Applying to Oxbridge: top tips and myth busting

applying to oxbridge

By Eloise,

Oxford and Cambridge are two of the world's best known universities. Although many think they know what Oxbridge is like, these perceptions have often been distorted by the popular, but false, stereotypes of the type of students admitted, a limited understanding of the application process, and the media.

The University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge are usually seen towards the top of international and UK university league tables - two years ago I was put off applying to Oxbridge out of fear that I simply was not good enough. Teachers, friends, and family believed that I was at a disadvantage for not understanding how the system worked and inevitably, I myself was influenced by the scepticism of the media. Now, after taking the plunge and having the best year of my life, I am about to embark on my second year at the University of Cambridge reading History.

What ultimately encouraged me to apply was the invaluable advice from access workers at Cambridge, my love of the university's atmosphere, and my realisation that if I did not give it a go, how would I ever know if I could get in?

So if you're thinking of applying, there are a few things you need to know. Most importantly, it is essential to know that the Oxbridge application process does differ from that at other universities, but do not let that put you off! This guide should demystify the process and help you decide if Oxbridge is for you.

Key facts and myth busting

  • UCAS applications for Oxbridge - for all courses, including medicine, dentistry and veterinary sciences - must be submitted by the 15th of October
  • Both have a collegiate system - you apply to a college, not just the university
  • Expect to be interviewed
  • MYTH: Students are all 'private school toffs' - in 2012, 63.3% of UK students at Cambridge and 57.5% at Oxford were from state schools.  It is all to do with how you think, not your background!
  • MYTH: "Oxbridge is all work and no play."  The workload does not compare to other universities but it is manageable. There are opportunities for fun around every corner and for everyone.


Is Oxbridge for you?

The most important part of the UCAS process is apply to universities that you really want to go to. Going to university should be your choice - it is not your parents', teachers' or next door neighbour's dogs'  - so make sure you are happy with where you're applying to and what you're applying for.

Whilst Oxford and Cambridge seem synonymous, you can only apply to one. It is fair to say that there are quite a few similarities; both have a globally renowned reputation, world class academics, and often evoke Hogwarts-esqe images. However, there are a number of differences between the two. Thus the choice you make should depend on the course, where you feel happy, and where you can see yourself spending at least three years.

Top Tip

Go on an open day to the universities, which will allow you to not only check out the courses and lectures, but also the many colleges. If you miss the open days you can always take a trip to the cities during term time to get a feel of the student experience and general atmosphere.

It is important to do your research into whether Oxford or Cambridge provide the course you want. I think my most important piece of advice would be to make sure the course really is what you are passionate about, enthuses you, and suits your learning style, otherwise it will really put a downer your university experience. But do be aware that there is still usually a chance to change your course if it is not what you expected.

Both Oxford and Cambridge offer a variety of courses including Law, Medicine, History, English, Economics and Engineering. It is important to note that there a different courses available at Oxford and Cambridge. For example, PPE, Fine Art and joint-honours courses are only available at Oxford. So investigate what courses are available and which one excites you the most.  

Many people are often put off from applying believing they are 'not clever enough'. Yes, the entry requirements are tough; you need to be heading for AAA to A*A*A (course dependent), but if you think you can achieve that, then why not give applying a go?

Requirements for Cambridge are different from every other university as they also ask for your UMS scores in each module. Although this does not mean that you need a perfect 90/95%, Cambridge suggest it is unwise to apply if you have an average of below 85% in your three best (for Arts applicants) or most relevant three subjects (for Science applicants).

When considering if applying to Oxbridge is for you, be true to yourself. I would say that the extremely intense environment that exists at these universities is not for everyone, and it does not matter if it is not for you, but if you are passionate about your course, love the place and lifestyle then Oxbridge might just be perfect.

Our university profiles of both universities have course listings, details and stats about the uni, and links to their social media channels:
University of Cambridge
University of Oxford

What do the colleges do?

The collegiate system seems to be something that confuses a lot of people, so let's clarify a couple of points.

