UCAS Applications for Oxbridge: A Complete Teacher’s Guide

As a teacher, you should already have a good understanding of the UCAS application process. However, this process is different (and more challenging) for those applying to Oxford or Cambridge, as well as UK medical schools. In this guide, you will learn about the unique obstacles that face your Oxbridge applicants and how you can support them through the UCAS process.

29th May 2024

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The UCAS Application Process should be common knowledge across any Sixth Form faculty in the UK, so this guide may feel a little bit redundant. However, although you may be a UCAS expert, you might not know as much about how things differ for Oxbridge applicants. 

This is what we will be exploring in this guide, learning about the key deadlines, differences and additional challenges that applicants may face when applying to Oxford or Cambridge via UCAS. Let’s start with the basics.

What is a UCAS Application?

Although this should all be familiar to you, let’s quickly run through everything that is required of a standard UCAS Application:

The first thing any prospective university applicant must do in the UK is register for UCAS. This is done online via the UCAS Hub, which will require some personal details from the applicant to be filled out. Applicants will also need to confirm the year and level they wish to study.

To get anywhere in the process, students will need to fill out a UCAS Application Form. This form encompasses everything that an applicant will need to submit for their UCAS Application, starting with a more detailed questionnaire about the applicant’s personal details. These details will include residency status, ethnic and identity details, details on funding, education/employment history and more. This is an area you likely receive a lot of questions about from students and parents, so you are no doubt well-versed in this form.

It is on the UCAS Application Form that applicants will need to confirm their choices of universities and courses to apply for. Applicants have up to 5 choices of universities which must be decided by the application deadline date.

The full selection of choices is not made available to any of the chosen universities and there is no order of preference. Any changes that need to be made to these choices can only be done once within the first 14 days after the application has been submitted.

For applicants who may not be wishing to attend university in the next year, their application can also be used to apply for deferred entry one year in advance. The process will be the same but will allow them to attend university in the following academic year.

The UCAS Personal Statement is one of the largest and most difficult tasks in an average university application. This document must provide a clear explanation to the universities of why this applicant should be admitted into their course, all in under 4,000 characters.

A typical Personal Statement will include discussions of a student’s school work, work experience, independent research and extra-curricular activities, all while explaining the various qualities and skills learnt throughout that make them worthy of attending their chosen course.

The Personal Statement is currently submitted as a single document, but this will be changed in 2024 into a questionnaire-based system (we discuss this in greater depth later).

This is the part of the UCAS Application that will require your input, as applicants need to provide a reference from a teacher or other professional who works with them in their place of education. This will require you to provide context to your school and the nature of your relationship with the applicant, followed by a written description of the qualities and abilities that make them a suitable candidate.

You have likely written hundreds of these throughout your career, but it is important to note that this process will also be changing alongside the Personal Statement process in 2024 (again, more on this later).

Once all of these steps have been taken, the applicant will be ready to submit their application. Before doing so, they need to ensure that they have triple-checked every detail and have confirmed that they are happy with their Personal Statement. If possible, you or a member of your faculty should also check to ensure everything is correct and to a high standard.

Remember, applicants have to pay a fee of £22 to submit one choice or £27 to submit more than one choice in their application. In 2024, this fee will be increased to £27.50.

As you should know, the application needs to be submitted by a certain date each year:

UCAS Application Deadline 2023/24

31st January 2024 (18:00)

However, it is always good practice to ensure your students get their applications in well before this date. This date is also different for Oxbridge and Medicine applicants, which we will learn about soon.

Once the application is sent, a member of your team will be able to track the process of each student’s application via the UCAS Advisor Portal.

Once offers begin to arrive, applicants will be notified on their UCAS Hub. Offers will be given out as either Conditional (dependent on the applicant achieving the required grades) or Unconditional (automatically admitted regardless of grades).

Applicants will have several options on how to reply to their offers. They can choose to accept the offer as either their “Firm” Choice or “Insurance” Choice, which are essentially their primary and backup options. They can also reject their offer if desired. Once these replies are confirmed they cannot be undone, so the applicant needs to be completely sure that they are happy with their choices before confirming.

UCAS tariff points are used to allocate a numerical value to different qualifications, such as A-levels, BTECs, and other Level 3 qualifications. The tariff points are primarily used as a way to compare and assess the qualifications of applicants for university courses.

Each qualification is assigned a specific number of tariff points based on its level of difficulty and the grade achieved. For example, an A-level grade A* typically carries 56 tariff points, while Grade E carries 16 points. BTEC qualifications are also assigned tariff points, with higher values awarded to more substantial and demanding qualifications.

These points are an important consideration for many applicants in the UK, but not every university considers them, as we will find out later.

