How to Choose a University Course (Based on Statistics)

When applying to study a UK university course, it is important to do your research and look at a range of statistics in order to get the best picture of a university and your chances of being accepted. In this guide, you will gain access to statistics on the Oxbridge and Russell Group admissions processes and learn how to use these statistics to your advantage and make tactical application decisions.

The UK application process

The application process to all UK universities, including Oxbridge and Russell Group universities, involves going through UCAS (the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service). Via UCAS, you are able to select up to five university courses to apply for, so it’s important that you choose the right selection. You can also only apply to one course at either Oxford or Cambridge – not both.

There are many factors to consider when choosing which university courses to apply for, including entry requirements, acceptance rates, admissions tests and interviews. Each of these areas are detailed in this guide, with key statistics in each section, and we suggest that you use these to inform your course selection.

Note that, although statistical information is helpful in deciding which courses to apply for, the most important factor in choosing a course is how interested you are in it. If you apply for a course simply because it is at either Oxford or Cambridge, has lower entry requirements, or has a higher acceptance rate, you are less likely to be offered a place because your lack of passion for the subject will be clear in your application and during your interview.

Instead, work closely with friends and family, your school, or an expert tutor to identify your strengths and passions, research every course carefully, and apply for the university that is truly right for you. This will also mean that you find more enjoyment in reading, researching and preparing for your personal statement, admissions test, and interview, and this will shine through to the university admissions team.

Entry requirements

Looking at the entry requirements of a university course is one of the first steps in determining whether that course is well-suited to you and your individual academic talents. Although you may already have an idea of what grades are required by certain universities, it’s important to do your research, as there may be some requirements that surprise you.

For example, you probably already know that the entry requirements for Oxford and Cambridge are both extremely high. However, if you look at most courses offered by both universities – such as those in the table below – you’ll notice that Cambridge typically sets its entry requirements one grade higher than Oxford’s (usually A*AA versus AAA).

Course Oxford entry requirements Cambridge entry requirements
Computer Science A*AA A*A*A
Classics AAA A*AA
Law AAA A*AA
History AAA A*AA
Mathematics A*A*A A*A*A

Using this information, you can determine which course you are most likely to meet the entry requirements for. If you are not predicted an A* in your A levels (or equivalent), you may have a better chance of making it to the next stage in the admissions process and ultimately receiving an offer if you apply for Oxford rather than Cambridge.

In addition, it is important to look beyond the minimum entry requirements listed on universities’ websites and, if possible, find out what grades most successful applicants actually achieve. Cambridge includes this information for each course on its website, and some examples are listed in the table below.

Cambridge course Minimum entry requirements (A level) Grades of successful applicants (2017-2019)
Mathematics A*A*A 85% achieved A*A*A*
Natural Sciences (Biological) A*A*A 76% achieved A*A*A*
Natural Sciences (Physical) A*A*A 91% achieved A*A*A*
Human, Social and Political Studies (HSPS) A*AA 71% achieved A*A*A
Engineering A*A*A 87% achieved A*A*A*
English A*AA 62% achieved A*A*A
Medicine A*A*A 77% achieved A*A*A*

From this statistical information, you can see that, in order to give yourself the highest chance of an offer, you should be aiming to achieve at least one grade above the entry requirements for many courses.

You will also find that a high proportion of successful applicants typically study one or more desired subjects, whether they are listed as official requirements or not. For example, 98% of successful Medicine applicants to Cambridge take Mathematics at A level. Taking note of these can help to make sure that you are studying the best combination of subjects to maximise your chances of success.

Acceptance rates

It is also helpful to look at the overall acceptance rates of the universities you’re considering applying for. The table below shows the total number of applications and applicants accepted by each Russell Group university, as well as the acceptance rate, based on the latest UCAS data (2021 admissions cycle).

Note that acceptance rates should be considered alongside other factors and not in isolation. For example, the acceptance rates for Oxford and Cambridge may look higher than some other universities, however fewer students apply for Oxbridge due to the already high entry requirements and are limited to applying to one or the other. Additionally, of those students who do apply, the majority will accept an offer if it is made as it is nearly always a first choice. Bear this in mind when looking at the acceptance rates compared to other universities.

University Total number of applications Total number of accepted applicants Acceptance rate (2021)
Oxford 24,645 3,330 13.5%
Cambridge 23,140 3,625 15.7%
University College London (UCL) 68,085 8,140 12%
London School of Economics (LSE) 25,845 1,715 6.6%
Imperial College London 28,700 3,305 11.5%
Warwick 42,260 6,000 14.2%
Durham 32,570 6,160 19%
Manchester 88,330 11,070 12.5%
Bristol 58,185 7,650 13.1%
Birmingham 56,850 7,865 13.8%
Exeter 41,695 8,175 19.6%
Cardiff 44,155 7,915 17.9%
Edinburgh 72,365 8,455 11.7%
Glasgow 42,180 6,605 15.7%
King’s College London (KCL) 67,390 8,460 12.6%
Leeds 66,200 8,885 13.4%
Liverpool 42,255 6,630 15.7%
Newcastle 32,400 6,255 19.3%
Nottingham 55,375 8,710 15.7%
Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) 37,695 6,385 17%
Queen’s University Belfast 28,355 5,065 17.9%
Sheffield 39,350 5,980 15.2%
Southampton 37,580 5,315 14.1%
York 27,625 5,295 19.2%

Using this information, you might choose a Russell Group university that still has a strong academic reputation but which has a higher acceptance rate as a second choice, as this will give you the best chance of attending a top university, should you not get into your more competitive first choice university.

