The Complete Guide To OxBridge Application

Introduction

The UK has consistently been among the most popular education destinations in the world, with many of the country’s universities topping the rankings. Two of them, in particular, stand out – Oxford and Cambridge. Collectively referred to as Oxbridge, these two universities are among the oldest in the UK and the world. Whether you are interested in sciences or social sciences, they will provide you with the highest quality education.

If you are interested in applying to the UK, you will be allowed to apply to only one of Oxford or Cambridge among your other UCAS university options. If you are a top student in your school with stellar grades and a multifaceted extracurricular profile, you should definitely consider these two schools.

However, a UCAS application that includes Oxford or Cambridge comes with its risks. It is important to weigh those risks because you can only apply to 5 UK universities in one year. Questions to consider include: Do I have the necessary academic achievements for an Oxbridge application? What is a good profile for these schools? And, above all, am I ready to send in my application earlier so that I can partake in mandatory Oxbridge interviews?

At Prep Zone, we have helped our students apply and get into law, economics, medicine and other programmes at both Oxford and Cambridge. Here, you can find a brief overview and answer to all these questions and more.

What to study in Oxbridge?

Whatever the ranking, you will probably see Oxbridge at the very top of the list of universities in the world. QS 2022 Global University rankings named Oxford and Cambridge the 2nd and 3rd best universities globally. In the UK, they consistently top the rankings as well.

You might wonder about which subjects at these two schools are most worth studying. Unlike some top universities that have a speciality – Imperial for sciences and London School of Economics for social sciences – Oxford and Cambridge are extremely well rounded:

  • Law: 2nd (Oxford) and 3rd (Cambridge);
  • Medicine: 2nd (Oxford) and 4th (Cambridge);
  • Arts & Humanities: 1st (Oxford) and 3rd (Cambridge);
  • Engineering: 3rd (Cambridge) and 6th (Oxford);
  • Politics: 3rd (Oxford) and 6th (Cambridge).

Given their reputation, gaining admission to Oxbridge is extremely competitive. Not all students are recommended to apply. Whilst Oxbridge excels at all subjects, some are more competitive than others. In Oxford, only 1 in 17 students are accepted to the Economics and Management course, whereas for Physics, 1 in 8 competes for a spot. In Cambridge, only 8.1% of applicants are accepted into Computer Science, but for History, the rate rises to around 34%.

Overall, only about 1 in 6 students get accepted to Oxbridge – and this is already from students who thought they were strong enough candidates to even apply.

The main thing to consider before applying to Cambridge and Oxford is whether you feel strong enough to give these schools one of your 5 application slots – the maximum the UK allows. Secondly, you have to consider if you are confident in your interview performance and test-taking skills – these may be things that Oxbridge asks of you when other universities do not. With limited application numbers, be very careful – a wrong university shortlist will leave you without options!

Why is Oxbridge so special?

The UK has some of the best universities in the world. If you look at the rankings, other wonderful universities such as Imperial College London or University College London will appear next to Oxbridge. So, beyond rankings, what makes Oxford or Cambridge unique?

Firstly, Oxbridge has some unique aspects in the way they approach and personalise your studies. In Oxbridge, they have the tutorial system, whereas, in Cambridge, they use the supervision system. Unique to both schools, these systems mean that each student is provided with their own personal tutor or supervisor – an academic from their field – who meets them regularly, assigning tasks, work, and giving feedback on their academic progress. Perfected over centuries, these systems ensure that students have personalised attention from the leading scholars in the world.

Another unique aspect about the Oxbridge system is their collegiate systems. Many will have seen students from these universities dress up in gowns frequently for their dinners. This is only one of the traditions that you will be a part of when attending a college in Oxbridge.

As students apply, they are asked to choose which residential college in the university they want to attend. Each one has its own character, traditions and strengths. Once admitted, that college will be your home – the place where you live, eat, sleep and make many of your friends. This unique way of organising university life creates an academically and socially engaging atmosphere that many other universities like Yale or Harvard decided to emulate as well.

The Application

Application

Oxford and Cambridge are not only the most prestigious and highly ranked universities in the UK, but also among the most selective ones. Therefore, understanding their application process is crucial to submitting a strong application. Broadly, the application consists of three elements: academic performance (including grades and degree-specific admissions tests), degree-specific profile, and essays & recommendations.