You should already be familiar with these three services that are used after offers have been released, but here is a quick reminder:

UCAS Clearing: Clearing provides an extra option for applicants who did not meet the grades required for their Firm or Insurance choices. It allows applicants to apply for courses that match their achieved grades to ensure that they can attend university in the year they applied for.

UCAS Adjustment: This service is for applicants who had exceeded their required grades. The idea is to offer these applicants the chance to choose an alternative course that they prefer to attend compared to their current offer.

UCAS Extra: UCAS Extra allows applicants who received no offers to browse universities that accept applicants through Extra in order to have another chance of securing an offer in the current admissions cycle.

So none of this should be new information to you as it is a process you assist students with every year. So let’s move on to Oxbridge applicants and how their UCAS Application is different from other students:

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How Does UCAS Change For Oxbridge Applicants?

The first thing to note is that almost everything discussed above applies to Oxbridge applicants. The process of registering for UCAS and filling out the application form will be identical for any student in the UK, no matter where they apply. 

Many of the changes that we will be discussing come down to the content that the applicant must provide in their application, which also isn’t different in terms of format or presentation. The key difference for an Oxbridge applicant is simply that they will need to provide and Personal Statement, Reference and academic results that match the standards of Oxford and Cambridge. 

With that being said, there are a couple of things that applicants will need to consider in their application: 

Oxbridge UCAS Deadlines

Applicants for Oxford and Cambridge, as well as any medicine or dentistry degree in the UK, have  a different deadline and key dates for their application:

Oxbridge and Medicine Key UCAS Dates

9th May – Advisor Portal Opens for 2024 Entry (this is important for you) 

16th May – UCAS Undergraduate applications open for 2024 entry. 

12th July – Conservatoires music applications open for 2024 entry.

5th September – Finalised undergraduate applications can be submitted to UCAS.

2nd October – Deadline for conservatoires music applications

16th October – Deadline for applications to Oxford, Cambridge, Medicine and Dentistry

Oxbridge and medicine applicants have over three months less time to complete their UCAS application. This is going to be the first major challenge for anyone who is applying to Oxbridge. To confirm, this means that their application for each of their choices will need to be submitted at this time, they cannot submit non-Oxbridge applications at a later date. 

We will discuss ways to support students with this deadline later in this guide, but it is important to keep this deadline in mind as it is not the only way that this process is made more difficult for Oxbridge applicants. 

UCAS Application Restrictions for Oxbridge and Medicine

When applying to Oxbridge or medical school, there are two restrictions that are put in place relating to the universities that the applicant can select as options:

For Oxbridge applicants, they will have to choose between Oxford and Cambridge as they cannot have both as university options. This rule is the same no matter which courses are selected. This restriction is put in place to reduce the number of applications at both universities, which is already very high. Allowing applications to both universities in one application could potentially double the number of applications that each one gets, which would overwhelm the current admissions system. 

For medicine/dentistry applicants a restriction has been put in place that allows only 4 of their 5 options to be used for a medical degree. This is done for two reasons. Firstly, as medicine is such a competitive course, it reduces the number of applications each year by 1/5th, helping the admissions process run smoothly. Secondly, it gives applicants a chance to choose a safer insurance degree in case their application does not meet the standards required for medicine. It is worth noting that applicants can still apply for degrees with close ties to medicine, such as Biomedical Science and Occupational Therapy. 

UCAS Tariff Points

Students are typically taught a lot about their UCAS Tariff Points and how important they are to their application. However, for Oxbridge applicants (as well as some medicine applicants) these tariff points are not going to be considered by the primary university of choice. Neither Oxford nor Cambridge consider these points in their application process, so once an offer is received the applicant will need to ensure they meet the grade requirements rather than the point requirement. 

UCAS Clearing

Clearing is not offered in any form by Oxford or Cambridge. However, Cambridge offer’s a service outside of UCAS called the Winter Pool. If entered into the Winter Pool, the applicant will be informed at their interview.

This will potentially mean they have been admitted to a different college than the one they applied for or it could give them another interview at a different college in January. This does not always mean that the applicant in question will be successful, but it does give them an additional chance of being admitted. 

You can read about one applicant’s experience with the Winter Pool in our Cambridge Winter Pool Guide.

Outside of these technical aspects, the rest of the differences that Oxbridge applicants will be facing relate to the quality and content of their supporting materials:

UCAS Oxbridge Personal Statements

As we mentioned before, the Personal Statement is the biggest task for most applicants when it comes to their UCAS Application. Writing an effective Personal Statement is a skill that they most likely would not have learnt prior to the beginning of their application, so the process of writing and editing theirs will be a new and challenging experience. However, this task is even more difficult for those applying to Oxbridge. 

Throughout these guides, the common theme when it comes to Oxford and Cambridge is that they are highly competitive and difficult to successfully apply for. This fact alters every single part of the application as students must aim for a higher quality of work than an average university applicant. To put it simply, Oxbridge applicants must be exceptional to stand a chance of gaining their place, especially in most competitive courses. 

