Oxbridge Application Process
Oxford and Cambridge are considered special universities by many people. As presitigious institutions, they are certainly more difficult to get into than other top universities.
If you've decided Oxbridge is right for you, our guide will help you through the application process.
How is Oxbridge different from other universities?
Oxford and Cambridge universities are famous for their reputation around the world. With several hundred years of history and many appearances in novels, films and TV programmes, it's little wonder the two institutions are so well known.
This means they have no trouble attracting enough applicants each year. However, there are some disadvantages as well, as their portrayal in the media has led to some popular — but sometime false — beliefs about what kind of students are admitted.
Remember that Oxbridge:
- Wants to attract the brightest applicants, regardless of their background
- Have rigorous yet fair application procedures in place to highlight the best candidates
- Are diverse and vibrant places to live and study.
Both Oxford and Cambridge universities operate a collegiate system, which means they are made up of individual colleges, as well as different academic departments.
While academic departments are responsible for core teaching and assessment, a college will be your home when studying. Colleges provide academic and pastoral support and arrange small group tuition, sometimes with a tutor or supervisor from another college.
Each college will have a diverse range of students — usually including both undergraduate and graduate students — studying across a range of subject areas.
The college system offers the benefits of belonging to a large internationally renowned university, and also to a smaller, interdisciplinary academic college community. You will have access to your college’s facilities, such as an extensive library and IT provision, as well as the resources of the wider university.
You are able to specify a preferred college when you make your UCAS application. Whatever you may have heard, college choice does not matter! Each college offers the same excellent standard of teaching and has the same very high academic standards.
Both universities work hard to ensure that the best students are successful in gaining a place, whichever college they’ve applied to. This means that you may be interviewed by more than one college and you may receive an offer from a different college than applied to. If you would prefer not to choose a college you can make an open application.
Once you have submitted your UCAS application you will be committed to your choice of college, so do your research beforehand.
Oxbridge also have similar teaching methods where students attend lectures, seminars, classes and laboratory work as appropriate for your course.
Unlike at many other universities, students at Oxbridge receive tuition from experts in their field, which means you will gain a fantastic insight into your subject by discussing your ideas and getting feedback on a one-to-one basis.
The only difference is in the name: Oxford refers to these sessions as 'tutorials', while Cambridge refers to them as 'supervisions'.
You are required to prepare an essay or other piece of work in advance of these sessions and then meet with your tutor to discuss the work, perhaps with one or two other students.
Sessions may happen once or twice a week, depending on which course you are studying.
Your Oxbridge application
Admission tutors look for applicants with the greatest academic ability and potential – and those who they think will be best suited for the course and the type of teaching at the university.
The qualities looked for include your ability and motivation to go beyond what is required for your current studies. Evidence that you can study independently, are willing to entertain new ideas, and can explore and discuss ideas and opinions in a logical and considered way. Self-discipline is also a must, as study at these universities requires you to organise your time effectively.
In all stages of your application, demonstrate how you have met the above criteria.
Remember that you cannot apply to both Oxford and Cambridge within the same year.
The stages of your application include:
- Choosing a course - make sure you check the specific details of what the courses at Oxford and Cambridge will cover.
- Choosing a college - after you have decided your course, and therefore your university, you can decide on where you would like to live. If you don't mind, you can make an 'open' application.
- UCAS application - this done via UCAS Apply, the deadline is 6pm GMT on 15th October.
- University forms - you may be required to complete one or more additional forms.
- University tests - for most subjects, additional tests will be required. These may take place before you are invited to interview, or during your interview.
- Written work - you may be required to submit some written work, such as an essay.
- Interview - if your application is shortlisted, you will be invited to the relevant university for interview. These are normally conducted in December.
- Decision - applicants are notified whether you have been successful by the end of January.
Additional elements of the application are covered in greater detail below. Overseas students may have different deadlines to those for UK or EU students; please check with the relevant university.
Most A-level Oxbridge applicants are predicted to achieve top grades and many also have excellent references. It’s therefore not possible for Oxford or Cambridge to select the best students based on their UCAS applications alone. Each university has a slightly different approach to differentiating between applicants.
Your application will be assessed on a combination of the following:
- Your academic record and predicted performance in subject studied
- Personal statement
- School or college reference
- University forms
- Performance in university tests
- Written work submitted
- Contextual data
- Performance at interview.
There may be specific subject requirements for particular courses, especially in the sciences; you can check these in the course requirements on Oxford or Cambridge university websites. At Cambridge, subject requirements may also vary from one college to another.
Conditional offers for Oxford range between A*A*A and AAA (depending on the subject) at A Level or 38–40 in the IB, including core points. Certain grades may be required at Higher Level.
