Choosing a university is about finding a match to be made, not a prize to be won; and so the first to thing to consider is if there is a course that is right for you. There are some unique and interesting courses at Oxford and Cambridge and, as much of the most exciting academic research is interdisciplinary, there are also options that encourage this kind of work, such as Natural Sciences and HSPS at Cambridge, or PPE and PPL at Oxford.
The teaching sets Oxford and Cambridge apart in that, as well as the usual lectures and practical sessions for science subjects, you have ‘supervisions’ every week in small groups of around three students. This, along with an expectation of a very high capacity for workload, is what makes the experience so unique.
Oxford and Cambridge are beautiful cities, and most colleges are very well equipped in terms of academic, cultural, sporting, and social resources. Even more is on offer at the university level. The colleges provide a large part of a student's teaching, accommodation, sporting, and socialising requirements. Despite the academic demands, dropout rates are amongst the lowest in the country and this is also due to the colleges and their ability to review applicants closely and then support them as undergraduates.
Oxford and Cambridge have the lowest offer:place ratio of any UK university. Some of the numbers are quite intimidating. For example, there are 4505 16-18 schools and colleges in the UK, producing thousands of students with A*A* in Mathematics and Further Mathematics, but there are only 220 places to read Mathematics at Cambridge, fewer at Oxford. It is very competitive, but it is not impossible and, every year, there are Stoics that achieve their dream of being offered a place.
Put simply: you love your subject, are brilliant at it, they would like to teach you, and can see that you would thrive in their demanding academic system. One of the benefits of the college system is that applications can be scrutinized very closely and all the available information is taken into account. Most applicants from independent schools will have multiple A*/8/9 grades at GCSE, especially in the most relevant subjects. Although the headline grade requirements might sometimes seem low and very achievable (e.g. AAA or A*AA) the reality, as confirmed by UCAS data, is that the majority of successful applicants are on track for multiple A* grades at A-level. In fact, those multiple A* grades are really a given, and it is performance in challenging admissions tests and engagement with the super-curriculum that make the difference.
The admissions team at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge have helpfully summarized the super-curriculum. It is how you show that you are: curious about your subject, motivated to pursue independent research, well suited to intense and sustained learning, and can demonstrate academic engagement beyond the school curriculum in content and conceptual sophistication.
For arts and humanities subjects, the best applicants will have been reading for at least an hour a day. This reading, and their engagement with it, shines through in their personal statements, submitted work, and admissions tests, and the way that they discuss their subject at interview. They will have listened to podcasts, attended lectures, and actively engaged in their subjects by entering essay competitions, giving talks, writing articles, seeking to be published and arranging relevant placements. Strong candidates for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects will be invincible in their subject skills at A-level and will have performed well in competitions such as Maths Challenges and Olympiads. They will have tried their hand at being a scientist or an engineer through home projects and relevant placements. They will also have regularly read articles and journals and attended and given talks. For all subjects, competitive candidates will have participated in Masterclasses and summer schools, completed online additional courses, and lived out their enthusiasm for their subject as fully as they can.
All applicants for Oxford and Cambridge are assessed in addition to submitting the usual UCAS form with their grades, personal statement, and teacher reference. These assessments may be in the form of exams in October and November – e.g. BMAT tests for Medicine, HAT for History, MAT for Mathematics and Computing etc. Everyone is assessed by interview and there may also be a written component on the day.
There are many myths about Oxford and Cambridge interviews, but two things may put you at ease. The first is that interviews do not change the outcome for the majority of applicants – in most cases they confirm what Oxford and Cambridge already knew from UCAS forms and admissions tests. Second, the process is actually quite straightforward; very academically challenging, but straightforward nonetheless. The interviewers want to know if you are capable of studying their subject at their college, and if you would thrive in their teaching system. You can expect to discuss the interests expressed in your personal statement, work you have submitted, or a sample text, dataset or specimen. For Mathematics and Physics related subjects you will be asked to solve problems, and the outcome of the interview will be determined by what you have to say about your subject, how much you get done, and how teachable you are when you get stuck.
At the most recent count, eighteen teachers at Stowe have experience of undergraduate and postgraduate degrees at Oxford or Cambridge and will be glad to talk to you about it.
The way to find out is to focus on true excellence in your subject and enjoy it as much as you can, and you may then find yourself with in a strong position to apply to Oxford or Cambridge. If you apply and do not receive an offer, as is the case with the majority of applicants (six out of seven in recent years), you will be set up to thrive at another top university and a Masters or a PhD at Oxford or Cambridge may lie in your future. There are some downsides, however, to applying if you are not a competitive candidate: you will be reducing your five precious UCAS choices to four and entering an intense and demanding process that can disrupt an important year of A-level study. It is therefore worth remembering that there are in fact three ways to apply. You can apply during Upper 6 through the usual UCAS cycle, after you have achieved dazzling A-level results, or you can apply for a Masters or a PhD programme after you have had an amazing time at another prestigious university.
Support for potential Oxford and Cambridge applicants runs on an annual November to November cycle. After settling into Sixth Form for half a term, Lower Six are invited to an information evening to learn more more about what is involved and how to apply to be a member of the Senior School Academic Scholars (SSAS). Membership of SSAS is based on the same criteria that Oxford and Cambridge use – strong GCSE profile, strong start to A-level courses, and motivation for independent study, evidenced by super-curricular engagement. A series of Lent Term Seminars will stretch your skills and help key members of staff to get to know you. If you decide to apply, a team of subject-specialist mentors will support you with your personal statement, references, test preparation, submitted work and interview preparation, concluding in November of Upper 6.
Overall, we can and will point you in the right direction and provide you with the opportunities that you need, but remember that you will have to live out your enthusiasm for your subject as fully as you can - we cannot do that bit for you.
If you would like to hear more about joining the Senior Academic Scholars’ Society or applying to either Oxford or Cambridge, contact Dr Charles Adkins (Senior Academic Scholar’s Coordinator).
If you would like to hear more about joining the Senior Academic Society and you would like to discuss applying to either Oxford or Cambridge... Contact Dr Adkins (Head of Oxbridge Applications)
Click here for detailed information on the Oxford application process
Click here for detailed information on the Cambridge process