What to Do if You Don’t Meet Oxford’s Entry Requirements

The University of Oxford is one of the most prestigious universities in the world, which is why it has such a low acceptance rate: 13.5% according to UCAS and 15% according to Admission Reports. Here at The Profs, we are Oxbridge admissions experts. If you’re worried that you don’t meet Oxford’s requirements, there are some tips and tricks that could tip the scales in your favour. Let’s break them down.

Oxford’s basic criteria considers your grades, subject choices, college choice, application, experience, language ability, and performance during your interview. This article will explore each of these factors, helping you to identify which areas you might be lacking and to equip you with the know-how to combat this.

Contents:

  1. What is the criteria to get into Oxford?
  2. Understanding Oxford’s entry requirements for undergraduates
  3. Understanding Oxford’s entry requirements for postgraduates
  4. What should I do if I don’t meet Oxford’s Entry Requirements, and how do I get in?
  5. If your subject choices don’t align with Oxford’s expectations
  6. Underestimated factors that carry weight
  7. If your grades aren’t up to par
  8. Consider your options

What is the criteria to get into Oxford?

Oxford, as the first part of the portmanteau “Oxbridge” and one of the two oldest universities in the world, has a longstanding reputation as a top-tier educational institution. It can afford to be choosey. Hence, Oxford runs an extremely competitive admissions process.

Meeting or exceeding Oxford’s entry requirements doesn’t guarantee you an offer. You are considered in relation to the standard of applicants that year.

When it comes to entry requirements, Oxford considers a variety of factors:

  • Grades: Oxford’s esteemed university ranking means that it asks for much higher grades than many other universities. So, check whether your grades are up to par!
  • Subject choices: Some courses at Oxford might deem it essential that you’ve studied X or Y subjects. In other cases, they might strongly recommend or encourage specific subjects. Beyond what is mandatory or advised, it’s important that your subject choices convey a genuine interest in your chosen degree, as well as applicable knowledge, and relevant capability.
  • Your college choice: This carries weight regarding your eligibility as Oxford will consider your suitability for this college as well as your chosen course.
  • Your application: Your personal statement should demonstrate your suitability for both Oxford and your chosen degree. It should prove that you are motivated and impassioned by the course.
  • Your experience: Relevant work experience and extra/other qualifications might give you an edge over other students or make up for other areas in which you lack.
  • English language ability: If your first language isn’t English then you will need an English language qualification. See here for those accepted by Oxford. The grade and/or level of proficiency expected depends on your course, so check your specific course requirements. In particular, you’ll need a reasonable standard of spoken and written English at the time of the interview. For postgraduates, the expectations are less general and can be found on our table.
  • Your interview: Many universities do not interview their applicants so this is an extra step that adds some further effort and pressure to the process. However, it also gives you a valuable opportunity to stand out if your application on paper is not as strong as your peers!

Please note: There are additional steps and criteria if you are applying for a specific scholarship and you often need a reference, so ensure that you add this separately to your general checklist.

For all-around advice on how to get into Oxford, check out our previous blog!

Feeling overwhelmed by all the factors you’ve got to consider? Or just generally daunted by the Oxford admissions process?

Here at The Profs, we have amazing admissions tutors, with a proven track record of tripling their students’ chances of success. They can help you with meeting the entry requirements, as well as preparing your perfect application. Don’t stress, just reach out to our friendly team for an expert helping hand.

Understanding Oxford’s entry requirements for undergraduates

First thing’s first, you need to understand Oxford’s expectations. We have made a table where you can see Oxford’s criteria for each of its undergraduate courses. Just click below to check it out:

View Table

Can’t find your subject? Click here to find your missing course.

Are you an international student? Check out Oxford’s help page for international services where you can find all of Oxford’s accepted qualifications and their required grades. Also, check the English language requirements for Oxford’s undergraduate courses.

Understanding Oxford’s entry requirements for postgraduates

Applying for a postgraduate course is completely different to applying for an undergraduate course. Oxford considers a new set of criteria, and it varies according to the course. We have made a table where you can see Oxford’s criteria for each of their postgraduate courses. Just click below to check it out:

View Table

Can’t find your subject? Click here to find your missing course.

Remember: Always check your chosen course’s faculty page for accurate and detailed information.

Are you an international student? Check out Oxford’s information page on all qualifications and grades that qualify you for Oxford’s minimum entry requirements.

What should I do if I don’t meet Oxford’s Entry Requirements, and how do I get in?

We have some insider advice to share if you don’t meet Oxford’s entry requirements. Oxford might not necessarily be beyond your reach! Below is a breakdown of what you could be lacking regarding Oxford’s entry criteria, and how to tackle this.

Insider information:

It’s important to note that Cambridge interviews most of their applicants who meet the academic requirements, thus their final decision is often based on the interview itself. Whereas LSE does not interview applicants, so their final decision is predominantly based on grades and experience.

Contrastingly, Oxford takes a holistic approach. Oxford considers your prior academic attainment as well as your predicted grades, and then any admissions tests and written work, and finally your interview. Oxford’s focus is spread out. Tutors make decisions based on all aspects of your application.

Meaning, that each step holds value and must be polished. Your profile should be well-rounded. No step is more important than another! Don’t spend the majority of your efforts in one area or neglect another.

1) If your subject choices don’t align with Oxford’s expectations

There is a wide spectrum of courses at Oxford so the ideal subject combination relies on your chosen degree subject. Typically, if you are choosing a Science subject, they’ll value you having A levels in Science subjects as well as Maths.

More generally, they’ll want to see you have studied the subject you’re applying for. However, this is only the case if your chosen subject is a common A level subject e.g. they would expect a Maths applicant to have studied Maths for A level but they would not expect Law applicants to have studied Law for A level. This is because many schools don’t offer newer/more niche A levels and non-traditional A levels are often considered less academically rigorous.

