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Guide To Applying To Oxbridge
1.0 Why Oxbridge 3
; Collegiate Structure
; Reputation and Funding
; Is it for you?
2.0 Oxford or Cambridge? 7
3.0 Choosing a College 9
; Open Applications
; The Colleges – Oxford
; The Colleges - Cambridge
; Personality of a College
4.0 Entry Requirements 16
; UCAS and Oxbridge Forms
; Submitted Work
; Extra Tests
; Summary Tables of Requirements for Application
5.0 Interviews 23
; Example Questions
; More Obscure Questions
6.0 FAQ 35
7.0 Links 37
What do the following all have in common? ….Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Hugh Grant,
Emma Thompson, Ali G, Watson & Crick, They are all Oxbridge graduates Monty Python, J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis Carroll, C.S.Lewis…?
Don‟t try looking for “Oxbridge” on the list of UCAS universities; it isn‟t some brand new institution. It is, in fact, the name used to refer to both Oxford and
Cambridge Universities - the two oldest in the UK. They were founded over 750
years ago and between them have produced a large number of Britain‟s most
prominent scientists and politicians, as well as notable figures in many other fields. In 2006, The Times Higher Educational Supplement‟s world ranking of universities placed Cambridge and Oxford as the second and third most reputable research universities in the world after Harvard. The competition
between Oxford and Cambridge also has a long history.
Oxford and Cambridge have been careful to preserve many parts of their history,
retaining a number of traditions that can seem archaic and bizarre to
outsiders… and even to insiders!
Conjuring up an image of Oxbridge, one might imagine “dreaming spires” or a grassy quadrangle surrounded by ancient buildings with bearded professors and studious groups of undergraduates wearing mortarboards. Whatever the image your mind, it is more likely to be completely unfounded or at least only a
snapshot of what Oxford or Cambridge are really about.
The institutions themselves are often seen as quaint and charming but slow to
change. There are sometimes accusations that students from less affluent backgrounds are at a disadvantage when applying to Oxbridge and that the
universities have kept their traditional reputation of being socially exclusive and
elitist. This is strongly denied by both universities.
In the current climate, the Oxbridge brand name can occasionally work against
the universities it represents. In a society where inclusiveness, transparency and equality are increasingly the cardinal virtues, the air of mystery and privilege which envelopes Oxbridge is beginning to attract strong criticism, as risks
alienating sections of society.
This is borne out by statistics. Less than 10% of British children are privately
educated, but they make up 50% of the Oxbridge student body. However, the acceptance rates for the state and independent schools are actually very similar (30% and 24%). The difference is therefore due to who actually applies in the first place. This is the difference in admission and acceptance rates has brought Oxbridge a great deal of undeserved criticism. Both are working hard to
change the public perception of the Oxbridge brand, but with 700 years of
history behind them, it is a slow process.
One significant change in the last century has been an increase in the admission thof female students. Women were not allowed to attain degrees until the 20
century. At undergraduate level, the male : female ratio is now roughly equal.
Both institutions are famed for the high quality of the educational experience
they deliver. Students are generally taught by some of the world leaders in their
fields. It is an opportunity to push yourself to achieve the highest levels of achievement you possibly can.
Tutorial / supervision system
Oxbridge pride themselves on their specialised teaching system. There is more teaching individually and in small groups than most universities. You are therefore expected to be self-motivated and be able to work well independently.
The principal method of teaching is the “tutorial” (Oxford) or “supervision”
These are weekly hour-long sessions in which a small group of students
(usually 1 to 3) meet up with a tutor or doctoral student within their college. Typically, you will be asked to produce an essay / assignment prior to the
lesson which will be discussed during the hour along with any difficulties arising from the week‟s lectures. Students typically have 2 or 3 supervisions/tutorials a week. This teaching system is not totally unique to Oxbridge but few other universities have the resources to support such a system on the scale required and rely more on a larger work group (e.g. seminars and lectures).
Small group teaching, with students being taught to communicate their ideas
with an academic, is an obvious catalyst to increased confidence. If the students
are constantly required to articulate, defend, think through and adapt their
ideas under the most rigorous intellectual cross-examination by some of the brightest minds in the world, and they still survive, it make s negotiations in the real world a walk in the park.