The typical A Level offer for Cambridge is A*A*A for most sciences courses and A*AA for arts courses or 40–42 in the IB, including core points, with 776 at Higher Level. AAA is usually required at Advanced Higher Grade, for students in Scotland.
If you are taking A Levels in the new science subjects you are expected to complete and pass the practical assessment.
Students wishing to study mathematics (or computer science and mathematics) at Cambridge should also take the Sixth Term Examination Paper (STEP).
Personal statements give applicants the opportunity to show their potential to excel within the tutorial or supervision system.
If you explore your chosen subject beyond what is required for the exam syllabus, this can help demonstrate your commitment to the topic and your independent study skills.
Applications and personal statements should demonstrate your self-motivation in learning, your ability to plan, structure and research your work, and show that you are teachable. Relate these to the skills required on your course.
Bear in mind that your UCAS application is to five universities, so your personal statement may have to apply to different courses.
For information and tips on writing your Oxbridge personal statement, please see our Oxbridge personal statements guide. If you still feel you need help with your statement, take a look at our personal statement critique service.
Your tutors will report your academic performance as part of your UCAS reference, including your predicted grades. This is also where some contextual information about you can be included, which allows your circumstances to be considered.
Although your overall academic performance is still the main factor, 'contextualisation' allows the university to assess how your school performs, your socio-economic background and other factors.
It is part of what is sometimes referred to as 'widening participation', and is intended to give a fair platform for applicants from differing backgrounds.
Cambridge asks all applicants to complete an online Supplementary Application Questionnaire (SAQ).
Those taking a modular course are asked to report their uniform mark scheme (UMS) performance and AS Level grades (where available) in the SAQ. For students taking linear qualifications, teachers will report your performance via your UCAS reference.
Oxford does not require you to complete any extra forms, however for most courses, applicants are asked to take a test as part of the application. Tutors then shortlist applicants based on students’ applications and performance in the test.
Each subject will have its own application process so research into this before applying, many require additional essays or tests to be sat so be in the know about what’s required for yours.
Preparation for each test can always be found online so we recommend you check out sample papers and practice questions.
Most tests are held at schools or colleges before you attend interview. Applicants must be registered well in advance for tests by their assessment centre.
At Oxford, candidates for the graduate entry Medicine course (A101) and Biomedical Sciences (BC98) also require this test. Ensure you write down the correct date for taking this test.
Oxford requires applicants to take written tests before interview in most other subjects. Please note that separate registration is required in many cases.
Cambridge requires applicants to take pre-interview tests for around half of its courses. For other subjects, Cambridge requires a written test to be taken during the interview. You do not need to register for at-interview assessments.
For all courses at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, your UCAS application must reach UCAS by the 15th October if you wish to enter the following academic year.
Remember that Oxbridge applications have to be submitted a lot sooner than those applying for other universities, so it's important you're organised to make sure you get it all done in time.
It's best to have the personal statement done by the end of summer, or in the first couple of weeks when you go back to school in September, so that you can get a few people to read over it and give you feedback.
Preparation for interviews begins far earlier than when you apply for Oxford as many things you have previously read or done will help you in the application process.
Make sure you build on this knowledge by keeping up to date with the most recent news and developments in your field.
While it often varies, some colleges only get in touch within the few weeks before the interview date - therefore, be prepared by continuing to read around your subject so that you aren’t rushed once you have received the letter.
Interviews for Cambridge generally only require a day of your time whilst Oxford likes its applicants to stay for a few days. Nearer the date, it’s most important to spend your time relaxing.
Brush up on a few things but try to keep calm and enjoy yourself so that you’re comfortable enough to perform your best in the interviews.
Cambridge interviews around 75% of their undergraduate applicants. For Oxford, where applications are around three per place, most applicants will be shortlisted. For the most competitive degrees, the applicants who most closely meet the selection criteria may have multiple interviews.
The purpose and structure of interviews are very similar at both universities. Essentially, they are like a mini tutorial or supervision, where the tutors will give you a small passage to read or perhaps set a small problem and then ask you to discuss it.
Contrary to many popular myths about the interviews, there are no tricks or mind games involved. The interview is for tutors to get a sense of how you react to new situations and how you process the information available.
It is not a matter of how quickly — or even whether — you arrive at a particular answer. There may not even be a right answer. The tutors just want to get an idea of how you think, and how you apply your knowledge and skills.
Your performance at interview alone does not determine whether you get offered a place; a variety of factors are considered, as outlined above.
However, no commercial test will influence your application success, and neither university supports nor encourages such commercial enterprises.
For more information and advice, check out our dedicated Oxbridge interviews section.