Teachers' Guide

We’ve collated a range of resources to help teachers support their students’ applications. Plus, all of the best advice our student contributors received when they were applying to Oxford or Cambridge, and everything they wish they had been told at the time!

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
    1. About InsideUni
    2. What our project involves
    3. Why we've produced this guide
  2. Stereotypes veruses Reality
    1. "Oxbridge is elitist; working-class students won’t fit in."
    2. "I'm not intelligent enough to study at Oxbridge; I won’t get in."
    3. "Oxbridge is more expensive than other universities."
    4. "The interviews are mysterious and impossible."
    5. "The course isn’t what I’m looking for."
    6. "There is a lack of diversity amongst students, staff and the curriculum."
    7. "The environment seems pressurized; some students are resigned to dropping out."
    8. "Oxbridge students don’t have time for anything aside from their studies."
  3. Supporting potential Oxbridge applicants
    1. Resources
    2. Timeline for supporting potential Oxbridge applicants
      1. KS3 and KS4
      2. Year 11
      3. Year 12
      4. Year 13
  4. Stay in Touch

1. Introduction

1.1. About InsideUni

InsideUni is a non-profit, student-led project to make university applications more accessible and transparent for everyone. Our website, {insideuni.org}, crowdsources free application advice written by Oxford and Cambridge students that anyone can refer to. We are a team of 35 and have compiled advice from over 2000 students. Alongside this, we have also built an 'information-hub' that collects links to other free resources that can be used to prepare a strong university application.

1.2. What our project involves

  • Guides - we have put together three sections of application support guides, all containing links to helpful resources, and advice from current students.
    • Subject Guides - collections of resources relating to many popular subjects studies at university, compiled by students from Oxford and Cambridge. The resources may be helpful for students deciding which subject they want to study, or alternatively provide inspiration for their personal statement, regardless of where they want to study.
    • Course Pages - specific to every course offered at both Oxford and Cambridge. These pages contain links to official course handbooks; information about relevant admissions tests; and links to YouTube videos produced by students on these courses.
    • General Application Support Guides - containing more resources relevant to Oxbridge applicants, such as 'Mentorships Schemes and Open Days' and 'Financial Aid and Scholarships'.
  • Videos - we regularly host online Q&A panels with members of the InsideUni student community, covering different aspects of student life at Oxford and Cambridge, for students interested in finding out more. Recently, these have included Q&A with Oxbridge Science students and Perspectives from Black students
  • Interview experiences - this is our crowdsourced database of students' interview experiences. Hear directly from current students: what happened; how they prepared; and what they wish they had known. Some students are deterred from applying due to horror stories they’ve heard about Oxbridge interviews - this huge collection of student experiences demonstrates that they aren’t always as daunting as certain newspaper headlines would lead you to believe!

1.3. Why we’ve produced this guide

Research from the Sutton Trust has found that 43% of state secondary school teachers say that they rarely or never advise their bright pupils to apply to Oxbridge. (Source) We think this is a shame, because we know from experience that all students can thrive and enjoy studying at Oxford or Cambridge, regardless of their educational background. So we’d like to support you in providing students with accurate information and advice regarding Oxbridge, to enable them to decide whether one of the universities could be the right place for them. We’ve included advice and experiences from current students throughout.

2. Stereotypes versus Reality

We completely understand that Oxbridge isn’t for everyone, and neither institution is perfect. However, change is ongoing to make both universities more diverse and accessible to students of all educational and socio-economic backgrounds. Because of this, we believe more students should have the confidence to apply, undeterred by often outdated or inaccurate stereotypes. (Source)

2.1. "Oxbridge is elitist; working-class students won’t fit in."

Of the 2019 Cambridge intake, 68% of students came from state schools. In Oxford, state school students account for 62% of the 2019 intake. Statistically, students from private/independent schools have always been over-represented at both Oxford and Cambridge, however both universities are committed to widening participation and ensuring all applicants are given a fair chance. More statistics are featured in this BBC News article, and you can also read more about the universities’ widening participations plans at Cambridge and Oxford. Both Oxford and Cambridge also have branches of the student-run 93% Club at Oxford and Cambridge, referring to the 93% of UK students who are state educated, which aims to foster a social community and a powerful network for state-school students to allow for post-graduation guidance.

"Growing up, the cultural interpretation of Oxford is definitely a snobbish one, but the University is made up of a diverse set of students from a diverse set of backgrounds. Joining societies and college groups is a fantastic way to meet people who have experiences in common." - Felix, Engineering, Oxford

2.2. "I'm not intelligent enough to study at Oxbridge; I won’t get in."

