Armed with this information, you will be able to guide your students choices, ensuring they have the data they need to be able to make an informed choice.
For many (though not all) subjects at both Oxford and Cambridge, you will have to take an admissions test as part of your application, and your score will contribute to your chances of success.
In general, Oxford interviews fewer people than Cambridge, so the admissions tests are more important in shortlisting candidates to invite to interview. On the other hand, Cambridge, maintaining its high interview rate, seems to put less emphasis on the admissions test scores prior to interview (however, the ENGAA (Engineering Admissions Assessment) and the TSAC (Thinking Skills Assessment Chemistry) seem to be exceptions to this ). This means that by and large, if you are applying to Oxford, it’s especially important that you aim for top marks in your admissions test.
Below, we’ve illustrated how two different faculties use their admissions test to shortlist candidates:
The pre-interview shortlist score is a combination of the HAT (History Aptitude Test) score and your contextualised GCSE score, with the HAT weighted at 70%. The aim is that each college should interview three candidates for every place, so the pre-interview shortlisting process is intended to achieve this number. The History faculty advises colleges not to invite for interview candidates scoring below a designated cutoff score, which varies from year to year. However, colleges may “rescue” candidates from below the cutoff score if they have Access or Widening Participation flags, or for extenuating circumstances stated on their UCAS application.
Applicants for English will take the ELAT (English Literature Aptitude Test), with each candidate receiving a score out of 60 and being sorted into four bands on the basis of this score. The score is used in pre-interview ranking and can also be used for deciding between candidates.
Band one identifies those candidates who should definitely be called for interview unless other indicators strongly suggest otherwise, whereas band four identifies candidates who are unlikely to be invited, unless other factors outweigh the test result. In pre-interview ranking, the ELAT score is weighted at 40% of the overall deciding factors.
Along with admissions test scores, GCSE grades are a major element of the pre-interview selection process, and the importance of GCSEs should not be underestimated. This is especially the case under the new A-level system whereby most applicants will not have taken AS exams, meaning that GCSEs are the only concrete qualifications that the average applicant will have when they apply. This also means that if you have slightly weaker GCSE grades but you already have achieved strong A-level results – for example if you are applying after a gap year – these may help compensate.
Some faculties, such as the Oxford History faculty, choose not to consider A-levels or predictions in their official pre-interview shortlist score, because they only use criteria that apply to all applicants. However, the faculty-wide shortlist score does not determine whether you are offered a place as the decision is made by the individual colleges which will take into account many aspects of your application, including A-levels. The purpose of the ranking is rather to give Admissions Tutors an idea of where the applicants to their college fall within the context of all the History applicants that year.
An example of a faculty that does take predicted and achieved A-levels into account for pre-interview assessment is Chemistry at Oxford, which gives each candidate a mark from one to five based on A-levels or equivalent (achieved/predicted), AS (if applicable), GCSEs or equivalent, and the teacher reference.
On average Cambridge makes higher offers than Oxford, requiring more A*s at A-level. As they are less selective than Oxford pre-interview, the high offers allow them to whittle down their numerous candidates post-interview. They also tend to make more personalised offers than Oxford, meaning that for some subjects you cannot be entirely sure until you receive your offer what grades will be required at A-level. This is something to bear in mind if your A-level grades or predicted grades are strong but not outstanding.
Note: some schools do not predict A*s as a matter of policy. If this is the case with your school, make sure that it is mentioned in the teacher reference.
For some subjects, especially if there is no admissions test, you will be required to submit written work as part of your application. Although written work is often overlooked by candidates, it is a vital piece of the application for many subjects. In the Oxford English faculty for example, the written work score makes up 40% of the pre-interview assessment, whilst GCSEs make up only 17.5%.
Written work should take the form of school or college work written as part of your course, and should be marked by a teacher. Rules may vary between faculties but the Oxford university guidelines state that each piece should be around 2,000 words long, and should not be re-written or corrected after it has been marked. In Cambridge not all colleges require written work for a particular subject, so check the requirements for your first choice college.
Written work may be officially assessed according to a number of criteria if it is used in pre-interview shortlisting. The assessment criteria for written work in the Oxford English faculty include:
sensitivity to creative use of language
evidence of careful and critical reading
coherence of argument
Since written work is a tutor’s opportunity to see how you structure arguments and what kind of work you might be submitting at university, it is important to submit pieces that show you at your best. As the submitted pieces must be taken from your school work, make sure you work hard on your A-level essays and aim to get high marks so you have a strong selection to choose from.
As you put together your university application, the UCAS personal statement is one of the main things you will be focusing on. In terms of pre-interview selection, faculties which operate a pre-interview score and ranking system tend not to include the personal statement in this ranking. However, as we have already seen, such rankings do not make or break an application, and college Admissions Tutors are free to take all factors into account.
The personal statement, as the name suggests, is the only truly personal element of your application; it is your opportunity to make an impression on Admissions Tutors as an individual and to convey your passion for the subject. Remember that tutors aren’t just looking for applicants with good grades, but applicants with a demonstrable interest in and aptitude for the subject who will make engaging students – the UCAS statement is your chance pre-interview to show that you are such an applicant.
