A guide to all the stages involved in preparing an application to Oxford or Cambridge.
If you’re considering applying to a university in the UK, there are hundreds of course options available to you across the country. This can be incredibly freeing, it means that no matter what your interest, it’s likely that you will be able to find a course which caters to them. Equally, it can make the course selection process rather daunting. Whether you’re deciding between a shortlist of subjects, or you have no idea what you want to study, there are a number of questions you can ask yourself which should make the process easier.
UCAS guide to choosing a course 🔗 🌟 This guide is useful as it includes information about the various types of degree courses: bachelors, masters, diplomas and foundations.
Magdalene College, Cambridge: Kickstarting your Application 🔗 🌟 Check out this great webinar on all things university applications, from navigating UCAS, to choosing a course, to writing your personal statement.
Afinity: The WTF Should I Study at Uni Guide 🔗 🌟 This guide comprises advice from students at a variety of UK universities, day in the life videos, example lectures, and information on the most common graduate careers.
UniGuide guide to choosing a course 🔗 This website provides a useful set of simple questions you can ask yourself to help choose a degree course.
Types of courses
University degree courses are often divided between science (STEM) degrees, and humanities and arts degrees. While this distinction can be useful, there are a number of other ways you can separate courses, and a number of courses which will inevitably straddle these divides (like design engineering, which combines engineering with the art and design!).
Vocational vs. theoretical:
Vocational courses, like medicine, veterinary science, or agriculture, prepare you with a set of skills to perform a certain role or job. Meanwhile, more theoretical courses like history, physics, or english don’t target a certain profession, but provide you with a set of skills which will nonetheless be useful in a range of roles.
Instructed vs. self-directed:
No matter what course you choose, your learning will be more self-directed than school. However, the amount of teaching time you will have (this is often called contact time) varies significantly between courses. Many university course pages will have a breakdown of teaching type and duration, so be sure to look closely at what you will spend your time doing.
Years abroad vs. no years abroad:
For many people, this can be a deal-breaker. Most language courses, and a number of other courses will offer or require that you spend a year of your degree abroad. This can be a fantastic opportunity to broaden your horizons, but it’s not to everyone’s tastes.
Times Higher Education: Which subject should I study at university? 🔗 🌟 This guide is particularly useful if you have an idea of what career you’d be interested in pursuing after university. The website has guides showing available career paths following each degree course, and can tell you what degree to study if you want to pursue a certain career.
Considering the commitment
There are a number of reasons to choose a course at university. A number of these may be financial. A four-year degree is a more significant financial commitment than a three-year degree, and weighing up earning potentials is a valid way for you to choose a degree course. However, it is worth bearing in mind that undertaking a degree is a significant commitment, and it will always be important that you’re passionate about what you’re studying. If you apply for something you don’t find interesting now, it might prove difficult to motivate yourself to work once you arrive at university.
Students’ advice on choosing a course 🔗 This Guardian guide has advice from a range of university students about choosing a course.
Once you have an idea of what you want out of your course, go through a number of course lists, available online.
Uni Compare: All Courses 🔗 🌟 Each course page contains information about entry tariffs and earning potentials.
Complete University Guide: course guide 🔗 Each course page has a description of the degree content and the professions of course graduates.
Oxford information on choosing a course 🔗 This video was produced to help students choose a course at Oxford, but the advice is applicable to any university!
You might find that some universities offer even more specialist areas of study than your intended degree, and others might require that you study a more general area than what you want to. A good example is Cambridge, which compiles all science degrees into one, Natural Sciences 🔗
What do current students say about choosing a course?
“Make sure you really love the course you choose to do” - May, English, Oxford
“Go to open days, and make an effort to speak to other applicants while you’re there. It’s a really useful way to find out what other students on your course might be like, and what other students’ motivations for choosing their course are.” - Ed, Chemistry, Oxford
Once you’ve chosen a course, you can find out on the Oxford and Cambridge websites which colleges offer your course - not all colleges offer all courses. Now you’ve got a list of colleges to choose from, you can pick the one you’d like to apply to.
UniAdmissions: Advice on how to choose a Cambridge College 🔗 Some further advice on choosing a Cambridge college.
College suggester from the Oxford Student Union 🔗 The Oxford Student Union has created a survey where you can enter some preferences and receive a college suggestion!
