The ultimate guide to the Oxbridge application process

Female student looking thoughtful using laptop

Want to apply for Oxford or Cambridge? Here's how it works

The application process is slightly different depending on whether you choose to apply for Oxford or Cambridge, but they're similar enough that we've grouped them together in one article and highlighted the key differences.

First step is deciding between Oxford and Cambridge, as you can't apply for both in the same application cycle. If you're still undecided about which one to go for, read our Oxford or Cambridge? guide.

Here's what to do once you've made up your mind:

1. Fill out your UCAS application

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. So it's vital you start your UCAS application pretty much as soon as possible.

Form

Other than that, UCAS applications for Oxford and Cambridge, with regards to the online form itself, will be the same as for every other university. The key difference between Oxbridge and most other unis is that they are collegiate unis.

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 Oxford and Cambridge, you need to choose the college you wish to apply to from the list (or put a '9', if you have no college preference and want to make an open application).

Personal statement

Your personal statement is the trickiest part of the UCAS application. While other universities place more importance on extracurricular activities, this isn't the case with Oxford or Cambridge – so the academic stuff really should fill most of it.

The good news is that generally Oxbridge have more information to base their decision on than most other universities, such as pre-interview tests, written work and interviews, so the personal statement is slightly less important when applying to Oxford and Cambridge.

Reference

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 an extra effort for the references of Oxford and Cambridge applicants, but if your school has no history of Oxford or Cambridge applications, don't worry. Again, the reference is only one of many factors the universities take into account.

2. Extra forms (Cambridge only)

After sending your UCAS application you will be asked via email to complete a SAQ (Supplementary Application Questionnaire) which asks for the following:

  • Application type
  • Photograph
  • Personal details
  • BMAT number (if applicable)
  • Education
  • Qualifications
  • Additional information

In order for your application to be valid, you have to submit your SAQ by the deadline, which is in most cases October 22 at 6pm.

The purpose of the SAQ is to ensure that Cambridge has complete and consistent information about all its applicants, including things that aren't part of the UCAS application like the topics you've covered as part of your AS/A-level (or equivalent) courses, which helps interviewers decide which questions to ask.

There is a space for an (optional) additional personal statement here, where you can mention any specific areas of interest within the Cambridge course tripos. This is especially useful if other courses you're applying for in UCAS aren't exactly the same.

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.

3. Pre-interview tests

You must check whether there are pre-interview tests must take for your course, for example the BMAT for medicine, MAT for maths, or LNAT for law. It is your responsibility to enter yourself for the tests – and to turn up!

These tests are much more common at Oxford, with most courses requiring you to take an admissions test, including:

These 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.

Deadlines for registering for your university admissions test vary, but tend to be in October. Most of the Oxford tests take place in early November, but this is something you need to check.

4. Written work

Some humanities subjects require examples of your written work to be sent in. This doesn't normally need to be be something you've written especially for the application, instead you just send some high-quality work you've completed recently.

It doesn't always have to be an essay directly related to the subject you're applying for either, so check the instructions carefully. An extended project may also be suitable (either complete or in almost-complete draft form).

5. Wait 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 told which college you have been allocated to. (Note that the colleges do not know you made an open application).

Admissions tests

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, you'll do this in between now and then. 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.

Interview invites

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. The majority of Cambridge interviews take place in the first three weeks of December, though some are earlier.

6. Interview

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?

TSR member RhynieChert has this helpful info about Oxbridge interviews: "Cambridge interviews 70 to 80% of all applicants while the figure for Oxford is much lower.

"Oxford usually at least two colleges will interview each candidate over two or more days while at Cambridge, only one college will interview."

There's a lot that can be said about interviews, so we've collected some advice on Oxbridge interviews here.

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). You can share general advice about interviews to help others, though.

7. Decision letter

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

Oxford decisions arrive in 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 early January. Conditional offers tend to be A*AA at A-level or the equivalent in another exam system for, though for science and maths subjects the standard offer is A*A*A. 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 maths 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 as most people get rejected, and ultimately it's partly down to luck. Note that UCAS often doesn't update until weeks/months later – so be patient with it!

8. Winter pool (Cambridge only)

Now comes the complicated part of Cambridge 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.

Being in the pool is scary, because it's 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. It's 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.

9. Study, take exams and wait for results day

You will now have a really long wait, during which time 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 about this, they haven't forgotten you.


Made your offer? Congratulations!

If not, don't call them up and beg as it won't make any difference; your college gets 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.

If you have not got a place, then you just have to accept this – and not resent the fact that you are now going to your Insurance place. Be joyful that you are going to university – and grab the multitude of opportunities that the other uni will offer you.

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, or even that Oxbridge isn't 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, go to your Insurance choice or try for somewhere else in Clearing or Adjustment.

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