• Applying to oxbridge

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Applying to oxbridge

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

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

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


The UCAS application (exactly the same application used for other UK universities) is the main part of your application. 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 clear requirement: you need to be heading for the AAA or A*AA (depending on your course. Oxford Maths is A*A*A). If you think you can achieve that, the answer is usually to apply!

The most important thing to know is that 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, we have a couple of threads dedicated to these questions: see the Oxford thread and Cambridge version.

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 Oxbridge as only for those from a different background. Remember that you have five choices!

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 over the other means twice as much attention can be paid to each application. Try to work out where you would be happiest - a degree takes a long time and Oxford and Cambridge can in some ways be very different places to study.

The most important factor should always be the course offered. 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)). 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 then 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 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).

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, interviews) therefore the personal statement is slightly less important when applying to Oxbridge.

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.

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.
  • 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.

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 courses 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 (either complete or in almost complete draft form) may also be suitable.

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. 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.

4. Attending interviews

Interviews are an integral part of the Oxbridge admissions procedure. 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 letter (and possibly swimming in the 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 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. 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.

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!

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.

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. Some people 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.

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 have already had your results and decided whether to take you. Cambridge applicants end up in the Summer Pool. This is the same as the winter pool but for people who missed their offers. In practice, it is very unusual for those not reading maths to get offers through the summer pool, although not unheard of. 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, 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"

Useful Links

Oxford Admissions

Cambridge Applications

Reviews and College Information at OxbridgeColleges.com

"Interviews in Action: a short film regarding interviews at Cambridge

TSR Choosing a College FAQ

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