; Accommodation ; Lectures
; Dining ; Exams ; Supervisions/tutorials ; Higher level clubs and organisations ; Bar ; Union ; Social (clubs/sports)
Both universities are comprised of a number of colleges that provide the
environment for living, working and sleeping. These provide a small, friendly
environment within the context of a huge international university. Applications are made through the individual colleges rather than the university itself, so you must choose a specific college you would like to attend (or make an open application). All colleges are part of the university as a whole and students reading (studying) the same subject will be given lectures together irrespective of their college; however, supervisions and tutorials are given within the colleges.
Accommodation and meals are generally provided by the colleges and a large part of the social life of a student may revolve around their particular college (most colleges have their own bar!). Colleges within the university generally have their own societies and teams and often compete against each other (e.g.
rowing, rugby, chess, etc.); they will, however, pool their talents in university-wide teams to compete against other universities – especially the “greater enemy” (i.e.
the other, either Oxford or Cambridge) in “Varsity” matches.
Reputation and Funding
Graduates from Oxbridge can generally enjoy good career prospects, as
mention of these universities on a C.V. commands respect from potential employers.
Oxford and Cambridge also generally have a better level of funding than other
universities, so their facilities are usually second to none. This also means that accommodation and meals are often subsidised and there are also a number of grants and scholarships available.
On the more negative side, however, Oxbridge doesn‟t suit everyone. You need
to be extremely motivated and dedicated to maximising your potential. In order
to achieve a place, you need an outstanding academic record and also a well-
Is it for you ?
Once you have secured a place, it isn‟t all plain sailing. Oxbridge make you work very hard for your degree:
; Terms are short but extremely intense
; There are usually lectures on Saturdays
; There are strict rules on concentrating on your studies and not having a
Oxbridge students aren‟t a certain “type” but all are focused and enthusiastic
about their subject. If this doesn‟t sound like you, then it is unlikely you would be
happy there. The best way to check is to go and visit.
OXFORD OR CAMBRIDGE ?
You can‟t apply to both, so you will need to choose between them.
Both are world-class education institutions with reputations for excellence, and it is generally easier to list the similarities between them than the differences.
; Age and Tradition - old buildings and often quirky procedures
; Beautiful Colleges – most are historic buildings surrounded by beautiful
; Academic Excellence – professors are often leaders in their field; both
universities can name some of the most exalted political, business and
academic figures in history amongst their alumni
; Social Composition – college system; teams and societies; events and
; Outstanding Facilities – well funded; cutting-edge research centres;
closely associated with research bodies, companies and spin-offs,
especially in the sciences
; Tutorial / supervision Teaching System – small group teaching; intense
but effective at maximising students‟ potential
Both Oxford and Cambridge are historic towns possessing:
; Well-regarded printing houses (Oxford University Press and Cambridge
; Botanical gardens
; Museums (the Ashmolean and the Fitzwilliam)
; Legal deposit libraries (Bodleian and the Cambridge University Library)
; Debating societies (Oxford Union and Cambridge Union)
; Size – Oxford is a larger city, is busier and is more industrial. This also
means that there is more to do outside of the university and it can feel less
; Architecture – the “dreaming spires” of Oxford give it a slightly different
“feel” to that of Cambridge. Which you prefer is completely personal.
; Course structures – Cambridge offers a “tripos” structure that allows
you to study quite wide-ranging subjects over the three years , whereas
Oxford offers more “joint honours” courses where two subjects can be
; Unique subjects – both offer subjects not available at the other and both
offer completely unique subjects not offered elsewhere at all (e.g.
Veterinary Science at Cambridge but not at Oxford, PPE at Oxford, SPS
o Science – Oxford offers all three sciences separately (and also
some variations, e.g. Human Sciences). At Cambridge, all
scientists take Natural Sciences and choose modules within this
which allows more flexibility if desired.
; Exams – At Cambridge you have three sets of exams – at each stage of the
tripos (end of each year – IA, IB and II). At Oxford you have two sets of exams – prelims of mods within the first 2 years, and finals at the end of the third.
Both universities have retained traditions that date back centuries. Both have
unique names and terms that can initially seem like a foreign language, e.g.
