Teacher’s Starter Guide For Oxbridge Applications

Whether you're a seasoned expert or are working with Oxbridge applicants for the first time, there are still ways that you can improve your school's support systems for your student's applications to ensure they improve their chances of gaining their offer. This guide is designed to get you started on your journey to becoming an Oxbridge expert for your students.

29th April 2024

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Those applying to the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge will need to work their way through their infamously difficult application processes. Without effective preparation and the right support, even the best Oxbridge applicants may fail to earn their place. As a teacher, your students will likely come to you for advice on how they can improve their chances of success.

Although you may or may not have first-hand experience in the Oxbridge admissions process, it is still important to educate yourself on everything your students will be going through and find ways to offer them support in the various requirements. 

Whether you have first-hand experience with supporting students in their Oxbridge applications or have only just begun your research into the application process, this guide will offer you an introduction (or recap) to everything you need to know to support your Oxford and Cambridge applicants. There are more steps than your standard university application and higher standards that must be met at each stage of the process, so it is vital that you have a good understanding of what is required from students and how they can meet these high standards.

You will also learn many actionable tips along the way, so let’s get started by looking at the UCAS application process:

The UCAS Application for Oxbridge

No matter your knowledge of the Oxbridge application process, you most likely have a good understanding of the UCAS process for university applications. The application process administered by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service is essential for any student applying for university in the UK, so you should be well-versed in how it works and how you can support your students through the various stages. 

However, when it comes to Oxbridge applications, there are various additional factors that you and your students will need to consider: 

Deadlines: Oxbridge and medicine applicants have an earlier final deadline than other university applicants, with the final submission being required by October 16th compared to the standard date of January 31st. It may help to have timetables or posters informing your students of these dates available to them in their form room or free period area. 

Restrictions: Oxbridge applicants face various restrictions and differences within their application. Firstly, they cannot apply for both Oxford and Cambridge under any circumstance. A similar rule is in place for medicine applicants, who can only apply for four medicine courses with their five available slots. Oxbridge also does not consider UCAS Tariff points in the application process and does not take part in UCAS Clearing (although there are separate systems available that serve a similar function, such as the Cambridge Winter Pool).

Requirements Outside of UCAS: Various parts of the Oxbridge and Medicine application take place outside of the scope of the UCAS Application. This includes admissions tests, interviews and, for Oxbridge applicants, college applications and acceptances (more on these later). UCAS only handles the delivery of the initial application and the delivery of decisions to students. 

UCAS Process Changes: Between 2023 and 2024, the UCAS Application process will be receiving a major overhaul, affecting the format of Personal Statements and References, while also impacting Key Dates, access to grade reports from universities, application fees and the introduction of a new Widening Access Programme. You can learn more about this in our Guide to UCAS Changes in 2024/2025.

For Oxbridge applicants, the UCAS application is only the first step, so let’s move on to the most intensive aspects of the Oxbridge admissions process. 

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Oxbridge Personal Statements

Applicants for all universities need to submit a Personal Statement to UCAS, Oxford and Cambridge included. However, while the format of the Personal Statement is the same for everyone, Oxbridge applicants need to consider that they are applying for two of the most competitive universities in the world. 

While the format is the same, the content needs to be of the highest standard possible to ensure they stand out from other applicants. This means that they will need to think about the quality of their writing, the experiences that they discuss and the story that they are trying to tell. Here are some things that you should consider when reviewing drafts and offering feedback:

Self-Reflection: When writing their Personal Statements, applicants need to reflect on their various experiences rather than simply recount them, especially for Oxbridge applications. They will need to discuss what they learnt, how it impacted them and how it has helped them become a suitable candidate. Some applicants will likely need help with this, so be sure to read through their drafts and offer constructive feedback. 

Spelling and Grammar: Although an obvious factor, spelling and grammar mistakes are the most common mistakes that a student can make with their statement. These are always very easy to avoid, but too many errors could potentially discredit a student’s application, especially when they are expected to reach the standards of Oxbridge.

Encourage students to use advanced spelling and grammar checkers, beyond the default Word option. These tools provide a head start in error detection, but remind students to still carefully review their drafts.

Artificial Intelligence (AI): AI technology has advanced a great deal over the last few years to the point where it is now viable to write a full Personal Statement with it. However, students should always be discouraged from doing this as the technology does not have the capability to discuss personal topics or write to the standard that universities, especially Oxbridge, require. If you feel a student has used AI to write their statement, discuss the matter with them and see how you can support them in writing their own statement. 

Personal Statement Bank: Beyond marking drafts, it is important to help your students get started by offering advice and inspiration. In that regard, having a bank of successful examples for reference is valuable. Request statements from former students admitted to Oxbridge and keep statements from current students (with permission) who receive offers. Building a bank of high-quality examples will not only benefit your current class but all future cohorts as well.