Admissions Tests

Oxford and Cambridge, as well as some other top UK universities for the most competitive courses, require applicants to take an admissions test. Which admissions test you are required to take differs by university and by course, and it’s important to know which one (if any) you need to take.

For example, the table below shows the universities that require admissions tests – and which tests are required – for Mathematics.

Admissions test Summary Which universities? When is it taken?
MAT (Mathematics Admissions Test) The MAT is based on the first year of A level Maths and a few topics from the fourth term of A level Maths. It aims to test the depth – rather than breadth – of students’ mathematical understanding. Required by Imperial and Oxford.
Recommended by Warwick, Bath and Southampton.
2nd November 2022
After Oxbridge deadline but before UCAS deadline.
TMUA (Test of Mathematics for University Admissions) The TMUA is designed to assess the essential mathematical thinking and reasoning skills needed for a demanding undergraduate Mathematics or Mathematics-related course. Recommended by LSE, Sheffield, Warwick, Bath, Southampton, Lancaster and Durham. 18th October 2022
After Oxbridge deadline but before UCAS deadline.
STEP (Sixth Term Examination Paper) The STEP is designed to test candidates on questions that are similar in style to undergraduate Mathematics. Required by Cambridge.
Recommended by Warwick, Bath, Southampton, UCL and Sheffield.
Two dates in June (exact dates not yet announced)
After Oxbridge and UCAS deadlines.

Each of these tests requires different knowledge and skills and has different cut-off scores for applicants. Although an admissions test shouldn’t deter you from applying to a university course altogether (as there are always The Profs’ admissions test tutors to help you prepare), it is helpful to research these tests to help you come to a decision on whether that university is the right choice for you. The admissions tests will give you a clue as to how rigorous a course is and the level of knowledge that is assumed upon beginning the course.

In addition, as you can see from the table above, each test is taken at different times of year – some before the Oxbridge and UCAS deadlines (TMUA and MAT) and some after (STEP). If you are worried about not knowing what score you will achieve and prefer having a set grade to work towards, consider taking tests that take place before the deadline so that you have an idea of which universities are suitable for you.

For example, in the case of Mathematics, we would suggest taking the TMUA if it is an option for you (i.e. if you’re applying to Warwick, Bath or Southampton). We would also always advise taking either the MAT or the TMUA even if you are applying to a STEP university, rather than waiting and only taking the STEP in the summer, as the STEP is significantly harder and it’s best to aim for a high score in one of the former while the option is there.

How do international students take UK admissions tests?

Students applying from within the UK typically sit university admissions tests in a local test centre – usually their school or college. However, universities also welcome applications from international students and there are systems in place to ensure that you can still sit the same admissions tests as UK applicants.

How you are required to sit your admissions test depends on which test it is that you are taking. For example, many admissions tests at Imperial do not require pre-registration and are taken online for all applicants, while some require you to pre-register and sit the test at an international test centre.

In order to find an authorised test centre at which to take your admissions test, you need to first find out the administrator of that test. Most Oxford and Cambridge admissions tests (those that require pre-registration) are administered by Cambridge Assessment Admissions Testing (CAAT). You can find your local test centre using CAAT’s helpful search tool. You can also ask your school to apply to become a test centre.

Interviews

Interviews are another key part of the admissions process for Oxford and Cambridge, as well as for a handful of other universities for specific courses. However, each university interviews a different percentage of applicants. This is another great opportunity to tailor your course selection to your strengths.

The table below shows the average percentage of applicants interviewed by both Oxford and Cambridge.

University Average percentage of applicants interviewed
Oxford 45%
Cambridge 75%

As you can see, Cambridge interviews a far higher percentage of its applicants (on average) than Oxford does. Therefore, if you know that you perform particularly well in interviews, Cambridge may be worth applying to, as the admissions process is in line with your strengths.

The percentage of applicants who make it to interview may also differ between specific courses. The table below shows the percentage of applicants interviewed at a range of courses at Oxford.

Course Percentage of applicants interviewed (2019-2021 average) Percentage of applicants who successfully received an offer (2019-2021 average)
Mathematics 34% 11%
Earth Sciences (Geology) 89% 29%
Archaeology and Anthropology 72% 24%
Chemistry 89% 29%
Law 39% 13%
Psychology, Philosophy and Linguistics (PPL) 36% 12%
Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) 32% 11%

The Profs’ acceptance rates

By taking a statistical view of course selection, in combination with your subject interests and passions, The Profs are able to help you make the smartest decisions when it comes to applying for university in the UK.

Our team of expert admissions tutors have many years of experience helping aspiring applicants get into top UK universities for a range of subjects. Each of our tutors has first-hand experience of the UK admissions process and in-depth knowledge of one or more subjects to postgraduate-level. This means they are best-placed to help you with every stage of the process, from crafting a unique personal statement to revising for the contents of any admissions tests.

As a result of this expertise, more than 90% of applicants who work with us receive an offer from their first or second choice university. We also have a 55% acceptance rate into Oxford and Cambridge, compared to an average Oxbridge acceptance rate of 15%, meaning students who work with our team are more than three times more likely to get into Oxbridge thanks to our support.