Top entry requirements, tricky interview questions and world-class tutors seeking the very best academic talent out there; the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge are notoriously difficult to get into.
Both emphasising the need to attract the very brightest talent, regardless of background, they have rigorous and fair application processes in place to help let the best candidates shine.
But how does the process compare between applying to Oxford and Cambridge and other universities? We answer five of your most pressing questions about the Oxbridge admissions process.
No, you can’t apply to Oxford and Cambridge in the same academic year.
Aspiring academics are familiar with the fact that both the University of Oxford and University of Cambridge are two of the most desirable learning centres in the world. But for those of you submitting your applications soon, you’ll have to decide between the two of them.
Well, despite speculation indicating that the competition between the two universities is so fierce that they do not want to be second choice to one another, there’s actually a far more obvious reason why you can’t apply to both Oxford and Cambridge in the same year.
And essentially, it all comes down to supply and demand.
As both universities hold such prestigious reputations, they know that each year they are going to receive a huge volume of applications. In fact, the University of Cambridge receives around five applications per place they have to offer, while the University of Oxford received over 50,000 applications in 2020 alone. That’s around 7% of all the UCAS applications made each year - just to one university!
If students were to apply for both institutions, there would be an even larger number of applicants to assess across two already limited sites. Therefore, students are only allowed to apply to one of the two institutions each year, giving more opportunity to other students to submit their applications.
As the two oldest and highly-regarded universities in the UK, it comes as no surprise that Oxford and Cambridge are very similar in terms of their teaching, collegiate structure and rigorous application process.
With that being said, there are a few differences between both universities and Cambridge-Oxford admissions process, which you should make yourself aware of before deciding which institution to apply to.
One of the key differences between the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, and other universities in the UK is the deadline for applications.
In the UK, most universities have a deadline of 26th January for students to submit their applications through UCAS. For Oxbridge institutions, this deadline is usually 6pm on 15 October.
Your application must be complete - including the academic reference - and submitted before the deadline. Any applications received after will not be considered - so make sure you have yours ready to go well ahead of the deadline!
Unlike other universities in the UK, the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge are collegiate systems. That is, each university is made up of colleges - 39 at Oxford, and 29 at Cambridge.
But what is an Oxbridge college?
Essentially, a college is a collection of buildings which form a small self-enclosed community within the university. Within each college, you’ll typically find student accommodation, common rooms, cafes, bars, libraries, teaching rooms, and offices for staff members.
Most colleges have between 300 to 500 students at any one time, studying a broad range of subjects, though this number can vary betweens sites. Your academic supervisor (primary tutor) is usually based in the same college, where you’ll hold your weekly tutorial sessions. Most lectures, lab sessions and seminar classes are held in faculty buildings dotted across the city, where you’ll be able to meet students from other colleges studying the same subject as you.
As part of your application, you’ll have to decide whether to express a preference to study at a particular college or make an open application to the university in general.
Please note: If you make an open application, you will be assigned to a college which has had relatively fewer applicants for your course in the year you apply. So, if you have your heart set on one in particular - make sure you express this on your application.
As two of the most prestigious universities in the world, it should come as no surprise that when you submit your Cambridge or Oxford application, you may then be asked to send in some samples of written work as part of the admissions process.
Usually, written work is used to support your analytical, reasoning, language and writing skills, as appropriate for the degree you have applied to study. The type of work you are required to send will be communicated to you in writing, and you’ll usually hear from admissions officers a few weeks after submitting your UCAS application.
It’s important to note that if you are then invited to an interview, the written work you previously submitted may form part of the discussion at your interview. Therefore, be sure to make a copy of any work you submit for reference.
In the UK, being asked to attend a university interview - whether virtually or in-person - is something which has only increased as an offering in recent years.
Historically, only some of the UK’s top universities, such as Oxford and Cambridge, have invited applicants for an interview day - so they can really get to know you and decide whether you would be the right student for their highly sought after institution.
At the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, everyone with a realistic chance of being offered a place is invited to attend a university interview.
After your initial screening, which includes; sending your UCAS application, submitting any written work and participating in any academic tests, those candidates which are short-listed are invited to a series of interviews with the university’s academics.
You’ve probably heard before that the Cambridge and Oxford university interview questions have a reputation for being challenging, encouraging you to think laterally, address your preconceptions and challenge the way you perceive the world.
“Talk about a lightbulb.” Yes, that is a real-life example of just one of the more obscure Oxbridge interview questions asked during the admissions process. Others include; “do you think you’re clever? And, “do you believe in fairies at the end of the garden?”
Many of these questions have no one right answer, instead encouraging you to discuss, dissect and analyse - all considered to be crucial components for student success under the tutorial teaching system.
First things first - before you even think about applying to either one of these institutions, it’s very important that you’re aware that Oxford and Cambridge don’t offer identical courses.
While the majority of subjects are available across both sites, there are certain courses that are only available at one of the universities. For example, you can only study PPE (Politics, Philosophy and Economics) at the University of Oxford, while the University of Cambridge is the only of the two to offer Education as an undergraduate degree.
One of the largest subject differences between the two universities is in their science courses. At the University of Cambridge, students apply for a (very flexible) Natural Sciences degree, which allows you to combine different sciences based on your interests. Meanwhile, Oxford only offers single-subject courses in Science.
In contrast, the University of Oxford does allow students to combine other subjects and study for a joint degree, whereas the University of Cambridge does not allow for combined degrees.
The main takeaway from this: Take a deep dive into each university prospectus before thinking about which one to apply to - you want to make sure they have the perfect course for you!
As with most courses in the UK that share a name, the content of similar courses at Oxbridge colleges will have key differences. Therefore, you need to carefully check the course structure before making your option.