All students belong to a college, as well as the university - think of them as halls. Colleges are where you sleep, eat, and are usually the centre of your social life. They have little to do with your academic course - these are centrally organised by the university - however, not all colleges take students from all subjects, so bear that in mind! Pick a college you would like to live and work in - it is a personal choice.

Top Tip

Check out the websites of individual colleges; they often have virtual tours and alternative prospectuses which can help you to get a feel for the college.

Selecting a college should be based on what matters most to you - whether that is being able to roll out of bed 10 minutes before lectures, to boast of having the prettiest grounds, or to be part of a smaller community or thriving sports scene. However, if you cannot decide on a college, you can make an open application, where the university will make the decision for you.

Importantly, your choice of college does not affect your chance of securing a place. The 'pooling' system means other colleges can offer you a place if your chosen college does not have enough space. For example, at Oxford about 25% of students are at a college they did not apply to. I can tell you from experience (I was pooled from Fitzwilliam to Murray Edwards College, Cambridge) that almost every student loves the college they end up at!

Oxford Colleges
Cambridge Colleges


If you do decide to apply, fantastic! As with other universities you have to apply via UCAS, but as you are applying to Oxbridge there is an early deadline - the 15th of October. Therefore, you need to get on top of the application as soon as possible.

Filling out the UCAS form is critical, and the personal statement is often the trickiest part of the process. While other universities often emphasise the importance of including extra-curricular activities on your statement, this is not the case for Oxbridge - your academic passion is more important.  They want to see your interests and patterns of thought so:

  • show and discuss why you are passionate about the course, and do not just make general, impersonal statements
  • make every sentence personal - it is about you, not what you think they want
  • do not try to be quirky and funny if it is really not you
  • make sure you check, and double check, your grammar and spelling
  • do not lie, they will find out

But it should be pointed out that your personal statement goes to all the universities you apply for, so it should not be written just for Oxbridge. Remember they have more information about you than most universities (through written work, pre-interview tests, the interview etc.)

The UCAS form is not the only part of the application process, but do not be put off. The additional stages are not to catch you out, but are to help the admission officers to really see who you are and what you can do.

Extra forms

Cambridge, after receiving your UCAS application, require you to complete a SAQ. This is a quick form for more specific educational details, and offers space for a 'mini' style personal statement. More details can be found here.

A quick note for the SAQ is that they need you to submit a photo - although they do not tell you this at the time - if you are successful in your application this will be the photo on your university card for the next 3 years, so chose wisely! 

Pre-interview tests

For some subjects, especially at Oxford, there are pre-interview tests that you must take. It is important that you check if these would apply to you as it is your responsibility to enter yourself for these tests before the deadline. These tests are to see how you think and if you would be suited to the style of teaching.

Medicine applicants at Oxford and Cambridge must take the BMAT, as well as Veterinary Medicine applicants at Cambridge and Biomedical Sciences applicants at Oxford. Other pre-interview tests, all only applicable for Oxford, include the LNAT (Law), HAT (History) and ELAT (English).

If you are applying to Oxford make sure you check if there are any pre-interview tests for your course here.

It should be noted that at Cambridge, for some colleges and some subjects, you may be required to sit a written test at interview. Further details can be found here.

Submitted work

Some courses, at both universities, require examples of written work to be submitted. These should not be something written specifically for the application; instead they should be pieces of your recent school work. These help admission officers to see your style of thought and writing, and can form part of the interview process. Further details of what work, if any, needs to be submitted and the deadline will be advised by college, but are usually in mid-November.

Oxford Written Work
Cambridge Written Work

Waiting to hear

After submitting all of the necessary information comes a hard bit - waiting to hear back. You will have to wait about a month to hear if you have been invited to interview. Unfortunately not all applicants are called for interview and this may be the end of the road. Do not be disheartened though, instead look forward to hearing from the other excellent universities you have applied to.

The next step of the application is the all important, and often dreaded, interview. These are usually held in late November and early December and take many different forms. A guide of the interview process will be available soon. For now, hopefully this guide has helped to demystify the Oxbridge application process. Good luck!