Before starting to work on your application, you need to decide on the degree you would be applying for, as this would determine your entire application. Compared to other universities in the UK, the Oxbridge application is highly degree-specific, including grade requirements, admissions tests, profile, and personal statements. At Prep Zone, most students join our consulting service early in Year 11 (JC year 1 or IB year 1), or even in their last year of secondary school to optimize their profile and maximize their chances of admission. This is even more important when applying to Oxbridge, as the application process requires careful and long-term preparation. Let’s look at each of its elements in more detail.

Academics: Required Grades

Oxbridge degrees are incredibly competitive, and that reflects in the minimum grade requirements for each course which are higher than other UK universities. Due to the strong emphasis on academics at Oxbridge, grade requirements determine almost 70% of the application depending on the degree – supplemented by profile and test results.

Oxbridge degrees have exceptionally high grade requirements. For A-levels, the minimum grade requirements are often AAA or AAAA, while for the IB, you would need 38-42 points depending on the course. One thing to note is that the typical offer and the minimum requirements are two different things: while the minimum requirements tell you what scores you absolutely need in order to be considered for the program, the typical offer – which is generally higher than the minimum requirements – gives you an idea of where successful applicants in this program stand. Both of these are important to keep in mind as you complete your last years of studies.

Here are some examples of grade requirements for Oxbridge by degree:

Engineering
A-levels: AAA with As in Maths, Further Maths or Physics (Oxford) / AAAA (Cambridge)
IB: 40-42 points, with 776 at Higher Level (with 7’s in HL Maths and Physics)
Required subjects: Maths and Physics, recommended a third science or mathematics subject

Economics
A-levels: AAA (with A in Maths) / AAAA (Cambridge)
IB: 40-42 points, with 776 at Higher Level (Cambridge) / 39 points, with 766 at HL (Oxford)
Required subjects: Maths

Law
A-levels: AAA (Oxford) / AAAA (Cambridge)
IB: 40-42 points, with 776 at Higher Level (Cambridge) / 38 points, with 666 at HL (Oxford)

PPE (Oxford only)
A-levels: AAA (Oxford) / AAAA (Cambridge)
IB: 39 points, with 766 at Higher Level
Recommended subjects: Maths at A-level or IB Higher Level

Profile: Research, Extracurriculars & Work Experience

When applying to Oxbridge, your profile is important. This includes anything you have done outside of school that is relevant to the degree you want to study, such as extracurriculars, research and work experience.

Extracurricular activities are a great way to demonstrate your interest and willingness to take initiative in a field of your interest. It is important to find a relevant activity for the degree you wish to pursue: for example, a law applicant would vastly benefit from a background in debate, an applicant in social sciences or PPE would benefit from experience in Model United Nations (MUN), a physics candidate would benefit from being part of the physics team at their school. Although all extracurricular activities would be a good addition to an Oxbridge application, accomplishments and distinctions would stand out even more – such as winning a debate competition, organizing or chairing a MUN conference, or winning a gold medal in a physics competition. Volunteering and social service is beneficial across disciplines, as well as initiating your own project and holding positions of leadership and responsibility.

Oxbridge has a heavy focus on academic work and research. Oxford and Cambridge look for students who will not only excel in their university courses, but will go on to research and publish new insights, being at the forefront of innovation in their field of study. They look for students who are intellectually curious, passionate about the subject, and have a sustained commitment to academic work. Thus, in order to stand out as a qualified candidate, you need to prepare a profile that demonstrates your academic interest in that field. Examples of these can be research work with a professor, summer courses, even independent work or simply reading books and academic journals in the field of your interest.

Where relevant, work or internship experiences can also be very beneficial in your Oxbridge applications. Job shadowing can be done in almost any field, but is especially important for vocational degrees, such as Law or Medicine. Having shadowing experience would expose you to parts of the profession you might not have considered before, and it would demonstrate that you are aware of the difficulties as well. Internships could be very helpful for courses such as economics or computer science, as they would show you have prior experience in the field.

At Prep Zone, we help students select relevant experiences that will enhance their Oxbridge applications, including volunteering, research work, summer courses, work experience and independent studies.

Essays & Recommendations

The UK stands out in its application process, which is very unique. All students apply through UCAS, and they select only 5 degree options. They only write one application, and it is sent to all 5 options. Importantly, students cannot apply to both Oxford and Cambridge. Their centuries-old rivalry will mean you have to choose one out of the two.

