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're thinking about applying to Oxbridge.
Once you've read this guide, have a read of our wiki pages (they're packed full of info from past threads)
Applying to Oxbridge
Choosing a College: Oxford
Choosing a College: Cambridge
University of Oxford
University of Cambridge
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 they're popular universities because most students there have a fun and successful time. If you would too, 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 A*AA/AAA at A-level, you have a chance no matter your previous record. Every year people get in with supposedly 'useless' grades. It'll only take up one of your five choices on the UCAS form, and who knows, you might just get in - 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*/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
Choosing a Course:
This is probably the most important choice in your application - your course will be a central feature of university life for three years. 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, as there are subtle variations between courses. Look in detail at the course description online, which will explain what sort of papers you'll take, how much flexibility you'll have, what sort of skills will be required and what sort of facilities will be available.
Oxford or Cambridge?
Since you cannot apply to both (unless you're an organ scholar or a graduate), you'll have to choose one of Oxford or Cambridge. Many people's decision is based on course preference. This is obviously true for PPE or SPS applicants, but even if you're applying for a subject both universities offer their courses are likely to differ in significant ways.
A lot of people base their decision on more sentimental grounds. The two towns have differnet atmospheres, because Oxford is 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 - choose the university where you think you'll be happiest.
Finally, again, choose the right university for you, not anyone else! Parents and friends may provide useful advice, but the final choice is yours.
This is discussed in detail here
You have to include all your grades. Be truthful - colleges do ask for certificates, and if they found out you lied they can withdraw your offer!
Cambridge require you to submit your UMS marks for all the modules you have taken on the Supplementary Application Questionnaire (SAQ) that they will ask you to fill out online following receipt of your application (in 2011 the deadline for this will be 22nd October). Oxford do not ask for UMS marks.
Not Cashing in AS Grades
Some Oxford applicants who do worse than expected at AS do not cash in their grades to disguise this fact from Oxford. Some schools never cash in AS grades, so tutors don't assume this means you got poor grades.
If you do decline to cash in your grades, be very careful to check your school policy: some write grades in references, others have an automatic cashing in policy which makes anyone who doesn't cash in look really really bad
Do also remember you may still be asked what grades you got at interview.
This is less important for Oxbridge than for other universities, but it's still a chance to show you're commitment to your course and that you've studied it at a bit of depth. Do your best to explain why you're interested in your course, and to give some evidence that you've done some indepedent study into it. It is usually recommended that you spend two thirds of your PS focusing on your academic interests and motivations, and the remaining third on other activities.
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!
Don't forget that there is a PS Help Service
available on TSR.
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'll include it.
A lot of subjects now have special tests, either right before interview or in November. They're very different to A-levels, so it's important to use the online resources (past papers, specifications etc) to familiarise yourself with the format – Oxford's done research and it found marks do go up if you spend 5-10 hours doing this.
Because they're so different to A-levels, tests can be a bit unnerving. The important thing to remember is that just about everyone finds them weird and hard! That's the point of setting them - they test you in ways you've not experienced before. So you just have to do your best.
Submitted written work:
Many arts subjects now ask for essays. What you send in doesn't particularly matter (if the college has 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 usually 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 have your reasoning challenged. It doesn't matter what position you assume - you can change your mind, say you now realise what you wrote was wrong, or stick to your guns; the important thing is to argue your position properly.
Interviews are a test of whether you can be taught in a tutorial or supervision - 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. Typically, I will: drop my pen 12 times; mishear my tutor 4 times; get something completely wrong 5 times; get something partly wrong, 10 times; hesitate or pause to think 20 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 give you a problem you can't do, present a point of view you haven't previously thought about, or just give you information you'd never seen before. Your job is to try to apply this new material. How might you go about solving this problem? How can 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 you don't know too well and get them to ask 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 more complicated. In the immediate run up, make sure your basics are solid. Know the things you've said you know (A-level topics, books in your PS etc) - the risk of messing up simple things like standard integrals or key dates can be minimised by a little revision.
In the long run, you just have to get good at your subject! Anything which makes you think harder about the topics you've studied is good. For maths, I think it's easier, with all those maths challenges/Olympiads books out there. For everyone else, it's a bit more difficult. If you can find some old exam papers (Oxbridge, STEP papers, S-level etc) with questions which are relevant to you, try those. 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, get practice at assimilating new information and adapting your viewpoint to it.
To give you an idea of what the interviews are like, Emmanuel College, Cambridge have produced some videos of mock interviews here
The extra forms:
Both Oxford and Cambridge have scrapped their extra paper application forms. Cambridge now only require you to complete a Supplementary Application Questionnaire (SAQ) online immediately after applying, which is meant to ensure that they have a full picture of who you are as an applicant, what topics you've studied at A level and your UMS marks. More details about the form can be found here
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 one viewed a soft touch (say, history or critical thinking) do the 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, so if you've done team activities, that'll be useful. Secondly, EC's can show time management and determination. The first shows you'll be able to cope with the big academic, extra-curricular and social schedule most Oxbrdige students take on; and the second will show that when you're struggling with work, which happens to almost everyone at least once, you'll work 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 take these seriously. If your application's been affected by serious illness, family grievance, school/exam board **** ups etc, that will 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. There is also the option of applying to Cambridge via the Cambridge Special Access Scheme (CSAS), which ensures that candidates who have been disadvantaged by extenuating circumstances or are from backgrounds with no history of university education are fairly assessed. More information on the CSAS is available here
Oxford Admissions - http://www.ox.ac.uk/admissions/
Oxford Alternative Prospectus - http://www.ousu.org/prospective-students/ap
Oxford Open Days - http://www.admissions.ox.ac.uk/opendays/
Cambridge Admissions - http://www.cam.ac.uk/admissions
Cambridge Alternative Prospectus - http://www.applytocambridge.com
Cambridge Open Days - http://www.cam.ac.uk/admissions/undergraduate/events