Step by step practicalities for applying to Oxbridge – a student’s guide

By Matthew Carmody

So finally you are ready to apply. The next stage is arguably the one that causes students the most anxiety, until they are invited to interview of course. Your UCAS application will need to be submitted by the closing date for all Oxbridge applications of 6 p.m. on 15 October. Let’s go through the practicalities step by step.

Step one: preparing your UCAS application

The online form will be the same as for every other university: through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS). The UCAS form is a long document that is completed online and sent to all five of your chosen universities. It asks you to include details of your school(s), exam grades, employment experience, your choices of university and a personal statement: a 4,000-character written document that outlines the reasons for your choice of subject.

You will need to specify a campus code in your ‘courses’ section. For most universities, this will be ‘main site’, but for collegiate universities such as Cambridge and Oxford, you need to state the college you wish to apply to from the list, or select ‘Open’ if you are not concerned about naming a specific college.

NB You cannot apply for both Oxford and Cambridge in the same admissions round; you’ll need to choose one or the other.

Step two: references

You will need to tell your school or college that you wish to apply to Oxbridge as soon as possible. If it has had lots of candidates who have applied before, the staff will be aware of what the colleges are looking for from the academic reference. If your school has little experience of making Oxbridge applications, the universities will probably be aware of this anyway and base their decision more on your personal statement and grades. But it is worth reminding your referees of the early deadline and making sure they’ll have your reference ready on time. It is also worth remembering that although it may only be one person, such as a Personal Tutor or Director of Studies, who will be writing your reference, they will be talking to all of your subject tutors, so it is in your best interests to keep them all very happy and impressed with your work.

You will also need to confirm that your school has submitted the Extenuating Circumstances Form to Cambridge, if you are eligible to apply through this scheme.

Step three: external tests

You must check the deadlines for any special tests that you may be required to sit, such as the BMAT or the LNAT. Oxford admissions tests and pre-interview subject tests for Cambridge will take place on the same day (31 October).

Step four: supplementary questionnaires

Cambridge

Once you’ve submitted your UCAS form, you will receive an acknowledgement almost immediately from Cambridge by email, along with its Supplementary Application Questionnaire (SAQ), which will require completion by the following week. The following link gives some very helpful advice about completing the SAQ, which can be a bit daunting for some students: www.undergraduate.study.cam.ac.uk/applying/ saq/faq. The link also contains the phone number for the admissions office and they are very happy to help students who have queries about how to complete the form.

The SAQ is filled out online, costs nothing to send and gives Cambridge more information about you and your application. If you do not have access to email you can contact the Cambridge admissions office for a paper version.

The initial email will give you all the information you need in order to com- plete the form correctly, as well as a deadline (usually a week after the UCAS deadline: 22 October).

The SAQ includes the following eight sections.

  1. Application type. This section asks questions about your application, such as whether you have applied for an organ scholarship, if you are taking a gap year or whether you are including the Extenuating Circumstances Form.
  2. Photograph. You will need a passport-sized colour photograph of yourself, preferably in digital format, which can then be uploaded onto the form.
  3. Personal details. This covers information about yand your own situation, such as where you live, what your first name is, etc.
  4. BMAT number. This is for applicants for medicine. You need to put your BMAT number here so that Cambridge can access your results when you sit the BMAT.
  5. Education. In this section, you will need to provide information about your class sizes and the topics you have covered (up to the tim of application in your A levels). You will also need to specify if you’ve received extra help if you are taking the STEP/AEA.
  6. Qualifications. In this section, you need to give details of your AS and/or A level modules (for any qualifications sat under the ‘legacy’ modular specifications), or their equivalents, and your marks.
  7. Additional information. This is where you can add an additional personal statement and inform the university of anything else they feel they should know about you.
  8. Submission.

The additional personal statement is the perfect opportunity for you to explain to the admissions tutor how excited you are about the course and it is also recommended that you give any reasons for applying to a particular college. Do take advantage of this extra space to make an impression.

Remember, however, not to duplicate anything you have said on the UCAS form. While your UCAS personal statement will be seen by every institution you apply to, the SAQ is for the admissions tutors at Cambridge only. This means that you can discuss particular elements of the course content or programme at Cambridge without putting any other university off. Make the most of this and explain why its course and teaching staff are perfect for you, and why you will fit in particularly well there.
Remember also that by mentioning your areas of special academic interest you will encourage predictable questions at interview, making it easier to prepare thoroughly.

Oxford

Your chosen college at Oxford will usually be fairly swift in confirming that it has received your application and it will write requesting any further information it requires. If you have made an open application, the college to which you have been allocated will respond.
Oxford no longer requires any additional forms, apart from the following two exceptions.

  1. candidates for choral or organ awards. In both cases, you need to have completed and submitted the applicationform by 1 September– a full six weeks before the Oxbridge UCAS deadline! For more information, visit www.ox.ac.uk/admissions/undergraduate/apply- ing-to-oxford/choral-and-organ-awards.
  2. graduate applicants for the accelerated medical course. The form needs to be completed and submitted by the same date as the UCAS application: 15 October. For more information, visit www.medsci.ox.ac.uk/study/medicine/accelerated/application- procedure.

Step five: submitting written work

Another way in which admissions tutors decide whether or not  to interview you – if you are applying for an essay-based subject – is by looking at a sample of your written work. This is something that you need to consider once you have submitted your application form(s). By looking at your work, the admissions tutors will be able to assess your ability to research, organise information, form opinions and construct a coherent and cogent argument in writing. These are essential skills to have when studying an essay subject at Oxbridge, and the admissions tutors need to see that you have these skills, and the potential to improve.

Normally the work that you send will have been written as part of yourA level course. It would not normally be expected to be more than2,000 words. Make sure that you send a particularly good example of your work. Normally, this should be original work which has been marked by your teachers, but not corrected or re-written based on your teachers’ feedback.

Do not, however, submit anything that could not have been written by you. Plagiarism will be very obvious to admissions tutors and could potentially get you into some tricky situations at interview, since submit- ted written work is often discussed then.

At Cambridge, each college has a different policy on written work, but you are more likely to be asked to send in work if you are applying to read an arts or social sciences subject. For example, to study HSPS at Selwyn College you will be required to submit two recent marked essays from relevant areas of your A level studies. The college will contact you directly if it requires work from you.

The Oxford prospectus gives clear instructions about what you need to send and when. Remember to inform your teachers in advance that you will need to send marked work.
If you have applied to Oxford, there are a number of courses that will require you to submit written work and you should check the course page at  www.ox.ac.uk/admissions/undergraduate/courses-listing to see if it is the case with your subject. At the time of writing the following subjects require written work to be submitted:

  • archaeology and anthropology
  • classical archaeology and ancient history
  • classics
  • classics and English
  • classics and modern languages
  • classics and oriental studies
  • English and modern languages
  • English language and literature
  • European and Middle Eastern languages
  • fine art (portfolio submission)
  • history
  • history (ancient and modern)
  • history and economics
  • history and English
  • history and modern languages
  • history and politics
  • history of art
  • modern languages
  • modern languages and linguistics
  • music
  • oriental studies
  • philosophy modern languages
  • philosophy and theology
  • religion and oriental studies
  • theology and religion.

As with Cambridge, Oxford says that you should submit marked written work that you have completed over the course of your school or college studies. Each piece of written work should be no more than 2,000 words and should be submitted together with an accompanying written work cover sheet, which is available from the University of Oxford website.

Step six: await the call for interview!

Matthew Carmody is the author of Getting into Oxford & Cambridge 2019 Entry (9781911067801).

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