Preparing to apply for Oxbridge is one of the most important things you can do if you want to maximise your chances of getting in. However, there’s often a lack of clear guidance as to when you should start preparing.
This guide provides helpful information on the Oxbridge admissions process and suggests when you should start preparing, based on our extensive experience of working with Oxbridge applicants.
What is there to prepare for?
If you’re just starting to think about applying to university, you might be thinking, ‘What is there to prepare for? Don’t I simply apply to study at Oxford or Cambridge like any other university?’. While the application process is similar in many ways, there are lots of additional stages and factors to consider when applying to Oxbridge compared to many other universities.
Firstly, Oxford and particularly Cambridge typically have the highest entry requirements of any university in the UK. That means that you will need to be predicted high grades and be prepared to put in considerable effort and revision into getting top grades in your A levels (or equivalent) to be in with a chance of securing an offer.
Secondly, Oxbridge applications are submitted earlier than applications for other universities – typically more than 3 months earlier. The Oxbridge application deadline is 15th October every year (compared to 25th January for all other applications apart from Medicine). This means that you will be submitting your application in the first half-term of year 13 (or equivalent).
Finally, the Oxbridge admissions process almost always involves taking an admissions test and attending an interview with your chosen university. Both of these stages require intense and tailored preparation as they are vital to the success of your application.
When should you start preparing for Oxbridge?
Based on our experience working with students who successfully got into Oxford or Cambridge, we recommend that you start preparing for Oxbridge in the first two terms of year 12 (or the equivalent school year when you are 16-17 years old). This should give you plenty of time to really understand the admissions process, formulate an effective preparation plan, and factor in revision for any upcoming school exams as well as your admissions test and interview.
That’s not to say that it is too late to start preparing if you are already in your final term or summer holiday of year 12 and haven’t yet begun. There will still be many useful things you can do to prepare and more intensive support available. However, if it is an option, thinking and planning ahead is always recommended to give yourself the best chance of success.
Why should you start preparing for Oxbridge early?
As we’ve touched on above, there are a number of reasons why you should start preparing for Oxbridge early. Here are nine reasons why preparing early can be beneficial to your application and help to maximise your chances of an offer.
1. It allows you to choose your course carefully
You can only apply to either Oxford or Cambridge (not both) and there are lots of subjects to choose from, so it’s important to choose your course carefully. There are many factors to consider when choosing a course, including the specific modules covered, the entry requirements, the acceptance rate, the societies and extracurricular activities, and more.
Exploring what’s available to you and thinking about all of your options early on will help you to make sure that the course you choose is the best fit for you overall. This will make you all the more passionate about the course and determined to get in, which will shine through in your personal statement.
Top tip: Remember that your personal statement will be sent to all of your university choices (up to 5), not just Oxford or Cambridge, so you won’t be able to name a specific course or module. However, it is important that you show your passion for the subject area more generally through wider reading, work experience, extracurricular activities, and any other relevant experiences. Learn more about how to write an excellent statement in our helpful UCAS personal statement guide.
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.
2. It gives you time to develop your academic profile
Everyone knows that excellent grades (A*AA-A*A*A* at A level or equivalent) are important for getting into Oxbridge, and there are plenty of revision hacks you can use to achieve the best grades possible. However, it is not just the grades that count. Oxford and Cambridge will also assess applicants’ overall academic profile to determine whether or not they are the best fit for their chosen course.
Developing a strong academic profile includes not only consistently good grades throughout your A levels and sometimes GCSEs (or equivalent), but also efforts to pursue your chosen subject outside of the school curriculum. For example, many successful Maths and Science Oxbridge applicants take part in challenges and competitions (like the UK Maths Challenge) to showcase their strong mathematical skills and passion for the subject. Wider reading is also a great way to develop your interest in your subject and demonstrate your passion beyond the confines of the curriculum.
It’s also important to perform well in coursework assignments, which are often spaced throughout the year, and science practicals. Oxbridge courses sometimes specify that students need to have passed all practical elements of any Science A levels (or equivalent) in order to qualify for entry, so it’s important to know this in advance.
3. You’ll need time to familiarise yourself with the admissions process
Unless you know someone who has personally gone through the Oxbridge admissions process before, you probably aren’t all too familiar with what it entails. That’s why it’s important to familiarise yourself with the process – and we recommend doing this as early as you can.
It is firstly important that you know which admissions test you are required to take for the course you are applying for. Almost every course will require you to take at least one test, and this test can be administered internally (by the university themselves) or externally (by a separate testing organisation). All of this information is important to note.
It is also important to ensure that you do not miss any important deadlines or dates associated with your application or admissions test. As mentioned before, the deadline for Oxbridge applications is 3 months earlier than the general UCAS deadline, but there will likely be other important dates you need to know about too.
For example, STEP (the admissions test used by Cambridge for Mathematics) is taken at the end of year 13, during your final exam period, so it is not considered when making initial offers. You will therefore need to work extremely hard to show your strong mathematical ability in other areas of your application in order to stand out to Cambridge, as well as revise for your final exams and the STEP later in the year.
Additionally, applicants to Oxford and some courses at Cambridge are not automatically registered for the necessary admissions test – they are expected to register themselves. You will therefore need to make a note of the deadlines for registration to ensure that you can sit the test and are eligible to apply.
