The University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge, collectively referred to as Oxbridge, have a slightly different application procedure to other UK universities. Most notably, as well as the compulsory UCAS application, these two elite universities interview all they are considering making offers to.
Undergraduate - Thinking of Applying?
As with other universities, there are no set "grade requirements" for applying to Oxbridge. However, the fact that Oxford and Cambridge are considered Britain's "elite" universities would suggest that high grades and academic prowess, as well as commitment to your chosen course, is essential. Each year, thousands of students apply for a place at these universities (over 30,000, about five people per place); competition is understandably intense. However, you cannot be offered a place if you do not apply. Every year thousands of very able students, who would have had a serious chance, miss out simply because they dismiss Oxbridge as only for those from a different background.
Oxbridge applications have an early closing date of 15th October - make sure you finish your application in time!
Stage One - Decisions
Oxford or Cambridge?
To those wishing to apply for an undergraduate course at Oxbridge (aka when you haven't already got a degree) your journey will start with a decision. You may only apply to one of the two universities, and therefore, you need to decide which. Try to work out where you would be happiest - a degree takes a long time. Oxford and Cambridge are in some ways very different places to study.
Your choice of university should be heavily influenced by the course. Be aware that there are differences in the content of the courses each university offers (e.g. Cambridge offers Natural Sciences in place of Physics, Chemistry and Biology courses; Oxford offers Politics, Philosophy and Economics whereas Cambridge offers separate subjects of Economics or Social and Political Sciences (SPS)). As with other universities, just because course names are the same, it does not mean the course content and structure is the same.
What are colleges?
The next stage is to choose a college. Both universities have a collegiate system where all students belong to a college within the university. Your college is the centre of your academic and social life. Whilst the college is a major part of any student's experience, do not worry about the decision, almost every student ends up loving the college they end up at. If you cannot decide, it is possible to make an open application, where the university will place you at a college which has fewer applicants that year.
The universities ensure that which college you choose (or if you make an open application) does not affect your chance of getting a place. For example, at Oxford then 25% of current students are at a college that they didn't apply to.
Stage Two - UCAS
So you've worked out where you want to apply... fantastic! UCAS is the mechanism through which everyone applies to university. But as you're applying to Oxbridge, there is an early deadline of 15th October - three months before everyone else. Therefore, you need to start your UCAS application pretty much as soon as possible.
UCAS applications for Oxbridge, with regards to the online form itself, will be the same as for every other university. However, when entering the university into your "courses" section, you will need to specify a Campus code. For most universities, this will be "main site", but for collegiate universities like Cambridge and Oxford, you need to choose the college you wish to apply to from the list (or "Open", if you have not decided on a college of preference and are making an Open Application).
Everyone needs a reference for their UCAS form, but you should inform your referee (normally your tutor) of your decision to apply to Oxbridge as soon as possible because they need to know that you have the early deadline. Many schools and colleges will make extra effort for the references of Oxbridge applicants, but if your school has no history of Oxbridge applications, do not worry, the reference is only one of a many pieces of information the decisions are made on.
Stage Three - Extra Forms, Tests and/or Written Work
This stage happens at the same time as sending your UCAS application.
For Cambridge applicants, after sending your UCAS application you will be asked via email to complete a SAQ (Supplementary Application Questionnaire) which contains asks for details including UMS points, class sizes and specific topics covered within subjects. It also gives the option of adding an extra 'mini' personal statement. (Before 2008 there was a different form called the CAF.)
Oxford applicants for some courses will receive an email asking if they wish to opt-out from being considered by some or all of the PPHs. This is nothing to worry about.
You should also check whether there are pre-interview tests must take for your course, for example the BMAT or LNAT. These are more common at Oxford. Entering yourself for, and turning up, at these tests is your responsibility. They are used to significantly reduce the number invited to interview, so take them seriously.
Some courses require examples of your written work to be sent in. Again, this varies by course.
Stage Four - Application received
After the deadline, most colleges will send acknowledgements that they have received your application. If you made an open application, you will be sent confirmation as to which college you have been allocated.
Now all you can do is wait for Stage Five - the interviews! You should be told if you have been invited to interview, and if so, given details, at some point in October/November.
Stage Five - Interviews
Interviews are an integral part of the Oxbridge admissions procedure, and are the part that most applicants fear most. This is an unfounded fear. Interviews are not designed to "catch you out" or "trip you up". Ultimately, the person who is interviewing you is a tutor at the college to which you have been allocated. Since this person is most likely going to be personally involved in your tuition throughout your time at Oxford/Cambrige, your interviewer is merely trying to decide the following: "Does this person show outstanding ability?" "Would this person gain academically from the very small group style of teaching?" "Is this a person I would enjoy teaching?"
Interviews usually take place in early-mid December. The university can notify you rather late whether or not you have an interview, but it will always be at least a week beforehand. Oxford publish an interview timetable on their website, stating when candidates for each subject would be required if called for interview. It would be best not to make any unavoidable commitments in this period. For Oxford, the dates you will be in Oxford for a particular subject are specified in advance and are the same whatever college you apply to - but you will not know the time of your interviews until you arrive. For Cambridge, the date you are asked to attend on is specific to you, and your interview times (along with the names of interviewers) will be included on the invitation letter. International students may be given interviews over Skype or the telephone.
