Skip to Content


Large Image

Applications To Oxford And Cambridge

In this article, we provide you with the stark facts about admissions to Oxford and Cambridge, which accept “only the best” students, and which also have their own quirks in the application process.

We also share how Sherborne School, where Philip, the writer of this piece, is Director of Higher Education and Careers, support their students who have Oxbridge potential.

Oxbridge – Who should apply?

These universities are looking for students who are academically very able, enjoy challenging academic work and have a very real enthusiasm for their chosen course.

In the 2013-14 application cycle, 3448 students were accepted by Cambridge from 16,752 applicants. Of those offering A level, 97% achieved at least A*AA at A level.  GCSE results are looked at as a performance indicator; most applicants have at least 4 or 5 As or A*s at GCSE (Cambridge Admissions Website).

In the 2013-14 application cycle, 3161 students were accepted by Oxford from 17,848 applicants. Of those offering A level, 90% achieved at least A*AA at A level. Applications to Oxford have risen 46% in the last 10 years. Applicants should have a “strong” GCSE profile: a large majority of A* and A grades (Oxford Admissions Website).

It is important that a school’s applicants focus on the high grades needed at A level, and are not lulled into a false sense of their national standing by good or even outstanding results at GCSE.

The serious applicants from the start of Year 12 have demonstrated commitment to their subjects by thoughtful reading and other research into their chosen subjects.

Applicants’ commitment to independent reading during the summer vacation before application is a very significant test of their enthusiasm. Advice on appropriate reading should be sought from the appropriate subject teachers and/or the Careers Department.

46,000 UCAS applicants gained AAA at A level in 2012, and Oxford and Cambridge have space for only a fraction of them. Oxford only guarantees an interview to 20% of their Medicine applicants, the 20% with the best results in the BMAT test in early November. Similar screening is done by Oxford and Cambridge in those subjects which also have tests in early November. Other subjects have tests at the time of interview. Performance in these tests is an important criterion in selection.

The interview

The interview is a crucial part of the selection process.

Cambridge has stated that at interview tutors are looking for:

  • genuine passion for the subject(s) chosen;
  • appropriateness of the course chosen;
  • motivation, commitment and organisation;
  • enthusiasm for complex and challenging ideas;
  • clarity of thought and analytical ability;
  • intellectual flexibility;
  • (where appropriate) vocational/professional commitment, budding interpersonal skills

Cambridge stresses the frank statement that “excellence in an extra curricular activity will not compensate for lower academic potential” and we have heard similar statements from Oxford.

As small tutorials are a key part of the teaching at Oxford and Cambridge, an applicant should be keen on defending a point of view orally, listening to other points of view and collating in discussion a number of  conflicting threads. An applicant should relish the possibility of being taught by professional academics with international reputations in their field. Students should expect to work hard and independently.

The application process (using Sherborne School as an example)

It is vital that the school knows about any Choral or Instrumental Award applications before 1 July, as applications need to be sent to colleges before 1 September.

All applicants, including former students, must submit a paper copy of their UCAS form to the Careers Department by 30 September 2016. We have many forms to process and the 15 October deadline stated by Oxford and Cambridge is not the pupils’ deadline.

It is not permitted to apply to both Oxford and Cambridge (except Organ Scholarship applicants).

The school’s Oxbridge Co-ordinator oversees the preparation process. Each applicant will have an Academic Mentor, who will probably be the relevant Head of Department, if the application is for a subject currently studied. Advice on criteria for choosing a college is available from the Oxbridge Coordinator.

Applicants will be required to fill in a log book (recording relevant reading, work experience and academic input), so that the progress of their application for entrance tests, submission of written work and interviews can be monitored.

Check carefully what is required for a particular subject. Some subjects require an entrance test to be taken in early November; others require tests to be taken at interview. Some subjects require written work to be submitted. If so, prepare this in good time, so that there is plenty of time for this to be commented on and improved before the deadline. Regurgitated coursework is unlikely to be satisfactory.

There is a Practice Interview Evening with other local schools in November. We try to ensure that at least one of the two interviewers has not taught the student. Other interviews are available on request.

Decisions are communicated to applicants early in January. Some Cambridge applicants are placed in the “Pool”, from which candidates might be fished out for further interview in January. Some of these will receive offers.

Useful links

Dear Headteacher

Posted by Dear Headteacher on Tue, 14 Feb 2017



comments powered by Disqus

UniBox's 'Dear Headteacher' series brings together a complete set of guidance articles created by the Director of Higher Education and Careers at Sherborne School, Philip Rogerson, based on his 20 years' experience of helping pupils get the university places they deserve. 'Dear Headteacher' is part call to arms, part hard-headed advice and all good practice. We hope that schools across the UK get some hugely valuable insights out of this 2-week series, especially in terms of supportive advice.

View Profile