Applying to Oxbridge

Just the words ‘Oxford’ and ‘Cambridge’ ooze prestige. Everyone who is aware of university as a concept is aware of the internationally renowned Oxbridge, however not everyone is fortunate enough to experience it first-hand. The two oldest universities in the English-speaking world are synonymous with great education and career prospects, and the high, almost mythical, regard they are held in can put some off from applying for them. However, with substantial preparation and enthusiasm, sending off that application could reap some serious rewards. From the boat race to the coat of arms, the Oxbridge universities are staples of British culture, and their appeal to employers is supreme. As well as proving a student’s impressive academic record, it also acts as evidence of a candidate’s ambition and desire for success and challenges. Many job adverts state their desire for “the leaders of tomorrow”. What better way to support this than being able to list one of the Oxbridge institutions on your CV, proving you are prepared to push yourself to set your name above the others?

However, before you can practice your rowing and pat yourself on the back for attending one of the most historically esteemed universities, first comes the application process. Understandably, the universities seek to recruit great thinkers who display genuine inspiration and affection for their subject. Due to their prestige and attractiveness to applicants, they can afford to be selective with who they accept, thus applications need to really stand-out to in order to make their shortlist. A simple list of grades is unlikely to generate the excitement they will seek from their applicants, and imaginative ways of conveying your zest for academia and success should be explored.

UCAS and Applying to Oxbridge

The first stage of the application process is on paper, the simplest stage, though this isn’t necessarily the case. Although it may be the least intimidating, selecting which university and college to apply to is not a decision to be taken lightly. Although the two universities provide exceptional learning facilities and academic records, selecting the option most suited to your strengths and career aspirations should be the result of careful research. As you are unable to apply to both Cambridge and Oxford, this decision should be based on personal preference, and which university holds the widest appeal in light of your academic and career goals. Non-academic considerations should also be made – university will form the foundations of your day-to-day life, and you therefore need to apply to a location you could see yourself calling ‘home’. If you feel comfortable in your surroundings, you are more likely to find fulfilment in your studies – both academically and emotionally. As well as selecting a university, Oxbridge has a system where students are also placed in colleges. Particular colleges can be applied for, or an open application can be submitted, in which case you’ll be allocated to a random college. This college will be central to your university experience, both in academic terms, and socially. Selecting a college can seem a tough ask, especially when looking at a long list of options you know little about. It can be tempting to treat it like a lucky dip, and although whichever college you go for will likely provide you with an excellent experience, narrowing the choices down as per your personal preferences is likelier to place you somewhere where you feel at home. Your list can instantly be whittled down according to your course, as these can vary between colleges. Further research into their locations and the facilities they offer will help you narrow down your options even more, and attending open days or simply browsing the grounds can help you to get a feel for the colleges, also enabling you to ask questions. Whether you select your university for academic reasons, extra-curricular facilities, location, or accommodation, this decision is a valuable part of the application process, however applicants are not guaranteed their first-choice.

As well as your Oxbridge-destined UCAS application, for which the deadline is THREE MONTHS EARLIER than other universities (you wouldn’t want a missed deadline to be the reason for not fulfilling your aspirations), applications typically involve further assessment before creating a shortlist for interviewees. Such assessments vary from Cambridge to Oxford, and between courses, but include SAQs (Supplementary Application Questionnaires), additional supportive documents, tests, and examples of your work. For applications to Oxford, you will often be required to take a test before you can be interviewed, arrangement of which is your responsibility. Cambridge applicants, meanwhile, may need you to take a test when attending their interview, however whether or not this a prerequisite depends on the college which is interviewing you


Then comes the ominous Jaws music, as the interview looms. Details of your interview, should you progress to that stage, tend to arrive by early-December, allowing for them to take place later that month. As with most interviews, the build-up tends to be the toughest part. Candidates for Oxford may be required to attend multiple interviews at different colleges, though the decision regarding the success of your application is likely to be made whilst you are still on-site. Cambridge are likely to conduct two interviews – a general one, and a subject specific one. It is therefore essential that you are prepared to exert your knowledge for your subject. Confidence and preparation are key to successful interviews. Tutors conducting the interviews are looking for enthusiasm and potential; evidence of these traits will add substance to your application. It sounds clichd, but be yourself. You’ve clearly applied to Oxbridge because you have a genuine affection for your specialised subject and academia, and you are hungry for success – let this shine through.

Awaiting the Decision

Oxford candidates can now relax (maybe not the most appropriate word) as they wait to discover the success of their application. Cambridge applicants, however, may go through pooling, which sees the applications reassessed by colleges, as they displayed some, but not necessarily all, of the traits they were looking for, or their college simply couldn’t accommodate them. About 20% of pooled applicants receive a place at the university. Decisions regarding applications are usually made in early January, and by the end of the month for pooled applicants.

Receiving an offer of a place is a great achievement, though it doesn’t signal the end of the process. The offer will specify the conditions which need to be met, typically at least AAA, depending on your course. Use this to further motivate you for your summer exams and prepare you for the work expected of you as an Oxbridge student.