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Oxbridge Applications

Year 13

Before applying ensure you practice online test papers. It will increase your chances of success. Click the following link for practice papers: TSA tests

Applying to Oxford & Cambridge

Are you considering applying to Oxford or Cambridge? UCAS only allows you to apply to one of them.

As you are aware it is difficult to secure an offer from these highly respected institutions, due to their popularity. You should not be deterred however. Both universities:

  • Seek to attract the best and brightest applicants regardless of background
  • Have extensive access programmes across the UK and overseas
  • Have highly rigorous but fair application procedures designed to allow the best candidates to shine

One of the reasons they are difficult to obtain an offer from is not because they have the most applicants, but because they provide the least offers. This is because they work on a ratio of just over 1:1 – i.e. 1 offer for each place available, while other universities work on ratios of 3:1, 5: 1 or more. Oxford and Cambridge assume that most of the students they offer places to will get their required grades and accept the place.  In addition, generally speaking the students applying to Oxbridge, all have excellent academic results, so competition is fiercer than at other universities.

Who are they looking for?

They are obviously looking at selecting the brightest candidates, so you need to have a minimum of 6+ A*s at GCSE and be on for straight A & A*’s at A level. All Cambridge courses now require one A* for arts courses and two A* for science courses.  Offers from Oxford can range from A*A*A* to AAA. Cambridge also requests your UMS score for each module. They suggest that it is unwise to apply if you have below 85% in your best three (arts) or most relevant three (science) subjects.

“However, in addition to being a bright student you need to be passionate about your subject.  This is the key differentiator between those that get offered a place and those that do not. The tests and the interview are designed to probe and examine you in terms of your genuine interest for your subject. They expect you to have read very broadly  – outside of the A level syllabus – and they will test this through questions and tests. They are simply not interested in your extra curricular activities, work experience or positions of responsibility – they want to teach someone who is as passionate about the subject as they are. Make sure this comes through in your personal statement

Oxford or Cambridge: How to decide?

This may prove a difficult decision for you, as they both are quite similar in terms of prestige offering a collegiate structure and tutorial style teaching.  However they don’t offer identical courses. While some courses have a lot in common, there are certain courses that are only available at one of the Universities. For example, you can only study PPE at Oxford, while Cambridge is the only one of the two to offer Veterinary medicine, Architecture, Land Economy, Pharmacology, Chemical Engineering and undergraduate education.

There are also big differences when it comes to science courses. At Cambridge, you apply to the flexible natural sciences degree, allowing you to combine any of the biological and physical sciences or specialise based on your interests, while Oxford offers single-subject science courses.

And you can take a joint degree at Oxford, but – while you might be able to do a module in another subject area – you can’t study a combined degree at Cambridge.

In terms of studying Economics, Oxford combines it with management, whereas Cambridge offers a straight Economics degree. Similarly with Politics, Oxford combines the subject with History whereas Cambridge offers Politics and International Relations.


Admission Tests

For many of the subjects, you will be asked to complete a test before hand  – this varies depending on the subject and the university.

  • Oxford asks applicants for most of its courses to take a test as part of their application. Tutors then shortlist applicants based on students’ applications and performance in the test. Where applications are around three per place, over 90% of applicants are shortlisted. For the most competitive degrees, this may fall to 30%. AS-level grades and Uniform Mark Scheme (UMS) scores are not a key element in shortlisting.
  • Cambridge makes less use of pre-interview tests and interviews around 80% of their undergraduate applicants. AS-level grades and UMS scores are considered, in deciding which applicants will be invited to interview. Only applicants for medicine and veterinary medicine are required to take a test before interview.
  • All students applying for the standard medicine course at either university must take the BMAT as part of their application, as must candidates for the graduate entry medicine course & biomedical sciences at Oxford and the veterinary medicine course at Cambridge.
  • Oxford requires applicants to take written tests before interview in most other subjects. They have a range of subject orientated tests which include: Classics, Maths, Physics, Modern languages, English Literature, History, Law, philosophy and Oriental Languages.

Both universities require many candidates to sit the Thinking Skills Assessment Test (TSA). For Cambridge this includes the following subjects: Computer Science, Economics, English, History, Human, Social & Political Science, Land Economy, Natural Sciences, Psychology and Behavioural Sciences. For Oxford, the following courses require the TSA: Economics & Management, Geography, PPE, Psychology, Psychology, Philosophy and Linguistics.

It is critical you practice these tests before you sit them. You will increase your chances of success. Click for practice papers: TSA tests

Click the links below for information with regard details on tests by subject area.


The Interview

Both universities interview candidates before offering a place and often interview you several times. This is by different tutors and can be by different colleges. Much has been written about their interview process.  Contrary to many popular myths, there are no tricks or mind games involved. The interview is for tutors to get a sense of how you react to new situations and how you process information.

The purpose and structure of these interviews is very similar at both universities. Essentially they are rather like a mini tutorial or supervision, where the tutors will give you a small passage to read or perhaps set a small problem and then ask you to discuss it.

It is not a matter of how quickly or even whether you arrive at the right answer. There may not even be a right answer. The tutors just want to get an insight in to how you think. Generally speaking the content of the interview will be on your chosen subject – they will continue to question you until they exhaust your knowledge. Do not get stressed by being continually pushed – it is normal practice.

You will be interviewed by tutors who will end up teaching you. They have often devoted their life to their subject, so they want to teach students who share their enthusiasm. You therefore have to demonstrate this through your knowledge and passion for your subject. Practice expressing the concepts and issues involved, before your interview.

Top Tips

  • Read, read and read more about your subject and related and supporting subject matter. You cannot be too informed.
  • Practice tests before you sit them.
  • Get some interview practice if you can
  • Research the tutors for your subject at the college you are to be interviewed. Look at their specialist subjects. Read any papers they have written. Gen up on their areas of interest – you would be surprised how many times these come up.
  • Ensure that you can answer in detail any of the things on your UCAS form
  • Be clear as to why you want to study the course you have chosen. Ensure you know the details of the course.

A Final Word
If you do not apply, you will not be offered a place, so if you have the grades and a passion for your subject, you should give it a go.  You should be aware however, that it is also a bit of a lottery. There are simply too many very able candidates applying and therefore many of these very able candidates get rejected.  This could be you. Decisions can often be made on the basis that a particular tutor would prefer to teach candidate A rather than candidate B. On the day, as able and talented as you are, you may simply lose out.  Many do.  So try and not be too disappointed

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