Students are not expected to know everything about their subject when they are applying! Both universities are looking for high-achieving students with an interest in their subject. If the student is on track to achieve the entry requirements and likes the look of their chosen course, that is enough! This page from Jesus College, Cambridge, explains more here. But equally, there are lots of very intelligent people who do not get into Oxbridge - students should definitely not tie their self worth into getting into Oxbridge, and they’re not ‘stupid’ if they don’t get in.

"Being told that I was very likely to get into one of my four other university choices gave me the confidence to apply, because I wasn’t losing anything by submitting an application." - Fiona

2.3. "Oxbridge is more expensive than other universities."

The tuition fees for Oxford and Cambridge are exactly the same as all other UK universities: £9,250 per year for Home students. Furthermore, Oxford and Cambridge are both very wealthy and very generous universities! Both universities have bursary schemes (Oxford and Cambridge) which all students are assessed for, based on the household income declared on their Student Finance application. There are also a variety of grants available from colleges and departments, some of which require a short application process at Oxford and Cambridge. You can read our guide to financial aid and scholarships here.

"I receive £1000 of Oxford bursary every year as I come from a lower income household. I get three equal instalments, one each term. It’s been invaluable to help support me as my parents can’t really provide extra money after student finance. It has helped contribute to my study materials, costs for formals and society events, and has meant I’ve had a better quality of life while studying." - Ellie, Geography, Oxford

2.4. "The interviews are mysterious and impossible."

Interviews at both Oxford and Cambridge are neither mysterious nor impossible. The interview is also only one factor in the application process - all applications are assessed holistically, taking into account any admissions tests; submitted work; and the personal statement. InsideUni has crowd-sourced almost 2000 interview testimonies from current students, including what happened; how they prepared; and what they wish they had known. These are all freely available on our website, to ensure all applicants can access reliable and useful advice about the interview process, regardless of their background or educational experience.

Both Oxford and Cambridge have also produced videos where admissions tutors and successful applicants discuss the interview process here and here.

"Looking back, I realised I worried about the interviews far more than I needed to. The interviewers are friendly and are just trying to have an interesting discussion - I actually enjoyed them in the end!" - an interview testimony

2.5. "The course isn’t what I’m looking for."

This is completely understandable. Oxford and Cambridge offer a limited range of courses, which doesn’t include some popular courses such as Business Studies, Sports Science and Media Studies. However, students can often still access these vocational careers after doing a different degree. Both Oxford and Cambridge have fantastic and well-connected Careers Services here and here, which can advise students about the graduate employment opportunities available after less-vocational degrees. Furthermore, it is important that students understand that course content varies across universities - the modules available in the Geography degree at Oxford, for example, differ greatly from those offered at Bristol, Exeter or York. Students should research their chosen subject thoroughly to choose a course which complements their interests, and not apply 'because Oxbridge is the best'.

2.6. "There is a lack of diversity amongst students, staff and the curriculum."

For many students, this remains a valid concern, as there still exists a relative lack of diversity in both universities. In recent years, however, both universities have worked to tackle diversity issues in their admissions procedures. Organisations such as Target Oxbridge provide specific support for Black African and Caribbean students, for example. The Cambridge SU BME Campaign and Oxford SU Campaign for Racial Awareness and Equality work with both students and the university to raise awareness of racial issues at the universities. You can also read our guide to resources for students from under-represented ethnic groups.

"Cambridge is taking decolonizing the curriculum very seriously, and students are working very closely with them to ensure every single subject is as diverse as possible. We want to see a variety of reading and resources that really represent the diverse people who study at Oxbridge." - Tami, HSPS, Cambridge

2.7. "The environment seems pressurized; some students are resigned to dropping out."

Both universities have cultivated highly academic and challenging environments, and this atmosphere inevitably does not suit all students. Oxford and Cambridge have some of the lowest drop-out rates in the country - Oxford’s was 1.3% in 2017 (source), compared to the national average of 7.4%. Both universities are acutely aware that the academic environment can be stressful, and have worked to provide mental health support for students. Oxford have supplied this informative page about the different support systems they provide for students. Similarly, Student Minds Cambridge have produced this list of contacts and resources for students seeking mental health support. Rather than dropping out entirely, it is more common for students to suspend or intermit their studies (source 1 and source 2). This involves the student taking a term or year out if their personal circumstances are causing difficulties with their studies. They then return to university when they are able to, continuing their course from the point they left (or repeating a term/year if necessary). Cambridge also offers students the chance to complete their degree in 'Double Time' for personal or medical reasons, which involves taking the course over a longer period of time, as an adjustment to accommodate for disability, chronic illness or caring responsibilities.