Surprisingly, applicants pursuing History or Geography degrees are only recommended to have taken these subjects rather than required. It’s always worth checking Oxford’s definitions of umbrella subjects too e.g. they often accept Psychology as a Science subject whereas Cambridge usually does not. Always be sure to check your specific course’s subject requirements.

Insider tip: Oxford offers some unique courses, like PPL. If you’re interested in taking one of these degrees, you can really stand out. Research one of these unique courses in depth and convey that you have a genuine passion for it in your personal statement that is well evidenced with relevant readings.

Recovery tips: What can I do if I don’t meet the subject requirements?

It is important to recognise that if a certain subject is required, it might be worth your time to take the missing subject.

Sometimes there are fast-track options available, such as using school holidays to take classes and revise. Alternatively, you can get an expert tutor, and invest time and effort outside of school into taking the added subject. If you implement these strategies, you might be able to catch up in time for the exam/coursework deadlines or proceed with later deadlines.

If your school will not facilitate you adding this subject to your timetable, they may still allow you to sit the exams. If not, you might be able to find an external institution to sit the exams with.

If you attend a free state school within the UK, you could also benefit from taking a course at UNIQ. This is a free summer school offered by Oxford which you apply for by January in year 12. MPLS offer a bridging programme as a department which is particularly useful if you’re applying for a related course.

Oxford also offers other term schools which do not consider socio-economic backgrounds, such as niche subject-related schools e.g. the Creative Writing Summer School, the Critical Reading Summer School, or the Statistical Genomics Summer School. Colleges like Merton College and Christ Church offer introductory level Summer Schools. Oxford also offers Winter Schools, such as the College of International Education, as well as study abroad programmes for international students.

If you’re applying for a postgraduate course with an undergraduate degree in the “wrong” subject, your solution might involve: enrolling in a conversion course, completing a relevant supplementary qualification, or taking a short course at Oxford University. For example, Oxford offers a range of online, short and flexible courses that are available to everyone. These can be used to earn CATS points, or credit earned can be transferred towards Oxford’s undergraduate award programme, the Certificate of Higher Education.

What if I can’t get a grade in my missing subject?

It is definitely worth explaining to Oxford why you have not studied a required subject. For example, if your chosen course requires you to have studied Latin or Greek and your school doesn’t offer this subject, you should flag this in your application. Or if your chosen course requires you to have studied a modern language but your school wouldn’t let you enrol in one because you tried too late in the year, had the wrong background, or for whatever reason it might be, you should note this in your application. If your referee can mention this for you, that is ideal, but if not, ensure that you do so yourself.

Another tip for if you are missing a required subject is: to try to find a related extra qualification that you can complete which can stand in for the missing one. For example, those that are not taking an English subject but want to get into a degree programme that requires a grade in this might consider taking a niche or clearly thought over MOOC in this field or participating in the International English Olympiad to bolster their application. There are also numerous literary competitions for young people, such as the The Young Walter Scott Prize and the Young Poets’ Competition, placing in one of these could positively impact your application.

Better yet, many of Oxford’s colleges, like St Hugh’s College, host essay prizes – most of which can be entered by UK secondary school students outside of Oxford University. However, a student applying to a postgraduate degree in Economics despite not having taken an undergraduate in Economics should consider completing the GRE or the GMAT to make up for this as it is recommended for multiple quantitative postgraduate Oxford courses.

For Computer Science courses at Oxford, A Level Further Maths is strongly recommended. However, whilst Oxford expects you to take Further Maths if it’s offered at your school, it is never an official requirement for Mathematical subjects. So, you are still in with a good chance if you’re not taking Further Maths because it is unavailable (just ensure that your referee highlights this). Oxford prioritises evidence that applicants are skilled in Maths and enjoy applying it to physical problems to work out the answers. They value evidence of this more than a Further Maths qualification.

If your chosen course recommends Further Maths and you are not taking it, consider studying Further Maths outside of class and using online resources covering advanced material. Or perform well in Maths competitions and/or complete the Advanced Mathematics Support Programme. Alternatively, you could participate in the Maths Olympiad, or take the TMUA or UK Maths Challenge. It is especially important to try one of these options if you’re not taking Further Maths when it is offered at your school. Finally, contact your department and/or chosen college for further advice and guidance.

Oxford offers a wealth of information on how you can educate yourself or get involved with specific subjects.

Recovery tips for if you don’t meet subject recommendations:

Finally, you might find that your subject profile does not clash with the subject requirements for your desired Oxford course, but only the recommended/favoured subjects. In this case, taking another A level course might not be wise at all, nor would be discussing the missing favoured subject in your application. However, it is never a waste of time to take a relevant extra qualification that could bolster your application and show capability in Oxford’s recommended subject/s.

Oxford is heavily competitive, so anything that you can do to present yourself as the ideal candidate for their course is advised. If your Oxford course favours students who have taken a Science or language and you are without this, you should pursue something along these lines outside of your curriculum and flag that in your application. For example, you could join a Chemistry society and do independent research/work for your school’s Science department or take a language course outside of school and complete an international language qualification.

Insider tip: It’s super important that you show genuine interest in any required/recommended subjects and demonstrate commitment to learning around them. Oxford offers year 12 study days for 500 state school students (held over 3 days in March each year). These days offer students the chance to experience their chosen subject through a day of academic sessions run by Oxford tutors! Apply for this programme in a required/recommended subject that you might be lacking some education/experience in to prove your passion and dedication to Oxford.

2) Underestimated factors that carry weight

Your application is not about how great you are:

Surprisingly, a lot of applicants forget to mention what they intend to do with their degree as well as why they are applying, or why they are a good student for their chosen course at this university. This, however, is exactly what the application is supposed to focus on, rather than just proving why you’re great.

