For many ambitious students at the end of their school career, the ideal next step is often studying their degree of choice at either Oxford or Cambridge. Whilst for some students studying specialist subjects it may be argued that other institutions may be better, and for some students the lure away from the UK to a perhaps more well-rounded academic experience at a US college may appeal, for the vast majority, the Oxbridge admissions maze looms large.
Once the subject is decided upon, the next step is to work out where one should apply. The first decision, clearly, is Oxford or Cambridge? For many, the course of choice will determine the university. Even if your subject of choice is available at both universities, there are usually significant differences between the two programmes to help you choose. Research of the syllabus is crucial here. Take English Literature for example, where Oxford requires students to study early medieval literature (1st millennial), whereas Cambridge does not. Or, consider Philosophy, which can be studied with a plethora of subjects as a joint-honours degree at Oxford, but not as a standalone subject. Crude analyses of Oxford as Arts and Cambridge as Sciences should be ignored here, rather one should focus on which specific degree structures suits ones strengths. Another factor of note here is that Oxford significantly culls its applicant numbers before interview, whereas Cambridge interviews (almost) all applicants.
Then we arrive at the more complex decision of college choice. The first thing to bear in mind is that ultimately, almost all students are very happy at whichever college they end up at. However, correct college choice can be incredibly important in a) providing you with an environment that gives you the best opportunities for you during your time at university and b) help you give yourself the best chance of getting in in the first place. The first step is to remove any colleges that don’t offer your course, or you may be excluded from applying to due to gender, age etc. Next we arrive at personal factors: which of these matter will vary from person to person, but some crucial ones to look for are size (of student population), location of accommodation for all years of your study there, and facilities – which vary wildly from college to college. Another good factor may be the financial health of a college – wealthier colleges tend have more awards, grants and bursaries for academic success and travelling. By this point, the shortlist should be between 5 – 10 colleges.
Next we have the sort of factors that will help a student match their application’s strengths to the most appropriate college. Note, for some courses and some applicants this may have a greater effect on college choice than others. The things to look out for here are as follows: competitiveness of the college for your course, use of tests (either before or at interview), number and type of interviews, number of fellows in your subject at a college, number of places for your subject at a college, and A-level criteria at a college for your subject. Let us take Medicine (A100) at Cambridge as an example. Everyone has to take the BMAT to apply to Cambridge. However, some colleges take this test more seriously than others. For example, Trinity “does not normally invite for interview applicants… who do not perform well in the BMAT, especially Section 2”.
Furthermore, subject interviews tend to be shorter and entirely academic focused at some colleges, whereas others mix between academic and non-academic interviews. Finally, it is worth discussing the ‘competitiveness’ of a college. For some subjects, there are a set number of places at each college, such as for Medicine. One can read a few things into this. Firstly, those with fewer places are more likely to be affected by ‘swings’ in applicant numbers – i.e. a large number of applicants for any given year will have more of an impact on the competitiveness of a college compared to those which have a large intake. Secondly, colleges may be grouped into streams for pooling purposes. All these stats are freely available online, the University of Cambridge application statistics and The University of Oxford admissions statistics. So investigating them can help you make a better-informed decision about where best suits you to apply.
Once at this stage, the shortlist should be between 3-5. The only step that remains is the Open Day. Visit, talk to the Directors of Studies / Tutors and tell them about yourself; if you get a good response, consider that as indication that you might be suited to the college. Get a feel for the college and see what takes your fancy. Finally, decide and apply!