Both colleges agree that “the most important decision a prospective applicant has to make is the degree they wish to study, not which university they want to apply to.” And you want to make sure that you’re choosing the course that best matches your academic interests and talents.
Carefully check course syllabi, attend open days, and email admissions teams with any questions to find out as much detail about the different courses as possible. Both universities will also offer departmental open days and activities - allowing you to speak to staff and current students about detailed insights into the courses.
As two of the most elite universities in the world, it comes as no surprise that Oxford and Cambridge use additional information to assess your university application.
For the University of Cambridge, applicants are required to submit a Supplementary Application Questionnaire (SAQ) in addition to their UCAS form.
An SAQ asks for extra information about yourself, in addition to your UCAS application, including:
Your education and qualification history
Topics you have covered during your AS/A-Level courses (or the equivalent)
Registration numbers for admissions assessments, such as BMAT and UCAT (if applicable to the course you are applying for)
Additional personal information
You may also be required to take subject-specific tests, either prior to or at your interview at Cambridge. Some of the most commonly requested subject-specific tests include the BMAT, UCAT and LNAT.
Oxford’s Admission Tests
In contrast, there is no SAQ involved in the Oxford application process. Instead, it does require most applicants to take an admissions test relevant to their subject.
These tests are administered by the Cambridge Assessment Admissions Testing (CAAT). Most importantly, you need to be aware that registration to these tests is not automatic, and you’ll need to register yourself, depending on the subject you are studying.
As UCAS applications close on 15 October, you must ensure you are registered and have a test candidate entry number ahead of your application deadline.
For more information and to check if the course you are applying for requires an admissions test, you can use the University of Oxford’s course checker.
One of the things that set the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge apart from all the other universities in the world is their ability to host small-class sizes, focusing on tutorial-style teaching.
Described as the “jewel in the crown” of British education, Oxbridge tutorials have now been used for over 150 years, and are considered to be one of the best ways of helping students to achieve their academic potential.
Tutorials are based entirely around conservations, normally between two or three students and their tutor (the expert). These conversations (formally known as tutorials) are a chance to talk in-depth about a subject and receive personal feedback on your work.
To see if you would benefit and be suited to this style of learning, your Oxbridge interview will replicate this style of discussions.
Interviews can vary from college to college, and university to university. But they all follow the same goal: to explore your thought process and gauge whether you think in the way that tutors will be able to best engage you with.
The university interview process
Once your application has been received, your chosen college will usually contact you, asking if you would like to be interviewed virtually or in-person. However, depending on your course, you may be asked to travel to the university. Medicine applicants, for example, usually all have to interview in-person. On the plus side, you’ll be offered free accommodation and a chance to explore your potential student city!
On the day, you’ll be interviewed by academic tutors who teach and research at the university you are applying to. If you apply for a joint honours degree, you’ll most likely be joined by more than two interviewers, or attend two separate interviews.
To help settle you into the interview process, the tutors will most likely start your interview with a few simple questions about your personal statement or your reasons for applying for a particular course. Then, they will move onto questions about your subject.
What you are asked about can vary from subject-to-subject. Some subject tutors may provide you with a text, poem or graph and then ask you to answer questions about it. You could be asked about any written work you’ve submitted. You may even be asked about the topics you’re learning about in school.
However, one thing that is always to be expected - you’ll be offered an opportunity to show your reading around the subject and demonstrate your interest beyond your school classes. So, in any case, make sure you spend plenty of time ahead of your interview to prepare; read around the subject, re-read any personal statements and written work you’ve submitted; and think about how your chosen subject is presented in the contemporary world.
Should you wish to apply to a particular college during your application, it can be quite daunting at first glance to consider the options available to you. After all, both universities are made up of tens of different colleges!
But the decision doesn't need to be overwhelming - colleges are more similar than you may have once thought! In fact, students on the same course, regardless of their College, are taught together by the academic faculties and departments - so you’ll never affect your teaching with the decision you make.
With that being said, there are a few things you should consider when shortlisting your College options, ensuring you apply to the one that is best suited to you.
Course: Almost all colleges accept students in all subjects, but there are a handful that don’t. Check availability and course options at the Colleges that interest you the most.
College size: The number of students at each College varies tremendously. You could be one of a handful of students in one, or one of over one-hundred in another!
Your age: Some colleges are exclusively for mature students only, with their facilities adapted accordingly.
Accommodation: The style and facilities of different accommodation varies from College to College. Would you prefer to live on-site in student accommodation? Or would you prefer to live in College-owned houses dotted around the city?
Gender: Some Colleges are same-sex only - check the gender requirements before making your decision.
Facilities: What do you need to make your student experience incredible? On-site clothes washing? Gym? Bars and cafes? Different College sites offer different facilities.
If you’re attending a university open day, it may be helpful to shortlist some Colleges that interest you ahead of time based on their profiles so you can focus your time on exploring them in more detail.
Just remember, you don’t have to shortlist a College. So if you are struggling to narrow down your options, you can always submit an open application to the university where they will then choose a college for you.
In this article we’ve established that when it comes to submitting an application to an Oxbridge university, there are many components involved, including:
And when it comes to which of those elements are the most important, sadly, there is no one right answer.
Instead, every application is considered holistically. That is, admissions tutors consider all the information provided to them before making any decisions and no one part of an application is considered in isolation. E.g. if you perform badly in an interview, it doesn’t mean you will automatically be rejected.
In this case, it’s your motivation as an applicant to put as much effort into each and every element of the application process as possible.
Whether it’s trying to draft a personal statement that dazzles tutors with your academic passions, or doing lots of wider reading ahead of your university interview - you need to put as much effort in as possible to help the admissions tutors see why you deserve to be selected for their institution.
As the old saying goes; “All you can do is your best. That’s all you can do.” Everything else is out of your control.
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