The main application deadlines vary by university, but if you want to apply to Oxford or Cambridge, you have to abide by the October 15th deadline. Applicants to other UK schools can submit their applications by January 15th instead. The reason for an earlier deadline is because most Oxbridge applicants have to do a supplemental entrance exam depending on their subject, and because the universities need extra time to conduct interviews, which take place around December.

The Oxbridge interviews are subject-specific, and you will be expected to know a great deal about the course you are applying for. The questions differ from interview to interview, but be prepared to answer a diverse set of puzzles, open-ended, or fact-seeking questions. Rather than the definite answer, the interviewers will be interested to hear your thinking process. Additionally, be prepared to discuss your personal statement at length, including any academic courses or research positions you have mentioned.

Finally, remember that you will need one recommendation. Oxbridge does not require additional references. Ideally, this is written by a teacher that taught you an advanced class in a subject you indicated interest in.

As such, remember to tell your school you need this reference early!

The most important part of your application materials, however, will be the personal statement. The personal statement is not a creative essay per se. Instead, you will have to describe a) your motivation to study your chosen degree, and b) your ability and aptitude for the degree. Here are some tips:

  • Talk about academics: Many think your grades will show your academic abilities, but that is not true. Talk about why you like your chosen subjects, or if you cannot study it in school, related subjects (Law → English or Social Sciences | Engineering → Physics or Math).
  • Describe non-academic experiences: The universities will want to see if you are engaged with your degree outside of the classroom. Remember not only to talk about what you have done, but how it increased your overall motivation and skill-set for the degree.
  • Do not mention university names: All 5 of your options will receive the essay. Do not mention one of them, as the essay must be general.

The academic description matters more for Oxbridge applicants than most because Oxbridge has a penchant for students who are more scholarly. Ideally, do online courses and research in your degree to show that you really have what it takes.

The personal statement has to be 4,000 characters (including spaces) at most, which is around 670 words. While it is not as much writing as in the US applications, the essay needs to be even more carefully thought out to include most of the things you have done with concision. Most Prep Zone students start crafting their essays by July before their last year in high school, so they can be ready by the October deadlines.

Applications by Degree: Required Tests and Extra Assignments

Tests

Applications to Oxbridge are unique in that they have their own standardized tests for a wide variety of disciplines, including extra written or practical assignments for a handful of courses. These tests act as pre-interview assessments and are meant to distinguish between a vast number of applicants who all have outstanding academic records. It is important to prepare for them in advance, as they test subject-specific knowledge and are an important element in your application, often being the deciding factor for who gets invited for an interview. Here are the tests you might be required to take based on the degree you intend to study.

BMAT

The BMAT is a required test for Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at Oxford and Cambridge, but it is also the test required for undergraduate entry to medicine in several other UK universities, such as Imperial College London, Brighton & Sussex Medical School, Keele University, Lancaster, Leeds, and University College London. The BMAT is composed of three sections: Thinking Skills, Scientific Knowledge and Application, and Writing. For more information about the structure of the BMAT and some helpful tips, read the BMAT Format Overview or check out our BMAT blog.

LNAT or Cambridge Law Test

The LNAT is required for applications to Law degrees in Oxford, as well as in other universities, such as Durham, Glasgow, LSE, UCL and King’s College London. The LNAT consists of two sections: multiple-choice questions based on passages of text, and an essay question. For more in-depth information about the LNAT, check out our About the LNAT page.

Note that the University of Cambridge has its own exam for Law admissions – the Cambridge Law Test or CLT – which is administered on the day of your interview and thus is not part of the pre-interview selection process.

Thinking Skills Assessment

The Thinking Skills Assessment (TSA), is an exam that both Oxford and Cambridge use for a variety of courses, such as Land Economy, Geography, PPE, Experimental Psychology, and others. The TSA tests for problem-solving and critical-thinking skills, which is why it does not require subject-specific knowledge and is used in a variety of disciplines within the Social Sciences. The Oxford TSA has an additional writing section, which tests the ability of applicants to write clearly and effectively.

NSAA

The Natural Sciences Admissions Assessment is a unique test of the University of Cambridge for applicants to Natural Sciences. It is composed of two sections, and includes questions from Mathematics, compulsory for all applicants, and a choice of questions from either Biology, Chemistry or Physics.

ECAA

The ECAA is the University of Cambridge’s Economics admission test. It is composed of two parts: a multiple-choice section with questions in Math and Advanced Math, and a writing section responding to a passage.

In addition to these tests, some courses will require you to submit teacher-marked written work to evaluate your writing, or more specific materials, such as audition tapes for Music.

ELAT (English Literature Admissions Test)

The English Literature Admissions Test (ELAT) is required when applying for the following courses: English Language and Literature, Classics and English, English and Modern Languages at the University of Oxford or Cambridge. The ELAT is a 90 minutes long paper-based test, designed to test the applicant’s close reading skills, and their ability to articulate an informed response and argument to unfamiliar literary material. ELAT is conducted under timed examination conditions, and the applicant will be asked to write one essay comparing two different passages. For more information, check out the About ELAT page. 

MAT (Mathematics Admissions Test)

The Mathematics Admissions Test (MAT) is used by the University of Oxford, the University of Warwick and Imperial College of London for the following courses: Computer Science, Computer Science and Philosophy, Mathematics, Mathematics and Computer Science, Mathematics and Philosophy, and Mathematics and Statistics. The MAT is a subject-specific test, lasting 2 hours and 30 minutes, aiming to test the depth of the student’s mathematical understanding. For more information regarding the exam, check out the About MAT page. 

HAT (History Aptitude Test)

The History Aptitude Test (HAT) is used by the University of Oxford when applying for one of the following courses: History, History (Ancient and Modern), History and Economics, History and English, History and Modern Languages, History and Politics. The HAT is a skills-based rather than a knowledge-based exam, testing for the student’s ability to read and think critically, and write analytically. For more information regarding the exam, check out the About HAT page. 

PAT (Physics Aptitude Test)

The Physics Aptitude Test (PAT) is a challenging test of mathematical skills and physics knowledge, used by the University of Oxford to differentiate between candidates applying to Engineering, Materials Science, Physics, and Physics and Philosophy. The PAT is a subject-specific admissions test, lasting for 2 hours and covering material similar to the GCSE and A-level syllabus (with few extra topics). For more details and information on how to prepare for the exam, check out the About PAT page. 

Fine Art practical

Applicants at the University of Oxford are not required to register for a written test, but will be required to complete a practical test if invited for an interview. For more information regarding the practical exam, refer to the relevant course page

Sixth Term Examination Paper (STEP)

The Sixth Term Examination Paper (STEP) is used by the University of Cambridge, the University of Warwick and Imperial College of London designed to test candidates on questions similar in style to undergraduate mathematics. The test consists of two 3-hour paper-based examinations: Step 2 and Step 3. Candidates are typically required to sit either one or two examinations, depending on university and course requirements. For more information, please refer to the relevant course website and the About STEP page. 

Pre-Interview Admissions Assessment Cambridge (Engineering Admissions Assessment, ENGAA)

All applicants, except those applying to a mature College (aged 21 or over at the start of their course) or being interviewed in Cambridge, are required to take a pre-interview admissions assessment at a local authorised center. The Engineering Admissions Assessment (ENGAA) comprises two sections: a 60-minute long math/physics assessment, followed by another 60-minute multiple-choice section covering multiple maths and physics questions. For more information, check out the official website.

Oxbridge Interviews

The reason why Oxbridge applications are due earlier is because all students, no matter what degree, have to pass the interview to be granted an offer. All other UK universities typically only interview medical applicants, so if you are interested in Oxbridge, you have to prepare for this in advance.

Whether you are given an interview slot or not is already an indication of your application strength. For Oxford, around 30-50% of applicants receive an interview offer. For Cambridge, that number is closer to 70%.

Interviews at Oxbridge are extremely rigorous! Unlike American interviews, the questions revolve around the academic subject rather than the individual candidate’s personality or background. If you are a medical applicant, expect scientific questions. If you are doing math or computer science, expect to make calculations. For philosophy, you would have to prove your own existence, and for political science, a deep knowledge of current affairs comes in handy.

Start preparing for the interviews very early. Reading up and doing research in your field is important – get acquainted with the canonical texts or the logical, scientific background of your degree. Reading textbooks or books that are beyond the school level is advised and expected. But remember: interviews are not meant to be quizzes. Their purpose is to see how an applicant thinks, and whether they are ready for an Oxbridge education. It will be less important to memorize or regurgitate theories, but more important to think critically and on the spot. But, of course, background and academic preparation help heaps!

Snapshot of Applications

Law

The minimum requirements for law applicants are as follows:

  • A-levels: AAA (Oxford) / AAAA (Cambridge)
  • IB: 40-42 including core points, with 776 at Higher Level (Cambridge) / 38 points including core points, with 666 at HL (Oxford)

Candidates are also expected to have at least a grade C in GCSE mathematics, or any other evidence illustrating appropriate numerical ability. The Faculties of Law themselves do not have any specific requirements for subjects studied at the A level or equivalent. Many students find that essay-based subjects such as English Literature or History are good preparation for the intensive critical reading and writing expected from Law students. Other recommendations for the core subjects include Mathematics or languages, coupled with subjects such as: Further Mathematics, Geography, Government and Politics, Law, Philosophy, Psychology, Religious Studies, sciences (Biology, Chemistry, or Physics), and Sociology.

Beyond academic excellence, applicants will benefit from relevant extracurricular activities and additional legal knowledge. In terms of extracurriculars, activities such as Model United Nations (MUN) or Debate are useful for honing the applicant’s general knowledge and analytical skills. Other activities include attending local court sessions, enrolling in open online courses (Coursera, FutureLearn), or signing up for virtual work experiences. Lastly, students are encouraged to read books or listen to podcasts pertaining to law and legal practices in their free time. For more information regarding supercurricular suggestions, check out the Think Cambridge Law Blog.

Economics

The minimum requirements for economics applicants are as follows:

  • A-levels: AAA (with A in Maths) / AAAA (Cambridge)
  • IB: 40-42 points, with 776 at Higher Level (Cambridge) / 39 points, with 766 at Higher Level (Oxford)

The Oxbridge Economics degrees are academically rigorous, relying on mathematical models to analyse economic problems. Thus, a good background in Mathematics is crucial for gaining admission, with offers to Oxbridge conditional on achieving A for A-level Maths or a 7 for IB Higher Level Maths. Most successful candidates typically take Further Mathematics at A-level / IB-higher level. Additionally, applicants taking Further Maths benefit from choosing Pure Maths and Statistics modules, over Mechanics or Decision Maths.

Though Economics is not a requirement, the typical successful candidate has taken Economics at A-level or IB-higher level. If the school does not offer Economics, courses such as Geography or Business Studies are also considered. To illustrate an ability to cope with a demanding workload, successful A-level candidates generally take (at least) 4 subjects, with science (e.g. Physics) and essay-based subjects (e.g. History) considered favourably.

When applying to Oxford, candidates must complete the Thinking Skills Assessment (Section 1), whereas Cambridge candidates register for the Economics Admissions Assessment (ECAA). If selected for an interview, candidates will benefit from having extensive and in-depth knowledge of economics and world events. In their free time, successful candidates listen to podcasts such as Freakonomics, or read newspapers such as The New York Times or The Economist.

Having achievements from Maths or Economics competitions, or having Economics-related extracurriculars (e.g. Model United Nations) will give a boost to your application as well. For more ideas regarding additional readings and resources, check out the University of Cambridge super-curricular suggestions page

Engineering

The minimum requirements for engineering applicants are as follows:

  • A-levels: AAA to include Mathematics, Further Maths or Physics (Oxford)
  • IB: 40-42 (including core points) with 776 at Higher Level (with 7s in HL Mathematics and Physics) / Maths course should be Analysis and Approaches (Cambridge)

In addition to these minimum requirements taking a Further Mathematics course will be looked upon favourably, though it is not required for admission. For Oxford admissions, applicants are required to sit through the Physics Aptitude Test (PAT), whereas for Cambridge admissions applicants take the Engineering Admissions Assessment (ENGAA). Taking STEP papers is typically not required for engineering applicants at Cambridge.

Whilst Maths and Physics are the only essentials for engineering, applicants interested in pursuing Chemical Engineering are required to take Chemistry as one of their core subjects. Other desired subjects for the third A level include: Computing, Design Technology, and Electronics. As there is a high synergy between Maths, Further Maths, and Physics, for applicants taking this A level combination having a fourth A level would demonstrate not only a high competence in Maths, but also an ability to cope with a demanding workload.

Oxbridge engineering applicants are additionally encouraged to have a significant portfolio of extracurricular activities. This could include Maths and Physics clubs or competitions, summer camps and schools, in-person or online research programs, as well as other student organisations such as Robotics. Additionally, both Cambridge and Oxford have suggested lists of “super-curricular” books, websites, podcasts, or articles. For more examples, refer to the University of Cambridge super-curricular page

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