Should I apply to Oxbridge?

Don’t be put off by the rumours! Whilst Oxbridge does have a reputation for being a posh, inaccessible institution with a ridiculously rigorous workload it’s not (completely) true.

If you love your subject, and want a truly engaging university experience, which combines study with a whole host of extracurricular activities, events and traditions; throws in an awesome social life to be shaped to your desire and pushes you to achieve your potential then Oxbridge is definitely for you. Oxbridge is a place where any individual can fit in, with a society and college to fit every type of person.

Whilst the workload can be quite large, most students are passionate about the subject, and the tutorial system gives students the chance to really engage with their topics and so one learns quickly to appreciate the work and, more importantly, how to skim read and churn out essays at a very fast pace.

However, you should think carefully before applying to Oxbridge, as these universities certainly aren't for everyone. It's important not to get caught up in the hype or the excitement of going somewhere so prestigious.

We outline some of things you should think about before putting Oxbridge on your UCAS application form.

1. A level grades

All applicants need a minimum of three A's at A-level to be considered for a place, and for some subjects the offers may be as high as A*A*A.

This means a strong set of predicted grades, and you’ll already have some great GCSE marks under your belt too.

If you’re not on course to achieve these grades, and don’t have any extenuating circumstances, then Oxbridge may not be the right place for you; these universities are looking for exceptional academic ability, and if you’re unable to achieve the required A-level grades, you’d be likely to struggle with the academic work.

However, even if you’re predicted to achieve top grades, Oxbridge still might not be right for you. Grades aren’t everything; just because you have impressive A-level results, it doesn’t mean that Oxbridge is going to be the ideal place for you personally; so your grades are just one aspect for consideration, even if your teachers are pushing you to apply on the strength of your predicted grades.

2. Workload

Do you spend most of your free time in the library? Are you often thinking about your next piece of homework and how you can get the best marks possible?

If so, Oxbridge could be a good place for you to study. The workload expected of you at Oxbridge is far more than at any other university, and you’ll need to be the sort of person who’s motivated to work hard if you're going to achieve a decent result for your degree.

The reading lists you’ll be given each week will probably be the longest you’ve ever seen, and you’ll have to write around two essays a week, potentially in addition to preparing for group classes, such as presentations.

The Oxbridge student will always have a large workload, so you will have to live with the guilt of not always finding the time to perfect each piece of work. If you can live with this, then Oxbridge might be right for you!

3. Debating

Academic discussion and debate are a major part of the Oxbridge tutorial system, where you will be required to write a couple of essays each week for analysis in a one-to-one setting with a leading academic (these are called “tutorials” at Oxford and “supervisions” at Cambridge).

Oxbridge is a place where your opinions will be challenged, and where you will have to defend anything you’ve written in your essays or said in a tutorial or supervision.

This requires intellectual confidence to get through the interview process, so if you’re fairly shy, and the thought of having to give your opinion to someone who’s probably written several books about your subject makes you feel anxious, then Oxbridge probably isn’t the best place for you.

4. Stress

There is a lot of academic pressure at Oxbridge, which doesn't suit everyone. Some people will thrive under such pressure, while others may fall apart.

This pressure manifests itself in a variety of ways, and not just in the fact that the exams are extremely hard. For a start, the tutorial system piles the pressure on because you’re a lot more exposed in a one-to-one situation: there are no other students to hide behind, and it’ll be glaringly obvious if you haven’t worked hard enough or if you’ve neglected to read a certain item on your reading list.

If your essay is full of holes, your tutor will notice and you’ll be squirming on the spot if you’re unable to defend what you’ve written, which is never a pleasant feeling.

There will also be regular official checks on your academic progress, and (at least at some colleges) you might be placed on some kind of academic probation if you’re not deemed to be operating at a sufficient academic level. Oxford, for example, imposes‘Collections’ on all of its students, in the form of a meeting with the president or principal of the college at the end of each term to discuss your academic progress and raise any concerns, and in the form of mock exams at the beginning of every term.

These mock exams mean that you can’t spend the holidays doing nothing – you must brush up on what you’ve learnt during the previous term ready to pass an exam (usually a past paper) at the beginning of the next one. There’s no let-up in pressure for pretty much the entirety of your degree, so you’ll need to be someone who’s mentally able to withstand this.

5. Customs and traditions

Oxford and Cambridge have many customs and traditions, and students are expected to get involved in all of them.

Tradition dictates a great many aspects of life at Oxford and Cambridge, from how you eat to what you wear during exams, and it also means that there will be numerous bizarre ceremonies and other Oxbridge-style events for you to join in.

You’ll have to be okay with dressing up in black or white tie, or evening gowns too, as there are lots of formal events at both universities, including going to dinners with your tutors and attending fancy college balls.

6. Learning style

While the one-to-one tutorial system forms the basis of teaching at Oxbridge, you’ll also need to be prepared for the fact that a lot of the learning you do will be self-directed.

Oxbridge prefers quality over quantity with regards to contact time with teaching staff, so while you’ll get the (almost) undivided attention of your tutor when you’re with them, it’ll probably only be for an hour or two each week.

Outside tutorials or supervisions you might have a few lectures and perhaps a weekly class scheduled, but the rest of the time you’ll be on your own.

