A Guide to the Oxbridge Application Process

Applying to any university is a new and unfamiliar process for most students. Add to this the additional stages, different deadlines and competitiveness of the Oxbridge application process, and it can be even more difficult to navigate. Thankfully, with the right preparation and support, applying to Oxford or Cambridge should be a straightforward and rewarding process.

Using expert-level knowledge and first-hand experience, the Profs have put together this guide as your one-stop-shop to the Oxbridge application process. Our Head of Oxbridge Consulting, Joseph Robbins, also shares his top tips based on his insider knowledge garnered over five years of advising Oxbridge students.

Whether you’re looking for a clear overview of the key stages to the Oxbridge admissions process, or more detailed support on how to write your personal statement, which additional tests you’ll need to take, and how to prepare for an Oxbridge interview, this guide covers everything you’ll need to maximise your chances of receiving an offer from Oxford or Cambridge.

7-Step Oxbridge Application Process

Step 1: Choose a course

Choosing a course is one of the most important educational decisions you will ever make. The course you choose determines not only what and where you will be for the next chapter of your life, but which career paths are opened or closed for you long into the future.

At undergraduate level, you can only apply to one course at either Oxford or Cambridge. You cannot apply to more than one course and you cannot apply to both universities in the same year. It’s therefore important to have a look at all of the courses available and decide which one is best suited for you.

Joe’s tip: Start your career research before your university and course research. Look at which sorts of roles interest you and which university courses are pathways into these careers. Then work backwards all the way to your GCSEs and A levels (depending on how early you’re researching) to ensure you’re on track to meet the entry requirements for your ideal course.

If you’re not completely set on a course and would prefer to keep your options open, consider taking an in-demand A level like Maths. Maths is a common prerequisite for many courses, including Medicine, Economics and Physics, and gives you an advantage for courses like Psychology and Business.

When the time comes, all of this preparation will inform your university application. The strongest personal statements demonstrate a 5-year plan after graduation and a specific career path. You don’t have to stick to this plan (you can always change your mind later), but having a plan or goal will help you come across as a more serious candidate in your Oxbridge application.

When is the deadline for Oxbridge applications?

The deadline for Oxbridge applications is the 15th October 2023. Your whole Oxbridge application, including your personal statement, registration for admissions test(s) and references, must be submitted by this date. Researching your course early is therefore important to ensure you know which admissions tests and grades are required for entry.

Step 2: Choose a college or decide on an open application

Oxford and Cambridge are two of only a few collegiate universities in the UK. There are 39 colleges at Oxford and 31 colleges at Cambridge, each of which offer different courses, are in different locations, and have different cultures. Your UCAS form will give you the option to specify which college you would like to attend. Alternatively, if you don’t have a specific college in mind, you can submit an open application and be placed in any college that offers the course you’re applying for.

Though submitting an open application is perfectly fine, it’s a good idea for you to visit each of the Oxford and Cambridge colleges on their open days if you can. You should also research the admissions stats, the tutors that will be teaching your chosen course, and the number of students on the same course as you. All of these factors will help you to decide which course and college are the best match for you.

Joe’s tip: When researching tutors, try to find topics of common interest and include these in your personal statement. This will not only show you’ve really done your research, but could also result in your interview being focused around this topic, rather than a topic you are unfamiliar with.

Also note that though it may be tempting to apply for a college because it seems less competitive, it’s far more important to decide upon a college based on its tutors, location, and number of students on the same course as you. Trying to game the system almost never pays off, and your academic and personal experience at Oxbridge are more important.

Step 3: Write your personal statement

Your personal statement is an important part of your UCAS application (see section 5). Your personal statement is your chance to express who you are, describe your ambitions, skills and experience related to the course you’re applying for, and explain why you would be an excellent candidate.

Applications to Oxbridge are extremely competitive (particularly for each of the university’s most popular courses), with many students achieving the grades required for entry. Therefore, your personal statement is a crucial deciding factor in whether you will be progressed to the next stage in the application process.

Some elements we recommend you include in your Oxbridge personal statement are:

  • Subject-related work experience you’ve completed or intend to carry out
  • Any volunteering you’ve completed that relates to your chosen subject area
  • Further reading or studying you’ve carried out related to your subject area
  • Extracurricular activities or interests that demonstrate your interest in and commitment to your subject area

Crucially, all of these elements and any other additional topics included in your personal statement should support your case that you are the most deserving student for a place on your selected course at your selected university.

