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Oxbridge applications: five things you might not know

Top entry requirements, tricky interview questions… both universities are famously tough to get into, but how does the applications process compare between Oxford, Cambridge and other universities?

Applying to Oxbridge? We've also got a five-step plan setting out what you need to get into Oxford or Cambridge – and take a look at what successful applicants told us about their Oxbridge interview experiences. 

Don’t forget that you can only apply to either Oxford or Cambridge not both. If you’re not sure which to go for (and both are excellent), read our guide on deciding between the two to figure out the best option for you.

But first things first – take a look at these insider Oxbridge tips from tutors themselves...

Watch now: Applying to Oxbridge tips from tutors

1. It’s all about academics at Oxbridge 

The most obvious difference between admissions at Oxbridge and other universities is the emphasis on academics. Not all successful applicants to Oxford and Cambridge will have straight A*s under their belts, but let’s face it – a fair few do!

While other universities may decide to offer you a place based on other skills, extra-curricular interests and experience you have, it's your academic performance and ambitions that really interest Oxford and Cambridge admissions tutors. 

Did you know...? 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.

2. Oxbridge assessments go beyond your grades and Ucas form

Most universities will use your predicted A-level (or other) grades and information from your Ucas form (including your personal statement) to inform their decision about whether to offer you a place. Oxford and Cambridge, however, use additional information to assess you on (as most apply with top grades).

Read our full guide to entry requirements to learn more.

Cambridge University 

Cambridge factors your AS-level performance into their decisions. Applicants are required to submit a Supplementary Application Questionnaire (SAQ) in addition to the Ucas form, providing AS modules and UMS marks (a standardised way of comparing module marks achieved by students in different exam sittings) achieved so far. Beginning this year, Cambridge will be introducing new subject-tailored tests as part of applications to courses beginning in 2017/18; these will occur at interviews just as previous tests for medicine and veterinary medicine courses have done so in the past.

What is an SAQ?

After you submit your Ucas form, Cambridge applicants are expected to fill in an SAQ. 

A SAQ asks for extra information on top of your Ucas application, including:
  • topics covered as part of your AS/A-level (or equivalent) courses 
  • UMS (uniform mark scale) marks obtained in any modular AS/A-level units. UMS marks allows someone to compare two marks marked by two different examination boards
  • registration numbers for admissions assessments (if applicable)
The Cambridge University website has more information on SAQs

Most applicants are also required to take a subject-specific written admission assessment either at interview, or beforehand.


Oxford University 

Oxford doesn't look at AS-level marks as a key part of its shortlisting process (or have an SAQ), but it does require applicants for most courses to take a test as part of the application process.

Did you know...? Both Universities ask some applicants to submit examples of written coursework as part of the application.

3. Your personal statement is used a little differently

The personal statement is an important part of any university application – and whether applying to Oxbridge or anywhere else, it’s a great opportunity to highlight your academic potential and to demonstrate that you’ve read widely around your subject (particularly important for Oxbridge candidates!).

But while it might be used by other universities as a means to decide whether or not to offer you a place, Oxbridge admissions tutors have all that additional information about you on which to make their decision – your test scores, interview performance, submitted coursework – making it less of a priority.

Did you know...? Your personal statement is likely to be used as a guide to what to ask you at interview, so make sure you’re able to talk confidently about anything you include.


4. Oxbridge interviews are like tutorials or supervisions

A good deal of the teaching at Oxford or Cambridge takes place in small classes ('tutorials' at Oxford and 'supervisions' at Cambridge). In many ways, your interview will be replicating this type of class to assess whether you're suited to the teaching style.

Interviews are less common at other universities and can range from the Oxbridge-style ‘exam out loud’ to more of an informal discussion about your suitability for the course. 

Did you know...? Interviews at Cambridge normally take place in one college, often on a single day – but Oxford applicants will usually stay for at least a couple of days and may be interviewed at multiple colleges. 

5. You're applying to a college, too

Oxford and Cambridge are two of a handful of universities to have a collegiate structure (Durham and York are other examples). Your college at Oxford or Cambridge is where you’ll live, socialise and do most of your studying. 

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
  • 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 a computer program will allocate your application to a college for you. Once allocated, your application is treated exactly like any other.

Did you know...? According to the Universities’ websites, about one in five successful Oxford applicants and 25% of Cambridge applicants end up at a different college to the one they originally applied for – so don’t agonise over your decision too much!

One applicant shares her Oxford residential experience...



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