So how does this affect their Personal Statement? With the higher standards placed on applicants, their Personal Statements are going to need to be extremely well-written and include content that will impress the admissions tutors at each university. As an example, the University of Cambridge states that they look for the following in Personal Statements that they receive:

  • Explain their reasons for wanting to study the subject at university.
  • Demonstrate enthusiasm for and commitment to their chosen course.
  • Express any particular interests within the field.
  • Outline how they have pursued their subject interest in their own time.

It doesn’t just come down to how the applicant writes their Personal Statement; it’s also about the things they do that they can write about. This means that applicants will need to begin preparing months, or even years in advance in order to have enough relevant and impressive content to discuss in their statement. 

There is more to explore than this, so we recommend you read out Oxbridge Personal Statements Teacher’s Guide in order to learn more about what is expected of applicants and how you can support your students in writing a worthy statement.

Oxbridge Teacher References

Applicants will still need to provide an academic reference in their application, which comes down to you and your faculty. It goes without saying that your reference needs to present the student in a manner worthy of Oxbridge, but how do you do that? 

As a referee, it is your duty to represent your student in a positive but accurate light, so making up details is obviously not allowed. Here’s what you can do though:

Encourage the student to partake in more activities that can be discussed within their reference (as well as their Personal Statement). 

Work with them to develop a clear understanding of their goals and career path in order to discuss this in a detailed and accurate manner.

Improve your own writing abilities to make your reference read as well as possible, ensuring there are no errors within your writing. An Oxbridge-quality applicant needs an Oxbridge-quality teacher!

Work together to gain contributions from other staff members to gain more positive comments in the reference, especially those who work in the subject most relevant to their chosen course.

Just like Personal Statements, there is much more to learn about this which you can find in our Oxbridge Reference Teacher’s Guide.

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Other Oxbridge Application Requirements

The final major difference is less to do with UCAS itself and more about what is required outside of UCAS. The Oxbridge application process features additional steps that applicants will need to complete, most of which fall outside of what is covered by UCAS:

Oxbridge Admissions Tests

Most major courses at Oxbridge and medicine degrees will require applicants to complete an admissions test relating to their chosen subject. There is a wide variety of admissions tests that are run by different organisations, but these are rarely used within the UCAS Application process. Typically, the tests will need to be registered for separately and results will be passed straight to the university by the exam administrator. 

You can learn more about the wide variety of Admissions Tests in our Oxbridge Admissions Test Teacher’s Guide.

Submitted Work

Some Oxbridge courses will require applicants to present some form of submitted work, be it a written piece or a portfolio. This is also done outside of UCAS, instead of being handled by Oxford and Cambridge directly. 

Oxford in particular require written work with many of their courses, so you and your students will need to see what is required for the courses they are applying for. 

Oxbridge Interviews

After being shortlisted by the university, all Oxbridge and medicine applicants will need to attend an interview before decisions and offers are given out. These are typically done in person at Oxbridge and will require a lot of additional preparation. 

Supporting your students with these interviews is important and requires a lot of work, so be sure to read our Oxbridge Interviews Teacher’s Guide. 

With all these additional steps and considerations, it’s easy to see why the Oxbridge application process is considered much more difficult than any other university in the UK. As well as all this extra work, the competition is also much more fierce, which means the standard of this work also needs to be the best it can. 

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Supporting Your Students Through Their Oxbridge UCAS Application

So now that you know the tasks that need to be completed by your Oxbridge applicants, it’s time to see how you can support them through it all. We’ve highlighted some of the key challenges that Oxbridge applicants face with their UCAS Application and how you can provide the support they need to succeed: 

Challenge: Students can struggle to juggle all of the different tasks that they need to complete in their application and keep things at a consistently high quality within the limited time they have available.

Support: At first, it may seem that the most important thing they need is time. Time certainly is an important factor, but it’s how this time is used that will really make a difference. Independent study and preparation time can be helpful for students, but this could also be supplemented with additional sessions and guided study time relating to their UCAS Application. 

Your school likely offers support for the standard UCAS application process already, but Oxbridge applicants will really benefit from at least one session dedicated to the challenges that they are facing and how they can use their time and resources to create the best application possible. 

Oxbridge applicants may also face a lack of motivation when they are required to finish their application so much sooner than their peers, some of whom may not have even started their Personal Statements yet. While most Oxbridge applications will be self-motivated and have the drive to complete the work on time and to a high standard, some may need a gentle reminder that it is important for them to put the effort in now so they can reap the rewards later. 

Challenge: Oxbridge applications typically require a lot of experience outside of school work, including work experience, independent research and competitions. Even with all the initiative in the world, it can sometimes be hard for students to find relevant opportunities for them to take part in or find the time to engage in such activities. 

