An essential guide to successful Oxbridge applications | The dos and don'ts

An essential guide to successful Oxbridge applications

Making an application to any university is quite an undertaking. Applying to Oxford and Cambridge (often referred to informally as ‘Oxbridge’) is considerably more work. As well as needing to put forward a stellar personal statement, students will usually need to sit additional tests, submit examples of their work and attend an interview. In this article we will set out a chronological list of the things you need to do for your application in order to put your best foot forward. We will cover:

Early preparation

GCSE

When: Year 11 (three years before you intend to start university)
Do: work hard and do your best
Don’t: think that universities make offers based only on A level predictions

If you are intending to apply to university, the work begins at GCSE. Most students will complete their UCAS application at the start of year 13, at which point GCSE grades are likely to be the only external examination results they have to submit as evidence of their academic ability. To be considered for Oxbridge, students will need to achieve A*/A grades for most, if not all, of their subjects at GCSE or have firm mitigating circumstances to explain why they did not achieve this. 

Successful applicants typically have a high proportion of A and A* [GCSE] grades […] higher grades can help to make your application more competitive.

 



University of Oxford website

Choosing your A levels

When: Y11, Summer (two years before you intend to start university)
Do: choose a number of facilitating subjects
Don’t: choose subjects that you have struggled with at GCSE

Oxford and Cambridge have stated a preference for certain A level subjects over others. They describe these as ‘facilitating subjects’ and full details of these can be found in the Russell Group’s Informed Choices booklet. Students intending to apply to Oxbridge are advised to take at least two facilitating subjects for A level. If their school offers this, they should also take four AS levels in year 12 followed by three A levels in year 13, rather than taking three from the start. If their school offers the Extended Project Qualification (a supervised research project), students taking three AS levels could supplement these with an Extended Project Qualification. Although entry requirements differ somewhat between courses and colleges, prospective Oxbridge students should usually be aiming for a minimum of A*AA at A level. For more information, you might find our article 5 key factors to consider when choosing A level subjects helpful.

Although they may not be specified as required subjects, many successful applicants [to the Russell Group] do have advanced level qualifications in at least two of the facilitating subjects.



Russell Group ‘Informed Choices’ booklet

Choosing your degree

When: Year 12, January (two years-18 months before you intend to begin university)
Do: research the subject thoroughly, consider your plans or career post-university
Don’t: allow your choice to be influenced by what your friends are taking

The first step in applying to university is to choose what you would like to read as an undergraduate. Subjects change a lot at different levels: GCSE is very different to A level and as you progress to university, what you learn and how you learn it will differ enormously again. University prospectuses and websites clearly explain what topics a degree will consist of so do your research and make sure you feel enthusiastic and excited about your choice. Many careers and jobs do not require students to have completed a particular degree; simply being a graduate is sufficient. However there are some roles that will require graduates from a specific discipline so if you have a future career in mind then ensure that your degree is going to enable you to work in this field.

Choosing your subject in advance of starting your university application allows you to maximise your preparation, for example by reading a large amount of relevant literature or gaining appropriate work experience. Although being able to prepare in advance is preferable, if you change your mind about what you would like to study over the course of year 12 then you can work on strengthening your application over the summer between year 12 and year 13. 

Wider reading

When: Year 12, January onwards (two years before you intend to begin university)
Do: seek advice from tutors, be a reflective reader and make notes as you learn
Don’t: try to get through as many books as possible. Quality is more important than quantity

Oxbridge are looking for intellectually curious students who are genuinely passionate about their area of interest. A way to demonstrate this to admissions tutors is by reading beyond the A level syllabus. Your tutors can point you in the direction of accessible textbooks and it might also be worth subscribing to a relevant publication such as the Economist or the Lawyer (or seeing if your school library has a subscription).

Reading is […] an absolutely essential form of preparation. You need to read widely and in-depth. Knowing the school syllabus is not enough. You should be able to think and talk about ideas beyond the scope of school work and above the level of your peers.

Dr Seán Buckley, Oxford graduate and author of Getting Into Oxford and Cambridge (2017 Entry)

All serious A level students should also be reading a ‘good quality’ daily newspaper such as the Times, Telegraph or Guardian. These also have particular sections for certain disciplines such as law, healthcare, technology and politics.

Try to read reflectively, which means considering what you are reading (perhaps in comparison to other literature you have read) and formulating your own opinion on it. It is also worth making notes on the key points of interest that you come across so that you can look back over these when you come to write your personal statement or prepare for interview.

Work experience

When: throughout the year before you apply to university (usually during year 12)
Do: try to get varied experience in more than one place especially if you are applying for a vocational course, keep notes about the experience
Don’t: dismiss anything as “irrelevant”: there will be transferrable skills from everything you do

For some courses, such as law or medicine, relevant work experience is essential. Try to shadow a professional in your field of interest, learning more from them about what their job involves and taking the opportunity to develop your understanding of that line of work. Other types of work experience can also be very valuable to an application, even if at first glance they appear less impressive. Shadowing a surgeon would certainly be a glamorous way for a prospective doctor to spend a week but just as important would be the two months over summer that student spent working in a home for the elderly, demonstrating patience, care and a willingness to ‘get their hands dirty’. Students who have a part time job in a shop during their A levels show reliability, capacity for organisation and time-management.  Consider the key skills required for undergraduate success against the work you have done and, when it comes to writing your personal statement or explaining more at interview, you will be able to explain the relevant attributes you have through concrete examples.

