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March 2018

What makes an exceptional Oxbridge candidate?

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Cambridge Oxbridge Admissions University mentor tutor A levels GCSE
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.
Examples include:
  • 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.

Being able to express yourself

Even if you are able to embody the qualities above, none of that is of use if you are unable to articulate these to the interviewer. I have met many students who, on paper, look like exceptional candidates- they have evidence of wide reading, of a real interest in their subject and have taken the initiative to discover more about topics that interest them. However, when I talk to them and ask them about some of these interests, they are unable to open up and to talk intelligently about them. Some people will naturally be excellent articulators, and some won’t. Therefore, it is really important, even if you think you are very good at talking articulately, that you practice. Practice can come in many forms. It could be talking to your family about topics that interest you, practising getting a discussion going, forming your own arguments and providing reasons and evidence for them. It could also mean talking about some of the topics that interest you with a teacher at school. Teachers are generally very knowledgeable about their subject and may well agree to have a conversation with you in which you can practice talking intelligently. The best kind of practice however is to arrange a practice interview with someone who knows the interview process inside and out. Email to find out more about how we can help.
The question of what makes an exceptional Oxbridge candidate has an elusive answer however the above gives you some guidance as to what Oxbridge are looking for. The links below will guide you to more useful pages which will get you started on the road to Oxbridge.
Kitty graduated from Jesus College, Oxford in 2017 (


AdmissionsGCSE/A-Level (and more) requirements | Reading lists


Admissions | GCSE/A-Level (and more) requirements
Reading lists:  Colleges and Subjects have their own reading list pages. Find them by searching online for the subject/college along with Cambridge. For example, the reading list for subjects at King’s College, Cambridge may be found here.

Choosing a College

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Oxbridge mentor choosing a college
When it comes to choosing a college, research is key. Many students pick a college based on its fame, popularity or simply the name. A friend of mine chose Exeter because she had once been to the city of Exeter and thought it was beautiful! There’s nothing wrong with choosing a college on the name alone; but is it really the best way to decide where you’re going to be spending the next 3 or 4 years of your life!?
I have come up with a number of features that I believe you should consider when choosing your college.


People will tell you that it doesn’t matter how wealthy your college is or that you shouldn’t choose a college based on its provisions. In my opinion you are missing out if you don’t consider what your college will provide for you. For example, if you’re a keen sports player, some colleges will offer you money towards your equipment, kit and travel to competitions. Other colleges on the other hand, may offer nothing. This could mean the difference between you not being able to afford to play your favourite sport and being able to compete in Varsity matches.


It is also important to consider whether your chosen college offers you accommodation for the duration of your degree. Oxford’s rental market for students is infamously treacherous and images you may have seen of students camping outside estate agents to bag the best properties are entirely accurate. Speaking to a friend, he said ‘of course I’ll be camping outside, I would never get a decent house otherwise’. If the college’s website doesn’t give this information, email the accommodation office and find out: their details will be on the website.


Location is more important than you might think. If you’re a keen sportsperson, bear in mind that Iffley Sports Centre, where you will most likely have practices, is slightly south of the centre of Oxford. This means if you choose a college such as St Hugh’s you will find yourself cycling 20 minutes, possibly at 6:30am, to get to practice. Have a look to see where important locations to you are in Oxford and search for colleges nearby. It could save you a lot of time in the long-run when you arrive.
Ask anyone at Oxford and they will tell you that whichever college you end up in you will love and that is true. However, why not boost your chances of being able to make the most out of your experience at Oxford and use these guidelines to make an informed choice!
Kitty graduated from Jesus College, Oxford in 2017 (