Oxford wants students who are teachable, independently minded, willing to contribute to academic problems, and who will thrive in Oxford’s learning environment. So, your application is the perfect chance for you to prove this to them. Show Oxford that you’re well-suited to their course, your chosen college, and Oxford itself.

If you’re lacking in subject choices or grades, it is extremely important you excel in all of the other application factors listed below. It’s very important that you familiarise yourself with Oxford’s admissions process and prepare inside and out. You should know the terrain and what admissions are looking for. Research each step in depth on Oxford’s website, or reach out to one of our experienced admissions tutors for Oxford.

Your personal statement:

Insider tip 1: Don’t be afraid to take risks as unique applications which aim high pay off. If you’re confident in following something through that you find interesting (no matter how “out there”) you should mention it. Successful applicants are original and can express interests that do not follow the crowd and show independent thinking e.g. a BioMedical Science applicant might talk about a medical ailment they or a close family member underwent and what this taught them about modern medicine and treatment, as well as inspiration for a hypothesis that they can foresee being solved in the future. This example is not safe because it takes risk, and speculates possible discoveries. It also shows that the applicant is passionate and can think for themselves.

Insider 2: When it comes to personal statements, the word ‘passion’ is severely overused. But what is the importance of it? What is it really referencing? Oxford wants to know that their applicants enjoy what they do and can do it better than most. They want applicants that have exciting or promising ideas. For this to be the case, applicants must actually find their subject fun and stimulating. So, it’s really important that you choose a course you love!

Insider tip 3: Make your personal statement personal! A 2022 Oxford Law graduate told us: “When applying to Oxford University for Law, always remember what makes you unique. If you have something that makes your journey to reading Law different, say it! For example, I used my ethnic background of being Albanian as something that could distinguish me from my peers. By highlighting my experience and knowledge of the Albanian legal system, I differentiate myself from my peers.”

Insider tip 4 (postgraduates):

Each department has leading research themes at any given time, so it’s important that you know what they are and ensure that your research fits in. For Masters, you need to go further and find someone who can supervise you. Unlike Cambridge, Oxford does not necessarily force you to find a supervisor like. However, we recommend that you reach out to staff because the admissions committees are rather small, so a good relationship goes a long way. You should also check whether your undergraduate professors at your current university know anyone at Oxford and can give you an introduction.

For “non-academic” courses (e.g. Said Business School), you should still reach out to the team. They are often happy to have a Zoom call with you to discuss your academic interests. A common misconception is that this is an LBS-style application where they care more about your internships and/or career skills but this is not true! The Oxford staff are still academic and expect you to have solid research ideas. Entrance tests are clearly important, but they get you over the first hurdle — your academic nous gets you in.

The Profs offer advice on crafting the perfect personal statement, just watch our video or read our previous blog on this subject.

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. 

Your choice of college:

You can choose a specific college to apply to or, if you don’t have a preference, you can join the 40% of students who make open applications. However, making an open application does not mean that your application is sent to all colleges. Oxford will assign you one and your application will be processed through this college alone. Therefore, an open application will not offer you a greater chance of being admitted.

In fact, showing clear knowledge of a college as well as a keen interest in joining their community might give you a better chance as this will show you have genuine enthusiasm rather than handing in a generalised application. Oxford could also assign you the most competitive college for your course, so it might be better to take the reins yourself. Colleges vary in that some are recognised as the most prestigious for particular disciplines and have lower acceptance rates. Similarly, some have larger student bodies and therefore can accept more students.

Officially, Oxford states: that your choice of college “won’t affect how the academic department assesses your application and whether they decide to make you an offer.” On this note, admissions statistics are often inaccurate, as there are small sample sizes at college level, and there’s a lot of variation in different applicant fields. Moreover, unlike Cambridge, all of Oxford’s colleges have signed up to a Common Framework for admissions. This means that the same application process for your course applies at every college. Hence, Oxford claims that no college is easier or harder to get into.

However, you might want to consider not aiming for the college with the most admissions if your application is lacking in some areas. Other important factors you should consider when choosing your college include the what courses the college accepts (firstly, you want to be sure the college offers your subject and secondly, some colleges specialise in particular departments), their age range (Harris Manchester College is the only Oxford college dedicated to mature students), their location, their size, type of accommodation, fellows in the college, and facilities available.

You can find out about all of Oxford’s colleges here. Oxford suggests you take virtual tours and contact your shortlisted colleges’ admissions offices to help you make a decision. An optimum way to suss out the right college for you is to attend Oxford’s open days where you can view the college and get a feel of it in person. You could even talk to existing students there.

If you’re trying to make up for weak points regarding your application, it could be a good idea to invest a lot of time into researching a college that suits you as a person, as well as your learning style, and academic interests. Maybe the college hosts competitions or societies that are relevant to your experiences and passions. Or maybe you could contribute to the college’s existing research or participation in a project. If you construct a convincing argument as to why you’re the perfect candidate for that particular college, you’ll increase your chances.

Please note: Oxford has a system called ‘pooling’. The admissions tutor may send your application to other colleges if they think you’re a strong candidate but the college has filled its places or already has sufficient numbers of applicants from your subject area. So, you could receive an offer from a college that is different to the one you applied for.

Insider tip: Due to pooling, once you’ve completed your college interview on the interview day you could be sent for more interviews for different colleges. This could happen whether you’ve submitted an open application or not. Possible reasons for this are endless:

  • Your college loves you and wants to show you off.
  • Your college thinks you’re a very good applicant and wants to give you ample opportunity with more colleges than just this one.
  • Your college thinks you might be better suited to another college.
  • Your college is concerned that they have too many applicants from your course or generally.

