The competition for admission to Oxford and Cambridge is intense. Each January, we learn about those fortunate enough to secure a spot and those less fortunate who are not selected. If you’re aspiring to receive an offer from these prestigious universities, it’s crucial to assess your chances, understand how to interpret the admission statistics, and explore strategies to enhance your likelihood of success.
Before finalising your course and college preferences, taking the potential admissions test, and receiving an interview invitation, the likelihood of receiving an offer from Oxford or Cambridge stands at approximately 17%. This statistic is derived from a pool of roughly 46,000 applicants vying for 8,000 available spots at the two universities. For 2021 entry, Cambridge extended offers to 4,245 out of 22,788 applicants, while Oxford offered places to 3,932 out of 23,414 applicants.
Statisticians point out that this percentage doesn’t tell us much about individual cases. So, what are the main factors that really affect someone’s chances of getting an offer?
Approaching a more accurate representation, acceptance rates fluctuate across the approximately 80 undergraduate courses, ranging from 4% to over 50%.
For instance, if you’ve decided to pursue a Mathematics degree at Oxford, the average success rate is around 11%. However, it’s crucial to note that the “average applicant” is more of a concept than a reality.
Your chances of acceptance can drop to zero for any course if you fail to meet the essential requirements, unless there are significant mitigating circumstances. These prerequisites include specific A-level subjects (or equivalents) and a realistic likelihood of achieving the standard offer, as indicated by your school predictions.
Additionally, it’s crucial to pay careful attention to the ‘soft’ requirements, which encompass ‘recommended’ and ‘desired’ subjects. In practice, it’s often uncommon for applicants to be accepted without fulfilling these soft requirements. For instance, in the case of Mathematics, it’s infrequent for an applicant to secure acceptance without completing Further Maths A Level, if offered by the school. These soft requirements can vary among Cambridge colleges, so thorough research is advisable before progressing to the next stage of the application.
GCSEs also fall into the category of ‘soft’ requirements if taken. They are always evaluated in context, considering school performance. However, they play a role in both pre- and post-interview admissions decisions. While Oxford doesn’t specify an official GCSE requirement, when applicants present them, they often carry significant weight. For example, successful Medicine applicants at Oxford typically have an average of more than 10 A* grades.
Now that you’ve pinpointed some of the evaluated stages in the application process, how can you refine your assessment of your chances?
The initial step involves attempting to discern how specific components of the application might be prioritized for your particular course. While this may not always be explicitly outlined and may require some inference, it’s generally observed that Oxford places a greater emphasis on GCSEs and pre-tests when determining interview candidates. In contrast, Cambridge tends to closely consider predicted A-level performance, as they expect candidates to excel in these exams.
In the context of applying for Mathematics at Oxford, the most influential factors include GCSEs (if taken), A-level predictions, and performance in the MAT entrance exam. In highly competitive courses with more applicants than available spots, admissions tests play a crucial role in differentiating among similarly qualified candidates. This holds true for mathematics, where the MAT exam significantly influences decisions, even post-interview. In 2021, the mean MAT score was 58.8 (with a standard deviation of 18), while the mean MAT score of those offered a place stood at 82.1 (with a standard deviation of 10). It’s essential to note that there isn’t an ‘absolute’ benchmark for any admissions test but a relative one, compared to the applicant cohort for that year.
Suppose you have impressive GCSE grades, favourable predictions, and meet the course criteria. Additionally, you’ve excelled in your admissions test, ranking in the top 25%. Upon receiving an invitation for an interview in December, your chances of success at Oxford are approximately 1 in 3, and about 1 in 4 at Cambridge.
While it’s impossible to predict the interview questions, you can enhance your preparation by practicing logical and lateral thinking about your subject. Establishing connections between different topics and exploring how real-world events relate to your course can be beneficial. Engaging in mock interviews, preferably with a variety of individuals, helps acclimate you to discussing your subject with strangers and responding to novel, challenging questions.
Despite the holistic consideration of your application, where each component is carefully evaluated, the interview serves as a crucial gauge for admissions tutors. It provides insight into your suitability for the course and compatibility with the university’s teaching and learning style. A strong performance in the interview can boost your chances of receiving an offer. Conversely, even applicants demonstrating significant potential may be offered a place if they happen to have a ‘bad day’ during the interview.
We’ve explored several factors that could impact the likelihood of securing a spot at Oxbridge. The reality is that some highly qualified applicants with seemingly strong prospects miss out on places each year, while others who view Oxbridge as a distant possibility are granted admission. Admissions tutors strive to ensure fairness in the process, but being human, they acknowledge that no admissions system can be flawless.
While it’s feasible to evaluate whether an applicant meets or surpasses the entry requirements for a specific course, the assessment of applications is holistic and qualitative. Consequently, the idea of an ‘Oxbridge Success Calculator’ solely based on exam scores is, for the most part, unfounded.
We encourage you to thoroughly investigate all your choices, diligently excel in all accessible areas, and trust in your capabilities. Establish concrete, attainable goals, and make it a practice to delve into your subject beyond the classroom. With prudent decision-making, effective preparation, and a bit of luck, deserving applicants often find success.
Above all, if you never apply in the first place, your chances are non-existent. For assistance in navigating this process, access our complimentary resources, including our free ebook “So You Want To Go To Oxbridge? Tell me about a banana…” by registering online. Additionally, don’t hesitate to reach out to our Oxbridge advising team at +44 (0)207499 2394 or via 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.