SUB FUSC – formal academic dress worn for exams in Oxford
BATTELS – your bill for accommodation and food at Oxford
P‟LODGE – Porters Lodge – gatehouse to the college
BEDDERS / SCOUTS – people who clean your roomor empty your bins
MICHEALMAS / TRINITY / HILARY – 3 terms at Oxford
PPE (Politics, Philosophy & Physiology) Land Economy (Environment, Law &
Human Sciences Economics
Economics & Management Philosophy
Maths & Philosophy Anglo-Saxon, Norse & Celtic
Classics & English Veterinary Science
What should I take into account when choosing which of the two to apply to?
1) Courses on offer
e.g. Architecture offered at Cambridge but not at Oxford.
Combinations of subjects (e.g. PPE, SPS, Natural Sciences)
Joint courses offered at Oxford at Oxford (e.g. History with Economics/
Cambridge – less flexibility, but with the tripos system you can move st subject after the 1year (e.g. Law / History of Art)
Oxford is larger so there is more on offer outside the university.
Cambridge is more tranquil but can be more insular.
Transport to London is cheaper and easier and easier from Oxford (coach
Cambridge can be more isolated.
Both are surrounded by beautiful countryside.
4) Family / friends
There may be a family tradition of attending one or the other ( but check
this suits you as well !)
CHOOSING A COLLEGE
The Oxford and Cambridge collegiate systems are a rare phenomenon. The individual colleges enjoy a surprising degree of autonomy, controlling to some extent their own entrance policies, permanent staff, finances and disciplinary proceedings. Each college employs a body of Fellows or Dons whose
research and teaching largely defines its academic reputation. Each college
also has a large number of non-academic staff who regulate the life of the buildings and students. The most significant for the undergraduates are the
Porters and the Bedders / Scouts. The Porters are based at the college
gatehouse ( Porter‟s Lodge) and are responsible for overseeing the comings and goings of tourists, students and visitors. Bedders at Cambridge and Scouts at Oxford clean the students‟ rooms.
Each college has a dual function:
1) it is the hub of pastoral life; the place where you live, eat and socialise
2) it is the centre of academic life
The only areas affecting undergraduates where authority is centralised as a university-wide body are lectures and exams.
Colleges are also physically discrete: each has its own grounds and
accommodation and, as a result of their physical and academic independence, each college has a strong character of its own, and a separate identity that
its students are free to either embrace or ignore. The character of a college depends both on its make-up of students and fellows/dons, and its traditions and history, with records and stories that stretch back for centuries. Not only does this guarantee a unique experience for the members of each college, it
creates tremendous diversity in the university as a whole: each friend you
make in a new college opens up a new experience.
The colleges also provide a close, friendly, familiar environment. Whistle
college life tends to be warm and inclusive, none of the activities that bind a given college are ever compulsory, and some people choose to participate mainly in university-wide or town activities. Broadly speaking, the collegiate system offers all the care and individual attention of a tiny establishment,
with the resources and academic clout of a huge one.
There are over 60 Oxbridge colleges including some that are for mature students only. For undergraduates, there are 29 at Oxford and 25 at Cambridge to choose from.
There are several factors you need to consider when choosing the correct college to apply to:
o Does it cover your subject?
; How likely am I to get in?
o What is the applications: places ratio for my subject?
o What is the academic reputation for my subject ?
o Don‟t just look at overall academic rankings – rankings within your
subjects are more important. Also, the number of applicants per
place doesn‟t give an idea of the quality of those applications.
; Quality of teaching
o How many tutors are there for your subjects?
o What is their reputation?
o What do the current students think of the professors that teach
; How academic?
o Will you be under great pressure to achieve?
o Does this type of environment suit you?
o Is the library well stocked for your subject?
; Architecture / Feel
o Gothic? Renaissance? 1960‟s concrete? Historical or modern
o Spacious gardens or compact? Are you allowed to sit and relax on
o Sleepy and quiet or busting and active?
o “Personality” of the college – do you feel content here?
o Gardens, accommodation, computer facilities, gym, sports facilities,
theatre, choir, and, chapel, etc.
o How many meal in college per week? Formal Halls? Cost of these?
o Is accommodation available all three years? How close is the
accommodation to the college / town / faculty? (Some college
housing may be away from the main college site)
o Proximity to the town centre / your faculty
; Single-sex colleges
o Cambridge – Newnham and New Hall are female only