The different reasons are endless. There’s no reason to stress – it could be a good thing! Similarly, if you aren’t asked to attend any interviews with alternate colleges to your selected one, this is not necessarily a bad thing. There’s no set algorithm to determine whether callbacks are a positive or negative sign. So, remain calm and optimistic and do your best. If you are not asked to go to another interview, go home, unwind, recharge, and stay hopeful. If you are, try to approach this as a great opportunity.

Your timing:

For undergraduates: Oxford has an early deadline compared to most other universities. Whilst the standard UCAS deadline falls in January, Oxford’s deadline for standard undergraduates is in October. Applying much earlier than the deadline will not increase your chances so do not rush your application by any means. Just be organised enough to have your application 100% ready for Oxford’s deadline.

For postgraduates: Unlike undergraduates, there is no overarching deadline for all postgraduate applications to Oxford as the admissions process is not done through UCAS or another body. Instead, you apply directly to Oxford. The broad window for deadlines is usually within November (for scholarships), January (most popular) or March. Unlike Cambridge, postgraduates do not benefit from submitting their applications earlier than their deadlines as Oxford does not assess applications until each deadline passes.

Demonstrate expert knowledge:

Oxford wants students who are willing to contribute to and solve academic problems. It is important to Oxford that their students don’t shy away from challenges or sit on a fence. Hence, proactive curiosity and a history of exploration for your chosen subject is imperative.

Reading: Show that your understanding of the course is beyond comprehensive by talking about very specific and complex concepts. The best way to do this is to do your research and go beyond the curriculum and A level understanding. If you take the time to read a large breadth of quality literature around your subject, you can reference academic texts or textbooks and analyse them to demonstrate that you are able to work at university level. Be careful not to read the most popular texts that most students in your field might point to. Express something unique to your personal interests. Or find something unknown, underrated, niche, and/or peculiar to talk about.

Insider tip: It is vital to demonstrate academic curiosity in your application. This must be unique and rooted in your chosen course. Research the most challenging or obscure modules in the course structure or find specific academics in the department. In research-heavy subjects, like History, there is almost always a key theme within the department at any given time. Identify it, explore it, show an interest in it. How would you contribute to your department’s existing research or accomplishments?

Ensure you check Oxford’s page for resources per course subject as well as Oxford’s reading bank. That’s a great place to start.

Research/study: Oxford states that it favours students who have ability, enthusiasm, curiosity, and commitment. It can be impressive if you find a way to conduct official research related to your subject and demonstrate the critical ability to explore it outside the confines of your school environment. The importance is showing Oxford that you can flourish as an academic without handholding and a regimented school structure. If you really want to impress Oxford, you could study the first few weeks of a first or second-year module for your chosen course and talk about this in your application. This will prove that you are already able to think and study at university level – which is what Oxford is looking for.

Insider tip 1 (postgraduates): It is recommended that you have a very strong undergraduate dissertation with a connection to your chosen degree. The more independent thought it demonstrates, the better. If you’re applying for a research Masters, as opposed to a taught Masters, it’s important that you show your capability of research methods.

Insider tip 2: Oxford often expects its applicants to be familiar with their department’s and proposed supervisor/s publications and research. This is especially with postgraduate courses related to English, Social Science, Computer Science, or Medical Science. However, it could benefit your application even if you’re applying for a totally unrelated subject or for an undergraduate course.

Insider tip 3: An Oxford Law graduate (2023) from Hertford College told us: “Don’t spread yourself thin across the entirety of the syllabus. Pick an area that you are most interested in and show that you have gone the extra mile in researching and thinking about the academia surrounding it. They want to see potential rather than the finished product!”

Talk end goals:

Oxford values applicants with a clear and ambitious career plan because they want their students to go on to get good jobs after university and maintain a strong Oxford alumni network. For example, if you’re applying for a course in Medicine or Law, it’s imperative to show you’ve thought about your career and what comes next. So, mention your career aspirations in your application and be specific. What institution or company do you want to work for, and what do you want to specialise in? If you’re not sure, educate yourself. Also remember, your career aspirations don’t need to be set in stone. You have every right to change your mind later down the line.

The bottom line is that Oxford wants students with a real interest in the chosen subject, and it’s a bonus if they will also maintain their employability rankings.

Though, if your degree is something with a clear academic focus it’s better to say your academic plan.

If you’re applying for a postgraduate degree, you will need to present a very clear objective behind this course: what do you hope to achieve with this and what makes your research proposal special?

Your work experience or professional experience:

What work experience can do for an otherwise weak application should not be downplayed! Oxford itself states that they sometimes admit students who might not meet the minimum entry requirements when they have practical experience which makes up for where they fall short (though this decision is entirely up to the admitting department) – this is especially the case for postgraduate courses. If you have learned a great deal of relevant skills or knowledge from some kind of work experience, include this in your application as well as a statement outlining why you should be considered, and how your work experience makes you an excellent candidate.

For undergraduate and postgraduate, Oxford values students who have research experience so this could be another factor that could bolster your application. Especially if you can complete this research through officialised means.

If you’d like to take on some experience to improve your application, check out Oxford’s career services page.

Your work experience or professional experience (undergraduates):

For undergraduate courses at Oxford, work experience is never a requirement. However, Oxford is a very competitive university, especially for undergraduate entry, and it’s best to do all you can to stand out to maximise your chances. Work experience in a relevant industry to your chosen discipline can demonstrate your drive and commitment to the subject. Expressing what skills you have learned from this experience and how they will help you with your course will also make you a more attractive candidate. Therefore, it is good to have some work experience regardless of the strength of your application, especially if your application is lacking in any area.

Remember, context is important. Remain as relevant to your degree as possible. For example, if your degree values research, analytical or programming skills then you should be referencing work experience that marries up with this.

