What is Oxbridge?: A Teacher’s Guide to Oxford and Cambridge

What is Oxbridge? You may have been asked this question by your students, as well as countless other questions about the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. This guide will take you through the key information you need to know to support any prospective Oxbridge student with their application, allowing you to guide them to success.

19th April 2024

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As a teacher, you will be responsible for guiding students through their university applications – a task that will likely cause a great deal of stress for them. Most universities use the basic UCAS process for their applications, but this isn’t true of the University of Oxford or the University of Cambridge. 

The two Oxbridge universities have implemented a much more rigorous application process that may seem foreign to you and extremely daunting to your students, so it is important to have a firm understanding of it before beginning preparations. This guide is designed to help you and your faculty understand the Oxbridge application process and provide support for preparing your students.

By the end, you should have a good understanding of what your students will be facing and how you can give them the help they need to succeed, so let’s get straight into it. 

What is Oxbridge?

The term Oxbridge refers to the two oldest and most prestigious universities in the United Kingdom, the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge. Although these universities are now both a part of the Russel Group, their history goes back nearly 1,000 years. 

The History of Oxbridge

As two of the oldest universities in the world, you can expect that the stories behind Oxford and Cambridge are rich, varied and plentiful. 

University of Oxford Radcliffe Camera Exterior

The history of Oxbridge starts with the founding of Oxford University which is known to have happened as early as 1096 (although the date is known exactly and is likely earlier than this). This date represents the first known evidence of teaching at Oxford, with the University developing over the next few hundred years. Such developments include the appointment of the first chancellor in 1214 and the creation of the first colleges in 1249.

Around this time, events took place that led to the creation of Cambridge University. After a dispute with the local townspeople of Oxford, various scholars left the town for Cambridge to begin their own university. Modelled after the teaching styles at Oxford, Cambridge soon rose to become an equally prestigious university, offering the same quality of teaching with subtle differences from their counterpart. 

University of Cambridge King's College Chapel Exterior

Both universities have a vast array of notable alumni from all industries and walks of life. Oxford has produced some of the world’s greatest thinkers and scholars, including philosophers, scientists, writers, and politicians, such as Stephen Hawking, Margaret Thatcher and J.R.R. Tolkien. Cambridge has also produced numerous distinguished alumni, including Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Emma Thompson.

Over the centuries, Oxford and Cambridge have undergone many changes, adapting to the changing needs of society and the world of academia. They have both played significant roles in the development of modern science and medicine, while also being at the forefront of important social and political movements, such as the women’s suffrage movement and the fight against apartheid in South Africa.

Today, Oxford and Cambridge remain among the most highly-regarded universities in the world, attracting the best and brightest students from around the globe. They continue to be centres of academic excellence and research, producing cutting-edge research and scholarship across a wide range of fields.

Oxford vs Cambridge - A Timeless Rivalry

With their histories so entwined with one another, it is no surprise that a historically competitive (albeit friendly) rivalry continues to this very day. The two universities compete with each other in a variety of ways, including academic performance, research, sporting events and more:

Academic Performance

Both universities are renowned for their academic excellence and their ability to produce outstanding scholars and researchers. They compete fiercely for the best students and the most talented faculty members, and they are constantly seeking to outdo one another in terms of research output, teaching quality, and academic reputation.


The origins of the rivalry are not entirely clear, but it is thought to date back to the early years of both universities. Scholars from Oxford and Cambridge would often debate and compete with one another. These debates still take place to this day, tackling key issues in the modern world. 


Sporting events are the most direct form of competition you will find between Oxford and Cambridge today, with teams from each university facing each other in annual competitions. The most notable of these is the world-famous “Boat Race”, which takes place each year and sees rowing teams from each university compete over 4 miles of the River Thames. This event typically takes place in spring and always is televised, so be sure to check it out if you want to learn a bit more about the Oxbridge rivalry. 

Oxford Vs Cambridge Boat Race 1873. Date: 1873 - Black and White Drawing of Two Teams of Rowers on the River Thames. Caption says "The Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race Ready to Start".

Find out more about the comparisons between these universities in our Oxford vs Cambridge guides:

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Oxford or Cambridge - Which Is Best For Your Students?

