Oxbridge Admissions 101: Everything You Need to Know

POSTED ON 09/29/2023 BY The Red Pen

University students engaged in a lively discussion on the campus sidewalks.

In the realm of higher education, few names carry as much prestige as Oxbridge, a portmanteau of the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge. These hallowed institutions, steeped in centuries of tradition and academic excellence, have consistently drawn the brightest minds from around the world. The legacy of Oxbridge universities is marked by its prestigious alumni, a list that includes Jawaharlal Nehru, Albert Einstein, Homi Bhabha, Sarojini Naidu, and many others. Oxbridge’s alumni continue to leave a mark in diverse fields, from literature and science to politics and the arts.

However, studying at Oxbridge is accompanied by a formidable challenge – the highly competitive nature of their undergraduate admissions process. According to recent data, the admit rates at Oxford and Cambridge consistently rank among the lowest in the world, reflecting the intense competition that applicants face. In 2022, 1,185 Indian students applied to Cambridge UK, but only 238 candidates were accepted. However, this should not deter prospective applicants, as acceptances at Oxford UK, especially for those of BME (Black, Middle Eastern, and Ethnic) origin, increased from 18.3 percent to 27.8 percent.

This guide will delve deeper into the world of Oxbridge, exploring the rich history, unique traditions, and academic excellence that define the universities. It will also provide insight into the rigorous admissions process, offering strategies to enhance your chance of success. Whether you aspire to become a part of the illustrious Oxbridge alumni or are simply curious about the inner workings of these iconic institutions, consider this your comprehensive overview of all things Oxbridge.

The Oxbridge experience

For students who seek a distinctive and enriching educational journey, Oxbridge offers a unique academic and cultural environment that is second to none. At the heart of the Oxbridge experience lies a commitment to academic rigour and innovation. Learning directly from renowned faculty members is one of the unique advantages of studying at these universities. Whether your passion lies in literature, science, mathematics, or any other discipline, these universities offer access to experts who have shaped their fields and continue to strive for excellence.

Beyond the classroom, Oxbridge is steeped in cultural heritage. The historic architecture, picturesque landscapes, and time-honoured traditions provide an inspiring backdrop to the academic pursuit. Whether attending formal hall dinners in grand dining halls at Oxford or participating in May Ball festivities at Cambridge, students immerse themselves in a cultural tapestry that connects the past with the present. Networking opportunities are abundant, and the forged connections extend far beyond graduation into a wider global community.

Discover six distinct features that makes Oxbridge unique

Choosing the right Oxbridge course and college

Selecting the right course and college to align with your academic interests involves making informed decisions. Your selected course should align with your academic interests, career goals, and passions. Similarly, the college you choose within the university should shape your social interactions, support networks, and the community you build. It is best to check the requirements for your undergraduate programme and the necessary academic qualifications. Here are some decision-making tips: 

  • Explore course options: Oxbridge offers various courses, some of which may not be available at other universities. Begin by thoroughly researching the courses on offer and their curriculum. Consider your academic strengths, interests, and long-term goals when deciding. 
  • Examine university cultures: Both universities have their own unique cultures. Spend time exploring their profiles and histories. Think about the university size, the availability of academic resources, and the extracurricular opportunities they offer. 
  • Attend in-person open days: Cambridge and Oxford allow you to attend open days where you can explore the college grounds, libraries, dining halls, and student accommodations. They give you a sense of what it’s like to be part of that college community. 
  • Embark on virtual tours of the colleges within each university: If you cannot attend in-person open days, Cambridge and Oxford offer virtual tours. The Cambridge virtual tour allows you to explore its campus through the courses offered. The Oxford virtual tour enables you to explore its colleges and facilities. 
  • Connect with students: If you’re undecided about which university to attend, you may chat with the students at Cambridge or engage with Oxford’s international student ambassadors. 

Oxford or Cambridge: Which university is right for you

The Oxbridge collegiate system

The collegiate system is a hallmark of Oxford and Cambridge, differentiating them from most other universities. At Oxbridge, the traditional concept of a university is transformed into a network of individual colleges, which play a pivotal role in the academic and social life of the students. Oxford UK has 43 colleges, while Cambridge UK has 31(29 accept undergraduate student applications).

Each college operates as an autonomous, self-contained academic and social community with its own character, architecture, and ethos. Some are renowned for their rigorous educational programmes, while others may be known for their vibrant arts scene or sporting achievements, enabling students to select one that resonates with them. 

These colleges also offer accommodation and facilities like libraries, IT services, recreation rooms, etc. Each has a vibrant extracurricular ecosystem, boasting sports teams, drama societies, music ensembles, and clubs. For example, Christ Church College at Oxford has the Christ Church Boat Club. It is one of the most successful among Oxford’s colleges with an excellent history of producing Varsity-standard rowers, known as ‘blues’.