Try to get work experience at a relevant institution/company and highlight that you are looking forward to working there or in the same field after university. For example, if you are applying for a Politics degree, it is great if you can say that you got some work experience at Chatham House. If that’s not an opportunity you can access, you can stand out by saying that you went to court to watch a particular case. Work experience is more important for postgraduate applications where you can reference a whole summer of work rather than just a week or two.

It’s good to keep in mind: Does your work experience prove that you worked hard and developed relevant and valuable skills? Or does it only show that you benefitted from a lucky connection? Oxford is only interested in an experience that has made you a better-suited student for your chosen course! Again, working there for a decent chunk of time demonstrates that you did a good job and must’ve learned some skills even if you got the opportunity from a link. By the same token, don’t worry if you’ve not had the chance to gather any impressive work experience. You can make up for this with extensive knowledge about your course that you’ve gathered from a MOOC, research, or wider reading.

Important: Oxford explicitly states on its entry requirement pages that it takes into consideration when students might not have had the opportunity to gain work experience, publish, or conduct research. If you are lacking desirable skills or experience because of your circumstances you should ensure that this is flagged in your application.

Your work experience or professional experience (postgraduates):

For postgraduate courses at Oxford, work experience is sometimes required or recommended for courses surrounding subjects like Business, Economics, Medical Sciences and Psychology. Generally, longer work experience is better unless your course states otherwise. Again, make sure that you stick to roles and industries that complement your course.

Even when Oxford does not require students to have publications, they often state that this should be highlighted as it can benefit applications. That said, courses like Energy Systems, will not consider any publications as a part of your application and it would be a waste of characters to write about this. Hence, it is very important to check your course’s entry requirements and preferences. Don’t frivolously mention every experience and achievement!

Don’t forget to mention the experience you might have picked up during your undergraduate course. You can apply for ‘Spring Weeks’ through Oxford and other top universities. Oxford offers particularly good opportunities for banking and investment industries. Spring Weeks are designed to give you a comprehensive introduction to your relevant industry. It is great if you are able to say you’ve done this as it proves you have some experience, but more importantly, it shows that you have initiative, motivation and passion. Similarly, if you completed an internship, or if you were a part of any university society, especially if you had a position such as president or treasurer, it’s extremely valuable to highlight this.

Your extracurriculars:

Oxford values academia more than your extracurriculars, however, as Oxford considers your application holistically, your extracurriculars can play a large hand in your admission. So, make this part count! Explore as much as you can to know what you’re good at and what you want to do!

Extracurriculars can be a great opportunity to boost your application. If the activities are related to your chosen subject, they can demonstrate genuine passion and interest in the subject. If you have any accomplishments within your extracurriculars, they can be evidence that you have talent, capability, and skills that will equip you for your degree. That said, don’t write ‘fluff’, check that your extracurriculars genuinely relate to your chosen course and strengthen your application. Ensure you add new experiences to your repertoire if you’re falling short in any areas of your application.

Show that you have the X factor. Have you been an appreciated leader for anything, or recognised nationally as a high performer for something? Whatever it is that you have achieved, can you link it to academia, and more importantly, to skills that your course requires? For example, a black belt in judo might be hard to associate with the Law degree you’d like to take, whereas, being head of your school’s debate team is certainly relevant. Similarly, if you’re applying for a Literature degree it’s great if you can share a link to a blog or collection of poems that you’ve been consistently adding to for a long period of time. With hobbies like music, it is probably only worth mentioning if you have impressive grades and/or play multiple instruments and can link this talent to skills required by your chosen degree. The main importance is the relationship between your hobby and your desired subject, as these extracurriculars only become beneficial if they relate to your ability to excel as a student in your chosen department.

Insider tip: Elite universities, especially Oxford, compare applicants to their school peers. Therefore, it’s vital to do more unusual supercurricular activities than those your school pushes everyone to do. This is why essay competitions are great (especially now that some have a limit on the number of entries per school). In fact, connecting with PhD students can be a brilliant way to show a detailed interest in research.

For postgraduate applicants, it’s perfect if you can mention being an integral part of a society relevant to your subject during your undergraduate degree.

Remember: Don’t allow mentioning your extracurriculars to detract you from your discipline. Align yourself with your subject as early as possible within your application.

Don’t ignore the power of your referee:

You should always set up a meeting with your referee early in the application process because their statement about you is just as integral as your personal statement.

A good referee is important. Obviously, you want them to speak highly of you, but ideally, they will highlight your skills and qualities that are relevant to your chosen degree. For this reason, as well as for the general impression of your application, it is best to choose a referee who teaches your chosen subject or within your discipline. It is also a good idea to choose a referee who knows you well enough to write you something of quality.

Talk to your referee about your strengths that they might not be aware of: what you have read around your subjects, and your work experiences and non-school achievements. You want your referee to convince Oxford that you are good at your chosen subject/s, passionate about them, and committed to your discipline. If you can’t fit some of your readings or summer schools into your personal statement, ask your referee to add these in.

Use your referee wherever you need them and ask them to vouch for you. If you lack a particular qualification or a high enough grade in something, you want your referee to defend why that is and assure Oxford that you are still a suitable candidate with a good academic track record. Maybe they can say how you make up for this loss. However, it is important to note that this is somewhat relative. For example, it is unlikely that your referees’ commendation will save you if all your A level grades fall a good chunk below minimum requirements.

It is ideal if your referee can mention any weaknesses or extenuating circumstances in their statement. This way, you can focus your own personal statement on your strengths, rather than explaining or defending the weaknesses in your application. It can also sound more credible coming from a referee. Plus you won’t have to use precious parts of your restricted word limit to say so yourself. However, if your referee won’t bring these things up, make sure that you do.