Find out more about other important stages of the process in our helpful guide to the Oxbridge admissions process.
4. It’s important to gain some work experience
Although not always specified in the entry requirements, it is highly recommended that you gain some work experience in order to ensure your Oxbridge application is competitive. This is the case for most courses at Oxford and Cambridge, but especially for particularly industry-specific courses or courses with a high number of applicants, such as Law and Economics.
Sometimes, work experience is an essential entry requirement for applying to a course at Oxford or Cambridge. The most notable example is Medicine, for which you will not be considered unless you have a good amount of medical work experience. Ideally, this experience should be in a range of healthcare settings (such as GP surgeries, hospitals, hospices, care homes, and more).
Top tip: It can take some time to find and secure medical work experience placements. Many prospective Medicine students begin undertaking work experience more than a year in advance of applying to university, however the summer before submitting your application can work fine too, so long as you plan it in advance. If you’re not sure where to start with finding work experience or are struggling to find placements, watch our quick video for some inspiration and tips.
5. You can identify your strengths and weaknesses
Identifying your strengths and weaknesses is one of the most valuable stages of preparing for Oxbridge, as it allows you to focus your future time on areas you particularly need to work on. Essentially, the sooner you identify your weaknesses, the more time you will have to address them.
For example, if you identify that you struggle to perform well under time pressure (i.e. exam conditions), you can schedule in time to work on timed past papers to ensure that you feel more confident under these conditions by the time it comes to sitting your admissions test.
Top tip: Sometimes it can be hard to identify our own strengths and weaknesses. In fact, some students tend to spend a large portion of their revision time on the areas they already know and find easy – while this can be morale-boosting, it can also defeat the purpose of revision! To combat this problem, you can try speaking to a teacher who knows you well, or better yet, working with a professional tutor who can help you to identify areas to work on and formulate a plan to improve these areas specifically.
6. It leaves plenty of time to practise
Admissions tests and interviews will almost certainly be a new experience for you, so practise is absolutely key to your success. The more time you give yourself to prepare, the more practice you will be able to get and the stronger your performance will be.
Some admissions tests may require more preparation than others, and there are often other factors to consider as well. For instance, Cambridge’s STEP admissions test is taken at the same time as your final A level exams, so you will need to ensure that you are balancing your time on revising for each of these exams carefully. Also, some admissions tests (particularly Cambridge’s internal tests that do not require pre-registration) have little information about them online, so you may need to work with a teacher or specialist tutor in order to access resources and get inside knowledge into how to prepare.
It’s also important to note that you do not need to wait to receive an interview offer before beginning your interview preparation. In fact, preparing early gives you an advantage, as you’ll have a better understanding of what the interview process will entail, months of extra practice, and tried and tested strategies for success behind you.
7. You can develop a genuine passion for your subject
A genuine passion for your chosen subject, no matter how much you have studied it at school, is hard to develop overnight. This is especially true if you’re applying for a course you’ve never studied before and that may not be offered at school level, such as Archaeology, Engineering, Medicine, Oriental Studies, and others.
Whatever course you’re applying for, you will need to dedicate a considerable amount of time to developing your knowledge and passion for it. You can do this through wider reading, watching YouTube videos and documentaries, work experience, and many other means. Your genuine passion will shine through in your personal statement and your interview, giving you an advantage over other applicants.
8. It can help your mental health and build your confidence
It’s important to do everything you can to maintain good mental health throughout year 12, as you will still need to perform well in school alongside submitting your application (and enjoying your social life too!). We find that students who begin preparing for Oxbridge earlier tend to feel less anxious and more confident when the time comes to submit their application, take their admissions test and attend their interview.
Confidence is especially important for your Oxbridge interview, as this will likely be the only time you meet your future lecturers and tutors during the admissions process, and you’ll want to make a good impression. Unsurprisingly, the interview is also the stage that students often feel most daunted by. However, this needn’t be the case! Despite what you may think, confidence is in fact a skill and can be developed just as any other skill can be. Building up your confidence early through effective preparation can alleviate any worries you may have and ensure that you are able to perform as well as possible on the day.
9. The best tutors will be available to help
While you may be able to find a great tutor at the last minute, the best way to ensure you are as well-prepared for applying to Oxbridge as possible is to work with a top tutor over a longer period of time. The best Oxbridge tutors (i.e. those with the most experience, highest qualifications, and highest student success rates) will begin to take on eager, prospective Oxbridge applicants in the first half of year 12.
They’ll then formulate revision and preparation plans based on their students’ individual course choices and existing strengths and weaknesses, and work with them consistently up until their Oxbridge interview in the following year.
The Profs’ Oxbridge tutors have several years of experience successfully supporting students with their Oxbridge applications. Our Oxbridge acceptance rate is 55% – more than triple the national average of 15% – and more than 95% of our students get into their first or second-choice universities. To get started with finding an experienced Oxbridge admissions tutor, reach out to our team today.
Our experts have been compiling their knowledge and expertise on the Oxbridge admissions process into free, helpful guides to help you get into your dream university. If you want to find out more about applying for Oxbridge, check out these guides below, or head to the University Applications section of our student resources to explore more useful content.