What makes Oxford and Cambridge such special universities?
Both Oxford and Cambridge universities are made up of individual colleges, as well as different academic departments. While academic departments are responsible for core teaching and assessment, a college will be your home when studying. Colleges provide academic and pastoral support and arrange small group tuition, sometimes with a tutor or supervisor from another college.
Each college will have a diverse range of students — usually including both undergraduate and graduate students — studying across a range of subject areas.
The college system offers the benefits of belonging to a large, internationally renowned university, and also to a smaller, interdisciplinary academic college community. You will have access to your college’s facilities, such as an extensive library and IT provision, as well as the resources of the wider university.
You are able to specify a preferred college when you make your UCAS application. Whatever you may have heard, college choice does not matter! Each college offers the same excellent standard of teaching and has the same very high academic standards.
Both universities work hard to ensure that the best students are successful in gaining a place, whichever college they’ve applied to. This means that you may be interviewed by more than one college and you may receive an offer from a different college than applied to. If you would prefer not to choose a college you can make an open application.
Once you have submitted your UCAS application you will be committed to your choice of college, so do your research beforehand.
Choosing a course – check the details
The universities of Oxford and Cambridge 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.
So ensure you read the course details carefully for any subject you are interested in. You will be studying for several years, so it’s vital to choose something that you are really passionate about.
Oxford and Cambridge courses tend to be traditional academic courses, with a strong emphasis on personalised teaching through small-group tuition. Formal assessment is often 100% based on examinations.
Keep an open mind, and consider topics you've not directly studied before. Degrees like Asian and Middle Eastern Studies (Cambridge) or Classics and Oriental Studies (Oxford) will all help you to develop analytical abilities and skills attractive to future employers. Only a few professions require specific degrees. Remember, a strong personal interest in the course is essential; at interview, it will soon become apparent if you are not completely committed to the subject.
Choosing between Oxford and Cambridge
It is not possible to apply to both Oxford and Cambridge in the same year, so you'll have to choose one or the other. Both universities are world-renowned in teaching and research in both arts and science subjects, so the decision is largely an individual one, driven by your choice of degree course.
Some courses are offered at one of the universities but not the other. Check each institution’s undergraduate prospectus and website for details of courses on offer. It is important to be aware that courses with a similar title at the two universities may be different in content. Check the course details to see which one will suit you best.
Visits to the universities are encouraged; each university has a number of open days and events.
Your Oxbridge application
Remember, you cannot apply to both Cambridge and Oxford in the same year.
Admission tutors look for applicants with the greatest academic ability and potential – and those who they think will be best suited for the course and the type of teaching at the university.
The qualities looked for include your ability and motivation to go beyond what is required for your current studies. Evidence that you can study independently, are willing to embrace new ideas, and can explore and discuss ideas and opinions in a logical and considered way. Self-discipline is also key, as university-level study requires you to manage your time well.
In all stages of your application, demonstrate how you have met the above criteria.
Additional elements of the application are covered in greater detail below. Overseas students may have different deadlines to those for UK or EU students; please check with the relevant university.
Many A Level Oxbridge applicants are predicted to achieve top grades and many also have excellent references. It’s therefore not possible for Oxford or Cambridge to select the best students based on their UCAS applications alone. Each university has a slightly different approach to differentiating between applicants.
Make sure you expect to achieve the required A Levels, International Baccalaureate (IB) grades or other equivalent qualifications. There may be specific subject requirements for particular courses, especially in the sciences; you can check these in the course requirements on Oxford or Cambridge university websites. At Cambridge, subject requirements may also vary from one college to another.
Conditional offers for Oxford range between A*A*A and AAA (depending on the subject) at A Level or 38–40 in the IB, including core points. Certain grades may be required at Higher Level.
The typical A Level offer for Cambridge is A*A*A for most sciences courses and A*AA for arts courses or 40–42 in the IB, including core points, with 776 at Higher Level. AAA is usually required at Advanced Higher Grade, for students in Scotland.
If you are taking A Levels in the new science subjects, you are expected to complete and pass the practical assessment.
Students wishing to study mathematics (or computer science and mathematics) at Cambridge should also take the Sixth Term Examination Paper (STEP).
Personal statements give applicants the opportunity to show their potential to excel within the tutorial or supervision system.
If you explore your chosen subject beyond what is required for the exam syllabus, this can help demonstrate your commitment to the topic and your independent study skills. Applications and personal statements should demonstrate your self-motivation in learning, your ability to plan, structure and research your work, and show that you are teachable. Relate these to the skills required on your course.
Bear in mind that your UCAS application is to five universities, so your personal statement may have to apply to differing courses.
Your Sixth Form tutors will report your academic performance as part of your UCAS reference, including your predicted grades. This is also where some contextual information about you can be included.
Cambridge asks all applicants to complete an online Supplementary Application Questionnaire (SAQ). If you are applying from outside the EU, for Graduate Medicine, or for an Organ Scholarship, you will also need to complete the Cambridge Online Preliminary Application (COPA). Those taking a modular course are asked to report their uniform mark scheme (UMS) performance and AS Level grades (where available) in the SAQ. For students taking linear qualifications, teachers will report your performance via your UCAS reference.
Oxford does not require you to complete any extra forms, however for most courses, applicants are asked to take a test as part of the application. Tutors then shortlist applicants based on students’ applications and performance in the test.
Most tests are held at schools or colleges before you attend interview. Applicants must be registered well in advance for tests by their assessment centre.
BMAT: All students applying for the standard medicine course (A100) at either university must register to take the BMAT as part of their application. At Oxford, candidates for the graduate entry medicine course (A101) and biomedical sciences (BC98) also require this test. Ensure you note the correct date for taking this test.
Oxford requires applicants to take written tests before interview in most other subjects. Please note that separate registration is required in many cases.
Cambridge requires applicants to take pre-interview tests for around half of its courses. For other subjects, Cambridge requires a written test to be taken while at the university for interview (if interviewed). You will not need to register for at-interview assessments.