and fed for free for up to a week!
(note: medics are an exception to this. With only four choices and very competitive entry, you'll have to think more carefully about where to apply).
Are my grades good enough?
If you've come near the top of your school at GCSE/AS/A2, your grades are good enough for Oxbridge. Obviously the better the grades the better your chances, but you do not need outstanding exam grades to get in; they're only one part of the application. For the same reason, even amazing grades aren't in themselves enough to ensure you get an offer.
At the same time, Oxbridge students generally have A*'s at GCSE and A's at AS/A2 in subjects related to their course, and possibly across the board; you should aim to do the same, especially at A-level.
If you have done non-English qualifications, you won't be at a disadvantage! Tutors are familiar with the likes of IGCSE's, Highers, the IB, Abitur and SAT's, and apply the same standards whatever course you studied at school. If you're doing a very unusual qualification, it may be worthwhile to get in touch with the college you're applying to, just to make sure there aren't misunderstandings.
The actual application process
This is probably the most important choice in your application. Your course will be a central feature of university life for three years, so it's really important you get it right. Make sure you choose the right course for you, not for your parents, or your teachers, or your future job prospects! If you do not enjoy your course you will not be happy and you will not do well, and though it is possible to switch course, it's best to get it right first time.
Make sure you consider all the options available, as there are often many subtle variations in courses. Look in detail at the course description online, which will explain what sort of papers you'll have to take, how much flexibility you'll have, what sort of skills will be required and what sort of facilities will be available. You may be split between two different courses; if so, you'll have to think really hard about which you really prefer and make a choice.
Oxford or Cambridge?
The most important factor here isagain, the course. If you're applying for PPE or SPS, obviously the decision is very simple. Even if you're applying a course both universities offer though, their courses are likely to differe in some significant ways, and it is on that basis a lot of people decide where they'll apply to.
A lot of people base their decision on more sentimental grounds. The two towns have quite differnet atmospheres, because Oxford is quite a lot bigger and less dominated by the university, so some people just find they prefer one town to the other. It doesn't have to be some massively rational reason - just choose the university where you think you'll be happiest.
Finally, again, make sure you choose the right university for you, not your parents, friends, or anyone else! They may provide useful and welcome advice, but the final choice is yours.
This is discussed in great detail here
You have to include all your grades, accurately. Colleges do ask for certificates, and it'll be an awful shame to get an offer and make your grades only to have your offer withdrawn coz you'd been creative with the truth about your grades!
This isn't anything like as important for Oxbridge as it is for other universities. Nevertheless, it's still a chance to show you're commitment to your course and that you've studied it at a bit of depth. So do try your best to explain why you're interested in your course, and to give some evidence that you've done some reading about it.
Comments from your personal statements may be used to start off conversation at interview, so make sure you know what you've said in it, and that it's true!
Obviously you won't write this, so there's not too much you can do about it. If there's something you think is important to mention in it, for example if your AS grades were affected by serious illness, ask whoever's in charge of writing it and hopefully they include it.
A lot of subjects now have special tests, sat either right before interview or at some point in November. They've got a very different format to A-levels, so it's important to use the online resources available (past papers, specifications etc) to familiarise yourself with papers – Oxford's done tests and it found marks do go up significantly if you spend 5-10 hours doing this.
Because they're so different to A-levels, they can be a bit unnerving. The important thing to remember about them is that just about everyone finds them weird, and just about everyone finds them difficult! They're meant to be that way; if they were similar to what you've done before, there wouldn't be any point setting them. So you just have to do your best.
Submitted written work:
A lot of arts subjects now ask to send essays. What you send in doesn't particularly matter (if the college has any specific requirements, they'll tell you), so long as it shows ability; sending a history essay when you're applying for PPE or a politics essays when you're applying for history are both fine, so long as they're good!
Essays are very likely to be discussed at interview. Make sure you know the topic well, because you're very likely to be asked to explain why you said certain things, and probably have your reasoning challenged. It doesn't matter what position you assume, you can change your mind, you can say you now realise what you wrote was wrong, you can stick to your guns; the important thing is that you're able to argue your position properly.
