What are Oxford and Cambridge looking for in candidates? | Varsity Education

What are Oxford and Cambridge looking for in candidates?

Do you know what it takes to win a place at Oxbridge? In truth there’s no magic formula for admissions success: it depends on which university you apply for, which course, and which college, along with a host of other factors. Here are some of the things tutors will consider when it comes to making the all important decision about your application.

Consistently good grades


Oxford and Cambridge only take the brightest students. To be seriously considered for any of their courses, you’ll need A’s and, often, at least one A* at A Level. But you’ll also need to have strong GSCE grades as well – tutors see this as evidence of long-standing work ethic. You may still be able to get a place with weak GCSE results, but the admissions panels are likely to set your target A level grade higher as a result.

Planning a gap year?

You can apply to Oxford or Cambridge with deferred entry, meaning you can get your application in before you do your gap year. However, be prepared to explain what you want to do and why it’s relevant to your study or career goals. Unfortunately, if you were just planning on taking a break from academia and lounging around on a beach during your gap year, be aware that the admissions tutors will probably take a dim view of it. Tell them you’re volunteering or doing some sort of work experience, or make sure you can at least explain why travelling will help you (if you want to study Spanish and are planning on spending 6 months in Latin America, for example).

The ability to change your assumptions

Admissions tutors are looking for students they can teach. You need to be open to new ideas, and this is one thing that will be tested at interview. But you also need to demonstrate that you can think critically and independently. If the tutor says something you disagree with during your interview, don’t be afraid to speak up: as long as you can back up your views. You need to demonstrate the confidence to challenge other people’s opinions as well as being willing to reconsider your own.


You need to show the admissions tutors that you’re really interested in your subject. Make sure you’re well read and knowledgeable. Don’t be caught out, and be ready to justify why you want to study it and demonstrate your passion. Top tip, don’t say you want to study something because it pays well!

Academia comes first

It’s great to have hobbies, interests and experience outside of academia, but for Oxbridge, your grades and interview performance really are paramount, and your interview will typically be very academic in nature. You can mention your other interests and experiences in your personal statement, but these should take a back seat to talking about your passion for the subject you want to study and what you’ve achieved at school. Make sure you know your personal statement from back to front too, as it will frequently form a talking point during your interview.

To find out how a Varsity Education summer programme could help prepare you for your Oxbridge application, click here.

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