Important changes to the UCAS personal statement: Note that all students applying to university for 2023, 2024 or 2025 will still be required to submit a UCAS personal statement as normal. However, from January 2025 onwards (October 2024, for Oxbridge applicants), there will be changes to the UCAS application process and students will no longer be required to write a personal statement. Instead, all applicants will answer a series of shorter, more tailored questions provided by UCAS.

Step 4: Academic references

As part of your UCAS application (see the next stage), you’ll need to include a referee who can provide a reference for you. Only one reference is required on the UCAS Undergraduate application. If possible, they should be someone who knows you academically and can talk about your work ethic, interaction with other students and your suitability for higher education or a future career, such as a teacher or advisor.

Remember that your referee will need some time to complete your reference, and this must be completed before the 15th October deadline, so it’s important to leave plenty of time for this stage of your application.

Joe’s tip: Your personal statement is limited to 4000 characters, so there’s only so much you can include. Your academic reference is therefore a great chance for you to include additional information that you may not have had space to include yourself.

If there’s something in particular you’d like the university to know about, like an achievement you’re proud of or extenuating circumstances or weaknesses in your application, then reach out to your referee to ask if they would be willing to mention this in their reference.

Step 5: Apply via UCAS

In order to apply to Oxbridge, you must go through UCAS, just like any other university applications. However, the deadline for submitting your application for Oxford or Cambridge is the 15th October, which is earlier than other universities and colleges.
The key stages of a UCAS application are:

  • Register with UCAS
  • Fill out your personal details
  • Add your education history
  • Add your work experience or employment history
  • Select your course choices
  • Write your personal statement
  • Request your reference
  • Submit your application
  • Pay your application fee

For more information on what is involved in the UCAS application process, read our helpful article.

Is it best to submit your Oxbridge application early?

At the Profs, we have not seen any evidence that submitting your application earlier increases your chances of receiving an interview invite. In fact, the opposite may even be true; students who rush their personal statements and submit suboptimal applications (often to meet tight school deadlines) are less likely to receive an offer than those who spend an extra week drafting their statement.

Our expert team is happy to give a statement of review to tell you whether we think your personal statement is up to the high standard expected by Oxbridge, or whether it would benefit from another draft.

Step 6: Admissions tests

Most Oxford and Cambridge undergraduate courses require applicants to take an admissions test as part of the application process. The test(s) can take place before, after or at your interview and are designed to test how you can apply your existing knowledge to unfamiliar problems.

A great test score proves you can think creatively, logically and critically, and holds considerable weight in telling the university you deserve a place. Preparing for Oxbridge’s admission tests, including practising past papers and studying their mark schemes, is therefore key to success.

Which courses require admissions tests?

Most of the courses at Oxford and Cambridge require you to sit some kind of admissions test.
Click on the button below to find out which admissions test you might need to take.

Oxbridge admissions tests

Step 7: Interview

The final stage of the Oxbridge application process is an interview, which is offered to all shortlisted applicants. Oxford typically receives over 22,000 applications and shortlists approximately 10,000 candidates, while Cambridge offers interviews to around 75% of UK applicants. So if you’ve made it this far, that’s already a huge achievement!

The interview stage of the Oxbridge application process is notoriously difficult. As well as delving into your personal statement and general course knowledge, your interviewer will ask you questions that require you to apply your school-level knowledge to more abstract ideas or scenarios that you may have never come across before. That’s why preparation for your Oxbridge interview is absolutely essential to your success.

How does an Oxbridge interview work?

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Oxbridge interviews were held online in 2021, however the process and structure of the interviews remains virtually the same.

  • A panel of two or three academic tutors will interview you.
  • They may begin the interview by talking about a specific topic between themselves and they will expect you to join in the conversation.
  • Alternatively, they may expect you to take the lead from the start and debate a topic explored in your personal statement.
  • Many of the questions they’ll ask will require you to apply your existing knowledge to new situations and scenarios and think critically and creatively.
  • You’ll also be asked questions that relate to your academic achievements, work experience, and passion for the subject area.

What are your interviewers looking for?

The Oxbridge interview is designed to assess your academic potential, not just your current subject knowledge. Your interviewers will be looking for your enthusiasm for and knowledge of your subject, as well as your ability to be self-motivated, proactive and curious. They’ll be testing how well your interview can teach you, how willing you are to listen and learn, and how you adapt to new or unfamiliar questions.