UCAS application

When: start to complete the UCAS form in August and submit your application by 15th October
Do: start early and ask for help from your school
Don’t: leave it until the last minute

Your UCAS application is your first chance to impress Oxford or Cambridge and, unless you get it right, it might be your last. It is very important that you take enough time to put your application together. Oxbridge and Medical School applicants need to submit their applications earlier than other students, on 15th October.

Personal statement

When: submit a year before you intend to start university, start drafting personal statement in June
Do: plan it carefully and seek advice
Don’t: copy something you have found online

Your personal statement needs to convince an Oxford or Cambridge admissions tutor that you are worth meeting for an interview. Start working on it in the summer between years 12 and 13 (if you plan to go to university straight after year 13). You only have 4,000 characters so you need to take the time to plan carefully what to include and how to include it as concisely as possible. Inevitably, the first draft of your personal statement will be too long! Once you have this draft, it is a good idea to seek advice from others about what reads well, what could be cut without detriment to your application, what should be expanded upon and whether anything is missing. Continue to re-draft your personal statement as many times as you need to until it is perfect. It is a good idea as a final step to ask someone to proof it for spelling or grammar errors, which you may find hard to spot yourself due to your familiarity with the work. Bear in mind that although the official UCAS deadline for Oxbridge applicants is 15th October, in practice you will be required to submit your application earlier as your school needs time to complete your reference and grade predictions before sending it on.

For more information, see our advice articles on how to write a personal statement and writing a personal statement: the five paragraph principle

AS level or equivalent grades

When: the end of year 12
Do: work hard to achieve the best results that you are capable of
Don’t: think your performance in year 12 is irrelevant to your application

The recent UK educational reform has changed the nature of AS levels. Previously taken halfway through a two-year A level course, they were a useful indicator to university admissions tutors about student aptitude. The reform has meant that students are not required to take any examinations until the end of year 13 but does not mean that performance in year 12 is now irrelevant to an application. Dr Sam Lucy, Director of Admissions for the Cambridge Colleges, has specifically stated that the university will consider information about student performance in year 12 when reviewing a student’s application as a whole. Students will either submit their UCAS form with AS level grades or, if no AS level has been taken, the student’s referee is asked to include detail about performance in internal examinations as part of their reference. It is very important, therefore, that you work hard and achieve your potential in whatever assessments you face for the full duration of your A level study.

Where to apply

When: in the summer of year 12 (to attend an Open Day) 
Do: attend open days, research thoroughly
Don’t: form opinions based on hearsay

Undergraduates cannot apply to Oxford and Cambridge at the same time so you will need to choose between the two; you may find our advice article how to choose between Oxford and Cambridge helpful. Students are strongly advised to attend Open Days to learn more about all of the universities they are considering, where this is feasible. Cambridge Open Days are in July and Oxford in June or September. Students who intend to progress directly to university after school (or apply for deferred entry) will need to attend an Open Day in the summer of year 12, allowing them to make a decision about where to apply in advance of the UCAS deadline in October.

Oxford and Cambridge are unusual in that they are collegiate universities. This means that, as well as choosing which university you would like to apply to, you also need to pick a college at that university. Different colleges have different characteristics so it is worth investigating which might suit you best (again, visit where possible). Some are located nearer to particular university faculty buildings than others, some are renowned for a particular subject or sport and some are women-only. If you cannot decide which college to apply to then it is possible to submit an open application, meaning that the admissions board will allocate you a college.

Before I visited Cambridge for an Open Day I imagined it (whimsically) as if a picture-perfect postcard town, with looming spires, gothic chapels and the chime of bells. In the end I went to Churchill College, whose brutalist architecture was a far cry from the image I’d created. Cambridge is a lot more varied than you think: each college looks different, is of a different size and often has a unique atmosphere too.



Maud McCaffrey, Cambridge graduate

Supplementary Application Questionnaire (SAQ)

When: submit the SAQ by 22nd October (Cambridge applicants only)
Do: take the questionnaire as seriously as you took your UCAS form
Don’t: panic

The University of Cambridge require applicants to complete a supplementary application questionnaire (SAQ) to allow them to learn more about students than the UCAS form will allow. If you apply to Cambridge, then once your UCAS application is submitted you will receive an email with further details about the SAQ, which you must submit by 22nd October. Although this does not seem like long, it is sufficient as long as you get to work straight away and allow enough time to seek advice and re-draft, just like you did with your personal statement. Remember that every Cambridge applicant that year is subject to the same time constraints and do not worry.

Pre-interview admission tests

When: register the pre-interview admission tests by 15 October
Do: register in good time
Don’t: think you cannot prepare

Oxford and Cambridge require many students to take admissions tests as part of the application process. You must register to take these tests by 15 October at the latest (earlier for some). Usually, you will sit these tests at your school in very early November. For more details about the tests at Oxford, visit this page. For more details about the Cambridge tests, visit this page. There are example tests online and your school might also be able to give you some tips on what to expect and how to prepare. 