Your interview:

Undergraduate interviews for Oxford are usually held in early December.

Oxford interviews 45% of their applicants – that’s 25% less than Cambridge. Hence, interviews are not another form of culling, like they might be for Cambridge. Instead, interviews are another relatively equal-weighting step of Oxford’s admissions process. Hence, your application is what wins you the crucial chance of an interview and you will only be interviewed if Oxford approves of your application and are genuinely thinking about giving you a place.

That said, Oxford’s acceptance rate is 15% which is lower than the percentage of students they interview. So, you need to smash it to get your offer.

If you do well enough to get an interview, well done! Generally, the Oxford interview is used as an equaliser. You now have a clean slate as you wouldn’t get this interview if your grades, subjects, personal statement or experience was an issue. It is now your admissions test and interview that determine whether you receive an offer. You have a little more room for a hiccup in your interview if you have an amazing admissions test score. Whereas if your score isn’t very good, the interview might be an uphill battle.

In your interview, Oxford is checking whether you think independently and are excited about your course. When they ask you a question, they are watching how you answer it, rather than your answer itself. Your interview is your chance to engage academically with people in your discipline who are far more senior. Your Oxford interview is also an audition to check your suitability for the one-to-one conversational style of tutelage that you would receive there. Hence, if you can smash this, you’re in with a good chance of admission even if you don’t fulfil all of Oxford’s entry requirements.

Here are some interview tips, specific to Oxford:

  • Always check whether there’s pre-reading and get to the interview early. This way, even if you’re surprised by any expectations, you have time to prepare.
  • You might have multiple interviews, not just for colleges but for subjects e.g. one for Spanish and one for German. Prepare equally for all your interviews. Avoid leaning more into your strengths or weaknesses.
  • Show that you’re teachable; Oxford wants students that they can teach!
  • Unsure of how to answer a question? Articulate what you’re thinking and/or sit for a moment in silence. You can even say: “Please can I have a moment to think about that.”
  • It’s great to think out loud. This doesn’t mean you have to be super confident, only that you can share your thoughts aloud.
  • Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know something. The interview is not a knowledge test but a thought process. Obviously, saying you don’t know shouldn’t be cold cut but something like “I don’t know but this is my train of thought/speculations” or “I don’t know but this has sparked X idea/X question.”
  • Oxford sometimes seeks to push students to the point of not knowing so that they can see how they respond to being challenged. Hence, they are more interested in how you answer a question and how your brain works, than your answer itself.
  • Remain flexible and open-minded. Do not go to the interview with set ideas and plans. It’s important that you’re not regurgitating facts or rehearsed knowledge. You need to be present, engaged, and actively thinking.

Insider tip: An Oxford graduate (Hertford College, 2023) told us: “What I believe tutors want to see over anything else is someone who has an evident and emphatic love for the subject. They have devoted their life to it and therefore want to teach people who feel the same way. Try to place yourself in their position and ensure that you present yourself as somebody they would actively enjoy teaching.”

3) If your grades aren’t up to par

Grades are expected and considered before anything else. In short, Oxford does expect you to have their required grades, and even then, having them might not be enough. So, the value of meeting Oxford’s academic entry requirements cannot be underestimated. Generally, Oxford has one grade requirement lower than Cambridge. Hence, more people can apply to Oxford than Cambridge and the best way to stand out academically is by exceeding the average.

The importance placed on your academic history can be both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, you have the opportunity and platform to showcase all of your wins from when you were young. This can extend beyond your GCSEs themselves to any extra qualifications, courses, tests or extracurriculars you took and did well in, so long as they demonstrate academic excellence and/or talent in your field of interest. On the other hand, if you have had a dip in grades here or there over the years, this may weaken your application.

Also, don’t stretch yourself too thin if you’re struggling to get great grades. Consider dropping down to three A levels if you’re taking four. Oxford states that their offers are usually made for three A levels, even if applicants are taking more. Oxford will consider additional A levels as these can help in proving your ability to handle a large workload. However, four A levels are not worth the effort if you’re not achieving highly in each subject. Oxford warns that students “think carefully before taking on any additional A levels as this may reduce the time you have to read around your chosen subject beyond your school or college work” or “you may risk dropping a grade or two”. Consequently, Oxford prioritises high grades, appropriate subject choices, and further reading, over additional A levels.

Remember, Oxford makes its offers on the basis of specific grades rather than UCAS Tariff points. Meaning, three A*/A grades meet most conditional offers, whereas two A*s and two Bs do not.

Please note: Oxford claims that they accept equivalent grades to GCSE, A level, and/or IB. See here to find your grades.

So, let’s talk solutions for if any of your grades are lacking:

Be careful what you declare:

Put your best foot forward as long as it’s not deceitful.

If you have two GCSE or A level grades for a singular subject, with one being lower than the other, you might not need to declare both of them. If the better result is the most recent one, then this is your rewritten grade, and you should only present this grade to Oxford. Though there is a chance that they notice the date is later than your other GCSEs or A levels and ask you about that. If this happens you should explain that you completed the test twice and that this is your most recent result.

However, if your most recent grade is the lower one, then this is your current and rewritten grade and you have to declare it. But in this situation, you should declare both of your grades as evidence that you have in fact achieved higher before, and you can even state that the higher grade is the accurate representation of your abilities.

Similarly, if you took an extra test or qualification beyond your standard GCSEs and/or A levels then it is not mandatory for you to declare this or your results in your application to Oxford. If you didn’t do very well, don’t bring it up.

All that said, make sure you talk to a teacher at your school to double-check what you have to declare as you don’t want to get into trouble or have your statements mismatch anything your school files for you.

