Competition for places at Oxford and Cambridge is fierce. Each January we hear of the lucky place-winners and the less lucky who miss out. But what are your chances of getting an offer from Oxford or Cambridge, how can you try to make these statistics meaningful, and what can you do to improve them?
Your chances of obtaining an offer from Oxford or Cambridge (before you have confirmed your course and college choice, sat your potential admissions test, and been invited up for interview) are roughly 17%, a figure that comes from around 46,000 applicants chasing 8,000 places at the two universities (for 2021 entry, Cambridge offered places to 4,245 out of their 22,788 applicants, whereas Oxford offered places to 3,932 out of 23,414 applicants).
As statisticians will tell you, this figure can’t tell us very much about any individual. So, what factors most influence applicant’s chances of getting an offer?
Getting much closer to the real figure, acceptance rates across the c. 80 undergraduate courses vary from 4% to above 50%.
Let us say you’ve settled on applying for Maths at Oxford. This has a success rate of about 11% on average. But the average applicant does not really exist.
Your chances can plummet to 0% for any course if you do not meet the hard requirements (barring sufficient mitigating circumstances). These include required A level subjects (or equivalent) and a realistic prospect of achieving the standard offer, as indicated by your school predictions.
In addition, pay close attention to the ‘soft’ requirements – the ‘recommended’ and ‘desired’ subjects – as, in practice, it may be very rare for applicants to be accepted without them. For Maths, for example, it is rare for an applicant to be accepted without Further Maths A Level, if offered by school. These vary by college at Cambridge, so do your research before moving to the next stage of the application.
GCSEs are another ‘soft’ requirement, if taken. These are always contextualised, which means they take school performance into account, but they are considered in the pre- and post- interview admissions decisions. Whereas Oxford set no official GCSE requirement, where applicants have them, they tend to be used heavily. For example, the average number of A* for successful Medicine applicants at Oxford is above 10.
Now you have identified some of the assessed steps of the application process, how can you get a bit more precise with judging your chances?
The first thing to do is try to find out how different elements of the application may be weighted for your particular course. This is not always possible and needs to be inferred. As a rule of thumb, Oxford more heavily weight GCSEs and pre-tests in determining who to interview, where Cambridge pay close attention to likely A Level performance (as they ask candidates to achieve more highly in these).
For Maths at Oxford, the most weighted factors are GCSEs (if taken), A Level predictions, and the MAT entrance exam. For courses with far more applicants than places, admissions tests are used to distinguish between the many similarly qualified applicants. This is certainly true for maths, for which the MAT exam is highly influential, even after interview: in 2021, the mean MAT score was 58.8 (standard deviation of 18), whereas the mean MAT score of those offered a place was 82.1 (with a standard deviation of 10). There is no ‘absolute’ benchmark for any admissions test, but a relative one, in comparison to the applicant cohort that year.
Let’s say you’ve got high GCSE grades, good predictions, and you meet the criteria for the course. You have also performed well (in the top 25%) in your admissions test. You then get called to be interviewed in December.
By the time you are sitting opposite your interviewer, your chances of success at Oxford are around 1 in 3 – and about 1 in 4 at Cambridge. You can’t prepare your answers for an interview as you’ll never be able to predict what questions you’ll be asked. However, you can practice thinking about your subject logically and laterally, trying to make links between different topics and seeing how real-world events can relate to your course. It’s also good to get as much mock interview practice before the real thing, preferable with a range of different people. This will help you get used to talking about your subject with a stranger and responding to new, challenging questions.
Though your application is considered holistically, with each piece being considered, the interview gives admissions tutors a sense of whether you are both suitable for the course and the style of teaching and learning at the university. Performing ‘well’ at interview can increase likelihood of being offered a place, but, conversely, applicants who show lots of potential who have a ‘bad day’ on the interview can also be offered a place.
We’ve looked at some factors which may affect the likelihood of being offered an Oxbridge place. The truth is that some deserving applicants with apparently good chances miss out on places each year, whereas others who apply to Oxbridge as a ‘long shot’ are given places. Admissions tutors make the process as fair as possible, but they are also human, and no admissions process can be perfect.
It is possible to assess whether an applicant meets or exceeds the entry requirements for a particular course, but applications are assessed holistically and qualitatively. Therefore, an ‘Oxbridge Success Calculator’ based on exam scores is, more-or-less, nonsense.
Our advice to you is to thoroughly research all your decisions, to work hard in all the areas you can and to have confidence in your own ability. Set yourself concrete, achievable goals, and make a habit to spend time exploring your subject area outside of school. With careful decision-making, effective preparation, and a touch of luck, good applicants are successful.
Above all, if you do not apply, then you have no chance at all. For some help to navigate this process, access our free resources – including our free ebook “So You Want To Go To Oxbridge? Tell me about a banana…” by registering online. Additionally, feel free to contact our Oxbridge advising team on +44 (0)207499 2394 or email at [email protected] to discuss your situation.
Private Consultation prices start at £295 for an hour-long session, and are led by senior members of the Oxbridge Applications team, to help to shape students’ approach to their application. Driven by 20 years of research and first-hand experience in guiding thousands of applicants, consultations provide an honest and detailed assessment, guidance on individual application details, and concrete subject-specific resources and next steps to pursue.