The admissions process for the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford – jointly known as Oxbridge – can seem daunting. Having an A-level tutor can help subside some of the stressfulness of applying. However, not only do you need to do well in your exams and write an excellent personal statement. You also need to submit your application early, get to grips with the collegiate system, and prepare for subject-specific exams and interviews. Despite all this, applying for a place at Oxford or Cambridge is very much worth it for the unparalleled quality of teaching. Also, the wealth of opportunities that an Oxbridge degree can open up for you. This article will guide you through all the stages of the Oxbridge entrance process. From choosing to submit an application to interviews.
The universities of Oxford and Cambridge are notorious for being hard to get into, but they are also known for a whole lot more. Both universities are renowned for their academic excellence, with Oxford ranked as second in the world and Cambridge sharing third place with Stanford University. Oxbridge professors tend to be experts in their fields, meaning that students benefit from lectures and teaching from leading academics, such as Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web (Christ Church College, Oxford).
This reputation for excellence carries through to the day-to-day experience of an Oxbridge student. While at 8 weeks the terms are very short in comparison to other universities, the learning experience at Oxbridge is intense and personalised, with regular check-ins to assess progress. Like at other universities, students are expected to regularly attend lectures, however, at Oxford and Cambridge these lectures are a part of a wider offering. Seminars and personalised learning meetings – known as ‘tutorials’ (Oxford) or ‘supervisions’ (Cambridge) – allow students to discuss their work and ideas in detail. Oxbridge students certainly do more work than students at other universities, but for those who enjoy their subjects and are keen for rigorous intellectual development, this can be a positive.
There is also more to Oxbridge than academic excellence. The collegiate set-up allows students to have a home away from home while at university. The focal point of both the academic life and the social life of Oxbridge is the college, meaning that it is easy to get to know everyone and to make friends quickly. All colleges will have plenty of student-led activities and societies that you can get involved with, such as ‘Ents’ nights and sports teams. Many students will also choose to branch out beyond their colleges, and there are plenty of opportunities to meet students from other colleges.
One key quirk of the Oxbridge entrance process is that you cannot apply to both Oxford and Cambridge. Before you start thinking about colleges, it is important to think about which of the two universities you prefer. Whilst both are generally on par academically, it is worth carefully considering the two following questions:
Courses differ slightly between Oxford and Cambridge, so you may find that one does the course you want to apply for, and one does not. In cases where both universities offer the same course, they will tend to structure them differently. Dependent on your interests, you may find that one would suit you more than the other.
Oxford and Cambridge are alike, but Oxford is generally known for being bigger and livelier. If a bustling city with more going on in terms of nightlife, museums, and shops is what you are after, then Oxford may be a better fit for you. If, however, you are looking for something quieter and more relaxed, then Cambridge would be the better choice.
The Oxbridge entrance system allows you to apply to a specific college, or to do an ‘open application’, which randomly allocates you to a college. Oxbridge colleges all have different characters, specialisms, and academic prestige, so it is wise to think carefully about all the colleges before selecting one. The following elements are all worth considering:
The UCAS application requirements for Oxbridge entrance are not dissimilar to those for other universities. The key difference is that applications are due in mid-October.
The Oxbridge entrance process requires top A Level or equivalent grades. Also a good set of GCSE or equivalent grades. It is not the case, however, that you need to have, or have been predicted, a set of straight A*s. Provided the rest of your application is strong, an AAA grade or prediction should be enough to get you to interview. In some rare cases, a lower grade may be sufficient, depending on the rest of your application.
Just as with other universities, you will have to write a Personal Statement as a part of the Oxbridge entrance process. This Personal Statement is used to assess the quality of your application, and if you are invited to interview it will often be used as the basis for questions and discussion.
For Cambridge you will also have to submit a Supplementary Additional Questionnaire (SAQ), which gathers additional information from prospective students. There is also an optional Cambridge-specific additional Personal Statement, which is useful for those who are applying for a course at Cambridge which is unique to the university, such as HSPS.
As well as requiring good grades and a strong Personal Statement, the Oxbridge entrance process often requires students to undertake subject-specific admissions tests. These tests tend to take place in early November, although in some cases Cambridge candidates will sit these tests when they go up to interview. No revision is necessary for these exams, they are intended to test general subject knowledge and ability.
If your application is strong, the next stage in the process is being invited up to interview. These take place in-person in early December and are known for being intense. Interviews vary wildly, but will generally involve a task, some questions based on content drawn from your Personal Statement, and general discussion. The discussion is rigorous – tutors are looking for students who are clever and capable, but also genuinely interested and teachable. In some cases, students will be ‘pooled’, which means undertaking further interviews at other colleges. Oxford conducts pooled interviews in the same period as first interviews, while Cambridge invites pooled candidates back for a second interview after Christmas.
If you feel that Oxford or Cambridge might be right for you, there are many great ways to prepare. The preparation process can also be enjoyable, as a key part of it is engaging more closely with your chosen subject. It is a good idea to start early, to give yourself time to carefully plan and prepare. Gathering as much information as possible about the universities and colleges is also a great idea, so we would highly recommend attending open days and wandering around the cities. Finally, it is worth engaging with your subject beyond the curriculum, which can be achieved through wide reading and research, and through mentoring. Our Oxbridge entrance mentors are very familiar with all of the admissions requirements, having gone through the process themselves and having subsequently guided other students through it.