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How to improve applications to the University of Oxford and University of Cambridge

University preparation 17 July 2019

George Casley, Academic Director of CATS Colleges, has over 20 years’ experience advising international students on applying to university. George read Theology at Oxford. Read his tips on preparing to apply to the UK’s top universities: Cambridge and Oxford.

Oxford and Cambridge, sometimes together called Oxbridge, are two world class universities offering a very particular style of education, suitable for some, but not all, of the most academically able students. If you are wondering how to get into Oxbridge universities you should find the following advice useful.

In any one year you can apply to either Oxford or Cambridge, not both. Applications must be submitted through the UCAS system by 18.00 on 15 October. Submitting these applications can be stressful. At CATS Colleges, dedicated Higher Education Advisers support you through this process with care and sensitivity. Following the submission of the UCAS application, specialist guidance and advice turns to help with specialist admissions tests and interviews.

However, before you arrive at your chosen CATS College, you can start to prepare your application. Most importantly you can:

  • Read
  • Discuss, debate and question your ideas
  • Research the course you are applying for


“Read, read and read”

In English people sometimes talk about “reading for a degree” and this phrase reflects the need to read about the subject you wish to study for three or four years.

In a personal statement or interview, you are not expected to know everything, but you are expected to have read around parts of the subject that have excited interest. The OUP series, A Very Short Introduction, provides excellent start points for reading and offers excellent reading lists at the end of each chapter.

As an aspiring Oxbridge applicant, you should be reading something each week connected with developing your understanding of your chosen subject.


“The questions you ask are more important than the questions you answer.”

The most important place for learning in both Oxford and Cambridge is a meeting between the student and an academic. As a student, you will present work that you have completed in the previous week (usually this is an essay). You will debate and question theories. Practising these skills is essential. Seek out conversations that question and challenge your ideas. You should also be comfortable doing this in English. A good indication of whether you are a suitable Oxbridge candidate is if you enjoy talking about your subject.


“Analyse the course – is it right for you?”

Most Oxford and Cambridge courses have developed over hundreds of years. They reflect particular philosophical approaches, ideas and understandings. They are based on world-class research. Before applying for a course you should understand what you are applying for. Look at the course, understand the thinking behind it and be able to say what you think the strengths of this approach are, as well as question it. Common interview questions include: What do you like about this course? What is a weakness of this course? Which third year option appeals to you? Why? 

Applying for Oxford or Cambridge is highly competitive. To maximise your chances, CATS Colleges Key Professions Programme offers:

  • One-to-one preparation for university interviews, including mock interviews with Oxbridge academics.
  • Assistance writing personal statements tailored for Oxbridge.
  • Preparation for university entrance exams.
  • Seminars and workshops with Admissions Tutors and academic staff on what they look for in an application and how to prepare for interview.
  • Oxbridge-focused tuition to ensure offers are achieved.
  • Improvement of leadership, critical thinking, motivation and management skills through a variety of challenges and clubs including the Duke of Edinburgh Award, Olympiad challenges and weekly debating clubs.
  • Oxbridge open days and tours.
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