"I was able to make an appointment to see my college counsellor early in my first term, which I found really helpful when adapting to university life with pre-existing mental health problems. It was reassuring to know that support was available whenever I needed it." - Natalie, History, Cambridge

2.8. "Oxbridge students don’t have time for anything aside from their studies."

It is true that the workload at Oxford and Cambridge University is comparatively high, but students still find plenty of time to socialise and participate in societies. There are nearly 1000 societies across Oxford and Cambridge, spanning sports, theatre, journalism, debating, gaming, music, faith, volunteering, political activism and so much more. (We also have time to run InsideUni!)

3. Supporting potential Oxbridge applicants

3.1. Resources

What makes Oxford and Cambridge different?

Both universities have produced comprehensive guides to the learning opportunities, resources and support they offer, which may be particularly useful when discussing the merits of the universities with students. See these Oxford and Cambridge for more.

What are Oxford and Cambridge looking for in applicants?

From the official Oxford outreach service: "There is no blueprint for the ideal Oxford student. We are looking for academic ability and potential; a learning style that suits our environment; and a truly diverse student body which reflects modern society."

Very similarly, the University of Cambridge website notes: "All admissions tutors are looking for the students who they believe have the most academic ability and potential; will benefit from and flourish in the Cambridge learning environment; and are best suited to the course they applied for."

What resources are available for teachers when supporting their students’ applications?

  • Oxford has a dedicated web page containing information for teachers, including upcoming events such as regional teacher conferences and free teacher summer schools.
  • Recently, Oxford has launched several new regional access initiatives, 'Oxford for North East' and 'Oxford for East Midlands', with 'Oxford for North West' to follow shortly. These programmes host school visits, learning days and a variety of student and teacher conferences.
  • For many other regions, Oxford hosts free CPD accredited Regional Teachers’ Conferences, including a chance to talk to academic staff and student ambassadors. An example programme is also available here.
  • Cambridge has produced a handbook containing advice for teachers and HE advisers, updated for 2021 entry.
  • The Cambridge Admissions Office also organises a number of events for teachers and HE advisers each year, including webinar series’ and conferences.
  • Both Oxford and Cambridge produce regular newsletters for teachers, containing details of upcoming events, open days and webinars. Sign up here and here.
  • The official Oxford and Cambridge collaborative outreach network has hosted a series of webinars, including panel discussions with both students and admissions tutors, all of which are available to view in their online webinar archive. In particular, this webinar on supporting students) would be highly recommended.
  • Advancing Access: for teachers contains more resources to support students in making the right choices regarding post-18 study.
  • These are some helpful Oxbridge mythbusters which may reassure students wondering if either university is right for them!
  • 'Help your students get into uni': advice from UCAS about personal statements, financial support and career guidance.
  • Advice for teachers and careers advisers from the Russell Group, including how these universities work to challenge negative perceptions of higher education, and help students find the right course for them.

3.2. Timeline for supporting potential Oxbridge applicants

3.2.1. KS3 and KS4

  • Especially for first generation university students, it can be really helpful to implant ideas about high aspiration options like Oxbridge early in their education. Both universities provide opportunities and resources for KS3 and KS4 students, which are designed to inspire and encourage students beyond the school curriculum, so are valuable even for students who might not appear to be obvious future Oxbridge applicants.
  • The Oxford Mathematical Institute have produced this page of events and resources for Years 9-11 students, aiming to get students thinking about the range of topics covered in mathematical studies.
  • The Language Centre at the University of Cambridge offers a variety of taster days for younger students interested in languages, including opportunities to try lesser-taught languages such as Arabic or Mandarin.
  • Balliol College, Oxford, have compiled lists of recommended resources for students in KS3-5 who are interested in exploring a particular subject further. These include websites, magazines and videos, as well as additional resources for teachers.
  • Cambridge runs a series of annual events called 'The Subject Matters' for Year 10 and Year 11 students and their teachers. These offer valuable advice about considering potential future university courses when choosing A Level (or equivalent) subjects. Students who have personally experienced Oxbridge prior to the application process may be less deterred by outdated stereotypes, as they have seen the diversity of opportunities the universities offer.