There are many questions you could be asked in an Oxbridge interview, but with good preparation and an understanding of what to expect, you’ll feel more confident in your ability to answer anything. Reach out to our team to find out more about how the Profs can help train you for your Oxbridge interview.

Joe’s tip: Oxbridge interviews are designed to do more than just test your academic knowledge. They give the university tutors an opportunity to see how you apply this knowledge to new situations and to understand your thought process when faced with the unknown or unfamiliar.
For example, if you’re an English student, you might be given an unseen poem to read and answer questions on, while if you’re interviewing for a maths-based subject, you might be given a challenging graph or equation to solve. The key is to remain unfazed, rationalise the answers you give, and be confident in your abilities.

What happens after the interview stage?

Based on your interview in combination with your admissions test(s) and your UCAS application, the university will come to a decision as to whether to offer you a place on the course. You will find out this decision via UCAS Track the following month.

How can we help?

The Oxbridge application process is a new and unfamiliar experience for all students, but with the right preparation and support, you’ll have nothing to worry about. For one-to-one guidance on your Oxbridge application from a professional admissions tutor, get in touch with the Profs team today.

FAQs

What does Oxbridge mean?

Oxbridge is the name used to refer to the top two UK universities: Oxford and Cambridge. You can only apply to one of these universities in any given year. The Oxbridge application process differs from the standard undergraduate application process for other UK universities.

How long should a personal statement for Oxbridge be?

Your personal statement should be a maximum of 4,000 characters in length, as this is the maximum length for all UCAS personal statements.

When is the Oxbridge application deadline?

The deadline for Oxbridge applications is the 15th October and stays the same every year. This means that by October 15th, you must have submitted your UCAS application (including your reference) and registered to take the required entry test(s) for your course. Check Oxford’s entry admissions timeline for more details.

How hard is it to get into Oxford or Cambridge?

Oxford and Cambridge are the top two universities in the UK and places on their courses are very competitive. In 2020, the Oxford acceptance rate was 15.8%, while the Cambridge acceptance rate was 19.6%.

What happens if I get rejected from Oxbridge?

Based on your application, Oxford or Cambridge will come to a decision as to whether to offer you a place on the course. You will usually find out this decision via UCAS Track and/or via email in January.
Getting rejected from Oxford or Cambridge University can be a devastating experience. All of the effort you’ve put into attending open days, deciding on a specific college, and completing the gruelling Oxbridge application process might now all feel a bit pointless.

However, though it’s disappointing, you might take solace in knowing that places are incredibly competitive and there will be lots of students in a similar position to you. You should also remember that a rejection doesn’t mean the end of your Oxbridge journey, and your efforts were not in vain.

There are lots of options if you get rejected from Oxbridge, like reapplying the following year, applying as a mature student (if you’ll be over the age of 21), or applying to one of the many other excellent universities in the UK. Read our article for more tips and support.

What is pooling and what does it mean for my application?

Sometimes strong applicants are unable to secure an offer outright after their interview performance. If this is the case, Oxbridge may do something called pooling, which involves moving your application into a pool with similar applications. This pool of applicants is then used to supplement course numbers or replace students with offers who failed to achieve the entry requirements in their final exams.

Both Oxford and Cambridge’s pooling systems give strong applicants the chance to still be offered a place on their chosen course, but in a different college to the one they interviewed for initially.

If you’re placed into an Oxford pool, after your initial interview in December, you will be asked to stay in Oxford for a few days to attend interviews with other colleges. The Cambridge pool takes place in January rather than December, so you may be asked to attend another interview at a different college the month after your initial interview. You may also be offered a place at another college without having to attend another interview at Cambridge.

If your application is pooled after an Oxbridge interview, get in touch with the Profs. We can help guide you through the pooling process and provide support when and how you need it.

How much does a university application cost?

There is an application fee for all applications made through UCAS. For 2021 entry, the application fee is £22 for a single choice, or £26.50 for more than one choice (up to the maximum of 5 choices).

How do I apply for a Master’s at Oxbridge?

Unlike undergraduate applications, Master’s applications are made directly to the universities of Oxford or Cambridge themselves. This involves creating an account online, completing the application process (which will include writing a personal statement and providing references), and attending an interview.