You’ll be given a long reading list and it’ll be your responsibility to go to the library in plenty of time, find the books, thoroughly read and absorb their contents and then produce an essay that will withstand academic scrutiny, with little or no input from your tutor.

If you’re self-motivated and happy working alone, this way of doing things won’t bother you; if, however, you struggle to work on your own, and prefer learning in the classroom with others and having everything spoonfed to you by a teacher, you might find that the independence expected of you at Oxbridge isn’t the right style of learning for you.

7. Historic environment

Oxford and Cambridge are, of course, famous for their beautiful architecture, and while there are a few concrete anomalies hiding at both universities, the college buildings are generally quite picturesque.

The old and peculiarly scholarly nature of Oxbridge’s architecture contributes to the solemn, learned atmosphere that makes these cities so conducive to studying, but it’s probably not for everyone; some may find these surroundings quite intimidating, and may prefer the more laid-back vibe of a modern university.

If this is the only thing that puts you off, though, you could apply to one of the newer colleges, such as St Anne’s College, Oxford, even though you should expect the rest of the city to look fairly old in comparison.

8. Community

While some people prefer the relative anonymity of a big university campus, it’s not for everyone. If you’re someone who can see yourself fitting in with a smaller student community, knowing everyone in your year, then the family-like atmosphere of an Oxbridge college would suit you down to the ground.

The great thing about Oxford and Cambridge is that you get the best of both worlds – you’re part of a big university, and you have the benefits that its reputation and facilities bring, but you’re also part of a small community within a college, which makes it easier to settle in.

Your college becomes your home for the duration of your course, even if you end up living out for part of it (and at some colleges you might not even have to live out, as some offer accommodation for all years of your course, not just the first year as at most other universities).

Choosing between Oxford and Cambridge

If you're happy with the factors outlined above, and think you could at least live with all the quirks offered by Oxbridge, then one of these universities might be right for you.

Many aspects are shared by both universities including tutorial system, bursaries and excellent facilities. Where they do differ however is:

  • Accommodation - whilst some Oxford college only offer 2 years accommodation, all Cambridge colleges provide accommodation for the three years.
  • Atmosphere - Cambridge is slightly smaller than Oxford, having more beautiful architecture and a more serene atmosphere. Oxford on the other hand boasts a better night life and some more modern colleges.
  • Course choice will be an easy way to help you decide here. Only very specific courses are offered by each. Oxford for instance doesn’t offer the study of Economics by itself or the study of Veterinary science at all, whilst Cambridge does but misses out on some of Oxford’s renowned joint courses.  Check the league tables to see where each stand for your particular subject choice.
  • Even with the same subjects, studying it at one institution may be quite different from studying it at the other due to course content and tutors, so check out these to figure out your preference

Choosing a college

With both universities having around 30 colleges, it can be a daunting and tough decision but it is perhaps one of the most important.

You'll spend most of your university life in your college, make friends there, attend parties and social events and join its societies and so it's important to choose the college that’s right for you.

Whilst a lot of people 'learn to love' their college, if you select the right one the first time round you’re far more likely to have a good Oxbridge experience, so do spend time browsing through them to decide.

The best thing to do is carry out some careful research by looking at each college's website, but here are a few pointers to help you know what to look out for.

  • Atmosphere - Each of the colleges will be famous for its own specific things, some for academic excellence and others for sporting achievements and student vibe. Try to bear these in mind as this will determine the feel of the college. If you get the chance try looking around the colleges and speaking to students to get an idea of this. Another good way is to get a feel for the ‘real’ college is to read the alternative prospectus that can be found for most colleges on their website.
  • Accommodation - At Oxford, some colleges require you to live out during your second year so this may be something to bear in mind. Colleges each have very different facilities in terms of sports, IT facilities and kitchen/bathroom space. Whilst most colleges are quite well equipped in all these regards you may want to research further to see which is right for you.
  • In addition to facilities, colleges vary greatly in terms of buildings and grounds. Some have a bigger bar whilst others have their own deer park or lake and the architecture can also vary greatly so try to have a look round before you apply.
  • Location - whilst a lot of people decide based on a college’s distance to the main street and university facilities this should not really be a deciding factor. Most places are within walking distance and often own a bike which makes journeys fairly quick and so distance is the least important of issues.
  • Teaching - It is not always the case that your college tutors will be those that teach you but in the majority of cases where it is their specialist subject they will choose to teach you. It may be worth therefore looking up the tutors for your particular interests to see which college they are affiliated to.
  • Pooling - Oxbridge does have a system of pooling where you can be sent to other colleges for interviews despite your first preference. If this does happen to you don’t worry as it can be for a number of reasons including because they think you’re better suited to another college. in any case most of the colleges are pretty welcoming and if you don’t fit in at your college there’s always a whole heap of university wide societies and facilities available to help you make the most of your experience.

If you can, try to go to one of the many Oxbridge open days held each year - this will give you the chance to get a taste of individual collegs, and whether you like them or not. Also, don't just apply to the same colleges your friends are - there is enough competition, without going up against your mates! And if one college receives too many applications for the same subject from the same school, it's more likely you will be rejected.

Best of luck if you decide that Oxbridge is the right step for you!

Further information

For more advice on applying to Oxbridge, please see: