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Making your application to Oxford or Cambridge

Abby is a member of Elite IB’s Tuition team. She studied Natural Sciences at Christ’s College, Cambridge, where she also received her MSc Philosophy of Science. She graduated the IB with 45 points.

With October just around the corner, it’s time to start thinking about university applications. This may seem early, but remember that if you’re interested in Oxford or Cambridge (as well as medical courses) you’ll need to submit your UCAS application by 15 October.

This time five years ago, I was preparing my application to study Natural Sciences at Christ’s College, Cambridge. Like almost everyone else in my position, I was certainly daunted by the prospect of Oxbridge applications: admission is highly competitive, and, unlike most other UK universities, you have to tackle interviews and admissions tests. That said, don’t let any of this put you off – if you have the predicted grades you need, and are passionate about your subject, you’re certainly in with a chance! So here are my tips for anyone interested in applying to Oxbridge who’s keen to maximise their chances of success.

Choosing your subject and college

You’ll need to devote some time to preparing your Oxbridge application, starting with your subject choice. The workloads at Oxford and Cambridge are intense, so make sure you pick something you love (or something you’re very interested in if it’s a new subject), otherwise those 9am lectures will be a real struggle. Read through the course websites to see if the content and structure appeals to you.

Next comes choice of college. With 34 undergraduate colleges at Oxford and 29 at Cambridge, it can feel a little overwhelming when you come to pick. Think about what’s important to you in a place where you’re going to be working, socialising and living: consider factors such as location, size, accommodation options, food and facilities. (I, for instance, picked Christ’s predominantly based on its central location – this is a perfectly valid reason!) If you can, it’s a good idea to visit a few of the colleges to get a sense of their individual atmospheres too, so check college websites for upcoming open days (though most colleges will be happy to let applicants have a look outside of these dates).

Preparing your application

When it comes to preparing your UCAS application, it’s worth devoting plenty of time to your personal statement. Start writing a first draft as soon as you can, and plan to re-draft this several times before submitting your application. Oxbridge are looking for a more academic focus than many other universities, so you shouldn’t spend more than around a quarter of your personal statement talking about your extracurricular activities and interests. This piece of work is a great opportunity to demonstrate passion for your chosen subject, and you can do so by talking about what you’re enjoying in your current studies, any further reading you’ve done to deepen your subject knowledge, relevant work experience and long-term career aspirations (if you have any yet – don’t worry if not!) Of course, the Extended Essay is also a useful piece of work to mention: even if it’s not relevant to your chosen degree subject, the process of researching, planning and writing a 4000-word essay is an impressive skill to demonstrate in itself. Ultimately, remember that if you later receive an offer for an Oxbridge interview, your personal statement may provide the basis for some of your questions, so make sure you’re confident in discussing anything you mention there.

Depending on your course, you may be required to take an admissions test as part of your application. You might have to take these tests on specific dates, and many will have a deadline for registration as well, so it’s important to research them in advance. Admissions websites often provide past papers for these tests, so try to practise them too!


Once you’ve sent off your UCAS form, sat your admissions tests and submitted any additional questionnaires and pieces of work requested, you may be offered one or more interviews with a number of academics in your chosen subject, which tend to take place in early December. As scary as these can seem, they really are just a chance to see how you think and whether the system of learning at Oxbridge would suit you. It’s a good idea to make sure you’re confident with anything mentioned in your personal statement (e.g. a book you’ve read), as well as the subjects you’re currently studying, but you’ll often be given new material to have a look at beforehand, or introduced to novel concepts. The academics want to understand your thought process, so you should try to ‘think aloud’ rather than focusing on reaching the correct answer. I remember being incredibly nervous before my interviews (this is normal!), but ultimately I really enjoyed the opportunity to have a discussion with academics at the top of their field, and you’ll probably come away having learned a lot. This is important because the interview system is really a taster of the Oxford tutorial or Cambridge supervision format (a key part of the Oxbridge teaching approach involving regular sessions with an academic in pairs or small groups).

What next?

You should find out in January whether you have received an offer. If you’re unsuccessful, it can of course be disappointing, but remember that it’s possible to take a gap year and reapply the following year; several of my peers at Cambridge had done this and certainly gained some valuable knowledge from their first application, so felt much more confident the second time around. Equally, as prestigious as Oxford and Cambridge are, they are just two of the many excellent universities here in the UK, and you may find yourself better suited to somewhere else. Many strong applicants don’t receive Oxbridge offers but still go on to be highly successful elsewhere, so don’t be disheartened.