Cambridge interview as many applicants as possible, the exact proportion depending on the subject and college. In some cases every applicant will be interviewed, but in most cases a very small proportion (maybe 5%) will be deselected. Over 90% of applicants will be interviewed in virtually every case.
Oxford however will reject an appreciable fraction without inviting them to interview. (Whilst this is about 40% overall it varies significantly by subject. It can be as many as 50% where there is a pre-interview test, such as the HAT but for others without then it may be only 5-20%.)
Oxford will ask you to stay for a number of days. After your interview at your chosen college, it is possible that you will also be interviewed at another college. For some colleges these extra interviews are arranged automatically for all students, for others they are arranged only after you arrive in Oxford. Being allocated additional interviews from other colleges does not mean that you have been unsuccessful at your first - it simply means that another college may be interested in offering you a place if the first college does not. Accommodation and food are provided until you are released as "free to leave" (for some subjects this is after one night, for others it can be as many as four). This system requires you to hang around in Oxford, but most of the decisions are made while you are still in Oxford, which is better than the stressful Cambridge pooling system.
Cambridge will give you (usually two) interviews at your chosen college. If you are applying for a smaller subject, you may also be interviewed automatically by a second college in order to reduce the likelihood that you would have to return to Cambridge for further interviews in the event that you were pooled. You will rarely have to stay but colleges can provide accommodation if you request it.
Some subjects/colleges may require you to take a written test whilst you are at the university. This is more common at Cambridge (since Oxford has more pre-interview tests) and depends on the subject and college. They will let you know on the letter offering you an interview or when you arrive. Cambridge written tests are usually college-specific.
The Oxford and Cambridge colleges strive to make the interview as fair a process as is possible. Ultimately, tutors are interested in taking the students with the greatest academic potential in their chosen subject. Extracurricular activities play a very minor role. This means that 'subject' interviews will be based on problems designed to expose your thinking rather than what you have learned in school or college. During the interview, the most important thing a candidate can do is talk through their thought process as they solve the problem posed to them and not take suggestions or direction as negative criticism. Remaining focused on the problem and responding positively to direction and suggestion is more likely to impress tutors than having the right answers at the beginning. Ultimately, most tutors will model your interview on a typical tutorial (Oxford) or supervision (Cambridge); even if you get all of the questions wrong and feel it is a disaster (most Oxbridge students will testify that the average tutorial/supervision is often challenging at best), if you learn something from it and the tutor has enjoyed teaching you, you have done your best, which is all you can give.
No interviewer expects you to be perfect - most seek to find a problem which you cannot immediately solve without help, in order to see how you react to tutorial/supervision-style tuition. In most cases where an application is unsuccessful, it is just that in the interviewers' own judgement other candidates had slightly greater academic potential, and suitability for the tutorial/supervision style of learning. This does not mean you are not as capable of succeeding at university. Oxbridge tutors are quick to say that they are forced to reject thousands of applicants each year who would have done well at Oxbridge, only there was not enough space. Many unsuccessful Oxbridge applicants go on to do far better in their chosen course than many Oxford and Cambridge students.
In addition to one or more subject-based interviews, Cambridge applicants sometimes (depending on the college) have a 'general' or 'tutorial' interview. This will be conducted by a non-specialist interviewer, so is likely to involve questions testing your enthusiasm for the subject and on your personal statement, rather than questions based on the content of the subject itself.
Ultimately, if you feel that your interviews went particularly badly and were not representative of you or your ability, you can always re-apply next year. A number of successful Oxford and Cambridge applicants are unsuccessful applicants from the previous year.
Emmanuel College, Cambridge have videoed a number of Mock Interviews (for Computer Science, History, Mathematics, Medical and Vetinary Studies, Modern and Medieval Languages and Natural Sciences).
You can find more information on doing well at interview here.
Stage Six - The Letters [and Stage Seven: the Cambridge Pool]
The interviews are the last part of the admissions procedure. Now the waiting begins.
Oxford decisions were previously sent before Christmas, but decisions arrived on January 11th for 2013 entry, although there were reports of candidates being telephoned offers earlier than this. Conditional offers are standardised for each course across the university - A*A*A for Maths, A*AA for most other Sciences and AAA for humanities courses (or the equivalent in another exam system).
Cambridge decisions are posted in the first few days of January (e.g. 5 January 2011 for those interviewed in 2010). Conditional offers are nearly always A*AA at A level or the equivalent in another exam system (unless you have applied through the Cambridge Special Access Scheme because you have been subject to a particular disadvantage). Occasionally offers of AAAB or AAAA may be made where an applicant is taking four relevant A Levels (and even five subject offers, e.g. AAAAB, are not unheard of). For Mathematics applicants, almost all conditional offers will include grades in two STEP Papers - three-hour maths exams taken at the end of the A Level exam period, which test advanced problem solving and mathematical ingenuity rather than basic knowledge and technique. Some colleges will make conditional offers of EE at A Level to exceptionally good applicants; on the other hand, grades in Advanced Extension Awards (or STEP even for non-Maths applicants) may be included in certain circumstances. Christ's College in particular like to make extremely easy and extremely hard offers, and may include a grade in an AEA as part of a conditional offer for any subject.
