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What do I need to get into Oxford or Cambridge?

Thinking about applying to Oxford or Cambridge? You have to stand out against the fierce competition; but does that mean having a clean sweep of top marks in all your subjects?

In short, not necessarily. You’ll come across Oxbridge students who don’t (but don’t be shocked to meet quite a few who do).

While every individual application should be treated on its own merits, there are a few boxes you should tick to keep your Oxbridge hopes alive...

Read what current students and applicants are saying about their experiences with the universities in our sister site The Student Room's forums for the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford

1. Get good grades

Yes, your grades will need to really dazzle. GCSEs are seen as evidence of work ethic – and you need a really strong one of those to cope with studying at Oxford or Cambridge. Our guesstimate is that the average successful applicant has around eight 8/9 grade GCSEs under their belt.  And of course you need the A-level grades that Oxford and Cambridge require for the course you want to apply for – search for a course to see what these are exactly, as there can be some extra requirements or conditions.

You'll receive your A-level grades at the end of year 13, but you’ll apply with predicted grades based on your year 12 performance. So expect for these to be scrutinised alongside your GCSE grades, plus any admissions tests the university requires you to take – more on this below.

2. Show wider reading

Simply following the syllabus in years 12 and 13 and doing the minimum your teacher requires won’t cut it for Oxbridge candidates.

For any humanities, social science, science or engineering degree, you should read widely around your subject – and the same goes for when you’re applying to any other highly sought-after university, for that matter. This will mean you’ll:
  • have more relevant information to talk about on your personal statement.
  • be able to talk widely around a subject during an interview.
  • and be more prepared for the pace of reading expected of you at university.
Not sure what to study? Browse our subject guides for inspiration. 

3. Prepare for your interview properly 

Think of your Oxbridge interview as being a bit like an exam, but out loud. This will be an intellectual interrogation, although it should be a friendly one! The key is in your preparation.

Get a teacher, careers adviser or even a friend to do a mock interview with you. Re-read what you said in your personal statement – your interview may be based on what you wrote.

Like personal statements, interviews for Oxbridge are an opportunity for an admissions tutor to see how you think and respond to a question or discussion, rather than your interest in the subject or the experience you’ve accumulated (not that this isn’t important, as you’ll see below). In this way, interviews (and personal statements) are slightly more academic in nature, than if you were applying to a non-Oxbridge university.

Budding scientists and mathematicians should expect to work out questions on paper or using a whiteboard.

4. Show genuine enthusiasm for your subject

Do you find yourself talking and reading endlessly about your subject and other related fields? It really will help if you have – and can express – passion and interest for the course you’re applying for, backed up by examples that demonstrate this.

Don’t afraid to be critical about what you did or didn’t like about a book, talk or exhibition, provided you give valid examples or reasons.

5. Stay ahead in all tests 

Oxford has a wide range of timed, written pre-entry tests to help them choose from the competition. The exams are designed to show how you think and solve questions that you might not have encountered before. Not all degrees require you to take one, but medical, law, maths, languages, English and engineering will do.

Most potential Cambridge students are required to take subject-specific tests. These assessments require no extra preparation as they are set to test your current level of knowledge and provide ‘valuable additional evidence of our applicants' academic abilities, knowledge base and potential to succeed’.If you are applying for a maths, medical or law course, you will have another set of pre-exams to take. 

6. Can you get into Oxford or Cambridge with Btecs? 

Btecs are becoming an increasingly popular option to take either instead of or alongside A-levels. 

Most Russell Group universities do accept Btecs; you can find a full list of Russell Group universities and their Btec admissions policies in this article, as well as advice on applying to university with a vocational qualification

University of Oxford

The University of Oxford will accept Btecs alongside A-levels, depending on the course. 

"Because of the academic nature of the undergraduate courses at Oxford, most Applied General qualifications (such as Btecs, Cambridge Technical Diplomas or UAL Diplomas) are unlikely to be suitable for making a competitive application by themselves, though they could be considered if taken alongside A-levels, depending on the course applied for," the University of Oxford's website says

"When considering applications, tutors would want to see evidence of learning and assessment that would provide the skills and knowledge the candidate would need for the course they are applying for. Candidates are therefore advised to include in their Ucas personal statement information on how their qualification has prepared them for the course they are applying to."

Applicants should check the university's specific requirements for the course they're interested in. 

University of Cambridge

The University of Cambridge would not generally accept a Btec in place of the required A-levels – the university advises potential applicants taking a mix of qualifications to speak to a college admissions tutor as early as possible to find out more.

Check out our full Oxbridge application section, covering everything from five things you might not know about Oxbridge to choosing which of the two universities to apply to

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