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How to apply to Oxbridge

Find out what it takes to get into Oxford or Cambridge, including some tips if you’re undecided on which one to apply to.

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Applying to Oxbridge - what do I need to know? Oxford or Cambridge, where should I go?
What do you need to get into Oxford or Cambridge?

Applying to Oxbridge - what do I need to know?

You’re probably aware that things at Oxford and Cambridge work slightly differently to other universities in the UK. Here are the main differences you need to know about.

October deadline

The deadline to apply is much earlier than the January Ucas deadline for most courses. The Oxbridge application deadline is 15 October each year, so make sure you’re ready for it. 

Talk to your school or college and let them know that you’re considering applying to Oxford or Cambridge as soon as possible, so they can support you (including giving you feedback on your personal statement in time).

The college system

Oxford and Cambridge are two of a handful of universities to have a collegiate structure (Durham and York also have this).

Your college at Oxford or Cambridge is where you’ll live, socialise and do most of your studying – they’re like little worlds in their own right. 

The most important thing to know is that the college you choose won’t affect your chance of getting a place.

When weighing up which college to go for:

  • check that it offers the course you want to study;
  • consider the size, how old or new it is and where it's based;
  • and visit on an open day and simply go with your instinct.

If you can’t decide on a college, you can make an open application, where your application will be randomly allocated to a college for you, after which it will be treated like any other.

Term lengths and schedule

Terms are slightly shorter at Oxford and Cambridge, usually lasting around eight weeks as opposed to ten at other universities. There may be study weeks either side of these too.

Keep this in mind when it comes to tenancy agreements, making plans for the holidays (eg travelling home), and finding part-time work. 

Speaking of which, it's been known for Oxford and Cambridge to discourage students from working part-time during the term, given the shorter length and intense workload.

Tutors may to start asking questions about how you’re spending your time if your grades start to slip (this includes non-work activities too, such as representing the university in sports).

However, you may be allowed to pick up certain paid roles on campus eg research assistant positions.

Extra funding

If the cost of going to uni – and studying at Oxbridge in particular – is a concern, look into extra funding such as bursaries and scholarships.

These could be offered by Oxford and Cambridge themselves, or other organisations, employers and charities, and awarded based on personal circumstances, academic achievement or extracurricular activities.

While these schemes are competitive, if you’re successful, they can be life-changing; so it’s definitely something to look into. It might be something to ask about at an open day.

Oxford and Cambridge have traditionally had a reputation for having a very narrow student population (ie white, upper-middle class). However efforts have been made to widen the net and attract students from different ethnic backgrounds and lower household incomes. 

For example, in 2018 Stormzy announced that he will fund the tuition fees and maintenance grants for two black students at Cambridge, each year.

Student loans and finance – what you need to know

Events and programmes

Oxford and Cambridge host various events and activities to give prospective applicants a taste of Oxbridge life and encourage applications from a wide range of backgrounds. These include:

  • open days including accommodation and department tours;
  • summer residentials where you research and write a short assignment over a week, living at the university and getting a taste of student life there;
  • outreach programmes where Year 12s attend local weekly classes that replicate Oxbridge-level teaching. Work is assigned each week ahead of group discussions, while students can get further support when the time comes to apply.

Oxford student Ruby told us about her experience on Balliol College's Floreat programme

To be a part of a humanities course led by ex-Oxford students has been invaluable. Not only has it helped me to see if I’m suited to the intensity and style of Oxford teaching, but the seminars have also allowed me to broaden my horizons and explore new themes.

Having group discussions each week has further developed my public speaking and arguing skills.

This is key for an Oxford applicant, since the weekly tutorials that students have are essentially a one-on-one or two-on-one debate with an expert where you will have to justify your opinions in your work or on something you have read.

Oxford or Cambridge, where should I go?

As the two oldest universities in the UK, Oxford and Cambridge are very similar in terms of their prestige, collegiate structure, teaching style and rigorous application process.

So what sets them apart from each other?

Best of the best

You can often find Oxford or Cambridge alternating between first and second place in the annual university league tables, and both Universities are highly esteemed by academics and employers, globally.

It might be worth taking a look at where they currently rank for your particular subject, to see if one edges out the other.

There's a common perception that Cambridge is slightly better for sciences, while Oxford is marginally stronger for social sciences and humanities - but both Universities insist there is no significant difference.

That said, regardless of reputation for being slightly more skewed towards one set of subjects over another, a degree from either Oxford or Cambridge will hardly be frowned upon. 

Subject and degree type

Oxford and Cambridge don’t offer 100% identical courses.

While some courses have a lot in common, there are certain courses that are only available at one of the Universities – therefore, your choice might be made for you already. 

For example, you can only study Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) at Oxford – though Cambridge offer the somewhat similar Human, Social, and Political Sciences course (HSPS).

At Cambridge, you apply to the flexible natural sciences degree (also known as the ‘NatSci Tripos’), allowing you to combine any of the biological and physical sciences or specialise based on your interests. Meanwhile Oxford only offers single-subject science courses.

Also, while you can take a joint degree at Oxford, you can’t study a combined degree at Cambridge (though you might be able to do a module in another subject area, here).  

Course content

Make sure that the course you want to study is top on your list of priorities when it comes to choosing between the Universities.

And just as similar courses vary at any other university, the content of similar courses at Oxford and Cambridge will have key differences; so be sure to dig into the details. 

For instance, there may be genres and authors available on an English degree at Oxford that aren’t at Cambridge. So if you have a specific area or topic you want to drill into, check this.

Which modules best match your interests? How does the split between exams, coursework and practicals suit you?

Not sure what to study? Take a look at our guide to choosing the right degree course.

