Competition for places at Oxford and Cambridge is notoriously fierce. The news is filled yearly with stories about the lucky students who got in, and those who didn’t. But what are your chances of getting an offer from Oxford or Cambridge – and what can you do to improve them?
Your chances obtaining an offer from Oxford or Cambridge (before you’ve confirmed your course and college choice, sat your Admissions Test and been invited up for interview) are roughly 20%, a figure that comes from around 40,000 applicants chasing 10,000 places at the two universities. These chances, however, can increase and decrease depending on what you do between now and December. Here’s how.
Both Oxford and Cambridge are considered first-class institutions, a healthy rivalry seeing them each jostle for top spot on the league tables. Although Oxford tends to have a stronger reputation for the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, and Cambridge for the Sciences, your education and job prospects from either will be second to none.
If you take a look at the application statistics, your chances of getting into Cambridge are, however, substantially greater than at Oxford. Applicants to Cambridge in 2016 had a 26% chance of getting in – with applicants to Oxford having just an 17% chance of success.
Our research shows that more students apply to Oxford – 59% of 2016 applicants that we surveyed. This may be because many applicants are put off by Cambridge’s more stringent entry requirements – at least one A* at A level for all courses – as well as higher demands for the IB and Pre-U. Oxford, however, use rigorous Admissions Test before they invite applicants to interview. Read on to see how these Admissions Tests will affect your chances.
Between them, Oxford and Cambridge have nearly 80 undergraduate courses to choose from – and choosing can be difficult if you are interested in lots of different areas! Oxford offers many more courses than Cambridge. This is because Cambridge courses give students the flexibility to study related subjects – whilst Oxford’s courses allow you to combine subjects in ‘Joint Honours Degrees’ when you apply. As you can expect, some courses are more oversubscribed than others: applicants for Medicine at Cambridge have a 21% chance of success – whereas those for Anglo-Saxon, Norse & Celtic have a greater than 33% chance of being offered a place. Joint Honours courses at Oxford are notoriously competitive – with applicants for History and English having just a 14% chance of success.
Before you opt for the least competitive course, remember that if you’re not interested in studying the course, you’re not going to enjoy your time at Oxford or Cambridge. And the university will smell a rat if your personal statement looks suspiciously like you’re applying for Economics at your other universities, when you’ve applied for Chemistry at Oxford. What’s more the admissions tutors, who have dedicated their lives to their subject, can spot fake enthusiasm a mile off, so you are very unlikely to be able to bluff your way onto the course.
This is why it is so important that you research your course – we’ve worked with applicants in the past who have not got a place one year for Politics, Philosophy and Economics and then reapplied for Economics & Management the next and been made an offer – even though the course is almost twice as competitive. And if you can’t find anything quite right first time round, keep investigating. Oxford and Cambridge have some really fascinating and unique courses on offer: interested in Law and Economics? Have a look at Land Economy at Cambridge. Like Sociology and Anthropology, but not quite ready to give up Biology – the Human Sciences course at Oxford might just be perfect for you! Remember, that even the most competitive courses are looking for good applicants – so do your research, and don’t be put off a course you love, just because you think it will be a challenge.
Almost everyone at Oxford or Cambridge loves their college and wouldn’t go anywhere else if you paid them. Moreover, you won’t really improve your chances by picking a less oversubscribed college as the university uses a pooling system to make sure that good applicants are looked at again if their first choice college can’t accept them.
You may have heard in the press that some colleges have started trying to take more applicants from the state or private sector. Our research and experience shows that Oxbridge Admissions Tutors are still looking for the best applicants – whatever their background – but the colleges have come under more pressure from the government to explain their decision-making process. It is therefore now even more important to research your college – from where you want to be situated, what you want to get out of college life, and what your college’s position is on this thorny applications question.
Just over 85% of Oxford and Cambridge courses now require some form of Admissions Test – and your mark can determine whether you are invited to interview or get offered a place. Doing well in your admissions test can dramatically improve your chances at Oxford and Cambridge. At Oxford, over 1,600 people applied for the Medicine course in 2017. The university used students’ scores in the Admissions Test, the BMAT, to cut the number down to invite around 500 to interview for 165 places – meaning that by the time you got to interview, your statistical chances of success had increased from 10% to 30%.
Our advice on this matter is to work hard for your Admissions Test and seek out as much help and support as you can – your final score is so important and will really improve your chances of getting an offer.
By the time you are sitting opposite your interviewer in December, your chances of success at Oxford are around 1 in 3 – and about 1 in 4 at Cambridge. Although you can’t prepare your answers for an interview – as you’ll never be able to predict what questions you’ll be asked – you can practice thinking about your subject logically and laterally, trying to make links between different topics and branches 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 with different people – so you can get used to talking about your subject with a stranger and responding to new, challenging questions.
Now it’s up to you to keep your nerve, demonstrate your academic potential and show the tutors that you’ll be a rewarding and interesting person to teach for the next three or four years.
Lies, lies and statistics
Of course, any statistician will tell you these trends are irrelevant when applied to an individual – you could pick the most competitive course at the most competitive college, with the toughest admissions test and still get a place – and deserve that place!
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 – with the right preparation, good applicants are successful.