• Applying to Oxford or Cambridge (aka Oxbridge)

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Applying to Oxford or Cambridge (aka Oxbridge)

This page (which you can edit) is part of The Student Room's information and advice about Oxford and Cambridge (known collectively as Oxbridge). Whilst the two universities have have much in common, they also have many differences. Our information on the application procedure and interviews applies to both.

If you have questions, or just want to chat, come join us in TSR's Oxford forum and Cambridge forum.

University of Oxford: Guide & Discussion Forum
How to choose a CollegeCollege Pros and Cons
A Week in the Life: of an Arts Student or of a Science Student
FAQ: CollegesApplyingUniversity Life

University of Cambridge: Guide & Discussion Forum
How to choose a CollegeCollege Pros and Cons
A Week in the Life: of an Arts Student or of a Science Student


You make your application through UCAS (in exactly the same way as you apply to other UK universities). However there are some quirks about applying to Oxford or Cambridge that are explained on this page, for example both interview everyone they are considering making offers to. Note that you can't apply to both universities. Very importantly, Oxbridge applications have an early deadline of 15th October - make sure you finish your application in time!

1. Deciding what to apply for

Should I even apply? Are my grades good enough?

There's only one requirement: you need to be heading for AAA / A*AA / A*A*A (the requirement varies by university and course). If you think you can achieve that, the answer is usually to apply!

Your exam history is not the only factor that determines whether you get an offer. This means that whether you apply with zero or fifteen A*s, no one here can tell you whether or not you will get in. However if you're desperate for some advice, ask on the forums at Are my grades good enough for Oxford? or The Big "Are My Grades Good Enough for Cambridge?" Thread.

Cambridge is different from every other UK university (including Oxford), in that it asks for your UMS scores in each module. However this doesn't mean you need perfect 90/95% results. However, Cambridge suggests it is unwise to apply if you have an average of below 85% in your best three (for Arts applicants) or most relevant three (for Science applicants). On the other hand, Oxford does not know whether your A was 81% or 99%, but if your UMS are particularly strong, you should ask your school to mention them in your reference.

Each year, thousands of students apply for a place at these universities (over 30,000, about five people per place) so competition is strong. 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 Oxford and Cambridge as only for those from a different background. Remember you have five choices!

Course

By far the most important decision you make when applying is which course you want to study. It might be something you haven't studied before. But you probably won't get onto an Oxbridge course for a subject you're not passionate about. And even if you do, you'll be miserable and lack the motivation to do the work when you get there. There are lots of courses that Oxford and Cambridge simply don't offer - if they're what you want to study, coming to Oxford or Cambridge would be silly.

Remember that study at university is very different to the way you've been taught until now. The focus is very much upon independent study. For humanities subjects this might mean 30 hours a week reading, on your own. If in doubt, get on the TSR forums and ask current students for advice (they were in your position once!). Bear in mind that the experience of studying at Oxford and Cambridge will be different to that to students at other universities.

If you don't know what subject(s) you want to study, stop reading now, and think about it carefully.

Oxford or Cambridge?

If you're applying for an undergraduate degree (you probably are) then you cannot apply to both universities. Forcing applicants to choose one of the two means twice as much attention can be paid to each application.

In deciding where to apply, by far the most important factor is the course content. There are major differences in the content of the courses each university offers. For example Cambridge offers Natural Sciences whereas Oxford offers standalone Biology, Chemistry and Physics courses. Similarly Oxford offers PPE (Politics, Philosophy and Economics) whereas Cambridge has three standalone courses in Economics, Philosophy and Social and Political Sciences (SPS). For other subjects, just because course names are the same, it does not mean the course content and structure is the same.

Once you've worked out which course and university you want to apply to, you're ready to proceed.

Err, what's a college?

Oxford and Cambridge are collegiate universities. This means that all students belong to a college within the university, and their college is the centre of their 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 which college to apply to, it is possible to make an open application, where the university will make the decision for you.

The universities ensure that which college you choose (or if you make an open application) does not affect your chance of getting a place. Other colleges can offer you a place if your chosen college does not have enough space. For example, at Oxford more than 25% of current students are at a college that they didn't apply to.

For much more help with this see How to choose an Oxford College and How to choose a Cambridge College.

2. Sending off the application

UCAS

So you've worked out where you want to apply... fantastic! The UCAS website is the mechanism through which everyone applies to university. But as you're applying to Oxford and Cambridge, 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 Oxford and Cambridge, 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 no college preference and want to make an Open Application).

Your Personal Statement is the most tricky part of the UCAS application. While other universities place a great importance on extra-curricular activities, this isn't the case with Oxford or Cambridge - and the academic stuff really should fill most of it. Generally the two universities have more information than most other universities (e.g. UMS, pre-interview tests, written work, interviews) therefore the personal statement is slightly less important when applying to Oxford and Cambridge.

Everyone needs a reference for their UCAS form, but you should inform your referee (normally your tutor) of your decision to apply to Oxford or Cambridge 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 Oxford and Cambridge applicants, but if your school has no history of Oxford or Cambridge applications, do not worry, the reference is only one of a many pieces of information the decisions are made on.

Extra Forms

  • Cambridge: 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 (you must state every AS/A2 exam you have taken, there's no hiding of retakes or failed modules), class sizes and specific topics covered within subjects. It also gives the option of adding an extra 'mini' personal statement. If your education was significantly disrupted or disadvantaged through health or personal problems, disability or difficulties with schooling then get your school to complete the Extenuating Circumstances Form.

Pre-Interview Tests

You must check whether there are pre-interview tests must take for your course, for example the BMAT or LNAT. Such tests are more common at Oxford. It is your responsibility to enter yourself for the tests (and to turn up!). They are used to significantly reduce the number invited to interview, so take them seriously. Example papers are available online for most of these tests, so you are strongly advised to practise. Most of the Oxford tests take place in early November, but again this is something you need to check.

