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The Ultimate Guide to Successful Oxbridge Applications: Pt. 1

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Last Updated: 22 Feb, 2024

In this first part of our four-part series on successful Oxbridge applications, we discuss how to go about choosing your university, college and course.

Applying to Oxbridge can be an intimidating business. After all, these are two of the world’s most competitive universities, and with over 34,000 students applying for around 6,600 places every year, competition is fierce. Getting a place at Oxbridge means candidates have to be more than just bright, motivated and hard-working; they need to be prepared. In this four-part blog series, UK Study Centre will detail how to approach each step of applying to Oxford or Cambridge, with the aim of providing prospective students with the knowledge and information that they need to submit a strong application.

The first part of the series is dedicated to the choices that you make when you apply, and in particular the three crucial decisions of which university, course and college to go for. We’ll then provide an in-depth look at the UCAS form and the personal statement, discuss how to make you the best possible candidate, and finally take you through preparing for and attending the interviews. So without any further ado, let’s learn about how to get a place at Oxbridge!

Part 1: Making choices

Before we begin, let’s discuss some of the pre-requisites before you consider applying to Oxbridge. Firstly, your grades, GCSEs or international equivalent, have to be pretty good. The level of competition means that exam grades are a first point of call for deciding between candidates, and GCSE results are a significant factor in whether your application is considered. However, while mostly A*s and As are expected, perfect results are not essential. As Oxford University write on their website, ‘if your results were among the best in your year group that will be taken into account.’ So don’t let a couple of Bs stop you from making an application – you never know where it might lead.

The second thing you need to consider is whether Oxbridge is right for you. Both universities demand a lot from their students, and for many life beneath the dreaming spires can be as anxiety-provoking as it is inspiring. Are you particularly interested in one of your subjects? As well as your time at school do you spend your free time thinking about it? What motivates you? If there’s a subject that you’re really passionate about then Oxbridge might well be the place for you to learn about it further, but you also need to be able to handle the pressure that life at Oxford or Cambridge will inevitably face you with.

Choice No. 1: Oxford or Cambridge?

We could write a lot here about Cambridge compares with Oxford in terms of international rankings and employer favourability, but if you’re reading this post you already know the deal: Oxford and Cambridge are both highly prestigious universities, a degree from either of them is going to be a significant boost to your career prospects, and there is very little to separate them in terms of the quality of education you receive, or the value of your degree afterwards. Historically Oxford has been seen to be more of a home for the arts and Cambridge more science-friendly (Cambridge was the alma mater of Sir Isaac Newton, DNA pioneers James Watson and Francis Crick and most recently of Stephen Hawking) but in truth both are excellent places to study, irrespective of subject. And besides, no-one chooses Oxford over Cambridge because the former came second in the world rankings and the latter third. So how do you choose between them?

The answer is to visit. Oxford is larger than Cambridge, with a population of 150,000 in comparison to Cambridge’s 120,000, and by some accounts more of a vibrant place, but Cambridge is spectacularly picturesque, and slightly more manageable by bike. The only way really to decide between them is to go, have a look around and get a feel for the place. When you go, be sure to look in as many of the colleges as possible, and if you have the time spend a couple of days getting acquainted with the city. Go to the faculty of the subject you want to study (or to multiple faculties if you’re not quite sure of your subject yet) and if possible have a chat with someone studying there. Once you’ve got a good idea of both universities, and you’ve decided which one you prefer, it’s time to decide on the college and subject you want to apply for. Remember that you can’t apply to both Oxford and Cambridge in the same admissions round, but if you are unsuccessful the first time around you can always apply to the ‘other place’ the following year.

Choice 2: Subject choice

Once you’ve got the matter of which university you’d like to apply to out of the way, it’s time to work out what you want to study. Some students will already have a good idea about what they want to do next, whereas for others it might be a choice between two or three subjects.

There can be the temptation to apply for courses that offer the most favourable odds for winning a place. For example, of those applying to study PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics) at Oxford in 2015 there was a ratio of seven unsuccessful candidates to every one that gained a place, while the equivalent ratio for modern languages was three to one. The argument would follow then that if you’re both a budding politician and a polyglot you should apply for languages rather than PPE, but this would be a mistake. Once you’ve got into Oxford or Cambridge you’re going to end up doing a lot of work, and if you’re not interested in what you’re studying you might end up paying for your choice with a lower class degree than you might have received had you followed your heart rather than your head. What’s more, the chances you have of getting a place for your chosen subject are affected as much by your choice of college as they are by your subject. The best advice we can give is to choose the subject that really interests you, rather than the one that you think will help you get in.

Choice 3: Which college should I choose?

Before we discuss how to choose a college, let’s consider the role that your college plays during your time at Oxbridge. How important is your choice of college?
Given that a significant portion of your time at Oxford or Cambridge will be spent in your college and with the other students and staff members that live and work there, it’s important to choose a place where you feel happy and confident. Your college is your community; it’s the place where you eat, sleep, make friends, and go to social events like bops (parties that take place in the college bar). Your college Director of Studies oversees your academic progress, and many of your tutorials at Oxford and supervisions at Cambridge will take place on college grounds. If you enjoy sports or music and drama it’s likely that you’ll play for your college sports team, or sing in the college choir, and if you’re brainy enough to get onto the University Challenge team you’ll be representing your college, rather than the university as a whole.