Personal Statement Changes: As mentioned before, the Personal Statement format will be changing in 2025. Where current applicants are required to write a single, free-form statement that covers all aspects expected, applicants from 2025 onwards will need to answer a series of questions which shorter written statements. 

These questions include topics such as “Motivation for course”, “Preparedness for study” and “Preparation through other experiences”. These questions have all been designed to help guide applicants through the different discussion points that are expected from Personal Statements, so it may prove to be a bit easier for those who are less creative within their writing and more limiting for those who are more expressive. 

Be aware that these changes will affect all applicants, so you will need to remain informed on these changes no matter where your students are applying to. Our Oxbridge Personal Statement Teacher’s Guide offer more details and resources to help you prepare for these changes before the admissions cycle begins. 

UCAS Academic References For Oxbridge

The other major aspect of a typical UCAS application is the teacher reference, which you or another member of your faculty will need to complete. The aim of this reference is to provide credibility to the student’s claims and offer some insight into their academic ability and dedication to their subject. Just like the Oxbridge Personal Statement, your reference will need to achieve a high standard in order to help boost your student’s application.

In 2023, the format for these references will change in the same manner as Personal Statements. This change is being implemented a year earlier so you will need to ensure you are prepared to write your references in the new questionnaire format. The three questions you will need to answer are: 

These are all topics that your reference will have included previously, so your main challenge will be adapting to the new format. However, when writing your statement, it is vital that you work with your students to ensure that you understand their goals and motivations with their application. While your work needs to reflect your own thoughts, you should also aim to make sure what answers you provide will definitely benefit your student. 

Beyond ensuring you are writing to Oxbridge’s standards, here are a few other tips that will help you in their reference writing process: 

Word Processing Software: The UCAS referencing system requires you to submit your answers into an online application form built into the website. However, it is recommended by UCAS that you draft your answers on a word processing software first as it allows for more versatile editing and checking. This is also true for students writing their Personal Statement.

Extenuating Circumstances: Always seek permission from the student before discussing any extenuating circumstances that could be relevant to include in the reference. Respecting their choice, even if it may enhance their chances, ensures their right to privacy and control over the information shared.

Answer All Three Questions: Per UCAS guidelines, only Question 1 (general school information) is considered mandatory for teachers. However, a high-quality reference should provide comprehensive responses to Question 3 (applicant information) and, if possible, include details in Question 2 (extenuating circumstances).

COVID-19: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, universities may inquire about the applicant’s experiences during this time, such as educational disruptions, digital adaptability, and performance impacts. Mentioning the student’s ability to cope well during the pandemic is recommended by UCAS, with additional details discussed if necessary. However, as we move further away from the peak of COVID and lockdowns, this requirement will become less and less necessary. 

Oxbridge Admissions Tests

Beyond the elements of the UCAS application, the first major step of the Oxbridge application process is the admissions tests. While not every Oxbridge applicant will be required to sit one, the vast majority of Oxford and Cambridge’s most popular courses use an admissions test. Here are some important things to consider before supporting your students with their tests: 

Non-Oxbridge Admissions Tests: Oxbridge universities aren’t the only ones to use admissions tests. The key examples of this are Medicine and Law applicants, most of whom will need to sit the UCAT or LNAT. However, other subjects have admissions tests that aren’t always required, such as some mathematics applicants having the option to sit the MAT, STEP or TMUA to boost their application. 

Cambridge Pre-Interview Assessments: Various subjects at Cambridge run admissions tests that are sat right before interviews. This means that applicants are shortlisted primarily by their UCAS Application, Personal Statement, reference and grades. The results of these tests will instead influence the final decision made by the admissions team.  

Becoming a Testing Centre: Registering your school as a testing centre can be extremely helpful to your students as it will make the process of sitting their admissions tests much easier. The easiest tests to administer at your schools are those run by Cambridge Assessments Admissions Testing and Tata Consultancy Services, who run various admissions tests for Oxford and Cambridge.

You will need to ensure your school is able to meet the standard required of testing centres, including space, security, technology and accessibility. You can find out how to register as a testing centre via the official CAAT and Oxford websites. 

The preparation requirements for each admissions test will vary greatly depending on the subject, question types and overall skills being tested, but there are plenty of tips that can be applied to supporting any student with their studies: 

Admissions Test Resource Bank: It is strongly advised to collect as many preparation resources as possible for your applicants to give them a good selection of practice materials for their revision. This can include free resources such as past papers, online guides and videos, as well as paid resources such as textbooks, access to question banks and courses (if your budget allows).

Keeping these resources organised in either a physical or virtual folder will allow your students to access them whenever they need, which will help remove one of the biggest barriers to their preparation. Don’t forget to let them know what they have available to them to ensure they fully utilise it. 

