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Applying to Oxbridge: A complete guide

Want to study at either Oxford or Cambridge? Not sure what you need to do to get in? Here's our complete guide to help you out.

Eleanor Foulds
by Eleanor Foulds
Last Updated:
05 Sep 2023

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We’re not going to lie to you – making an application to study at Oxford or Cambridge is a big (and challenging) step. The competition will be fierce. As well as needing top-notch grades and a winning personal statement you’ll also have to navigate your way through the interview process – and you’ll have less time to do it in!

On the other hand, if you do end up securing yourself a place you’ll have a place at one of the top universities in the world.

This guide will take you through the Oxbridge application process step-by-step. While we’re by no means guaranteeing you a place, this should help you maximise your chances of success.

Oxford vs Cambridge

Ah, the age-old rivalry between Oxford and Cambridge. These days you’ll probably see them thrashing it out in the annual boat race and fighting for the top spot in various league tables, but their rivalry goes back centuries.

They’re the two oldest universities in the UK, they both have extremely high reputations both domestically and internationally, and each year they receive thousands of applications for a limited number of places.

In order to reduce the number of applications, students are only allowed to apply for either Oxford or Cambridge. So, how do you decide which one to apply to?

Look at the courses

The most important thing to consider is the subject you're looking to study and the courses offered within that specific field. Even where the same subject is offered at both universities, there will most likely be different module options available, so think about which ones best fit your own personal interests.

If you want to study two subjects at degree level, then it's worth remembering that only Oxford runs combined honours programmes. Cambridge may allow you to study the odd module in another subject (where there’s a crossover), but your degree itself will be in a single subject. 

League tables

As you’ll know, Oxford and Cambridge are always at the top of the league tables, with 2024 being no different. However, it's important to check which university is the very best in your specific subject area, as each of the two has its own merits.

Cambridge has a (slightly) better reputation than Oxford for sciences, medicine and technology, for instance, whereas Oxford’s reputation in the social sciences, arts and humanities is marginally stronger.


The location of both universities is pretty spectacular, and they’re both only a (fairly) short commute away from London’s city centre. Of the two, Cambridge is considered to be quieter and more rural, whereas Oxford is a little livelier. From a social perspective, this may have a significant impact on your student experience.

You’ll be studying at your chosen university for a minimum of three years, so it's important to study in a region that will enrich your student experience and make you happy. The best way to decide which one is right for you is to attend an open day. Find out when they're next being held and book your place using the Whatuni website.

Family ties

If you have family members that have studied at either Oxford or Cambridge, you may find they’re keen for you to follow in their footsteps (and they’ll probably enjoy telling you all the ways in which the university they studied at is the better option).

The key here is to make your own mind up. It's fine to listen to what people have to say and factor their advice into your final decision, but if you do find yourself drawn to the university they didn’t go to, that’s okay too!

The college system

You’ve probably heard that Oxford and Cambridge are both collegiate establishments, but what does this actually mean? Well, one way to think of it would be to imagine lots of little 'micro-universities' grouped under the ‘Oxford’ and ‘Cambridge’ banners – each with its own student halls and a team of academic staff.

These 'micro-universities' are known as colleges, each housing between 300-500 students, studying a cross-section of subjects (meaning class sizes are significantly smaller than those at non-collegiate universities).

This set-up will give you access to a small, ready-made community – perfect for settling into university life, and even better for allowing lecturers to give you plenty of academic support throughout your studies.

So, with a number of different colleges available to you, how on earth do you decide which one to apply to? Here’s some points to consider:  

Entry requirements

Some colleges, such as St Hilda’s at Cambridge, only accept women, and some only accept applications from mature students. Make sure you are applying to the one you can actually get into.

Your subject

While most subject areas will be covered at multiple colleges in various forms, the course content will differ depending upon teaching staff and their specialist study areas. You should have a look at the courses offered by each college in terms of module options and see whether or not they suit your own personal interests.

The teaching staff

Oxford and Cambridge both attract world-leading teaching staff, who are experts in their field. If you have a passion for a specific field or you already have a strong indication of what you’re looking to do for a career, then you may want to investigate who'll be teaching you.

If your interests are similar to the interests of your tutors, it'll be an advantage in the long run, as they’ll be able to help nurture your academic growth (and may be able to provide networking opportunities at a later stage).


Both Oxford and Cambridge have a phenomenal reputation. However, some colleges will have a history of producing a number of innovative graduates in a specific field, so it's important to take this into consideration when making an application.

