So you want to apply to Oxbridge?

The first thing that you are likely to encounter when you mention that you are considering applying to Oxbridge is an onslaught of helpful advice that turns out to be anything but helpful. You will not be short of ‘experts’ and their ‘guidance’, each surely well intended but each equally likely to offer contradictory advice. Where this website fits into that is up to you to decide but resolving that along with the many other questions that arise is an important part of the application process and as with all things in that process, getting it done is up to you.

The Bad News

One thing on which all will presumably agree is that the application process is testing and they’re not wrong. However, it is important that you can appreciate why the application process is so tough. What is on offer is an education at one of the most prestigious universities in the UK – for every place offered Oxford and Cambridge will each turn down between four and five applications – but the prestige is earned: these universities are extremely demanding and admissions tutors need to be certain that candidates will be able to meet the universities’ expectations. So when assessing a candidate’s suitability for the course, they consider not only whether or not there are better equipped candidates for the place but also whether the candidate is equipped to survive and prosper in the rarefied Oxbridge world.

Look again at that statistic: for every place offered, four or five applications are unsuccessful. That perhaps strikes you as a bit low – one in five does not sound that exclusive. The thing is, however, that the numbers (Oxford processed 17, 241 applications in 2011 and made 3,233 offers; in Cambridge, the corresponding stats were 15,389 and 3,274) represent those who made it to the end of the application process and who were presumed likely to return a combination of As and A*s in their final A Level exams.

Oxford and Cambridge will face piles of applications from the very best students from every school in the country; the job of the admissions tutors is to identify from that massive pile the very best of the best, those able to thrive in and benefit from the unique education on offer. As you will imagine, distinguishing the very very best from the very best is not easy and as a result, the application process is a trial by ordeal that will ensure that by the time it gets to interviews, the numbers of applications has been reduced to manageable levels. 

The Good News

All of which begs the question: is it worth it? Well, each year collectively over 30,000 applicants seem to think so.  However, in the meantime you should take the time to seek out the opinions of any alumni you might know. See what they say and whether or not they thought it was worth it then and whether it is worth it now. You may be surprised by the replies you get. At the same time, ask graduates from other universities about their experience elsewhere and whether they feel that time at Oxbridge would have been any different. Gleaning information from this sort of pool is how you will make a decision that makes sense for you and, as this website will go on to explain, help to establish the utterly critical integrity of application.

Why apply?

Lots of reasons ...

The Course

  • Oxbridge offer a range of courses covering most of the ‘classical’ subjects and several more contemporary ones. Each course will offer a range of specialist subjects that will allow you to hone your craft as you progress through the subject.
  • It is unlikely, however, that you will find a course that it not offered somewhere else and in a similar structure. To be brutally honest, courses offered by other universities can be more ambitious and contemporary than those offered by Oxbridge – if this is important to you it is something that needs careful attention.
  • On balance, it’s unlikely to be the course itself that draws anyone to Oxbridge. However, if you perform better in exams than in assessed work you may find the linear and rigorous exam structure to your advantage. It is certainly not somewhere for the exam averse.  

The Teaching

  • The teaching, on the other hand, really does set Oxbridge apart. Depending on your course you will find yourself in unavoidably close contact with some of the leading academics in their field up to three times a week. Tutorials and supervisions (one-on-one or two-on-one teaching sessions) are the mainstay of the teaching process at undergraduate level and no other university places as much emphasis on these teaching vehicles or uses them to the same extent.
  • Think of it this way: most elite universities will be charging at or near the maximum allowable limit. In most instances this will entitle you to lectures and seminars; in Oxbridge not only do you get that but you get also regular opportunities to explore your subject with the people who wrote the books, possibly on a one-to-one basis. That sort of regular and intensive contact time with elite academics is what really sets the Oxbridge education apart – and what makes it so demanding!

 The Place

  • The People
    • Most Oxbridge students will have spent the greater part of their school careers at the top of the academic ladder; to reverse the common metaphor, yes the view is great but it can be lonely. Oxbridge is teeming with all those students and for many it is the first time they will not have felt isolated or exposed. While this may at first prove a little disorientating and disarming, almost everyone comes round to revelling in the rarefied company – and of course, you will be making great friends and valuable contacts that will stay with you for life. If you find the thought of not necessarily being the smartest person in any given room intimidating, then Oxbridge is probably not the right place; if, on the other hand, you find the idea challenging and exhilarating, then read on.
  • The Environment
    • OK, there are other pretty universities out there but are there really any as impressive, architecturally and aesthetically as Oxbridge? Really? Really? Equally, most colleges are embarrassingly well equipped in terms of academic, cultural, sporting and social resources, all of which are repeated (with interest) at the university level. Moreover, while some universities are spread across large urban areas or located on the peripheries, the larger part of Oxbridge action is located smack in the middle of town with access to any other facilities little more than a short bike ride away.  

The College

  • The link between the student and their college can be surprisingly deep. At a functional level, the college provides the larger part of a student's teaching, accommodation, sporting and socialising requirements; at a psychological level, it offers the means by which the student associates with and becomes part of the wider university. Given this, it is perhaps understandable that many forge an emotional bond with their college that shapes the university experience and invariably long outlasts it. Depending on your point of view, the collegiate system can smooth the transition to independence or further enforce institutional reliance but as with all things it is down to the individual to determine how they manage their link with their college; either way, it is a relationship exclusive to Oxbridge.  

The Experience

  • Almost everyone will enjoy their university experience but few other universities can offer the range of attributes described above. Subsequently and for better or worse, most Oxbridge alumni would claim those halcyon days represented something really quite special. This would certainly be supported by the dropout statistics, which despite the academic demands are amongst the lowest in the country.

Who can apply?

Open. Let’s get this straight: Oxbridge admission is open to all and every student capable of meeting the high standards expected. There is neither class nor cash qualification and in 2012 state school admissions made up over half of Oxbridge undergraduates and nearly two thirds at Cambridge.

Elitist. Let’s make this clear: Oxbridge is elitist in that only the application process is designed to identify the very best students. All courses are demanding – intellectually and physically – and neither Oxford nor Cambridge tolerate mediocrity or loafing. Expectations and standards are high and admissions tutors need to ensure that the applicants they select are likely to enjoy the demanding environment and hit the academic heights the universities expect. And the admissions board tend to get it right: note the dropout rates.

Is it for me?

Click here for detailed information on the Oxford application process

Click here for detailed information on the Cambridge process

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)