You can even submit an ‘open application’, where the university allocated you a college for you to be interviewed at, so you don’t have to decide for yourself if you don’t want to.
However, most people select one based on some of the following factors:
What's an open offer?
It's possible that you might be given an open offer to study at Oxford, even if you've selected one during your UCAS application. While you attend interviews, you might have interviews at a few different colleges, or receive an open offer. Here's what the University say about this:
“An Open Offer guarantees you a place at Oxford, if you meet the offer conditions, but it is not yet possible to say at which college your place will be; it may be at any of the colleges participating in the Open Offer scheme and offering your course. Exactly which will depend on which college has a vacancy after the publication of UK examination results.”
Hear from Seren, a final year biochemist at Oxford about her open offer:
“I was actually quite grateful in some ways to have received an open offer - it meant that I didn’t fixate in the same way some of my friends did on imaging myself in a specific college studying at Oxford, so I could just focus on doing as well as I possibly could in my A-Levels.”
The Winter Pool at Cambridge
At Cambridge, although you will only be interviewed by one college, you may receive an offer from a different one. The Winter Pool 🔗 ensures the strongest applicants receive an offer, even if some colleges are more over-subscribed than others.
Overall, the college you apply to doesn’t really matter too much in the grand scheme of things, and you don’t have complete control over it, so if you’re stressing over which one to choose, you don’t need to! There is plenty of advice on this website, on the rest of the internet, and at open days to help you decide.
Writing a personal statement can be a daunting task. If you’re applying to Oxford or Cambridge, your personal statement needs to be a little different to how people might write one when applying to other universities. Your personal statement tells the university about your academic interests and achievements, your ambitions and what type of person you are.
CUSU Guide to Personal Statements 🔗 🌟 The Cambridge University Students Union has created a fantastic guide to writing a personal statement. All of the tips apply to Oxford too!
Personal Statements webinar by Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge 🔗 🌟 A PowerPoint and Q&A session by the college's Schools Liaison Officer, providing advice on personal statements, what to include, what we're looking for, and things to keep in mind while writing.
Refining your Personal Statement webinar by Magdalene College, Cambridge 🔗 🌟 This webinar provides hints and tips for how to sharpen up your statement, and highlights the common pitfalls for candidates to avoid.
What do I include?
First and foremost, your personal statement should effectively convey why you want to study your subject, and where your passion lies. You have to do this within 4000 characters (including spaces) which is about 500 words, so it’s important that you’re concise and convey this information effectively.
You need to demonstrate passion and interest beyond the classroom, so it’s important to include information about ‘super curricular activities’ such as further reading, attending lectures, being a member of an academic society, or attending a summer school. This list is not exhaustive!
The best way to show this passion is to start by introducing an area of interest, and backing up your interest with some evidence such as further reading (kind of like P.E.E paragraph structure). You might want to discuss certain theories or topics of contention, and where you stand on them, but be prepared to back yourself up, as it may come up in an interview.
One of the most pivotal things is that a personal statement for Oxbridge should be 80-90% focused on academics. For other universities, this is not so important, but Oxford and Cambridge want to see your academic passion over everything else.
Here are some handy online videos which might inspire you further on your structure or content:
Jesus College, Oxford Seminar 🔗 🌟 One Oxford college broadcasted a seminar about ‘writing a killer personal statement’.
Magdalen College, Oxford Seminar 🔗 🌟 A personal statement workshop by Magdalen College.
Our best tips:
Many courses at Oxford and Cambridge require an admissions test as part of your application. In some cases the admissions test forms a significant part of the admissions procedure and, along with the rest of the information you may have submitted as part of your UCAS form, may form the basis of whether you are offered an interview or place.
What subjects require an admissions test?
The list of subjects for which an admissions test is required changes year on year. The quickest way to find out if you will need to sit a test is to go to your subject’s admissions page - here are the links for Oxford 🔗 and Cambridge 🔗
How do I prepare for my admissions test?
In most cases, the content of admissions tests won’t be too different to the content you will be studying for A-Levels or equivalent exams, but the style may vary quite significantly from exams you will be used to sitting. Additionally, the tests may require content which you are yet to study as part of your course (this is specific to content-heavy exams, such as the PAT). For this reason, it is important to look closely at the specification of your admissions test to see if there is anything you need to look at.