Now comes the complicated part of Cambridge's admissions. Some people will not get a straight rejection/acceptance. Some will be pooled. Pooled applicants have been deemed a strong applicant by their chosen college, but have not been selected for study there, and have been placed in a college-wide pool. About 20% (approximately 600 out of around 3000) of pooled applicants are subsequently awarded a place at Cambridge. Applicants are pooled for a variety of reasons (although they are not told which), and are categorised by the pooling college as A (strongly recommended), B (probably worth an offer), P (outstanding on paper but less impressive at interview), or S (applicant in need of reassessment). For applicants interviewed in 2006, a college is required to pool an applicant, under category P at least, if they have 7 or more A*s at GCSE and 90% or more in their three best or three most relevant AS subjects.
Sometimes a college wishes to see other applicants from the pool before it fills all of its places with direct applicants - this results in several applicants being pooled and subsequently being awarded places at their original college of choice. Some are subsequently invited for interview at other colleges; if this happens the college concerned will contact you to ask you to come for an interview early in January. If another college wishes to offer you a place following the Pool, you should hear from them at the start or middle of January. Otherwise, your original college will write back to you by the end of January informing you that you have been unsuccessful.
That's the end of the Oxbridge admissions procedure - it seems long and arduous, but don't let that put you off. Thousands of students each year go through it, and many are offered places. Good Luck :)
There are a ridiculous number of myths surrounding Oxbridge applications, often refuted with gusto on TSR. Here are a few examples:
You cannot apply without perfect grades. Incorrect - a wide range of factors are considered and a strong interview performance can result in an offer being made to an applicant who looks relatively poor on paper. However, strong achievement at GCSE and (for Cambridge) good AS/A level module scores will strengthen your application, and may reduce the level of interview/test performance needed to secure an offer. Being realistic, it is unlikely that an offer would be made to an applicant not expecting or offering AAA at A Level or equivalent (unless applying through one of the Access Schemes), but beyond this starting point, excellent grades are an advantage but not a requirement.
If you're pooled (by Cambridge) it means that you'll definitely get accepted. Wrong - being pooled only enables other colleges to consider your file. One in five applicants is awarded a place from the pool. You may be awarded a place at your original choice of college, awarded a place at another college, invited for further interviews at one or more colleges, or be unsuccessful in the pool (in which case your original college will write back to you by the end of January).
Inteviews are the only important part. Not exactly - whilst Oxbridge places a great deal of emphasis on the interview process, due to the large number of people attaining at least AAA at A Level, it is not the be all and end all. Your chances do not depend entirely on interview performance. All information is carefully considered: personal statements, references, exam results, tests (where taken) and written work (where submitted). A good performance at interview will not necessarily get you a place, and a bad performance will not necessarily get you rejected if there is another factor present (e.g. admissions tests, written work) which allows you to stand out against the competition. Being realistic, though, it is unlikely that you would receive an offer in the case of poor interview performance where the interview was the only additional assessment on top of the application form.
Applying to a less popular college will give better chances of acceptance. Many believe that by applying to a smaller college or one which is out of the way (such as Girton at Cambridge) or has few applicants per place offered (such as St. Hilda's at Oxford) will give them a higher chance of a place. Despite the fact that St. Hilda's often receives less than one applicant per place offered (check the Oxford admissions website), it does not mean that every direct applicant is offered a place, merely that many of their successful applicants come from the pooling system. Both Oxford and Cambridge put a lot of effort into inter-college 'moderation' to ensure that your chances do not depend on which college you applied to. You might be the only applicant to your chosen college for your chosen course and still not be offered a place. Choose your first preference based on where you think you might be happy, rather than where you think you have the 'best' chance.
Private School applicants have a far greater chance of getting a place. Oxford and Cambridge both accept a very substantial minority of privately-educated candidates. Compared to national proportions they accept significantly more privately educated applicants (about 45% of Oxbridge offers typically go to privately educated applicants, compared to less than 9% of students privately educated across the country). However, this is unlikely to be because of favouritism; overwhelmingly it is merely that privately educated students are more likely to apply to Oxbridge in the first place (much more than 9% of applications are from privately educated students) and that privately educated students are more likely to get better grades compared to the national average. For those who have applied, state school people are statistically about as likely to receive a place as a privately educated student. Oxbridge has endeavoured to widen access and participation in the selection.
State School applicants have an automatic advantage. Where someone comes from a poorly-performing school or has experienced educational problems, this will be taken account of, because this may mean that a person's record on paper does not do justice to their potential. But, despite efforts to encourage state-school pupils to apply, all are assessed equally once they submit their application. There is no system of 'positive discrimination' or quotas.
See All Articles on "Applying to Oxbridge"
- Cambridge Choosing a College
- Choosing an Oxford College
- English at Cambridge
- PPE at Oxford
- Oxbridge Interviews
- UNIQ Summer Schools
- Target Schools
- University of Cambridge
- University of Oxford