Students are assigned a tutor or supervisor who guides their academic progress in each college. These tutors are experts in their respective fields and provide personalised attention to students, helping them excel in their studies. Dining in grand, Harry Potter-esque halls is another tradition at Oxbridge. Students come together for meals dressed in academic gowns, adding a touch of ceremony to everyday life.

The college system provides a strong support network. It’s easy to form close friendships within the college, and the sense of community extends to helping each other academically, socially, and personally. The smaller size of colleges than the overall student body encourages a sense of belonging and mutual support.

Furthermore, Oxbridge alumni often retain a lifelong connection to their college, which can be an invaluable resource for networking and career opportunities, resulting in scholarships, mentoring, and other support for current students.

Read about how to choose the right Oxbridge college

The Oxbridge tutorial system

The Oxbridge tutorial system is a teaching and learning method unique to Oxford and Cambridge, distinguishing them from most other institutions. Several distinctive features define this system. It involves one-on-one or small-group instruction, providing students with personalised guidance. Typically, these small groups consist of two to four students, a departure from the larger lecture-style classes in many other universities.

Tutorials are a part of the Oxbridge collegiate system. They emphasise active learning, independent thinking, and intellectual discussion. Students discuss and critically engage with the assigned readings and topics during these tutorials. They may be required to write essays or present their arguments on a particular topic. 

Tutors often tailor and adapt content to match the pace of each student. Assessment within the system includes examinations, essays, and oral reviews, which assess students’ understanding of the subject matter, proficiency in critical thinking, and communication skills.

It is important to note that while this system is synonymous with Oxford and Cambridge, not all courses exclusively employ tutorials; some may integrate a mix of tutorials, lectures, and seminars, depending on the academic discipline and level of study.

Discover 5 reasons why the Oxbridge tutorial system gives you life skills

Oxbridge application process 


UCAS, or the University and Colleges Admissions Service, plays a crucial role in the application process for undergraduate programs at universities in the United Kingdom, including the prestigious Oxbridge institutions: the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge. 

All undergraduate applicants, including those applying to Oxford and Cambridge, must submit their applications through the UCAS system. UCAS is a centralised platform where students can apply to multiple universities and programs by filling out a single application form. This form includes personal information, academic qualifications, a personal statement, and reference letters. The UCAS Deadlines for Oxford and Cambridge courses are earlier than for other UK colleges: There is a strict submission deadline of 6 pm (UK time) on 15 October (When this date falls on a weekend, the deadline shifts to the following Monday, that is October 16th in 2023)

2) My Cambridge Application

The Supplementary Application Questionnaire (SAQ) has been decommissioned and is no longer used. Applicants for most undergraduate courses at the University of Cambridge are now required to complete My Cambridge Application in addition to their UCAS application. Separate arrangements apply for applicants to the Foundation Year in Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences and the Cambridge Graduate Course in Medicine; please see the University of Cambridge’s course pages for further details.

Oxbridge application requirements

1) Academic requirements: 

The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge accept the A Level and the International Baccalaureate (IB). To study at Oxford, A Level students require a score between A*A*A and A A A, depending on the subject. At Cambridge, A Level students need scores between A* A* A and A* A A. Cambridge entry requirements for IB students are 40 to 43 with 7-7-6 HL, whereas Oxford requires 39 with 7-6-6 HL. Oxford also accepts national curricula from around the world, with entry requirements tailored to the specific curriculum.  For example, if you’re studying in India’s CBSE or ISC, your predicted exam grades must be 90 percent (95 and above in two to four subjects, depending on the applied course). To apply to Cambridge, Indian students require additional qualifications. 

2) Personal statement: 

As part of the UCAS application, students must write a personal statement for universtiy admission. This piece of writing is a chance to highlight your unique talents and experiences. There are two things to consider when planning the personal statement – practical and factual information and the emotional, human parts that make you unique. Before you start writing, take some time to think about the key things you’d want the admissions officer to know about you and get them down on paper. You can also look at the course description, which will help you with what to include. Remember, it can only be 4,000 characters. So, use your words wisely. For more information, read our UCAS Personal Statement Guide – Part 1 and UCAS Personal Statement Guide Part 2

3) Writing assessments 

Writing assessments, such as the Cambridge Written Assessment or the Oxford Thinking Skills Assessment (TSA), evaluate your critical thinking, analytical, and writing skills. Unlike personal statements, which offer insights into one’s experiences and motivations, these assessments specifically assess academic aptitude and potential objectively. The Cambridge Written Assessment typically comprises essay questions that require applicants to showcase their analytical thinking and writing skills within a specified time frame. On the other hand, the Oxford Thinking Skills Assessment primarily encompasses sections that evaluate problem-solving, critical thinking, and essay-writing skills. 

