Making an application to the Universities of Oxford & Cambridge 2015

UCAS International Advisor’s Conference

June 11-12, 2015


Session 1:

Making an application to the Universities of Oxford & Cambridge

  • These uni’s are separate from the others because the application process is different/earlier
  • Both uni’s are rated top 2 in UK, top 3 in Europe, top 5 in the World
  • Both uni’s have a LONG history of admitting intl students
  • NO broad base (i.e. lib arts) on any course; students MUST be absolutely committed to the programme
  • DON’T apply/come for the:
    • Brand name
    • Location
    • beauty
    • history
    • tv shows & movies
    • employability
  • DO apply/come for the:
    • ACADEMICS (tiny classes)
    • world-class teaching tutorials
    • facilities
    • college structure
  • challenging yet supportive; SUPER individualized
  • intl populations: Oxford – 17%; Cambridge – 19% NO quotas, only academics
  • Medicine: Oxford has 14 places for non-UK/EU students; Cambridge has space for 15
  • At OxBridge, 5 applicants per place, i.e. 20% success rate would be assumed, BUT because more than 50% of intl applicants apply to only 5 courses, admission ratio is actually 12-13%
  • Most popular courses for intl applicants: medicine, law, engineering, economics, PPE
    • Competition for these is keen and can be as much as 16 applicants per seat!
  • Oxford’s Econ & Mgmt course is a pure maths course with a bit more practical application
  • Being an open applicant (for colleges) will NEVER disadvantage your application chances
  • Oxford admissions: more exams-focused, most taken at test center in November
  • Cambridge:
    • extra paperwork (online)
      • UK students: SAQ
      • Intl students: COPA
    • Marked written work from school curricula helps to provide content for interview
  • Interviews:
    • Oxford – December
    • Cambridge – Sept to Dec.
  • Decisions out by end of January to allow for moderation and intercollegiate assignments
  • Admission criteria (with varying importance at each uni):
    • Pre-16 academic achievements
    • Post-16 academic predictions
    • Personal statement (PS)
    • References
    • Interview
    • Written work and/or adm tests
  • PS is used as the starting point for the interview…
    • Use 80% on ACADEMIC interests! “we love geeks”
      • Interest, excitement, engagement
      • Inspiration from current curriculum
      • Evidence of going over & above super-curricular
    • Remaining 20% is for everything else
  • Cambridge: about 16,500 applicants for 3,400 offers for 3,300 final seats
  • Oxford: about 18,000 applicants for 3,500 offers for 3,200 seats
    • Stats by country are available online!
  • Counsellor’s reference:
    • 10% about school, include link to profile
    • 80% on academic achievement including subject-specific commentary
    • final 10% could be final persuasive comments or (as necessary) any mitigating circumstances
  • Oxford tests: benchmark across the board to help as applicant pool is so diverse in terms of qualifications
    • Past papers and mark schemes on the Oxford site
    • Encourage students to do exams under timed conditions
  • Oxford interview: 60% will be interviewed… limited to about 3 per place
  • Cambridge interview: 80% interviewed
  • Generally for both universities: aptitude and suitability is the rationale for the conversation
    • Asking questions the kids don’t know answers to
    • Practice for what you would be doing at the university
    • Not about the “right” answer… it IS about the problem-solving style
      • “Can you do the basics before you do the complicated bits?”
        • i.e. examine the test, consider the evidence, etc
    • Don’t use the prep agencies the universities offer help, better & cheaper!
  • How do advisors guide students to choose between the two universities?
    • COURSE choices: names, specifics, modules
    • In the humanities: similar names, poss different approaches
    • In the social sciences: very different options/names
    • In the Sciences
      • at Cambridge, students study sciences together, specialize as you go along, but starting with generalization (both in sciences as well as in engineering)
      • at Oxford, students study within a specific area from day 1
  • COPA may be changing to limit the redundancies
  • COPA may also have an earlier deadline (compared to Oct. 15) in the future

Oxford University – Notes from Counsellors’ Conference

20% success rate overall.

18k applications this year

17% international students – 3200 places, no quotas. (cf 11& Cambridge, 34% Edinburgh, LSE 49%, St Andrews 45%)

Some very high acceptance rates for certain subjects e.g. classics – 90% acceptance rate.

Oldest English speaking uni in world.

3rd in THES World rankings (Harvard and Caltech above), 1st in UK.

259 courses available.  No change possible.


Lots of independent work. Lots of student support, college based, peer-based.  « Family system »

Finance – International students €20k to 30k & college fee €9k and living costs estmiated at €16k.  ie €45k upwards overall.  Very limited scholarships.  EU students eligible to living cost and tuition fee support based on household income.

If UK citizen but out of country for 5 years, treated as international.

General employment skills etc.  In most subjects, Oxford grads in top 5-20% of earnings compared with grads from same subejct from other universities.

Work restrictions on international students.

Open Days July and September.