Interviews are a test of whether you can be taught in a tutorial - no more, no less. They're a mini-tutorial, basically. A quick run down of events in my average tutorial will show why interviews should not be daunting. During an average tutorial, I will: drop my pen, a dozen times; mishear my tutor, four times; get something completely wrong, five times; get something partly wrong, ten times; hesitate or pause to think, twenty times. What I'm getting at is that all you have to worry about at interview is learning. Your interviewer will try to get as quickly as possible to an area you don't know much, if anything, about. They may present you with a problem you can't do, present you from a point of view you haven't previously thought about, or just give you some evidence you'd never seen before. Your jobs is to try to apply it. How might you go about solving this new problem? How might you change your argument to incorporate the new evidence? The point isn't to get it right, or to be really smooth, or anything like that. It's to finish the tutorial having learned to do something you couldn't do at its start.
If you're nervous about interviews, one way to make yourself more comfortable is getting some experience of the interview atmosphere. Find an adult person you don't know too well and get them to as k you some questions, and if possible challenge a few things you say. In terms of environment, that's what the interviews will be like.
Preparing academically for interviews is a bit more complicated. In the immediate run up, just make sure your basics are solid. Make sure you know the things you've claimed to know (A-level topics, independent reading etc); the risk of messing up simple things like standard integrals or key dates can be greatly reduced with a little revision.
In the long run, you'll just have to get good at your subject! Anything which makes you think harder about the topics you've studied is good. For mathematicians, I think it's easier, with all those maths challenges and maths Olympiads books out there. For everyone else, it's a bit more difficult. If you can find some old exam papers (Oxbridge Papers, STEP papers, S-level papers, whatever they're called) with questions which are relevant to you, trying your hand at those is a good idea. Otherwise, you'll've to stick to books. Try to do reading which makes you look at things differently: either through a whole different approach, or just a different viewpoint to something you've already studied. Either way, you'll get practice at assimilating new information and adapting your viewpoint to it.
The extra forms:
Your school should have copies of the special Oxford and Cambridge forms (if they don't, make sure they contact the universities and get some). Mostly, these forms are just a bit of admin, asking you to fill in which college you're applying to and other fairly obvious stuff like that. However, there is an extra information box where you can write about 100-150 words more. Most people should leave this empty. If, however, there is something of special relevance to your Oxbridge application which is different to your application to all your other universities, this is the place to put it. The obvious example is a PPE applicant applying for Politics and Philosophy everywhere except Oxford; the extra information box is where he'll write about Economics. If you have some special circumstances which will come into play at interview (if you have limited mobility or hearing, for example), you should mention that as well.
Maximising your chance of getting in:
AS/A2 choices should be as academic as possible. If you can do 4 A2's, do so; if you're a scientist and Further Maths is available, take it; if you've got a choice between a well respected subject and a new one which is viewed as something of a soft touch (say, history or critical thinking) you should do the more respected one. That doesn't mean you can't study a less traditional A-level if you're really interested in it. But, firstly, it's advisable to have at least two 'traditional' subjects and secondly, be prepared to explain why you chose any non-traditional subjects.
You will not be penalised for not taking anything your school doesn't offer!
Extra-Curricular activities (EC's):
Tutors are interested in students who'll well academically, and because EC's are not essential to that, no one gets accepted or rejected based solely on EC's. However, EC's can demonstrate academic potential in two ways. Firstly, that you can work with other people. A lot of studying at Oxbridge is done in groups, not only in tutorials but also when you go over lecture notes or problem sheets together. So if you've done any team activities at all, that'll be useful. Secondly, EC's can show time management and determination, two more essential skills at Oxbridge. The first will ensure you'll be able to cope with the heavy academic, extra-curricular and social schedule most people have at Oxbridge without suffering; and the second will ensure that when you're struggling to understand a topic or feel you have a bit too much work, which happens to almost everyone at least once, you'll put your head down and get through the difficult time rather than give up. There's no set way to show this. Any evidence that you've taken on a heavy schedule or risen to a tough challenge will do.
Tutors do take these seriously. If your application's been affected by serious illness, family grievance, school/exam board mistakes etc, that will absolutely be taken account of so long as the college is made aware of it. Having your school mention it in your reference is the best way to do this.
Oxford Admissions - http://www.ox.ac.uk/admissions/
Oxford Alternative Prospectus - http://users.ox.ac.uk/~wadh1305/ousu/pubs/ap2003.pdf
Oxford Open Days - http://www.admissions.ox.ac.uk/opendays/
Cambridge Admissions - http://www.cam.ac.uk/cambuniv/courses.html
Cambridge Alternative Prospectus - http://www.cusu.cam.ac.uk/publications/altpro/
Cambridge Open Days - http://www.cam.ac.uk/cambuniv/ugpros...welcome12.html
Database of previous applicants' experiences - http://oa.waveflex.com