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Oxford and Cambridge are held in high esteem both nationally and internationally – sometimes for the right reasons, sometimes through misunderstanding. There is no doubting their reputations and also the uniqueness of the university experience at a place such as Oxford or Cambridge. However, not everyone thrives at Oxbridge and there are many other excellent universities with highly rated courses.

Their terms are shorter than elsewhere at only 8 weeks and, in consequence, are significantly more intense. For essay based subjects, students are usually asked to produce one or two essays each week, sometimes, although rarely, three. Each is discussed in a small group tutorial (Oxford) or supervision (Cambridge) with an expert in that particular field. These may even be one - to – one discussion but are more commonly two or three students with the tutor / supervisor. In other subjects expectations are equally high with a combination of classes to attend, practicals to complete and problems to solve, again with the support of the tutor / supervisor. All this is on top of a weekly programme of lectures and seminars. The number of lectures or seminars that students are expected to attend varies widely from subject to subject. There may be only a few, perhaps 3 a week, or there may be very many more, perhaps even three times that number including labs.

At Oxbridge, there will be many of the ‘best of the best’. It would, however, be a mistake to think that all the best people get offers or even make applications. Similarly, it would be a mistake to think that everyone at Oxbridge was, somehow ‘super-human’ or ‘better’ than everyone else.

It is obvious to make the point that if a student does not apply, they will not get a place. However, this thinking can sometimes encourage unrealistic applications. This is where we always seek the comments of subject teachers when students first indicate an interest in making an Oxbridge application.

Do you stand a reasonable chance?

As an approximate rule, any student who has 6 or more A* grades at GCSE or IGCSE and is on track for A*AA (preferably A*A*A) at A Level, or 40 points in the IB (almost certainly 42 or more) may be a realistic applicant. There are very many students of this calibre who will not be offered places. The competition is global. You can have 10 A* GCSEs and be on track for A*A*A* and still not be offered a place.

Look up the number of applicants and the number of offers. Both Cambridge and Oxford websites give this information in their course details pages.

Cambridge requires all applicants to declare the marks they have received in any AS or A2 units as part of the application. As there is a significant range of marks within the grade A band, this is very informative for the university’s admissions tutors. Whilst we can point out exceptions to this rule, Cambridge Colleges expect students to achieve around 95% UMS in their most relevant, subjects, if taken at AS Level.

A* grades: Several of the most competitive universities will continue to use the A* and giving offers of A*AA or even A*A*A or A*AAA. The standard Cambridge offer for Sciences is A*A*A. Oxford uses a mix of offers from AAA to A*A*A – check their website.

IB students: Oxford and Cambridge welcome the IB Diploma. Students should be on course for at least 40 points (probably 42+). They should expect to achieve 776 in their Higher Levels. Offers vary – Oxford usually offers 39 or 40 points with 776 HL, Cambridge will offer 41-43 points with 776 or 777 HL. Our lowest offers have been for 38 points for exceptional students reading English, History and History and Russian at Oxford.

If your son / daughter does go ahead, and it is ultimately their decision, they will need to undertake some additional work over the L6/U6 summer holidays and follow up with their key contact member of staff in the Autumn Term.

Choosing a college at Oxford or Cambridge

Oxford and Cambridge universities are collegiate; by being a member of a college, you become a member of the University. When applying, you can indicate a preference college, or you can make an open application that the University will then assign to a college that has relatively fewer applications for your course in the year you apply. 

Some advice:

  • Remember that the university course is more important than the college choice. Try not to set your dream on one particular college at the potential expense of getting the offer from the university.

  • It is not possible to study every subject at every college. Some of the undergraduate teaching will take place in your college, some of it will be in other colleges where specialists happen to be based, some will be in the department or faculty, for example, the lectures.

  • Some colleges at Cambridge do not have their own Director of Studies (DoS) for a subject. They have an ‘external DoS’ from another college. There would probably be only a small number of undergraduates in any such college studying that subject and students would be linked up with another college for some teaching. At Oxford, similarly, some colleges ‘pair up’ to deliver their tutorial teaching.

  • Check to see what your course (and college) requires in terms of submitted work and tests at interview.

  • One college may seem particularly attractive because one of the Professors in a particular specialism is based there, but don’t be misled on this. Find out who might actually be teaching the undergraduates – it is unlikely to be the Professors (most of the time).

  • If you can, try to find out if any of the Teaching Fellows are due to go on sabbatical in the following year – this may cause a college to reduce the number of its intake for a particular subject.

  • ALWAYS ensure that you look up the data on applications and acceptances for the colleges - this is available from both the Cambridge and Oxford websites.

  • “It looks nice!” - try to avoid being overly impressed, or under-impressed, by a particular form of architecture. This may sound silly but students often apply on this basis. This is not a good way to decide – try to find out whether you might be happy there by visiting on an Open Day or by looking out for any student information.

Ultimately, you need to seek the advice of your tutor, your subject teachers, the Head of 6th Form and the Oxbridge Co-ordinator. We will usually try to spread our Oxbridge applications across the colleges. It may be inadvisable for more than one person to apply to the same college for the same or similar courses.

College choice is, perhaps, less important than in years past as there are more effective sharing or pooling systems in place. However, a wise college choice can make the difference between a straight rejection and a ‘fair chance’. We encourage our students to have an open mind. Ignoring this advice can lead to a fair chance quickly becoming a ‘long shot’. At Oxford, a third of students are admitted to a college that they did not apply to, so don't spend too much time on college choice. Find out more about choosing a college and making an open application from the Oxford and Cambridge websites respectively.

Cambridge has an additional application form that has to be completed online with password access given only to the applicant by the university.

Please refer to the university websites for more information:

Please be aware that it is critical to meet the deadlines for the ‘early-applicant’ UCAS application as detailed on the specific ‘deadline’ page.

Guide to UK University Applications