3.2.2. Year 11

  • When discussing A Level choices with students, have a look at Informed Choices for Russell Group universities to help them link their favourite subjects to potential university courses and future careers. Encourage students to consider which subjects may be required if they have a specific course in mind already. Be aware that students from lower-income backgrounds are far more likely to focus on vocational subjects with obvious career paths, such as Medicine or Law. It can be useful to talk to students about what they can do with a less vocational degree, such as History or English, and encourage them to pursue subjects they are good at and passionate about.
  • It’s understandable that more niche A Level subjects cannot always be offered, but that doesn’t have to be the end of it - would it be feasible to partner with a nearby school offering resources for these subjects, to help out a bright student showing an interest in Latin or Classics? - see this article about Ark Walworth liaising with St Pauls.
  • Cambridge’s HE+ website contains a huge range of super-curricular resources for Years 11-13, providing students with an insight into what it would be like to study a subject at university level, and suggesting some further resources for them to check out. Similarly, Oxford have launched Oxplore, based on encouraging students to consider ‘big questions’ by breaking them down, considering different viewpoints, and defending their judgement.
  • Assure students that they do not need a clean sweep of A* grades at GCSE in order to make a competitive Oxbridge application, although strong candidates have typically achieved a high proportion of A and A* grades (source 1 and source 2). While both universities take GCSE grades into account when assessing applicants, this data is contextualised based on any extenuating circumstances and the average performance of their school, and slightly lower GCSE grades can be counterbalanced by a strong performance in the relevant admissions test, for example.

3.2.3. Year 12

  • Conditional A Level offers from Oxford range between A*A*A and AAA (source). For Cambridge, offers will typically be either A*A*A or A*AA, depending on the course (source). Mock and predicted grades are key in the application process, however both universities will assess candidates individually, taking into account factors such as any extenuating circumstances and contextual data. See here and here. Students should definitely be working hard and aiming to achieve these top grades.
  • Starting a Sixth Form Debating Club - Particularly for humanities subjects, debating is a brilliant way for students to become familiar and confident with sharing their ideas, acknowledging different viewpoints, and defending their arguments. This is also useful interview preparation for humanities students, who are likely to be asked to discuss academic ideas and consider alternative interpretations.

"I was fortunate that from Year 7 to Year 13, my school constantly encouraged debates and debating competitions. This gave me confidence and allowed me to develop my debating skills for university." - George, History, Cambridge

  • Offer students guidance on wider reading related to their chosen subject. Recommend to students any relevant journals or magazines which teachers/schools subscribe to, such as History Today or New Scientist. Many subscriptions also include access to huge online archives of articles and essays, which students may find useful. Encourage students to use this wider reading as the basis for their personal statement. Although wider reading is not always mentioned at interviews, it is definitely not a waste of time. Exploring their subject further develops students’ ability for self-motivated work and picking up new ideas, which are crucial skills for university-level study. The further reading they undertake may also enrich their A Level (or equivalent) course, which could in turn improve their grades and therefore the likelihood of receiving/meeting an offer from Oxford or Cambridge.
  • Also if possible, take students to an Oxford or Cambridge open day. These are typically held in June/July, however you can contact the universities to arrange a school visit at other points in the year. There is often financial support available to enable students to attend open days. You could also contact the Schools Liaison Officer for your region here or here to organise a school visit. Cambridge also host subject masterclasses for many subjects, which include sample lectures and discussions with academics, and can be extremely helpful in giving students in insight into studying a subject at university.
  • Encourage students to explore the InsideUni subject guides and course pages! These contain a huge range of resources for helping students decide which subject they would like to pursue at university level, and suggestions for wider reading in preparation for writing their personal statement.
  • Students may want to start writing their personal statement towards the end of Year 12, or over the summer before Year 13. The application deadline for Oxford and Cambridge is 15th October, and some students don’t end up applying because they miss this deadline. Read over their personal statement draft (mainly spellcheck!). See here and here. This should be personal to the applicant; there is no set formula for success. Official advice from both universities recommends that the personal statement is 80% academic-focused (including super-curricular activities), and 20% extra-curricular. There is more advice about writing a personal statement in the InsideUni 'Preparing an Application' guide on our website.