Most admissions tests will provide a set past papers, too. These are incredibly useful, and well worth looking through and attempting. Most students prepare for the admissions tests by completing a number of past papers, and looking at similar questions. In some cases, the admissions test information pages will provide advice about how to prepare.
Cambridge Assessment website 🔗 This exam board administers admissions assessments for both Oxford and Cambridge. It’s unlikely that there will be anything here which isn’t also listed on the admissions test page on the universities’ websites, but there are some useful resources for preparing for an admissions test.
Our top tips
Some (but not all subjects) require you to submit written work as part of your application. The reason for this, from the Oxford Undergraduate Admissions website is because it allows you to demonstrate “your analytical, reasoning, language and writing skills”, and helps the tutors decide who they’d like to interview.
Does my course require written work? 🔗 A list of all of the undergraduate courses that Oxford offers, and whether the course you’re applying for requires you to send in written work.
On the 'Admission Requirements' tab of each course page on the Oxford Undergraduate Admissions website, there is more information about the specifics of the written work that tutors would like you to submit, for example for Archaeology and Anthropology 🔗.
At Cambridge (unlike Oxford), requirements for submitted work can vary between colleges, but like Oxford, not all subjects ask for it. A general overview of submitting work as part of your application to Cambridge can be found here 🔗 🌟.
On the official course page 🔗 for your chosen subject, there is a “Subject Requirements and Typical Offer by College” document on the “Entry Requirements” tab, which has a column telling you whether or not submitted work is required.
If it is required, you should then go to your chosen college’s website, and it will have information about what they would like you to produce.
General advice for submitting written work 🔗 🌟 Some tips on questions you could think about before your interview, when re-reading your submitted work.
Our top tip...
If you are shortlisted for an interview, the tutor may bring up or ask you to discuss the work you submitted, so it’s a good idea to keep a copy, and have a look over it before your interview.
Interviews for Oxford and Cambridge are fundamentally academic conversations about your subject area. They are structured slightly differently at the two universities, although they take place in early December for both.
At Oxford it is more common for applicants to stay a couple of nights in student accommodation and have their interviews spaced out over a few days, whereas at Cambridge applicants are more likely to have their interviews all in one day with only a few staying overnight.
It should be noted that for applicants interviewing in 2020 both universities are making alternative arrangements for online or local interviews without applicants travelling to the universities. Please look at the Oxford 🔗 and Cambridge 🔗 websites for the latest information.
Questions at your interview could be based on some of the following:
How do I prepare?
InsideUni Interview Insights 🔗 🌟 Our Interview Insights are full of first-hand, real student experiences of interviews, and can help you get a feel for what your interview might be like.
Oxford: Example interview questions 🔗 🌟 Oxford have produced a list of example interview questions for various subjects. Many also apply to Cambridge!
Interviews webinar by Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge 🔗 🌟 Admissions tutors answer questions about the interview process.
“It's great to talk to friends, siblings, or anyone who can just listen to you talk about a book and ask you questions on it based on what you said” - Human Sciences student at St Hugh’s College, Oxford.
"I prepared by reading and analysing my personal statement and submitted work. I made a little table for each of the points I had made and further points I could make if asked about them" - History and Economics Student at St Hilda’s College, Oxford.
Our tips and tricks
The weeks leading up to decision day can be particularly nerve-wracking for obvious reasons, but on decision day it’s a simple process.
UCAS works through a system of firm and insurance choices. When you receive answers from all of the universities you have applied to (which will normally be by January if you have applied in October) you have to choose a firm and insurance choice.
You have until the end of May to choose your firm and insurance choices, so often people choose to revisit the universities they have received offers from before this time to think about this more.
To keep your offer at Oxford or Cambridge, you must accept it as your firm choice (you cannot keep it as an insurance offer).
Deciding on your insurance choice might be a little more difficult, but here are some things to bear in mind:
On Results Day:
However, you do not have to accept your firm or insurance choice immediately on results day. There are other paths you might want to consider:
More about Clearing and Adjustment:
Clearing: Call UK Universities App: a really useful app in which you can save and compare courses, and ring the university directly from the app. Available on the App Store and Google Play.
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