Beyond these formal events and measurements, there are other ways in which the universities can be ranked. These considerations will be more important for prospective applicants who are deciding between the two universities, so being aware of them will help you guide them to the university that will suit them best:

University Rankings

Various ranking tables exist to provide clear insights into which universities are considered the best in the county and the world. Here are some of the top-ranking tables available and where Oxford and Cambridge place on them: 

Oxford: 3rd

Cambridge: 2nd

Oxford: 2nd

Cambridge: 1st

Oxford: 2nd

Cambridge: 3rd

As you can see, the rankings can vary somewhat from table to table so these results should be taken with a grain of salt. You can learn more about the ranking tables for specific subjects in these guides: 


Although both universities excel in a wide variety of subjects, Oxford and Cambridge each have their own strengths in their courses. 


Oxford is well known for having many political alumni including 30 Prime Ministers, many of whom would have studied Oxford’s world-famous PPE course. As well as this, Oxford has produced a large number of notable figures in the arts, ranging from actors to writers. This has given Oxford the reputation as the more Humanities focused university of the two, meaning those wishing to study philosophy, politics, classics and more may wish to apply here. 


As we’ve already seen, Cambridge has taught some of history’s greatest scientific minds, with many of them immortalised with statues and wings around the campus. It’s no wonder that their Natural Sciences course has become a top choice amongst those wishing to enter the scientific field, so Cambridge may be a top choice for any students wishing to follow that path.

It’s important to understand your student’s key interests when helping them decide between the two universities in order to help them find the best match. With that being said, all courses at both universities are designed to provide the highest standard of education, so your students won’t be disadvantaged by attending one instead of the other.

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Why is Oxbridge so Important

As we’ve already mentioned, Oxford and Cambridge are ranked among the top universities in the world. You may begin to ask if they are truly deserving of such high praise when compared to other universities, but we believe that Oxbridge really is worthy of its reputation. Here’s why: 

Both Oxbridge universities are known for their academic excellence, research output, and historic traditions, so earning a degree from either university can open up a wide range of career opportunities and help students stand out in a competitive job market. Statistics relating to employability, student satisfaction and research quality all show that these universities actually produce results and form students into professionals that can perform expertly in their fields.

Studying at Oxbridge can be a transformative experience for students, both academically and personally. The universities offer a challenging and intellectually stimulating environment, with world-class faculty members and a rich and varied curriculum. Students are encouraged to think critically, engage with new ideas and push themselves to achieve their full potential, all thanks to the unique teaching styles implemented by Oxford and Cambridge.

Studying at Oxbridge can be a highly rewarding and fulfilling experience. For many students, studying at Oxbridge is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be part of something truly special and to make lifelong connections with people from all walks of life. Whether it be the legacy of the campuses, the unique, traditional lifestyle and events or the vast array of extra-curricular opportunities, there is something for each student to take away and develop from. 

The Challenges of Oxbridge

Of course, Oxbridge is not for everyone. Whether it be due to the rigorous application process, the high expectations of teaching and academic results or the traditional lifestyle, some students will either struggle to cope in the environment or simply not agree with how things are done there. 

It is the students who really want to study at Oxbridge that get their places, so pushing the application on a less interested student will likely end in a greater deal of stress and a higher chance of failure in their application. 

As you will soon find out, the application process for Oxbridge is much more challenging than other universities in the UK, leading to very low offer rates for their courses, especially the most popular ones. 

This is done purposely to ensure that only the best of the best are selected to study there, so applicants must have a real drive and a good level of competency in their subject in order to stand a chance. Those who do not will likely become overwhelmed by the large amount of preparation required to ensure success in their application. 

With such a high reputation, Oxford and Cambridge both work incredibly hard to maintain their academic performance. This comes down to the students at the end of the day, so the tutors at Oxbridge set very high standards that all students are expected to meet. 

This means a lot of work and a fair amount of pressure is needed to succeed. Some students welcome the challenge, who are the students that are most likely to get their offer. But those who are not equipped to handle such pressure will struggle throughout their studies and will be more likely to drop out before the end of their course.

Keep this in mind when helping students decide their university choices, as those who struggle with their current school work will likely have a harder time should they be accepted to either university. 