Here are some questions to consider when choosing which college you’d like to study at:

1) Can I study there?

Not every college at Oxford and Cambridge is open to all applicants. Three of the colleges at Cambridge (Newnham, Murray Edwards and Lucy Cavendish) are women-only, while a number of colleges at both universities, such as Hughes Hall at Cambridge and Harris Manchester at Oxford, only cater to mature students. Nor does every college offer places for all subjects. Some of the smaller colleges will only offer a limited selection of subjects, so check you can actually study at the college before you apply!

2) Where is it?

Choosing a college is very much to do with priorities. Would you rather be close to the hustle and bustle of town, or quietly surrounded by rolling countryside? Is it more important for you to be able to be close to your lecture theatre than it is to get to be close to a supermarket? For example, an English undergraduate at Selwyn College, Cambridge is about a five minute walk from the centre of college to lectures on the neighbouring Sidgwick site, and a ten minute walk into town. Meanwhile It will take twenty minutes by bike to get from Homerton College in the south of Cambridge to the Sidgwick site. (Homerton makes up for it though with huge grounds, an on-site gym and modern accommodation with en-suite bathrooms.) What you choose, then, depends on your priorities. When you visit the colleges try to get an idea of what is nearby, and ask a current student about how long it would take to get to lectures for your particular subject from the college grounds.

3) How does it feel?

Your choice of college is also inextricably bound up with your own sense of personal identity. You might be the kind of person that feels at home in a grand, ancient institution such as St John’s, Cambridge or Christ Church, Oxford. On the other hand you might find that kind of place a little intimidating and would be more at home in a smaller, more intimate college such as Sidney Sussex, Cambridge or Oriel, Oxford. Likewise you need to try and imagine what it would be like to live and work there. Do you like the library? What is the accommodation like? The more you can speak with current students or alumni the better. In short though, it’s important that wherever you choose feels right for you.

4) How much money does the college have?

This might seem like a bit of a strange one, but it can be a factor, especially for students who come from less privileged backgrounds. The more money a college has, the more it can offer discounted accommodation and food to its students. Many colleges also offer grants and awards for students who are successful in their examinations, and these are likely to be more substantial at a rich college. Being at a richer college can mean big savings during your time at Oxbridge.

5) How competitive is it?

The colleges at both Oxford and Cambridge receive a range of applications, but understandably some colleges, and courses, are more popular than others. It’s harder to receive a place to read English at Trinity College, Cambridge, for example, than it is to read Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at Churchill College. Applicants would do well to consider the historically less well known colleges to have an improved chance of being offered a place. Application statistics for Cambridge can be found here, and for Oxford here.

6) Who will be teaching me?

Once you’ve made a shortlist of your two or three preferred colleges, try to visit them a second time around and, if possible, arrange a meeting with the Director of Studies for your subject. You might find that you hit it off instantly, or you might find that you don’t. Either way, it’s important to know who is going to be teaching you and whether you think you’d like to be taught by them!

7) What are the entrance requirements?

Oxford and Cambridge have different entrance requirements depending on the subject and college. At Oxford all applicants for subjects such as Human Sciences and PPE will be required to take the TSA test (Thinking Skills Assessment). Likewise all English applicants will have to sit the ELAT (English Languages Admissions Test) and there are equivalent tests for a range of subjects. Likewise Cambridge are now requiring applicants to sit entrance exams for the first time in thirty years. Before applying to Cambridge do some research into what you will be required to do at interview, since it can vary significantly between colleges.
As important as your choice of college is, it is possible to overstate its importance. Much of what you do at Oxford and Cambridge will involve students from other colleges. Lectures are not college specific, and there are hundreds of musical and theatrical performances each year that involve performers from across the university. There’s also the fact that about a fifth of Oxbridge applicants end up at a different college from the one they applied to because of the pool structure (we’ll come to this below) so every candidate has to accept a degree of flexibility.

It's also possible to submit an open application. This is where you don’t choose a specific college and let the university choose for you.

Question: If I’m offered a place, will I definitely go to the college that I apply to?

The answer is no. There are a few situations in which you might end up with a place at Oxford or Cambridge but not at your original college of choice. These are:

1) Being invited to interview at a different college to your first choice and subsequently receiving an offer for a different college (Oxford)

Most Oxford applicants are interviewed at more than one college. This is to make sure that if one college has a particularly high number of applicants for your subject you can still be considered for the university by other colleges that might not have had enough applicants. When it comes to receiving an offer, you might be offered a place at any of the colleges that you have been interviewed at. If you don’t get an offer to your original college of choice but to another one, don’t fret – pretty much everyone ends up loving their college.

2) Being placed in the ‘winter pool’ (Cambridge)

At Cambridge you generally come up to be interviewed solely at your main college of choice, though it might be the case that you are invited to another college for interview while you are in town. After this you might end up with an offer from that other college, or you might be placed in the ‘winter pool’. This means that you haven’t been offered a place at your first choice college, but have been deemed a strong-enough candidate for the university. Your application is made available to all the other colleges, and one of them may then decide to either invite you to another interview, or to make you an offer without the need for interview.

We’ll go over the interview process in a later part of our Ultimate Guide to Successful Oxbridge Applications. The next step though is to actually put in your application, and we’ll deal with that in Part 2.

UK Study Centre have extensive experience in helping students gain places at Oxford and Cambridge. You can learn more about our Oxbridge applications consultancy here.

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