Written Work

Some humanities subjects require examples of your written work to be sent in. This shouldn't normally be something you've written especially the application, instead you just send recent good work you've done. It doesn't always have to be an essay directly related to the subject you're applying for, so check the instructions carefully! An extended project may also be suitable (either complete or in almost-complete draft form).

3. Waiting to hear back

After the deadline, most colleges will send acknowledgements that they have received your application. If you made an open application, you will be sent told which college you have been allocated to (note that the colleges do not know you made an open application).

Now you've got at least a month of waiting to hear if you're being invited to interview. If you've got an admissions test, this will have to be done now. Unfortunately not everyone will be interviewed, so it's possible this will be the end of your Oxbridge journey. Don't be disheartened though - the competition is tough, and there are lots of other excellent universities around.

Interviews take place in late November or early December. You can expect to hear whether you're being invited about two weeks before. There is an Oxford interview timetable so you can keep the dates free, even if you haven't heard back.

4. Attending interviews

Interviews are an integral part of the Oxford and Cambridge admissions procedures. There's no need to be afraid, as interviews are not designed to catch you out or trip you up. The person who is interviewing you is an academic tutor. Since this person is likely to be personally involved in your tuition throughout your time at university, 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?"

There's an awful lot that can be said about interviews, we've collected some advice on Oxbridge interviews on a separate page.

Note that you should never ask for, or post, interview questions (past or present) on TSR as this would be unfair on future applicants (questions are often reused). However you're encouraged to share general advice about interviews.

5. Getting the decision letter

After interviews you wait to find out the decision...

Oxford decisions used to arrive before Christmas, but (since December 2012 interviews) this now happens mid-January. Conditional offers are standardised for each course across Oxford - 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. 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 used to 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.

If you have an offer - well done! If you get rejected, try not to be too downhearted, most people get rejected, and ultimately its partly down to luck. Note that UCAS often doesn't update until weeks/months later - so be patient with it!

The Cambridge Winter Pool

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. In January 2013 about 30% (approximately 1000 out of around 3500) of pooled applicants were subsequently awarded a place at Cambridge. For applicants interviewed in 2013, a college is required to pool an applicant if they have 93% or more in their three best or three most relevant AS subjects.

Being in the pool is scary, because its a whole new waiting game. You may be called up and given a straight offer by another college, or you might be called for an interview at another college. 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. There are many reasons you might be placed in the pool - there might be no places left at your first choice college, or it might be that they wanted to compare you to other applicants to see whether you definitely are the person they want. For this reason you may end up with an offer from your original college even after being pooled. Its also not unheard of to be offered a deferred place even though you didn't originally ask for it. 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.

6. Waiting for results day

You will now have a really long wait, in which you study for your exams, and try not to panic. Some colleges might send you forms and things, whereas you might not hear from them again until after results day. Don't worry by this, they haven't forgotten you.

Results Day - Made your offer? Congratulations! If not, don't call them up and beg - it won't make any difference. They get your results a few days before you, and have decided whether to take you. Cambridge has a 'Summer Pool' which is the same as the winter pool but for people who missed their offers. Mathematicians have the best chance in the summer pool as a lot of people miss their STEP offers.

I've changed my mind about my course! What do I do? It happens. Sometimes you just realise that the course isn't the right one for you. What you need to do is contact your college as soon as possible. If the new course has space for you then it is likely that they will want to re-interview you. It could be that the College just says no. In this case you need to decide whether you want to take up your original offer or withdraw from UCAS and apply next year for a different subject

Myths

There are a ridiculous number of myths surrounding Oxbridge applications. 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, but beyond this starting point, excellent grades are an advantage but not a requirement.

Interviews are the only important part. Not exactly - whilst Oxford and Cambridge place a great deal of emphasis on interviews, 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, aptitude 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 physically out of the way will give them a higher chance of a place. If colleges get fewer applicants per place, this will mean that many of their students originally applied to other colleges. Tutors at colleges spend a lot of time talking to each other to ensure the best applicants get places, regardless of where they originally chose. 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. About 40-45% of Oxford and Cambridge students were privately-educated. This sounds bad when you hear that just 7% of UK students go to independent schools. But, bear in mind that these students account for 33% of students who get AAA grades at A level. So the number of private school students is unlikely to be because of favouritism; overwhelmingly it is merely that privately educated students are more likely to apply to Oxford and Cambridge in the first place and that privately educated students are more likely to get better grades compared to the national average. Oxford and Cambridge both put a lot of time and money into encouraging a more varied mix of people to apply.

State School applicants have an automatic advantage. When someone comes from a poorly-performing school or has experienced educational problems, this will be taken into account, because this may mean that a person's record on paper does not do justice to their potential. But, despite efforts to encourage less advantaged pupils to apply, all are assessed equally once they submit their application. There is no system of 'positive discrimination' or quotas.

See also

This page (which you can edit) is part of The Student Room's information and advice about Oxford and Cambridge (known collectively as Oxbridge). Whilst the two universities have have much in common, they also have many differences. Our information on the application procedure and interviews applies to both.

If you have questions, or just want to chat, come join us in TSR's Oxford forum and Cambridge forum.

University of Oxford: Guide & Discussion Forum
How to choose a CollegeCollege Pros and Cons
A Week in the Life: of an Arts Student or of a Science Student
FAQ: CollegesApplyingUniversity Life

University of Cambridge: Guide & Discussion Forum
How to choose a CollegeCollege Pros and Cons
A Week in the Life: of an Arts Student or of a Science Student

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