City showdown 

With their incredible architecture and world-famous universities, both cities are tourist hotspots – but they offer quite a different student experience. 

Both are around an hour from London (in Oxford’s case, a little less). As with the Universities themselves, the only way to really know which city will suit you is to go there and see what it's really like.

We recommend visiting them in person if you can, but here’s a whistle stop tour of each city:

 

Cambridge

 

A small city where almost a fifth of the population are students and the centre is dominated by the University; it could be the place for you if you’re after a small town feel.

Cambridge is more laid back than Oxford and arguably prettier, with a river flowing through the city centre and countryside surroundings.

If you’re more into pubs than clubs, Cambridge won’t disappoint. 

 

Oxford

 

If you’re after a bustling city, Oxford is livelier and busier than Cambridge, but it’s still small enough to cover on foot.

The city may appeal to culture fans with its museums and galleries – and it’s got more shops, too.

Oxford has more in the way of nightlife than Cambridge with more bars and clubs.

Respective quirks 

Most universities have special traditions, traits or names for the same thing – and Oxford and Cambridge are definitely no exception to the rule:

  • The well-renowned teaching style may be the same at both Universities, but the very small study sessions are called ‘tutorials’ at Oxford (also referred to as 'tutes') and ‘supervisions’ at Cambridge. 
  • Cambridge has the May Week tradition, a period of celebration following end-of-year exams. Expect balls, events and garden parties.
  • Twenty-eight British prime ministers went to the University of Oxford, including Boris Johnson, David Cameron and Tony Blair. Fancy yourself as the next? Oxford is regarded to be more conservative than Cambridge.
  • The University of Cambridge has its very own private police force, the Cambridge University Constabulary. The Constabulary plays an important role at graduation, controlling crowds and assisting visitors.

What do you need to get into Oxford or Cambridge?

You have to stand out against the fierce competition; but does that mean having a clean sweep of A*s and As at GCSE and A-level?

In short, not necessarily. You’ll come across Oxbridge students who don’t (but don’t be shocked to meet many who do).

While every individual application should be treated on its own merits, there are a few boxes you should tick to keep your Oxbridge hopes alive.

So, what do you need to apply to Oxford or Cambridge?

Top grades

The most obvious difference between admissions at Oxbridge and other universities is the emphasis on academics.

While other universities may offer you a place based on the skills, extracurricular interests, and experience you’ve talked about in your personal statement – or accept you still even if you narrowly miss the grades of your offer come results day – it's your academic performance, potential and ambitions that really interest Oxford and Cambridge. 

For Oxford, the typical conditional offer ranges between A*A*A and AAA (depending on the subject), while most offers from Cambridge are A*AA.

How to appeal an A-level grade – if you’re on the boundary between two grades or your marks are suspiciously low, read our guide.

Wider reading

Simply following the syllabus and doing the minimum your school teachers require, won’t cut it if you’re planning to apply to Oxbridge.

Reading widely around your subject and keeping up on any latest developments will help you, particularly if you’re applying to an area like humanities, social science, science or engineering.

Doing so will mean you’ll:

  • have more relevant information to talk about on your personal statement – Oxbridge statements tend to be more academic-focused;
  • be able to talk widely around a subject during an interview – it’s pretty likely you’ll have to attend one;
  • and be more prepared for the pace of reading expected of you at university.

Don't be afraid to be critical about what you’ve read either, provided you give valid examples or reasons. Oxbridge tutors want to see applicants who can form their own views and how they’ve come to these conclusions, rather than simply regurgitate what they read.

Interview preparation

Expect to be invited to an interview at Oxford or Cambridge. Interviews take place in November and December, though there’s a slight chance they might stretch into January. 

You may be required to attend more than one interview with different individuals – especially if you’re applying to a joint subject – including with more than one person at a time.

If you need to stay overnight to attend these, the university will provide food and accommodation.

A good deal of the teaching at Oxford or Cambridge takes place in small classes; and in many ways, your interview will take after these to assess whether you're suited to the teaching style.

They're an opportunity for an admissions tutor to see how you think and respond to a question or discussion, on top of your interest in the subject or the experience you’ve accumulated.

Budding scientists and mathematicians should expect to work out questions on paper or using a whiteboard.

If you're invited to one, get a teacher, careers adviser, your parents or even a friend to do a mock interview with you. Re-read your personal statement – your interview may involve talking about what you wrote here.

Admissions test scores 

To further help distinguish high-achieving candidates, Oxford and Cambridge applicants will likely have to take at least one admissions assessment (timed and written). Note, this is separate to any exams you take as part of your A-levels, Scottish Highers etc.

Admissions tests are designed to show how you think and solve questions that you might not have encountered before. Because they are a test of your inherent skills, they usually require no extra preparation ie there is no material to revise.

Not all degrees require you to take one, though medicine, law, maths, English and modern language applications often do. Most Cambridge applicants are required to take a subject-specific test of some kind.

Admissions tests sometimes take place at interviews, whereas others will need to be taken separately at a private test centre. There may be deadlines to register for these and get your results by (plus fees to pay); so find out which assessments you’ll need to take and when, as soon as possible.

Both Universities ask some applicants to submit examples of written coursework as part of the application, too.

Cambridge also requires applicants to submit a Supplementary Application Questionnaire (SAQ), to ensure they have a complete picture of you as an applicant and correct information. Students applying from outside the European Union may be asked to complete a Cambridge Online Preliminary Application (COPA).

See which admissions tests you may have to take for Oxford and Cambridge.

Check out our full student finance and university advice area including guides to budgeting at university, student banking and results day.

Plus, our student budget calculator tool is 100% free to use.

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