Are you thinking about applying to Oxford or Cambridge? This article should answer many of your questions.
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.
Is there any point in me applying?
Almost definitely yes! If you're predicted or already have 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, although it is a lengthy and somewhat time-consuming one. Regardless, 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! Applicants to Medicine should arguably think more carefully about where to apply, however, since they have only four choices and competition for places is significant.
Are my grades good enough?
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'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
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.
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 requires you to fill out another application for in addition to UCAS called the SAQ. On this you are required to put down your UMS Marks as well as your module grades. 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 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. 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!
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 - 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.
Maximising your chance of getting in:
It is often voiced on TSR that AS/A2 choices should be as academic as possible: if you're a scientist and Further Maths is available, consider taking it; if you've got a choice between a well respected subject and a one viewed a soft touch (say 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, and possibly what you have gained from doing so for extra points. You will not be penalised for not taking anything your school doesn't offer! N.B. if you are a scientist or even more importantly a mathematician/engineer and you live in England, you could be penalised as the Further Maths Network makes it available for anyone in England to take Further Maths.
Tutors are interested in students who'll cope well academically and show potential within a subject area. In addition to the academic requirements, they'll want to see enthusiasm and passion which can be demonstrated through appropriate extra-curricular activities. Relevant extra-curricular activities make your application much stronger for Oxbridge (or anywhere else). Don't get hung up on thinking that everything you do needs to be related to your field of study, it's important that you really do enjoy what you're doing; you'll get so much more out of it and you'll be able to talk about it more convincingly at interview.
Tutors take these seriously. If your application's been affected by serious illness, family grievance, school/exam board cock 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.
Other useful links
Transfered from posts by H&E