Oxbridge is known for operating in very traditional manner, which includes the lifestyles of the students. Whether it be the accommodation or the formal events, students are expected to immerse themselves in the Oxbridge lifestyle, which many students are eager to do. However, for those who are less keen on this way of living, Oxbridge may not be the right choice for them. 

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Key Oxbridge Statistics

To help you get a better understanding of the challenges that face Oxbridge applicants, let’s take a look at some core statistics surrounding Oxbridge and its application process:

Oxbridge Applicants vs Offers

To put the application process in numbers, we can take a look at the success rates for each university, or the applicants vs offers. These are recent general success rates for Oxford and Cambridge: 

Applicants: 23,819

Offers: 3,645

Success Rate: 15.3%

Applicants: 22,470

Offers: 4,238

Success Rate: 18.9%

We can see here that Cambridge has a slightly higher success rate, but applicants for both universities still have less than a 1/5 chance of gaining their offer. Success rates for some of the most popular subjects can be even lower:

Oxbridge Medicine Success Rates

Applicants: 1,500

Offers: 168

Success Rate: 11.2%

Cambridge (2022)

Applicants: 1,971

Offers: 286

Success Rate: 14.5%

Oxbridge Law Success Rates

Oxford (2023)

Applicants: 1,748

Offers: 203

Success Rate: 11.6%

Cambridge (2022)

Applicants: 1,971

Offers: 286

Success Rate: 14.5%

Oxbridge Economics Success Rates

Applicants: 1,502

Offers: 87

Success Rate: 5.8%

Cambridge (2022)

Applicants: 1,513

Offers: 165

Success Rate: 10.9%

Making students aware of these figures is essential, as it will allow them to understand the competitiveness of the Oxbridge application process. The minority that receives offers to study will have worked extremely hard in the months and even years leading up to their application, and the competition that your students will face shall be just as tough.

These aren’t the only statistics you should be aware of, so be sure to read our Oxbridge Application Data Explained Guide to learn more about required grades, subject competitiveness, demographic data and much more. 

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Understanding the Oxbridge Collegiate System

As you may be aware, Oxford and Cambridge operate under a unique collegiate system that has been running for hundreds of years. Understanding this system is essential to your students to ensure they make the right decision, so it’s also important for you, as a teacher, to understand how it works so you can guide your students in their decision-making process. 

At Oxford and Cambridge, students are affiliated with three separate entities: the university, their subject department, and one of over 30 colleges. A student’s college is essentially their home while at university, like a more in-depth version of a school house, while subject departments handle course content, core teaching, exams, and awarding degrees, resulting in the same degree regardless of college choice

newnham-college-cambridge exterior
St-Hugh's-College-Oxford Exterior

The colleges at Oxbridge are each responsible for admitting students, which means they will look over applications, shortlist/interview candidates and decide on whom to send offers to. Undergraduates can indicate their college preference in their UCAS application, but if they have none, they can choose an open application that will be allocated to a college with fewer applications for their course in that year. However, they are committed to their choice once the application is submitted. 

Colleges are all very different from one another, with certain colleges focussing more on certain subjects while others are more popular with certain demographics of students. While Oxford is co-ed, Cambridge still has single-sex colleges and both universities have a few mature student colleges, where admission is restricted to students over the age of 21.

The Norrington Table

The Norrington Table is a ranking system used to assess the academic performance of undergraduate students at Oxford, which in turn is used to rank the colleges at the university. It is named after Sir Arthur Norrington, who was the warden of Oriel College from 1986 to 2005 and established the table in its current form.

The table ranks the 30 undergraduate colleges at Oxford based on the academic performance of their students in final examinations. Each college is assigned a score based on the percentage of students who achieve first-class honours degrees, and the colleges are then ranked in order of their scores. The table is updated annually and is closely watched by students, alumni, and the wider academic community.

Looking at the most recent table, based on results from 2020/2021, we can see that Merton College has come out on top with a score of 82.9%, while Ripon Cuddesdon ranks last with a score of 60%.

The Norrington Table is considered an important measure of academic success at Oxford, although some have criticised it for focusing too much on exam results and not taking into account other important factors such as teaching quality and student experience. 