Mock Exams: This method of practice requires the most time and effort, but giving your students at least one chance to sit a realistic mock exam will help them understand the pressure of sitting the real test and will help them improve their exam technique. Not every school will be able to facilitate this, but if you can spare a free period to hold a mock test, your students will then be able to understand what they need to work on in their own free time. 

Cut-Off Scores: Neither Oxford nor Cambridge uses solid cut-off scores for their admissions tests. This should come as a relief to some applicants, as those who are not skilled test-takers will still have their application considered regardless of test performance. However, all applicants should aim to be achieving high scores on their admissions tests as it will greatly improve their chances of being invited to interview. 

Oxbridge Interviews

Although applicants for some other courses and universities will be required to attend interviews, they are most prevalent at Oxford and Cambridge, where every applicant will need to attend at least one. The interviews are the final major step of the admissions process before receiving an offer and play a large part in the admissions tutors’ decision-making, so your students need to ensure they are prepared.

Beyond studying interview techniques and reviewing practice questions, the most valuable thing your students can do to prepare for their Oxbridge interview is to sit a mock interview. Setting up an effective, realistic Oxbridge mock interview can be difficult, but it is vital that applicants get at least one chance to test their performance and learn from their mistakes. Consider the following when setting up a mock interview at your school:

Timings: Schedule set interview times and create a timetable for applicants to know their slot. For a more realistic simulation, provide them with about two weeks’ notice to allow for ample preparation time.

Location: Find a quiet and uninterrupted space, like a reserved classroom or your office, to conduct interviews without distractions for the applicants.

Questions: Plan your interview questions in advance, including a mix of generic and subject-specific ones from the categories we discussed earlier.

Personal Statement: Review each student’s Personal Statement before the interview to discuss and assess what was included, such as their experiences or general writing skills.

Interviewer: Act as an Oxbridge admissions tutor during the mock interviews, assuming a character or using a fake name to create an authentic Oxbridge panel experience.  If possible, involving an expert on your panel enhances the simulation.

Notes and Feedback: Take detailed notes during the session, highlighting both positive and negative aspects of each applicant’s performance. Feedback is crucial for improvement, so discussing their performance afterwards is essential.

Student’s will still need support beyond their mock interviews, so here are a few additional tips to ensure they are fully prepared:

Help with Research/Resources: Provide students with helpful resources, including those from our Teacher’s Guide series and official materials from Oxford and Cambridge. This will give them a wealth of knowledge to start their own research and preparation.

Wider Reading: Promote and help with wider reading among students. Offer dedicated reading time, provide relevant texts and resources, and emphasise the importance and benefits of exploring their subject.

Provide Support and Feedback: Offer support and feedback to applicants outside of mock interviews to help them develop their skills effectively.

Dedicated Preparation Time: Allocate dedicated time to applicants who struggle to balance preparation with other commitments. This helps ease stress by allowing them to focus solely on their application for an hour or two.

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Oxbridge Enrichment and Wider Reading

Enrichment and wider reading aren’t official stages in the admissions process but it is vital that applicants take part in enriching activities throughout the entirety of their application in order to develop their skillset and understanding of their subject. The best applicants at Oxbridge are the ones who fully immerse themselves in their subject and take any opportunity to engage with it. 

As you may already know, enrichment can take many forms, including: 

Wider Reading: Engaging with books, articles, case studies and other texts relating to a subject.

Work Experience: Taking part in a professional placement or shadowing opportunity within a relevant industry.

Research Projects: Setting a topic to explore through various means and presenting one’s findings in a professional manner. 

Academic Competitions: Entering a contest relating to a subject, which can take many forms, including essays and quizzes.

Extra-Curricular Courses: Taking part in a course designed to boost a student’s understanding of a specific subject or topic.

Extra-Curricular Groups/Clubs: Joining a group that regularly meets to discuss a topic or take part in a relevant activity. 

This is part of the Oxbridge application process that many students find the most difficult. As it is not an official step in the process, it can be difficult for some students to understand why it is so important to engage with their subject at this level. 

There are a number of factors that could prevent them from properly engaging with enrichment, but there are also ways that you can help them get past these initial barriers and begin to enjoy these additional tasks:

Motivation: Some students will struggle to motivate themselves at the beginning to put in the extra work. Whether this is because they haven’t found their specialist topic, they are daunted by the difficulty of the process or any of the other issues that we will discuss shortly, the best way to improve motivation is to help them get started.

As a teacher, you should aim to help your students get past this first hurdle, as once they have begun their enrichment, they will see that it is possible and can be enjoyable when they take on topics and texts that they are interested in. 

Time: Many students will feel that they don’t have enough time to engage with enrichment alongside their application, school work and any other commitments outside of school.

While they may need to sacrifice some free time in order to properly engage with enrichment, it is also important to encourage them to use some of their free periods at school to do enriching activities. If possible, you could even go as far as offering dedicated time to your students to partake in activities that will boost their application. 