Offer an alternative track record:

Mention all your relevant wins from the beginning to the end of your time at secondary school. Again, this can include absolutely anything that demonstrates excellent academic ability and/or talent in your field of interest. The better these wins are, or the more you have of them, the more likely they are to make up for your academic blips.

For example, you can stand out by mentioning scholarships, awards, class prizes, the percentile you were ranked in your class (if your school offers this), and competitions such as Intermediate Biology Olympiad or the Oxford German Olympiad. Even things like a high chess ELO ranking could help you prove the academic capability of your mind. Having impressive work experience could also help you. Last but not least, Oxford values wider reading around chosen subjects. Oxford strongly recommends that students demonstrate they have done this to make their application more competitive; this can include books, newspapers, podcasts, documentaries, exhibitions, lectures, work experience, and more. Demonstrating a keen interest in a wide array of academic work around your subject and being able to analyse them comprehensively can prove your interest and aptitude in your subject, even if you don’t have the ideal grades. Oxford provides an archive of readings here. They also have a list especially for freshers.

Admissions tests

Oxford requires admissions tests for many of its courses. Most are computer-based (excluding the MAT and PAT, which are hybrid) and are held in early November. Ensure that you check whether you’re supposed to take an admissions test for your course as well as what would be expected from you in said test so that you are properly prepared. Registration isn’t automatic so just completing your UCAS application won’t register you for the test. Follow the process carefully and register as soon as possible – even if you have not yet submitted your UCAS form (from September 1st). You usually take your test at your school but if this isn’t possible, you can find an open centre to take your test.

Please note: Before schools and colleges can register applicants for Oxford’s own tests, they must apply for authorisation to become Oxford test centres (even if they are already Cambridge Assessment Admissions Testing centres).

Admissions tests are supposed to create a level playing field to assess all applicants with the same data. If your grades aren’t ideal and your course does require an admissions test this is a great opportunity for you! If you impress Oxford with an amazing score on your admissions test, they might overlook your school grades being a little on the low side. For example, if you’re applying for BioMedical Sciences and you have slightly lower grades than A*AA, but if you ace all sections of your BMAT exam, Oxford might still consider you. Preparing, practising, and/or revising as much in advance as possible for your test will help you to do your best. So, be organised, and get started as early as you can.

Tips for Oxford’s admissions tests:

  • Test papers are key and dry runs are crucial. The more papers, the better!
  • Look at mark schemes.
  • Admissions tests are subject specific.
  • Familiarise yourself with the test content, style and rubric early.
  • Practice and revise over the summer. You’re going to have less time once your A levels begin.
  • YouTube and Google examiner and tutor comments regarding what they like to see. This will be different for Oxford than AQA examiners.

Information on Oxford’s admissions tests can be found here. Oxford also released a table of admissions tests per course.

Insider tip: You should be aware of the average scores for your required admissions test e.g. the average scores of those invited for an interview as well as those who receive an offer. These differ from year to year, so check your specific test within the current date so that you know what to work towards. Aim above the average scores of interviewees and offer holders to make your application as competitive as possible. Also, check that there have been no changes to your test format. For example, the PAT and Oxford’s Geography admissions test have recently changed so past papers for them might not be relevant. Also, be aware of different sections and skills within your admission test. For example, the TSA is split between a Q/A section and an essay section so you should be prepared for both and avoid leaning too heavily into your weaker or stronger side.

Don’t forget, admissions tests are The Profs’ forte! We can help you smash yours, just like we’ve helped so many before you.

Submitted work:

Your course might ask you to submit one or multiple written works prior to your interview. If this isn’t mentioned by your course on our table, double-check here to be sure as this can vary depending on your individual circumstances.

Usually, the written work will be recent examples of your writing around a subject relevant to your course, however, it’s always important to check this with your course department as this can differ.

Again, if your grades aren’t ideal and this is required from you then this is a great opportunity for you to impress Oxford in another way. Take the time to choose the best possible example you have. Consult an expert admissions consultant here at The Profs or one of your relevant teachers for advice on what is best to hand in. Even consider writing something new, especially suited to Oxford’s request. Although, if you do write something new, remember to get it marked. Be sure to revise your work as much as possible to ensure that it could not be any better!

Insider tip: Firstly, don’t just pick a piece with a high mark, also consider what it’s about and what thought process or skills it demonstrates. Secondly, if you’re given the opportunity to send in more than one piece of written work, offer a relevant variety of material. Finally, be aware that you’re submitting something that Oxford will probably interview you about so be sure that you’re comfortable talking about it. Keep a copy with you on the interview day to read through.

Context

Oxford acknowledges how socio-economic backgrounds can present students with disadvantages. They aim to admit students with the highest academic potential despite their lower achievements if these are down to circumstance. Hence, Oxford analyses “contextual data”. This does not mean that they will admit students with a poor academic record, however, it does mean that they will review your achievements in light of your individual background. For instance, Oxford considers:

  • Information about your school
  • Information about your neighbourhood
  • Any experience in the care system
  • Eligibility for Free School Meals (FSM) since age 11
  • Additional Widening Participation (WP) information

Consequently, it is important that you mention any of the above in your UCAS application so that you receive a fair shot at Oxford.

Applicants who appear likely to achieve the standard conditional offer for the course and are from the most disadvantaged backgrounds will be strongly recommended to be shortlisted for an interview. Hence, students from the most challenging backgrounds have the opportunity to prove their potential through their interview and admissions testing.

Oxford also offers places through the Opportunity Oxford Programme which makes offers to candidates demonstrating outstanding potential who might benefit from additional academic support in preparation for their undergraduate course.

Insider tip: Oxford considers your school grades in the context of the rest of the students from your year. So, if you have a B or an A rather than an A* but your grades are head and shoulders higher than most students at your school, Oxford might still consider you. This applies to GCSE, A level, predictions, and centre assessed grades.