While the table is worth considering and showing to any potential Oxford applicants, it is vital that they do their own research into the colleges themselves. Different colleges can inspire very different lifestyles and suit different types of people, and as the college is such a large part of each student’s life, it is important to find a balance between academic results and personal preference.

To help your students decide on their college, we would recommend showing them our guides to all Oxford and Cambridge colleges, which break down the criteria, preferences and atmosphere of each college and provides tips on how to make the choice:

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The Oxbridge Application Process

As we already alluded to, the Oxbridge admissions process is far more challenging than your start application. This is due to both the level of competition of an average Oxbridge course as well as the additional steps that are required to apply. 

There are four major requirements for the majority of courses at Oxford and Cambridge, so let’s take a look at each of them: 

A-Level Grade Requirements

This is a step in the application that applies to every university applicant (excluding those with unconditional offers, which are rare at Oxbridge), so you should be well-versed on what to expect here. 

As you would likely expect, both Oxford and Cambridge tend to operate very high requirements for applicants for their courses: 

Common Oxford Grade Requirements

The conditional offers for Oxford vary based on the subject but will typically require A*A*A to AAA grades at A Level or 38-40 points in the IB, including core points, with specific grades possibly being required at the Higher Level.

Common Cambridge Grade Requirements

For most Science courses, Cambridge typically requires A*AA at A Level, and for Arts/Humanities courses, AAA, or 40-42 points in the IB, including core points, with 776 at Higher Level.

The key thing to emphasise to your students is that high grades are a requirement for their Oxbridge application and will not help them stand out from their competition. Instead, they must ensure the other aspects of their application are high quality in order to improve their chances of success. 

You can get a good sense of your student’s abilities through both their attitude to work and the grades they achieve, so those that struggle with their current workload may need help finding a more suitable path for them. 

Oxbridge Personal Statement

This is another aspect of university applications that is required for all universities. However, as we’ve already established, applicants at Oxbridge are going to have to work twice as hard to ensure their statement can stand toe-to-toe with their competition. 

When considering applications, Oxford and Cambridge Admissions Tutors seek evidence of an applicant’s enthusiasm for their subject, as well as their endeavours to explore it further beyond the curriculum, such as engaging in work experience, undertaking wider reading or pursuing independent projects, which illustrate their dedication and aptitude for independent work.

Writing any Personal Statement is tough for a student as they will likely have not written anything like it before, and this process is even more challenging for Oxbridge applicants. You will need to ensure that your students are aware of the additional work they must put in and encourage them to partake in extra-curricular activities that will benefit their statement. 

If you would like to learn more about how you can prepare your students for their Oxbridge Personal Statements, check out our Oxbridge Personal Statements Teachers Guide.

Oxbridge Admissions Tests

Outside of Medicine and Law, very few standard universities will require students to sit an admissions test. Oxford and Cambridge, however, have dedicated tests for the vast majority of their courses. 

You may already be familiar with more widely used admissions tests such as the University Clinical Aptitude Test (BMAT), Law National Aptitude Test (LNAT) and Test of Mathematics for University Admission (TMUA), but Oxford and Cambridge also run a wide selection of subject-specific admissions tests. These can vary from more general tests like the Thinking Skills Assessment (TSA) used by Oxford all the way through to very niche tests designed for specific subjects, such as the Engineering and Science Admissions Test (ESAT) at Cambridge and Physics Aptitude Test (PAT) at Oxford. 

No matter which test they are sitting, it’s adding a great amount of work to their already busy schedules, so it is important to provide support for them during this process, be it through dedicated study time, useful resources or simply providing encouragement. 

There are over 20 of these tests to be aware of, so we would suggest reading our Oxbridge Admissions Tests Guide for Teachers to become more knowledgeable on how each of them works. 

Oxbridge Interviews

This is one of the largest factors in the Oxbridge application and is a challenge that isn’t faced by many other university applicants outside of medicine. All subjects at Oxbridge will require students to attend at least two interviews, which typically take place from December through to January. 

As mentioned before, these interviews are run by the colleges at Oxford and Cambridge and will usually be conducted by an admissions tutor and a tutor or professional from the subject in question. These interviews are designed to be extremely tough, with a wide variety of questions that test each applicant on a variety of skills as well as their overall character. 