Support: Supporting students with their work experience and external activities can come in a few forms. It may be that you begin a system at your school to find and present opportunities to your students in order to help them get started with building their experience.

It could also mean that you offer lessons and guidance on how to find and apply for these placements and activities independently. You could also offer support with any application forms and Personal Statements that they need to write to potential placements to ensure they are polished and represent them well. 

As for attending competitions, Oxford and Cambridge each run a wide selection of competitions that could benefit your students. Our Oxbridge Academic Competitions Teacher’s Guide details some of the major competitions and how your students can apply.  

Challenge: Throughout the application process, your students may feel that their work is not reaching the high standards required of Oxbridge, causing an increase in stress and a decrease in motivation. 

Support: Once you begin to run a full Oxbridge support programme, you will most likely be offering the best support possible to ensure that your students are producing high-quality applications. Therefore, there are a couple of reasons why a student may be feeling this way.

Hearing how competitive Oxford and Cambridge are to apply for may lead students to believe that their work has to be perfect. This is not the case as the admissions teams at Oxbridge know that applicants are not already experts in their field. What is important for them to demonstrate is not just their academic ability (which is not yet going to be at the level of an Oxbridge student) but also their strength of character and dedication to their subject. Be sure to let them know that and aim to reflect it in their work rather than perfect academic ability. 

Unfortunately, some students may not be cut out for Oxbridge. Typically, the students that put the most work in will be the ones who are dedicated and skilled enough to succeed, so the ones who are struggling will often not be doing everything they should to ensure their offer. Always aim to motivate them and improve their outlook first, but if they really are unable to get into the mindset of an Oxbridge applicant, it may be necessary to explore alternate options with them. 

These are all very general problems, so you will likely experience students with all kinds of unique issues during their application. You know your cohort and understand what they need to improve, so be prepared to provide the necessary support that they require as an individual. 

Changes to the UCAS Application Process

In 2023, it was announced by UCAS that they were making several changes to their application process, including Personal Statements, references and more. All of these changes have been implemented in order to address several issues that were identified with the current process. We have covered this topic in depth within our Changes to Personal Statements Guide, but here is a brief rundown of the major changes being implemented starting in 2024. Note that these changes apply to all applicants, not just Oxbridge applicants. 

Personal Statements

 In all previous years, Personal Statements have been presented as a single, free-form document that is written from scratch by applicants. In 2024, this will be changed into a questionnaire-based process that will see applicants providing medium-length written answers to a series of questions. All of these questions relate to their application and cover topics that would have already been expected to be discussed within a standard personal statement.

This includes topics like Motivation for Course, Preparedness for Course, Preparation Through Experience and Preparedness to Study. Applicants will still have work counts to consider, but the new style of statement will offer a more structured space to express the thoughts that would have gone into their Personal Statement. 

Academic References

Similar to Personal Statements, references are currently presented in a free-text space, meaning the quality of the reference comes down to how much effort the referee puts in. This can have a negative impact on applicants with less attentive referees, so a new questionnaire system will be implemented instead.

This system will also make references more focused on the topics that are important to universities, including more objective information about the applicant and details on the school they attend. 

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Additional UCAS Changes in 2024

Entry Grade Reports

UCAS have noted some discrepancies between the grades advertised as required versus actual accepted grades at some institutions. Therefore, a new Entry Grade Report will be developed that offers applicants the chance to see grade profiles from previously accepted applicants on a given course. 

Key Dates

UCAS have made some alterations to their deadline dates for both Oxbridge and standard applications.

2022/23 Dates2023/24 Dates
UCAS Registration3rd May 202216th May 2023
Oxbridge/Medicine Application Deadline15th October 202216th October 2023
UCAS Application Deadline25th January 202331st January 2024

Application fees

Application fees are being consolidated into one option for all applicants. All UCAS applications will cost £27.50 as of 2024. 

Widening Access

Starting in 2024, UCAS will be launching the Fair Access Programme, which aims to widen access by removing barriers faced by certain types of applicants to create a more level playing field. 

You can find out more about these changes on the official UCAS “Future of Undergraduate Admissions” Document. You can also learn more about the UCAS process in 2024 in the Official UCAS Advisor Guide for 2024.

Now that you have read this guide, you should now have a good understanding of the UCAS process for Oxbridge applicants. Of course, there is much more to learn about each of the major steps required by applicants, including those outside of UCAS, so be sure to explore our full series of Teacher’s Guides to build a complete understanding of the Oxbridge application process. 

You can help your students and faculty keep track of the application deadlines with our free downloadable UCAS Timeline. And finally, enquire today about how UniAdmissions can support your school in creating the ultimate support programme for your students. 

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.