Improve your GCSE grades:

Many universities (including top universities) solely or predominantly consider your A levels. Similarly, none of Oxford’s courses have specific GCSE requirements and there is no set number of GCSEs (or equivalent). However, GCSEs are used in some parts of Oxford’s admissions process as performance indicators and to predict A level grades. Oxford prefers applicants to have as many A*s and 9s as possible, and many applicants have a lot of 7, 8 and 9 grades. So you should ensure that your historic grades don’t let you down, especially in subjects relevant to your course.

That said, Oxford differs from Cambridge in having a holistic approach to applications. Hence, you don’t need perfect GCSEs as this is not the only factor in your application. They will look at your whole application and compare all of your data: your predicted grades, written work, test scores, and lots of contextual data. So, if you’re an amazing candidate who ticks all the boxes but has a few weak GCSE grades, this shouldn’t stop you from getting your offer.

This is especially the case if your school’s average GCSE grades are low as you’re always judged based on your context and peers. So, if you are applying alongside students from your school who have 7-9 (A-A*) in GCSE, and students at your school generally get good grades, it is probably worth investing some time and effort into GCSE retakes. However, if this is not the case, you might be okay without revisiting your GCSEs.

Work as hard as you can in your GCSEs but they’re not the be-all and end-all.

Subjects are also important. If you’re hoping to study Medicine and you only have one or two 6 (B) grades in French and Geography, and for the rest you have 7-9 (A-A*), it is probably not worth retaking. Whereas, if you have a 6 (B) in Biology or Chemistry, this is probably something you want to improve.

It is important to assess your need for a retake based on your overall performance:

  • If you have mostly 7-9 (A-A*) grades and one or two 4-6 (C-B) grades in vocational subjects, like IT or Business, it is probably unnecessary to retake these. As long as these grades are not in subjects related to your degree.
  • How low are your “low” grades? If your low grades are 4-5 (C) or above, then these might not be worth retaking, especially if you have 7-9 (A-A*) in subjects related to your course. However, grades below 4-5 (C) are important to retake, no matter the subject.
  • Do you have a 7-9 (A-A*), in subject/s related to your chosen course? For example, if you are applying for a degree like Law, it’s worth retaking GCSE English to get the highest grade (level 9). Or if you wish to study Spanish at Oxford, you might want to retake your GCSE Spanish to earn a top score.

Improve your A level grades:

Again, the safest solution is to improve your grades. Most of Oxford’s courses require AAA-A*A*A. It is highly recommended that you meet these requirements, or better yet exceed them. It is definitely recommended that you achieve an A* in your chosen subject. So, if you’re not predicted these grades or are worried about getting them, it might be worth your while to take some time out to retake one or two modules in order to improve your predicted grade or plan to retake your A levels before you hand in your Oxford application.

However, if retaking isn’t an option for you, you might want to consider achieving supplementary academic qualifications. You should ask your school and independently research what courses, tests and/or qualifications you can do to strengthen your academic repertoire. Obviously, you should only choose something related to your chosen course.

Please note: Once you have gone through the application process you will most likely be given a conditional offer. If so, you must meet these requirements (usually specific A level grades and sometimes admission test grades) to confirm your place.

Improve your academic profile (postgraduates):

Oxford’s entry requirements for postgraduate courses don’t mention GCSEs and A levels. When it comes to postgraduate applications, secondary school qualifications become much less important as they will predominantly consider your degree results. However, if you don’t have at least a grade 6 (B) in GCSE English and Maths, this could weaken your application and it might be worth investing a little time into retaking to be on the safe side.

The majority of Oxford’s postgraduate courses require a strong upper 2:1 at minimum or a First. If you only just meet your requirements or fall beneath them, it might be worthwhile to retake one element of your degree (an exam with substantial weighting or your dissertation) to improve your overall grade. Some of Oxford’s courses even require a specific minimum score in the dissertation element of your undergraduate degree e.g. 68%.

Something that you can do to boost your application (either as well as retaking or instead) is completing an extra higher-level qualification or course. Moreover, there are a bunch of free reputable online courses that you can take as well.

Consider what’s best for you:

Remember, grade requirements aren’t there to keep you out. Oxford offers rigorous and intellectually-stretching courses, so they want to be sure that the students who gain admission can keep up.

Whilst it is easy to get carried away with the mentality of “I must get in”, take a moment to stop and reflect. If you’re really struggling to meet the requirements for Oxford, are you sure this is definitely the university for you? And if your history of grades for this subject are far below expectation, are you certain that this is the course for you? It might be worth taking some time to mull over whether this course and Oxford are suited to you and whether you’d be able to keep up. Your mental well-being and happiness are important!

Check out this helpful guide Oxford put together with common questions about Oxford and the admissions process.

4) Consider your options

Here at The Profs, we have a dedicated, experienced, and friendly team of:

Anything you need, no matter how niche, we can help. We also provide application assessments, where we can tell you your chances of getting into Oxford, and where you need to improve. We can help you identify targets to improve your application that are realistic and attain them. Getting students into university is our speciality! That’s why we have a 95% success rate in helping students get admitted to their first or second-choice university.

Finally, if you find that you meet none of the entry requirements mentioned in this article and you do not want to invest a year into getting everything up to scratch, or maybe a year couldn’t fix everything, then it might be worth considering a different course or a different university. Here at The Profs, we can help you establish your options and make a decision that is right for you.

We can help

Triple your chances of success with an expert Oxford admissions tutor! It won’t be our first or last time helping a student who doesn’t fit Oxford’s ideal student profile earn an offer. At The Profs, we know exactly how to help you. 55% of our students that apply to Oxford get in!

Reach out to our amazing team today and let’s get started.