Always review past papers to familiarise yourself with the format and types of questions posed. Doing so will help you understand expectations and structure. Practise constructing well-organised arguments using evidence and maintaining a clear and concise writing style. Dedicate time to enhance your analytical thinking by solving complex problems. Engage in critical reading and engage in meaningful discussions with peers. Develop time management skills to complete all assessment sections within the allocated time frame. Share your practice essays with teachers, mentors, and peers for constructive feedback. This constructive criticism will aid in identifying areas for improvement in both writing and analytical skills.

4) Entrance exams: 

Oxbridge often requires applicants to sit specific entrance tests. There are two types of UK college entrance exams: subject-specific and university-specific. Subject-specific exams include the Law National Aptitude Test (LNAT) for law courses, the Sixth Term Examination Paper (STEP) for mathematics programs, and the University Clinical Aptitude Test (UCAT) for medical and dental courses. University-specific exams include the English Literature Admission Test (ELAT), the History Aptitude Test (HAT) for the University of Oxford, and the Mathematics Admission Test (MAT). However, Cambridge Assessment Admissions Testing has introduced several reforms and will withdraw a series of entrance tests from 2024-25. These tests will be the BMAT (medicine), ENGAA (engineering), NSAA (natural sciences) and TMUA (mathematical skills) tests.  When considering the Oxford entrance exam or the Cambridge entrance exam, it’s essential to check with the university or a UK college admissions consultant about applicable exams. Read our ultimate guide to undergraduate entrance exams for UK universities.

Here is a table for the academic year 2023/2024:

Entrance TestExam DatesOfficial Source
BMAT18th October 2023(Discontinued after 2024)BMAT Website
TSA18th October 2023TSA Website
ELAT19th October 2023ELAT Website
HAT20 October 2023HAT Website
MAT19th October 2023MAT Website
LNATRegister between 1 August -15 September 2023 to book LNAT test slot before or on 16 October 2023LNAT Website
STEP8 June for STEP exam 221 June for STEP exam 3STEP 1 discontinued since 2021STEP Website
UCATLast Test Day 28 September 2023UCAT Website
ENGAA18 October 2023ENGAA Website
NSAA18 October 2023NSAA Website
TMUA18 October 2023TMUA Website

5) Oxbridge interviews: 

The interview stage of Oxbridge admissions is another crucial aspect of the selection process. Interviews aim to assess your academic potential, problem-solving skills, and critical thinking ability. They vary by course and college but generally consist of subject-specific questions, problem-solving exercises, and discussions of your submitted work or essay. Interviews are typically online for international students. Cambridge interviews around 75 percent of undergraduate applicants, while Oxford interviews at least half of all its applicants. Applicants most closely meeting the selection criteria may have multiple interviews for competitive courses. It’s essential to prepare for these interviews. Read our guide on how to ace your Oxbridge interview.

6) Additional contextual data

Some applicants may have faced considerable challenges, such as overcoming financial difficulties or attending schools with limited resources. Contextual information plays a crucial role in your application to Oxford or Cambridge. It allows the admissions officer to understand your achievements in light of all you have faced.

While your academic performance remains a pivotal factor, contextualisation enables universities to evaluate additional aspects such as your school’s performance, socio-economic background, and more. You can provide this information within your personal statement or through your teacher’s academic reference.

Oxford vs Cambridge at a glance

FeaturesUniversity of OxfordUniversity of Cambridge
Founding year10961209
Number of colleges4331
Undergraduate admit rate17.5%Depends on Course but between 20% to 25%
A Level requirementBetween A*A*A and A A A, depending on the subjectBetween A* A* A and A* A A
IB requirement 39 with 7-6-6 HL40 to 43 with 7-7-6 HL
Popular majorsMedicine, Philosophy, Chemistry, Politics, EconomicsComputer Science, Engineering, Medicine, Economics
Average class size6 – 12 1- 30 
Number of international students23% of the entire student body25% of undergraduates
Notable alumniDr. Manmohan Singh, Malala Yousafzai, Albert Einstein, Stephen HawkingAlan Turing, Emma Thompson, Charles Darwin, Rajiv Gandhi

In conclusion, a successful Oxbridge application requires thorough preparation and a well-rounded presentation of your academic abilities, motivation, and potential to excel at these prestigious institutions. Guidance from educators and mentors can be beneficial as you diligently prepare for your applications. 

You may read our blogs on 9 Compelling Reasons Why Students Apply to Study in the UK and How to Apply to UK Universities as an International Student. If you need assistance with your application to Oxford or Cambridge, please get in touch. Our Oxbridge experts look forward to hearing from you.