If you’re looking to pursue a career in politics, for instance, then you may want to study somewhere like King’s College (Cambridge) or Balliol College (Oxford). Both these colleges are well-known for being politically active and have produced many graduates who have had lucrative careers within parliament.

Your chances of getting in

Finally, at both Oxford and Cambridge, some colleges are over-subscribed, others less so. This means applying for a college that receives fewer applications might increase your chances of securing a place.

Starting your application

If you’re worried that the application process is going to be complicated or confusing, don’t be. Students apply to Oxford and Cambridge through UCAS just like with any other uni.

The first stage of the application process will involve filling in your UCAS form. As well as your personal details and your university choices you'll also be expected to provide academic references, evidence of your predicted grades (if you haven’t already passed your exams) and a personal statement.

For tips on how to do this (and for advice on crafting your personal statement), have a read of our UCAS application guide.

IMPORTANT: Given the competitive nature of the course, and the lengthier applications process, the deadline for Oxbridge applications is considerably earlier than the application deadlines for the majority of universities (mid-October as opposed to mid-January). For 2024 entry, for instance, your application should be submitted by 16 October 2023.

oxbridge application

Subject-specific testing

Unfortunately, with an Oxbridge university, it isn’t as simple as filling in your UCAS form and waiting for a response. As well as proving you can meet the entry criteria and writing a winning personal statement, chances are you’ll also be expected to sit some tests as part of your application (which will either be before or during, the interview process).

The tests will be subject-specific and will give admissions tutors an indication of your natural aptitude for the subject in question, as well as giving them an idea of whether or not you’ll be able to cope with the course content (don’t worry, they’re not as scary as they seem).

There are four main tests used by the University of Cambridge in order to establish whether or not a student has the essential skills required to succeed in the course.

1. The Cambridge Law Test

If you’re applying to study Law at Cambridge, most colleges will require you to take the Cambridge Law Test. The results of this test will be used alongside your predicted grades (and your interview) to gauge your suitability for the course. You'll take the test while you’re at college for your interview and you’ll be expected to answer one question in an hour. No previous knowledge of the law is required.

2. Bio-Medical Admissions Test (BMAT)

All medical and veterinary students will be expected to sit the BMAT test (a test of scientific aptitude) before being offered a place on their chosen course. The BMAT test itself will take place in November, but applicants should have registered to sit the exam by the start of October.

3. Thinking Skills Assessment (TSA)

If you’re studying on a course that's more mathematical or scientific in nature, then your college may require you to sit the Thinking Skills Assessment (not all colleges and subjects will ask you to sit this, but they’ll let you know in advance if it’s required). The Thinking Skills Assessment is 90 minutes long and aims to test your problem solving and critical thinking abilities over 50 multiple-choice questions.

4. Law National Aptitude Test (LNAT)

The Law National Aptitude Test (LNAT) is essentially an aptitude test that shows universities if you’re suitable to study law. You can find out more about studying the LNAT here.

The majority of written tests will take place in early November, although for tests such as the LNAT (law) and the BMAT (biomedical sciences) you will be expected to register for the exam by the beginning of October.

Don't forget school/college essays

For subjects in the arts, humanities and social sciences, you may be required to submit a school/college essay to demonstrate your analytical skills and intellect. These sample essays will be read by the college tutors and may be discussed at the interview stage (so make sure you re-read them prior to your interview).

For Oxford applicants, the majority of tests required are more subject-specific. Most subjects will require students to sit a written test that demonstrates that they have an aptitude for the subject area.

The interview stage

If you’ve managed to make it to the interview stage then congratulations – your university/college of choice can clearly see that you have potential!

Before you get your conditional offer, though, you’ll have to navigate your way through the interview process. All Oxbridge applicants will be predicted high grades (As and A*s at A-level), so the interview process aims to find out a little more about you and to establish whether or not you'll benefit from a place on the course. But what exactly are admissions tutors looking for?

1. Strong analytical and reasoning skills

One of the key things that an Oxbridge university looks for in applicants is the ability to engage with texts and information in a new and critical manner. In this sense, some of the questions you are asked may seem a little unusual. For example, 'Why might it be useful for an English student to read the Twilight series?' or 'If you could invent a new musical instrument, what kind of sound would it make?' however, it's important to remember that there's no right or wrong answer for these questions.