Interesting Fact and Figures

  • 18k apps, 9k shortlisted, 3.6k offers.  (20-30% of these international).
  • 40-50% shortlisted, 20% offers 2015
  • UK students get more success.  Why success rates lower for internationals? Because students cluster around most competitive subjects.
  • « Over 50% of all pass for 2014 entry from outside UK were for 5 most competitive courses »
  • PP3, ECON AND Mgt, Law, Medicine, Maths.  Success rate for outside UK people are single figure percentages apart from Maths.
  • PPE and Econ-Mgt – lots of students apply who are not realistic. – both are high-level Maths subjects. 2-3s of 1st year is Maths.
  • MEDICINE – only 24 places for internationals.
  • Biggest success rates – theology, modern languages, arch and anthr, music, classics and English, Oriental Studies, Classics and Modern Lang, Class Arch and Ancient History, Materials Science, Chemistry (25%-34%)
  • Most idfficult – Econ and Management, Maths and Stats, Computer Science, Medicine (7-15%)
  • Avoid strategic applications – if students don’t have 100% passion for subject, they won’t be admitted.
  • They check academic achievement, admissions tests, written work, UCAS personal statement, UCAS teacher reference, interviews.
  • Numbers can’t go up – they protect their tutorial system.  (1 or 2 students).


  • IB 38-40, 3 x 6s 1 x 7. (Engineering 2 x 7, 1 x 6)
  • SATs combined score of at least 2100.  SAT Subject tests 700 or better
  • Various types of admissions test to help differentiate top candidates – various types of questions
  • TSA – no more than 2 mins per question
  • 1 in 6 receives an offer..


  • c53% called for interview.  December.  2-3 interiews, each 20-45 minutes.
  • if Skype needed, request.
  • Designed to emulate tutorial system.
  • Can the person think independently and critically?
  • No trick questions
  • Preparation – recent work, wider reading, subject in wider world, many sources of information, know your pers statement.
  • Example biochemistry entry interview – all UCAS forms are graded on 1-7 scale, then interviews at 2 colleges (graded on basis of interviews), so then averaged out of 21 (2 interviews, application form).
  • Typical interview – check out nervousness, ask them to describe some area of science they are confident and knowledgeable  – then probe that.  E.g. membranes – student describes.  Proteins can pass through membranes.  Have recognition molecules attached to them.  What different kinds of membranes?  Similar structure, different composition.  So how does the cell ensure that membranes are of right type? Lengthy answer.  Etc etc, further probing…

UK Update

  • Enough 7s in Maths to realistically ask for it (Oxford).  UCL – 7s in HL Maths.
  • How much weight do Oxford tests take in relation to predicted grades?  Econ and Mgt was trying to interview too many people in relation to number of places.  Hence the tests.  Only common bit of the application.
  • Is it worth offering IB certificates in addition to A-levels?  Oxford view – works well as integrated diploma.  Must be clear why it was worth doing.
  • Do UK unis value diversity?  Oxford purely looking at academics – some students will do more, others will cope only with the subject.  KEY DIFFERENCE WITH IVY LEAGUES.
  • UCL may accept 18 at HL instead of individual marks.

Oxford and the IB

  • Mike Nicholls – Director of Admissions, Oxford Uni
  • Until recently, little logic in IB offers – inconsistency, ignoring of key elements of IB etc
  • 18k applicants – 23% international 8 years ago, now 34%
  • Decline in A-level pool – under 70% applicants with A-levels
  • More international academics – more understanding
  • IB – over 1k now of the 18k applicants.
  • No offers over 40 points now. (38-40)
  • Students who have over 40 points consistently outperform A-level students at Oxford – this should lead to flexibility in the view of their specific
  • Kids with less than 37 points did badly and rarely completed their degrees.
  • Level of Maths – doing Physics and Maths HL more than compensates for not doing Further Maths
  • Humanities and Social Sciences have moved to 6-6-6 HL. Engineers need 7-7-6. UNLIKELY TO ACHIEVE THIS.
  • Average actual standard is 41-42 even though the offer is 38-40. (A-levels – 2.3 x A*)
  • Emphasis on final exams suits IB students
  • IB expects students to read full texts – play to this strength.  A-levels don’t expect this as much.
  • IB is integrated subject – Oxford has joint degrees
  • Extended Essay on top of a heavy schedule is liked.  As are time-management skills.
  • Predictions – often wildly inaccurate!  4-5% of A-level predictions inaccurate – 25% in IB cohort. (Partly because it’s harder to predict in so many subjects).
  • They will wait until A-level results are out to decide
  • School has to opt in to giving results – unis can be left in limbo not knowing what kids’ results are.
  • Teacher workshops – June, July.  3 day residential stay in Oxford – observe a tutorial – eye-opening.
  • Q & A – any benefit taking 4 x HL?  Not really – unnecessary pressure.  Preference for humanities for Law?  Requirements are made clear – Law has no specified subjects.  However, some subjects will give an advantage with the admission test.
  • Can the aptitude tests be prepared for?  TSA – 3-4 hours of prep is suitable.  Not much time available – need to move quickly.  Essay is not regurgitation – a much more focussed response is needed.  Maths paper – get more marks for working-out than the final answer
  • For Medicine – think hard bio-chemical degree.
  • Tutors are responsible for development of the students they admit.