Applying to Oxbridge as an International Student

PART I

29th May 2019

It shouldn’t be surprising, given their global reputations and world leading status, that Oxford and Cambridge Universities attract top students from all over the world. In fact, across both universities, around 20% of students are from outside of the UK.

International students should be confident that they have the same chance of success as UK applicants to Oxford and Cambridge – admissions tutors are very familiar with assessing international applications, and the process is set up to welcome students from across the world. In fact, Oxford are keen to point out that they admitted their first ever international student – Emo of Friesland, in 1190 – centuries before most universities existed. 

Since Emo studied for his degree, the application process for Oxford and Cambridge has become a little more complicated. But fear not, this 2-part blog is here to talk you through the application process, from choosing a degree to (hopefully!) accepting your place.  

In this week’s blog, we’re going to discuss how to prepare your application over the summer, with focus on the extra steps international students are asked to take.  

1. Choose a university

When applying for undergraduate admission, it’s important to remember that you cannot apply to both Oxford and Cambridge in the same academic year – you must choose just one. (This does not apply to post-graduate admissions).

If possible, visiting either university might help you to decide between them (you can find more information about our Oxford Summer School programme here.).

If you’re not able to have a look around in person, check out the universities’ online prospectuses, and be sure to check out what courses they offer, as it varies between the two universities. 

2. Choose a Degree Course

The key thing to remember about applying to any UK university, in contrast to other countries around the world, is that you must select a specific subject before applying.

There is no system of majors and minors, as in the US and elsewhere – UK universities ask you to be specific from the beginning. Your application must be focused on the subject which you are applying for, so you should choose carefully. 

For more advice on how to choose the right degree subject, have a read of our previous blog, ‘5 Questions to Ask Yourself When Choosing Your Subject’. 

3. Choose a College

Both Oxford and Cambridge Universities are made up of around 30 different colleges. These colleges are independent organisations which are part of the university. They are physical places, normally very old buildings, with quads (lawns surrounded by buildings), halls where college members eat together, accommodation for students and academic staff, and common rooms for socialising and shared space. You will live, eat and have much of your teaching in college – it is your home whilst at Oxford or Cambridge. Although the University sets exams, runs faculties, centralises teaching and resources and awards degrees, most of your experience will be informed by the college you choose.

When applying to Oxford and Cambridge, you apply directly to a college (or you can make an “open” application if you don’t want to choose one). This college may offer you a place, reject you, or recommend you to another college. This recommending process is called “pooling” and can take place in either the winter of the summer.


Magdalene College, Oxford

Choosing a college can be confusing! Bear in mind that your application will have an equal likelihood of success regardless of which college you apply to.

4. Check your eligibility for your course

Oxford and Cambridge are world leading institutions. As such, the application process is very competitive. You will need to show that you have achieved the necessary grades, or that you are on track to do so, to be considered for a place. Typically, for A Levels this is minimum A*AA, of at least 40 in the International Baccalaureate, or 85 in the European Baccalaureate. Oxford and Cambridge are very familiar with international examination systems – you can see a full list of requirements from your country’s national exam system for Cambridge and Oxford here.

As a guide, from China, applicants would be expected to score in the top 0.1% for their province in the Gaokao; from the USA, you would be expected to have scored 5 or higher in at least 5 AP subjects, plus a high score on the SAT or ACT.

You may also need to demonstrate English language skills if it is not your mother tongue. You can see requirements for Oxford and Cambridge here – please note these equate to an IELTS score of 7.5 or TOEFL of 110. 

5. Make an application through UCAS before the relevant deadline

The application for international students is the same as for UK students – you must go through UCAS, the UK universities application system.

However, applying to Oxford or Cambridge is different to applying to other UK universities. Crucially, you must apply earlier – at the latest by October 15th for entry the following year, rather than in January which is the deadline for other universities.

(However, if you are applying to Cambridge through some routes, your application deadline is even earlier than October 15th. Essentially, if you are wishing to be interviewed internationally, you will need to submit in September – please see here for all details.) 

The UCAS application process is quite straightforward. You will need to submit:

  • A Personal Statement of fewer than 4000 characters detailing why you are applying. Our number one piece of advice here is very clear – do not use any paid-services offering to write this document for you. Universities take this very seriously, and it may harm your application. Moreover, this is an opportunity for you to think through why you have selected your degree – it is very valuable for the rest of your application process. We can help by giving you practice interviews on your draft personal statement – a chance to develop interview skills whilst also improving your draft, however we will not write this document for you. Please get in touch for more details. 
  • A teacher reference from your school. You can see advice to teachers from Cambridge here and Oxford here. We are happy to help and advise teachers where necessary. 
  • Your grades and/or predicted grades in recent public exams. 

6. Fill out the SAQ and/or COPA (If you’re applying to Cambridge)

For applications to Cambridge, once you’ve submitted your UCAS application, you’ll receive an email directing you to complete the Supplementary Application Questionnaire (SAQ). You are advised to check your email (junk/spam folder as well as inbox) regularly during this time. This is essentially an extension to the UCAS form that will ask for a more detailed breakdown of your exam grades, along with a bit more information about you.

In addition to a UCAS application, applicants from outside the European Union (EU) must submit a Cambridge Online Preliminary Application (COPA). If you’re applying from outside the EU and have submitted a COPA, you’ll receive a COPA reference number which you should enter on the SAQ. You may be required to submit academic transcripts for your application to the University of Cambridge to be valid. 

And there you have it! By October, international Oxbridge applicants should have chosen a university, course and college, sent off their UCAS application and accompanying documents, and have begun preparing for the all-important admissions tests and interviews.

Next week, we will take a closer look at the second half of the applications process, from October to January, including the logistics of taking admissions tests and interviews as an international student and, of course, how you’ll be notified if your application to Oxford or Cambridge has been successful!

If you would like more support with your application, reach out to our sister organisation, Oxbridge Interviews.