All tutors want to see is that you're able to engage with questions in a logical manner and that you can apply your own independent reasoning to reach a conclusion.

2. Passion for the subject

On the plus side, the interview allows you the opportunity to demonstrate your passion for the subject and prove that you have the potential to be an attribute to your chosen college. Before you attend the interview, you should thoroughly investigate the course content so that you have a firm understanding of why you want to pursue this area of study and what you can bring to the course.

3. Ability to engage in discussion

Another essential aspect of the interview process is to show tutors that you not only have the required knowledge to study on the course but also that you’re able to engage in debate and discussion.

Some colleges may ask you to submit a school/college essay in advance, in which case they will discuss the arguments you put forward as part of your essay in further detail. 

Interview tips from an Oxford graduate

Tom recently graduated with a degree in medicine from Wadham College, Oxford, and has just started work as a junior doctor. We caught up with him about his own Oxford interview experience.

How should students prepare for the interview? How much prep did you do?

The Oxford interview process is unique in that you'll be interviewed by the same tutors who will teach you for the entirety of your degree. The tutors will explore your potential and see if you suit their style of teaching. Each tutor has their own individual style and thus each interview is unique and personal.

The interviews, like a tutorial, are a discussion in which a problem is explored, rather than a formal question and answer session. This may sound daunting, but equally, it takes the pressure off learning rote answers to ‘expected questions’ and gives you an opportunity to clear your mind and think logically.

The tutors recognise the difference between knowledge and intelligence, and thus the burden of revising and preparing in the traditional sense is removed. The best demonstration of intelligence is to be able to deal with problems without necessarily having specific knowledge about them, and as such, they'll continue to push you until you’re on unfamiliar ground.

The best preparation is simply to be inquisitive and engage with your studies. The worst thing you can do is have lots of prepared things to say or lots of facts clogging up your head. This will only make you nervous trying to remember it all, and you'll end up not listening to the question because you're worried about what to say.

The essence of the Oxford interview is that they're not testing what you know, but rather how you think. On the day, all you need to do is relax and clear your head. Make sure you listen to the question, pause and think logically, and then say your thought processes out loud. The rest will flow from there!

What can students expect from the interview process?

There's no standard format for an Oxford interview; it depends on the subject you’re applying for, the individual tutor, and the college. Generally, you'll have multiple 20-minute interviews, all aimed at giving you the best chance to show your potential. I had two at the college I applied to (Magdalen), and then two at another randomly allocated college (Wadham).

Incidentally I didn’t get an offer from Magdalen, but did from Wadham – only going to show how the very different teaching styles suit different applicants. As I said before you'll be interviewed by your potential future tutors. Each interview will have at least two interviewers and often one other person just listening.

The interviews are generally spread over two days, which means one of the colleges will put you up for the night and provide dinner in the hall. This is a great opportunity to enjoy your surroundings and try to relax, and there will be loads of first years on hand to answer questions and help you get settled in.

It’s impossible to predict what questions you'll be asked, but in general the science subjects will be based around solving a problem, which often involve working through graphs or equations, or designing a theoretical experiment.

This may seem daunting, but the interviews are extremely interactive and the tutors will constantly guide you in the right direction. The arts interviews can be more diverse, but may involve discussing a text or working through a social or political concept. In any case, the same principles apply: they are not testing what you know, but rather, how you think.

What happened after your interview?

After the interview, there wasn't really any feedback but you're told that they'll let you know how things went in a few weeks. I think some colleges send letters to all their applicants, but at Wadham the tutors like to give the successful applicants a phone call.

As I said before, the tutors are hand-picking their own students, and each college may only have a handful of students for each subject in each year – there were five of us studying medicine at Wadham – so the whole process is very personal.

Then what?

After you’ve been for your interview, you should hear back from the university by January the following year, when you’ll find out whether or not you’ve been successful.

If you do get a letter confirming that you have been granted a place, you should make sure that you read it through carefully. If you get a conditional offer – which is the usual type of offer made to students completing their A-levels – it means your Oxbridge place is conditional on you achieving a certain set of grades.

Of course, if you already have your A-level results before applying (for instance if you’ve taken a gap year and are only just applying) then your offer will most likely be unconditional.

After that, all you have to do is spend the rest of the year concentrating on your exams! 


Want to study at Oxbridge but not sure which subject? Start searching for Oxbridge courses here.

Starting your Oxbridge application? Here’s 5 Ways to Get Your Oxbridge Application Noticed

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