Written work

When: submit examples of written work (if required) in November
Do: ask your school for help, keep a copy of what you submit
Don’t: leave this to the last minute

For some courses, usually the arts/humanities/social science subjects, Oxford and Cambridge will ask applicants to submit examples of their written work. If this is required then once your UCAS application has been received, they will contact you directly to explain what they would like and how to submit it. The work will usually be one or two pieces of school work, usually up to a maximum of about 2,000 words long. Oxford requires students to submit this work by 10th November and Cambridge by 3rd November.

If you are asked to submit work, do so in consultation with your tutors who will help you to select work which best demonstrates your strengths. If you are invited to interview, it is likely that your interviewers will discuss this work with you so be prepared to talk about it (and make sure you keep a copy that you can re-read prior to interview).

Interview

When: Interviews take place in December, after the universities’ first terms
Do: prepare thoroughly
Don’t: be intimidated

If your application thus far demonstrates you to be a potential Oxbridge student, you will be invited to interview. The exact format of the interview will depend on the subject. Some students (usually those who have not taken a pre-interview test) will be required to sit a test at interview. As with the pre-interview tests, there are often past papers online or guidelines about what to expect. Do your research before you go and make sure you prepare thoroughly.

Oxford and Cambridge are known for their tutorial approach to teaching, which means that during their degree students will prepare work and will then spend an hour discussing that work with a university academic. At interview, admissions tutors are looking for students who will learn well in this environment, which usually means that students will be engaged with the topic and will try to think deeply about what they are learning, drawing logical conclusions based on what they know. It is possible to practise for an admissions interview at Oxford and Cambridge. The wider reading that you have been doing will have furnished you with information about your chosen subject and you now need to be able to articulate this information as well as your (evidenced) opinion on this. If your school will help arrange a practice interview then take advantage of this and spend time simply speaking out loud about your subject and becoming more comfortable in discussing it.

Tutors are looking for the best-qualified candidates; people whom they will enjoy teaching and who will make a contribution to their academic department. It’s worth reminding yourself what qualities they are looking for in a student.



Dr Séan Buckley, Oxford graduate and author of Getting Into Oxford and Cambridge (2017 Entry)

Oxbridge decisions

When: Oxbridge will announce their decisions in January
Do: celebrate! Update UCAS online
Don’t: be disheartened by rejection

By this stage in your application, you have been working towards Oxbridge for nearly three years but the wait is nearly over and in January, the universities will announce their decisions.

Successful students can breathe a sigh of relief. You can now hold this offer while you wait for the other universities to respond to your application. Once this happens, you will need to update your UCAS form to indicate your Firm and Insurance choices. The deadline for this is usually early May.

Unsuccessful students now have a decision to make. There are many extremely strong universities in the UK and you may have applied to these in addition to Oxbridge. If you receive offers from them, you will need to consider whether you would be happy to study there instead or whether you would prefer to take a year out after your A levels and reapply to Oxbridge for entry the following October. Visit the other universities to see how you would feel about studying there and seek advice; parents, teachers and friends will all be able to give you a new perspective to help you decide what to do.

Our Oxbridge application checklist

Hopefully this article will have provided prospective Oxbridge applicants with the information they need to put together the strongest possible application. To help you get organised, use our handy checklist which is designed for Oxbridge applicants intending to start university immediately after year 13. If you are applying later or taking a gap year, adjust as necessary. 

When

What

 ✔ 
Year 11 All year Work hard to achieve the best possible GCSEs - you need A/A* grades for Oxbridge  
Summer Finalise your A level options, bearing in mind that you need to achieve high grades and that Oxbridge prefer the facilitating subjects   
Year 12 January Choose your degree course  
January onwards Read extensively about your chosen subject, making notes as you do so  
January onwards For vocational courses in particular, organise relevant work experience  
June Sit AS examinations, or internal end of year 12 examinations  
June Start drafting personal statement  
June/July  Attend Oxford and Cambridge Open Days, decide where to apply  
August  Start to complete UCAS form  
Year 13 September Finalise personal statement and UCAS form  
September Register for admissions tests  
October Send application  
October Cambridge applicants only: complete supplementary application questionnaire  
October/November Prepare for interviews and entrance tests  
November Receive notification of invitation to interview  
November Submit examples of written work, if required  
November Sit pre-interview admissions tests, if required  
December Attend interview (including sitting at-interview admissions tests, if required)  
January Receive decision from Oxbridge  
March Receive decision from all other universities  
May Respond to universities on UCAS, indicating firm and insurance choices  
June Take A level examinations  
August A level results day  

>> Download the checklist

Applying to Oxford or Cambridge is a considerable undertaking. These are two of the best universities in the world, with an international reputation for academic excellence, so it only makes sense that winning a place to study there will be a comprehensive and competitive process. Around 6,600 undergraduates start their first years at Oxford or Cambridge every year and with a lot of hard work and preparation you can give yourself the best chance of being one of them.

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