The good news is that whilst GCSE grades cannot be changed and admissions test scores depend on your performance in one exam, the personal statement can be tweaked and worked on as often as you like before you submit it, and you can ask for feedback from others. If your grades aren’t as high as they could be, make sure you put extra effort into your personal statement so you stand out and make admissions tutors want to interview you.
The A Level system that has been in place since 2000 will shortly be coming to an end. Following Michael Gove’s education reforms, more emphasis will be placed on rigorous and uniform assessment, namely by changing the A Level course structure from modular to linear. The AS Level will no longer contribute to the A Level, but will be a stand-alone, optional qualification. The implications of these changes are that both AS and A Level courses will become far more reliant on single sets of examinations as a measure of academic ability. Coursework is being phased out in the majority of courses, and several others are having their coursework component halved – including English and History for which coursework previously made up 40% of a student’s final grade. Naturally, wariness of these changes abounds, particularly regarding the new pressure at exam time when it finally comes around after two years. However, there are potential benefits to this structure as well. The new A Level is arguably a better design for preparing students for the self discipline of university study. Without the progress check of an AS Level, students will be responsible for ensuring they revise consistently throughout the year in preparation for a final set of exams.
With such a monumental shift in how students will be assessed, university Admissions Tutors have the challenge of evaluating students under the new reforms. The Director of Admissions for Cambridge, Dr Mike Sewell, wrote an open letter to all schools and Sixth Forms addressing the importance of AS Levels for assessing students, urging teachers to encourage students to take AS Levels as a “robust indicator of student progress”, which will continue to assist Cambridge Admissions Tutors in their decisions. Though unable to condemn the reforms, it is clear that a clutch of AS results are a dependable source for Cambridge in judging the academic competitiveness of a candidate, a source they will be reluctant to lose. AS Levels will continue to assist Admissions Tutors in judging “whether an application to Cambridge is likely to be competitive”.Oxford have also spoken out against the reforms, though their concern is that they will damage student aspiration. Mike Nicholson, the Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Oxford, has argued that “the real danger is students will plough on believing that they may not be capable of applying to a highly selective course . . . losing AS Levels will have a really significant result on the likelihood of students from a disadvantaged background progressing to higher education.” With the reforms going ahead, more responsibility will sit on the shoulders of the teachers guiding school leavers to bolster their sense of their own potential, and ensure they are aiming for universities that reflect their capabilities.
For students for whom A Levels are a stepping stone to further education, we counsel awareness of the statements universities are making in regards to A Level reforms. While Oxford and Cambridge have made clear their belief that AS Levels are highly valued in a university application, this position may change in the upcoming years, and also is a position which varies across universities. The University of Liverpool released a statement arguing that they “do not believe it to be fair to use AS Level grades when not all applications based on A/AS Levels include this information”, and Birmingham and Sheffield have made statements similar in effect. In this time of change, be aware of how the AS Level is currently perceived by top universities as a beneficial marker of progress, but also how this perception may change in the years to come. As ever, research is your students’ best friend. However, they cannot afford to leave their investigations until the Sixth Form. The new A Level requires hard decisions to be made earlier, so where possible, teachers should discuss the implications of students’ Sixth Form choices before they have finished their GCSEs.
|Country||Examination||Oxford Grade Requirements||Cambridge Grade Requirements|
|Europe||International Baccalaureate||38–40 points, including core points, with 7s and 6s in the higher level subjects.||40-42 points out of 45, with 776 in Higher Level subjects. For subject requirements, Standard Grades are broadly comparable to AS levels, and Higher Level subjects to A Levels.|
|Europe||European Baccalaureate||An average of 85% or above, with scores of between 8 and 9 in specified subjects.||85-90% overall, with 90% in the subjects most closely related to the subject applicants wish to study.|
|France||French Baccalaureate||French Baccalauréat or Option Internationale du Baccalauréat with an average score of at least 16.||16 or 17 (‘mention trés bien’) out of 20, with 16 or 17 usually required in specific subjects|
|Germany||Abitur||Abitur with a total mark between 1.0 and 1.5 with scores of between 14 and 15 in individual subjects.||Typical offers vary from an overall score of 1.0 to 1.3 (1.0 being the top score). Scores of 14 to 15 (15 being the top mark) are usually requested in specific subjects.|
|Greece||Apolytirion of Lykeio||Apolytirion with an average of 19 / 20 points and normally 2 or more A-levels at grade A.||Typical offers would be based on an overall average score of 19 and scores of 19 in individual subjects|
|Ireland||Irish Leaving Certificate||For courses with an A-level entrance requirement of AAA: H2H2H2H2H2H2 at Higher level.|
For courses with an A-level entrance requirement of A*AA: H1H1H2H2H2H2 at Higher level.