However, a good interview will boost a student’s chances of gaining an offer, so preparation is incredibly important. Your school can help its students prepare for these interviews in many ways, including mock exams and exam technique lessons. Also, be prepared to support your students emotionally as they prepare for this high-pressure event.

If you would like to learn more about the Oxbridge interview process and how you can prepare your students, go to our Oxbridge Interview Guide for Teachers for more information.

Other Factors to Consider

Teacher References

As with any other university application, your students will need to provide an academic reference within their UCAS application. This process is the same for Oxbridge applicants, although the content you will need to provide should be tweaked to appeal to Oxbridge admissions tutors. 

You can find out more about how to write the perfect reference for an Oxbridge applicant in our Oxbridge UCAS Teacher Reference Guide

Additional University Choices

Oxford or Cambridge should be your student’s only choice in their application, so it is important that they are aware of other suitable options available to them. They will have up to four other options to select, although there may be reasons why a student does not choose to use all of them. However, an insurance option is essential, so offer guidance if they are unsure of where else they would like to study. 

It’s also important to remember that no applicants can apply for multiple courses at Oxbridge, be it two courses are Oxford Cambridge or one course at each. Medicine applicants are also unable to apply for more than four medicine degrees in any given year, although they can use their fifth choice on a medicine-adjacent course. 

We have outlined the whole UCAS application process for Oxbridge in our UCAS Oxbridge Teachers Guide, so be sure to have a look if you are unsure of any details. 

Work Experience

Although not essential for every course, having some form of relevant work experience will help improve most applicants’ Personal Statements and interview performances. Some subjects can be difficult to find relevant placements for, so it is worth providing advice on how to research and hunt for them, as well as potentially seeking out opportunities yourself. 

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Challenges That Your Oxbridge Applicants May Face

The Oxbridge application is an incredibly stressful and time-consuming process that will pose many challenges to your students along the way. Some of the considerations you should make when a student is or is hoping to apply for Oxbridge are as follows:

Between perfecting their Personal Statement, revising for their admissions test, preparing for their interview and working on their regular school work, students may feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of tasks that they must face. 

You can help reduce this stress by providing support for each step of their application. If possible, you can also offer dedicated time during school hours to let them work on application-related tasks or even provide structured sessions specifically related to their challenges. 

Some students may not be able to find enough relevant resources by themselves to effectively prepare for the steps of the application, so providing them with guides and practice resources will give them a good starting point for their preparation. It is also a good idea to be aware of the various support options available to applicants from Oxbridge themselves as well as third parties. 

Applicants may not be fully aware of the amount of work required to stand a good chance of success in their Oxbridge application, so it is important to make them aware early that they will need to dedicate a lot of time and effort to their preparation. The sooner they can get to work on it, the better. 

Additional experiences, such as work experience, personal projects and competitions, are all important for boosting an Oxbridge Personal Statement. However, these are not always easy to come by so some students may have concerns about their lack of experiences to write about. 

To help them, it is good to be aware of the types of opportunities available to them locally, perhaps partnering with businesses and services to provide placements for your students. As well as this, Oxford and Cambridge both run a selection of academic competitions that could provide a great boost to your student’s statements. You can learn more about this on our Oxbridge Academic Competitions Guide so that you can provide relevant recommendations. 

Some of your students may wish to apply to Oxbridge but may have concerns about the financial aspect of studying. While the Undergraduate tuition fees for Oxford and Cambridge are in line with the standard national fee of £9,250, the living expenses within each city are considerably higher. This may make Oxbridge unviable for some students, but various support options are available in order to help reduce the cost factor. 

You can learn more about the bursaries provided by Oxford and Cambridge in our Oxbridge Support Guide, as well as support available to those with disabilities and international students. 

So that covers the basics of everything you need to know in order to effectively support your students through their Oxbridge application. For each of the major application steps, there is much more that you will need to be aware of to provide specific support to each student. 

However, you should now have a firm understanding of why the Oxbridge application process is so much more in-depth and challenging than a standard university and you should have the foundations you need to create a great support system in your school to ensure more students get their offer. 

If you would like to share this information with your students, you can download our free student handout which summarises all of the relevant information that they will need to know. Remember to read through our other guides in order to get a greater understanding of how the Oxbridge application process works, and find out 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.