Resources: In some cases, relevant resources, such as books, courses and even work experience opportunities are hard to find or access. This could be because the subject matter is too niche, there are too many options to pick from or, in the case of work experience, the chosen field is more competitive or doesn’t offer as many lower-level opportunities.

We have already mentioned this, but you should aim to support your students by creating resource banks and work placement lists that can be utilised by them throughout their preparation.

Finances: A primary reason for a lack of resources that many students face is finances. Many of the best enrichment resources require an investment which can sometimes be fairly expensive. While there are cheaper and free options available for anyone to use, some students may feel they are being locked out of the best option for their needs.

While it is not possible to directly help students in most cases, you and your school can attempt to help out as many students as you can through thoughtful use of your budget to invest in resources that will maximise the benefits to your students. 

Additional Oxbridge Application Advice

We’ve now covered all of the major steps that Oxbridge applicants will need to go through during their applications (except for achieving their grades, which you will already have a good understanding of).  So to conclude this guide, let’s take a look at a few more general tips and things to consider when supporting your students:

Understanding Oxbridge

Before actioning any of the advice we have given, we would suggest ensuring you’ve done your research about the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. These two universities function very differently from any other in the UK, so there will likely be things that you don’t know about if you haven’t done your research already. Some of the most important topics to understand include: 

The Oxbridge Collegiate System: Unlike any other university in the UK, much of the student experience at Oxford and Cambridge are run through colleges. Each student must apply for a college that will become to centre of their life at Oxbridge. This isn’t a decision to be made lightly as the colleges can vary greatly from one another. Both you and your students should review our Oxford Colleges and Cambridge Colleges guides to help in their decision.

Oxbridge Teaching Styles: Oxbridge implement a unique teaching style compared to other universities that favour smaller group sessions (known as tutorials at Oxford and supervisions at Cambridge) and independent projects. This may come as a shock to unaware students, so understanding it yourself will help you explain it to your students. 

Oxbridge Traditions: Students at Oxbridge are expected to take part in a variety of traditional, formal events throughout the year which vary between universities and even colleges. This all leads to the Oxbridge lifestyle feeling extremely different from other universities and may not be to everyone’s tastes. 

You can begin your research in our Teacher’s Guide to Oxbridge below: 

Utilising Oxbridge Application Data

If you or your school likes to take a data-driven approach to your work, then you will be glad to hear that there is a plethora of data available to help you support your students in their applications. 

Whether you are interested in applicant success rates, average scores for admissions tests or demographic data, you will be able to use the figures from previous admissions cycles to review chances of success for your students and make predictions for how well they will need to perform. To get started in this analysis, we suggest reading our Oxbridge Application Data Guide:

Financial and Accessibility Support for Oxbridge Applicants

You may have Oxbridge applicants that require additional support in one way or another. It may be that they have a disability that may impact their ability to study at Oxbridge, or they may be an international student struggling with the admissions process. It may also be that an applicant is financially unable to support their application or study due to extenuation circumstances. 

All of these factors can have an unfair, negative impact on a student’s application, especially if they have proven that they have the academic potential and proper motivation to be successful. Therefore, Oxford and Cambridge each have a variety of support options available to ensure that those who will thrive at Oxbridge have a fair shot of earning their offer, regardless of circumstances. 

These include different bursaries and scholarships to help those with financial needs, departments that specialise in accessibility for disabled students and comprehensive guides and support options for international applicants. We provide a detailed overview of the various options available in our Oxbridge Financial & Applicant Support Guide:

That concludes our starter guide to Oxbridge Applications. We hope that the information and advice we have provided in this guide will help you shape your school’s support system for not just Oxbridge applicants but all university applicants. By providing the best support for each of your applicants, you should find that your school’s success rates will increase each year. This is only the start of what you need to know, so continue your learning with our other Teacher’s Guides available on our Teacher’s Hub

However, that’s not all the support we have to offer you. If you are looking to create your own resources library for your students, check out our Oxbridge Resources page in order to fill your collection with lots of helpful web pages, documents and practice materials. 

If you are looking to take things a step further, we would recommend learning how UniAdmissions can take on the bulk of your Oxbridge application support and triple your student’s chances of successfully earning their offer! Our Oxbridge Premium Programmes are designed around each student’s needs to ensure they are getting the best support outside of school hours. Discover how you can work with UniAdmissions today!

Other Helpful Oxbridge Resources

Free CPD-Accredited Oxbridge Counsellor Course

This free online course is designed to equip you with the knowledge and skills needed to help your students secure a place at the world’s top universities. You’ll complete the course as an Oxbridge expert!

Teacher’s Oxbridge Learning Hub

Access all of our highly detailed written guides for teachers, as well as useful resources and information about our school support.