For courses with an A-level entrance requirement of A*A*A: H1H1H1H1H2H2 at Higher level.
|Leaving Certificate would be based on H1H1H1H2H2H2 for courses with an A*AA A Level entrance requirement and H1H1H1H1H2H2 for courses with an A*A*A A Level entrance requirement.|
|Scotland||Highers and Advanced Highers||AAAAB or AAAAA in Scottish Highers, supplemented by two or more Advanced Highers. Offers made to candidates on the basis of the Advanced Higher subjects are likely to be set at AA for two subjects, and AAB for three subjects.|
AAA Usually required at Advanced Higher grade.
For subject requirements, Highers are broadly comparable to AS levels, and Advanced Highers to A Levels.
|Wales||Welsh Baccalaureate||Advanced Diploma with A*A*A* to AAA at A-level.||Offers are conditional on 3 A Levels studied within the qualification, rather than the overall Baccalaureate award. Students taking any modular A Levels are required to provide details of these and their UMS in their SAQ|
|Other countries and qualifications||Further information can be found here.||Further information can be found here.|
|Country||Examination||Oxford Grade Requirements||Cambridge Grade Requirements|
|China||Senior High School Diploma, University Entrance Examination (Gaokao)||Senior High School Diploma, Chinese University Entrance Examination or ‘GaoKao’ would not be sufficient for candidates to make a competitive application.||Senior High School Diploma is not sufficient, for ‘Gaokao’ offers are made on an individual basis but applicants generally need to achieve results within the top 1% – 2% of the gathered field. Contact individual colleges for advice.|
|India||CBSE or ISC Class XII examinations||Year XII qualification, studied with either the CBSE or ISC examination boards, with an achievement of 90% in each of the five subjects studied. Science subjects may also require that candidates take the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) entrance examinations as a pre-condition for entry.||Applicants from India must normally either be potential affiliated students (i.e. applying to study for a second Bachelors degree) or studying for the International Baccalaureate or A Levels. Applications from students taking CBSE or ISC Class XII examinations will be considered but only for the following courses: Computer Science, Economics, Engineering, Mathematics, Natural Sciences. To be shortlisted for interview such applicants will need to have achieved a minimum CGPA of 9.8 and grade A1 in their Class X examinations in the relevant subjects. Any offers of admission made to such students will be conditional on performance in the IIT-JEE or, in the case of Economics or Mathematics, on performance in STEP Mathematics.|
|Hong Kong||Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education||HKDSE with grade 5s in three elective subjects. (The exception is for candidates taking Mathematics, who would need a 5* in the compulsory Mathematics course and then a 5 in the Mathematics extended paper).||5*, 5* and 5 in three specified elective subjects, related to their chosen course at Cambridge. Demanding conditions may set in core subjects of the Diploma, particularly Mathematics and English.|
|Hong Kong||Associate degrees from Hong Kong||3.8 or better||Not specified.|
|Hong Kong||Hong Kong Advanced Level Certificate||AAA||Not specified.|
|Rest of the world||Cambridge Pre-U Diploma||Conditional offers are likely to vary between D2, D2, D3 and D3, D3, D3 depending on the subject. D2 is considered to be equivalent to an A* grade at A-level and D3 to an A grade.||Conditional offers likely to require Distinction level grades (D2 and D3).|
|Other countries and qualifications||Further information can be found here.||Further information can be found here.|
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Academic potential is always going to be the most important factor for an Oxbridge Admissions Tutor. Before you embark on the demanding and time intensive process of applying, you need to ask yourself honestly: are my grades good enough?
Whilst both universities seek top-achieving students, they do actually treat grades in slightly different ways, so we’ve gathered together some of the most informative stats to give you an insight into what marks you’ll need.
Excellent grades are no more than a passport to your interview. They are not a passport to success.
Cambridge, unlike Oxford, will ask you to submit your UMS scores for individual papers. You submit these scores on your Supplementary Application Questionnaire (SAQ) one week after the UCAS deadline. Using this information, the university is able to differentiate between candidates achieving low As and candidates achieving top As. Those who achieve the top As at AS-level/predicted grades tend to go on to achieve A*s at A-level. These are the candidates Cambridge is looking to identify and go on to offer places.
Oxford offers are generally slightly lower than Cambridge, and the grades that successful candidates go on to achieve reflect this. This would seem to suggest that Oxford is more inclined to depend upon students’ performance in the university’s own admissions processes, such as the Admissions Tests and interviews, for assessing candidates. This is supported too, by the fact that the setting of Admissions Tests is still more widespread in Oxford.
However, you are still required to achieve an incredibly high standard of grades, and recent changes this year, such as the new conditional offer for Maths (see below) indicate how important excellent grades still are, for Oxford as well as Cambridge.
These statistics come directly from the universities, and are the most recent statistics available. When the 2013 application cycle is released, they will be updated.
If you have fallen short of the 7A*s mark, please don’t despair. Every year, both universities make offers to students with 1, 2 or even 0A*s at GCSE. If your GCSE grades are not up to scratch, you may not be invited to interview. However, if you can demonstrate extenuating circumstances, this can help. Alternatively, you can try to maximise on the opportunities afforded to you by the Oxbridge admissions processes, which offer more opportunities than other universities to demonstrate your worth, whether it’s the personal statement, test or a written submission.