It would be too easy to say that there is one single answer to the question ‘What makes an exceptional Oxbridge candidate?’ There are, however, a number of achievements and qualities that will improve your chances of being viewed as a strong contender in the fierce competition for a place at either Oxford or Cambridge.
1 — Qualifications
Throughout the admissions process, Oxbridge tutors are looking for intelligent, broad-minded and academically talented individuals. Academic achievement is at the heart of the Oxbridge decision-making process.
Generally, you will need to have at least 6 A*s at GCSE and many candidates will have more. The tutors will however, view your results in the context of your school. That is to say, if no one in your year at school achieved above a B at GCSE and you achieved 2 A*s, you may well still be viewed as a strong candidate. Both Oxford and Cambridge state that achievements gained post-16, e.g. A-Levels, are a better predictor of academic success at university than pre-16 qualifications e.g. GCSEs. Therefore, they are much less concerned with your GCSE grades than with your higher-level qualifications. If you feel you have not performed as well as you could have in your GCSEs due to extenuating circumstances; the universities will generally take this into account as well.
A-Levels, IB and other qualifications
In order to present as a great candidate for Oxford or Cambridge, you will need excellent grades in whichever qualification you have taken post-16. On their website, Oxford state that you will need between AAA and A*A*A* at A-Level, depending on your course. The Cambridge website indicates that between A*AA and A*A*A* is needed. This is something to think about if you are not certain you can achieve higher than AAA.
If you are taking the IB, a score of at least 38, including core points is required for Oxford with 766 at higher level. For Cambridge, the typical requirement is a total score of at least 40 including core points, and 776 at higher level. It has been known for Cambridge to make offers of 42 points with 777 at higher level, particularly for the sciences and maths. This is something to consider when choosing between the two as Oxford rarely make such high demands.
With regards to alternative qualifications, both universities have extensive sections on their websites, outlining exactly what they expect in terms of grades (find the link below). If you are unsure about what is required, you should always email the head of admissions to check that you have the required subjects/grades to apply. Try and obtain in writing, requirements that are not stated on the website, as this can be used as evidence later if you are rejected based on your subject choices alone.
Specific subject requirements vary considerably between the two universities and between courses, and further information can be found on the Oxford and Cambridge websites.
Making the choice between three or four+ A-Levels
Whether to do three, four or even more A-Levels is a completely personal choice. Some students will not wish to restrict themselves to three A-Levels and will naturally want to do four or more; whereas some students will feel they are unable to make the required grades doing more than three. There are a range of other personal reasons which may influence the choice. In terms of requirements by Oxbridge, there is no formal requirement to take more than three A-Levels although many candidates will. During a talk to parents, it was stated that, at certain colleges, the average number taken is 3.4 A-Levels. My advice would be to do what suits you best. There is no point in a student pushing themselves to do more than they can handle, burning out and not achieving as well as they could. On the other hand, many of the best candidates take three or more so, if a student can cope with more than three A-Levels and do well, then four or more may be a good option. It gives students the opportunity to take a whole extra subject that bit further and may give them more to talk about at interview.
2 — The Admissions Tests
Many colleges and many subjects at both Oxford and Cambridge now require you to sit admissions tests. These are additional tests, which you arrange through your school or a test centre, that aim to test your knowledge of concepts, your critical thinking or both. Each test be explained on its own website where you can find more information, as well as past papers which are crucial for practice before the real test. Look out for our blog about admissions tests coming soon. In the mean time you can go to the relevant website (Oxford or Cambridge) and check if you need to take an additional test and if so, which one.
Thinking Skills Assessment (TSA) — required by Oxford for a number of subjects including Psychology, Chemistry and Geography
National Admissions Test for Law (LNAT) — required by many universities for applicants reading Law
Medical College Admissions Test (UKCAT and BMAT) — required by many universities for applicants reading Medicine
3 — Other qualities
In a way, it is easier to outline the qualifications required by the universities than the qualities required. Although varied, the academic requirements are fairly standard, and you can be reasonably confident that if you have the required grades then you at least have a chance at interview. In this section, I will aim to pull together all the information I have received in my time as a student and tutor and try to elucidate some of the qualities that tutors at Oxbridge are looking for.
Genuine interest in your subject
This is a crucial requirement when applying to Oxbridge. Time and time again I hear that tutors can easily identify when a student is not really that interested in their subject. At a recent talk, it was stated that students need ‘a real, genuine and heartfelt interest in their subject’. It is vital therefore, that you pick the right subject for you in the first place (look out for our blog on ‘choosing the right subject’ coming soon) as it is very difficult to fake interest at interview. That said, if you have picked the right subject then you should naturally come across as interested!
It is also important to boost your knowledge by reading widely around your subject. Both universities will have a reading list for each course and you should use this to guide your reading. Pick books you really like the sound of and make sure you read them before the interview! Take inspiration from the reading list to find your own books. For example, if there is a book on molecular biology which interests you- find more information on that subject by yourself. This will show initiative and will help you come across as knowledgeable and engaged in your subject at interview. Having said that, don’t try to mention your reading at every opportunity as this may come across as forced. The reading should help you naturally chat about interesting topics and subjects which is exactly what the interviewers are looking for!
Evidence of critical thinking
It is true that the best Oxbridge candidates have often read widely around their chosen subject and have put a lot of effort into finding out more about subjects that interest them. However, tutors at Oxbridge are looking for more than just the ability to read and regurgitate information. They are looking for critical thinking. This somewhat broad quality is what sets apart good candidates from great ones. Broadly, being able to think critically means that you are able to objectively analyse and evaluate an argument, theory or statement in order to form your own judgement. Whenever you read information, be that in a textbook, in an academic journal, in a newspaper or online, you should not only be taking the information in, but also processing it, evaluating it and coming to your own conclusions about it.
This may include but is not limited to:
Identifying different arguments based around a topic or issue
Evaluating an argument or statement in order to identify its strengths and weaknesses
Using the above to form a reasoned and evidenced argument of your own.