3.2.4. Year 13

  • Discuss preparation for admissions tests see here and here. Most applicants are required to sit an admissions test, either pre-interview or at-interview, which is specific to the course they are applying for. For most science and maths admissions tests, a syllabus is provided (see this for the Oxford Physics Admissions Test syllabus) to enable students to prepare for the types of problems they may encounter in the test. Most humanities subjects, however, do not require a syllabus, and the only preparation necessary is knowledge of their A Level (or equivalent) course. Specimens or past papers may be useful, and can be found on the university’s websites.
  • Write them a useful reference: guidance here under ‘give us all the information we need in the UCAS form’ (this applies to both Oxford and Cambridge). These include some really useful advice, including that the references don’t have to include a testimony from every subject teacher. Use space wisely by focusing on clearly explaining what makes the applicant an A* student in the subject they’re applying for.
  • Ask students about their college choice: are they simply applying to a college they’d heard of? Have they been to visit, or looked at the website? See here and here. College choice isn’t the most important factor - most colleges have similar facilities, and there isn’t a ‘best college for x subject’ at either university. The [Winter Pool system] is designed to ensure that the best applicants receive an offer, regardless of the College to which they applied. See here and here. Take little notice of the admissions statistics for each college: they change every year and once again, the pool system ensures every applicant is given a fair chance.

"While I was initially shocked upon receiving an acceptance email from a college I had never heard of, the more I researched it, spoke to other first-years and then moved it, I came to find this college to be my true home." - George, History, Cambridge

  • If students receive an invitation to interview, point them towards the InsideUni collection of interview testimonies, which provide realistic examples of what they can expect. A lot of these testimonies emphasise that the interviewers are not attempting to catch candidates off-balance or make them feel ignorant. Rather, questions will likely initiate discussion and candidates are encouraged to share and debate their ideas. It’s absolutely fine to slip up or make mistakes; candidates are not expected to know everything before they’ve even started their course. Official advice from both universities states that interviewers are looking for ‘flexibility of thought; the ability to think critically; and enthusiastic engagement with new ideas’. They are not looking for ‘a completely smooth performance, or a good public speaker.’
  • "In my interview, I couldn’t integrate x squared over 2, which I had done in Year 11! The interviewer told me to breathe and calm down, and that he was sure I could do it because I had done similar stuff before. It’s quite normal to struggle even with the basics when you’re nervous, and the interviewers are aware of that." - Areeg, Engineering, Cambridge
  • If possible, organise a mock interview. These videos are produced by Oxford and Cambridge to give some guidance about the types of questions and discussions to initiate:
  • You could also ask students to expand upon areas of their personal statement; talk through how to solve a given problem question (for science or maths); or discuss an aspect of their submitted written work (for humanities subjects). However, one or two mock interviews is certainly enough - ensure students are prepared but be wary of over-doing it!

"Asking teachers if they can conduct a mock interview can be really useful - even if it's just a chat about something beyond the curriculum, as long as you're stretched a little further it can be very beneficial. It also made me more reassured, knowing I could handle being in an interview-like setting." - from an interview testimony

  • Be prepared to provide some emotional support where required. The application process is complex and stressful, and some students may struggle to balance all of these application processes alongside their studies. Try to refrain from telling students you are sure they will get in, as this will only add more pressure. If students are very anxious, practising mindfulness can help.

"The most valuable piece of advice given to me by my school was to ‘throw my hat in the ring and hope for the best’. They were very encouraging to believe in yourself and your own ability" - Ellie, Geography, Oxford

  • Offer holders: what if students miss their offer? Universities can access students’ A Level (or equivalent) results a few days early, meaning they can make a decision about whether to admit a candidate who has narrowly missed the required grades. See here and here. On Results Day, candidates may be asked to submit mark breakdowns, or they may choose to have a paper remarked. Grades are also contextualised based on any extenuating circumstances and the average performance of their school, however decisions are made on an individual basis and are entirely at the discretion of each College.

"I was predicted A*A*A in History, Geography and Maths respectively, but got AAA. I found out that my Geography was two marks off an A*, so I emailed the university to let them know this. I had to wait a couple of days for them to get back to me, and then I was informed that they had decided to let me in anyway." - Olivia, History, Cambridge

  • Adjustment: if results day goes better than expected (Cambridge). In 2019, Cambridge participated in the Adjustment process for the first time. This is available to students who:

4. Stay In Touch

Follow our social media to keep up to date with InsideUni, including all the support we offer and events we’re hosting.

If you have any questions or would like to get in touch, email [email protected].

We’ve collated a range of resources to help teachers support their students’ applications. Plus, all of the best advice our student contributors received when they were applying to Oxford or Cambridge, and everything they wish they had been told at the time!