10 Ways to Tell If Oxbridge Is the Right Destination For You

Image shows a view through an archway in Jesus College, Oxford.

Are you thinking about applying to Oxford or Cambridge when you submit your UCAS form this year?

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If so, it’s advisable to think carefully before taking the plunge. Not everyone properly stops to consider whether or not Oxford or Cambridge will be right for them; some get caught up in the hype, wanting to go for the prestige or because they want to be like Charles and Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited. These are the people who are less likely to gain admission in the first place, but if they do get in, may feel overwhelmed by the experience and end up not enjoying their time at university, or even transferring somewhere else. Before you decide to apply there, you need to be fully informed about the reality of life at Oxford and Cambridge and be realistic with yourself about whether the Oxbridge experience is right for you. In this article, we present you with a checklist of criteria to help you decide whether or not you’d fit in at Oxbridge.

1. You’re on track for top A-level grades

Image shows a student in a school uniform making notes on a train.
You’ll need to be an obsessively studious type.

First things first: your grades. You’re going to need a minimum of three As at A-level to be in with a chance of securing a place, and for some subjects the offers may be as high as A*A*A. So you’ll need strong predicted grades, and you’ll already have brilliant GCSE grades behind you. If you’re not on course to achieve these grades, and don’t have a valid excuse (that is, extenuating circumstances), then Oxbridge may not be the right place for you; these universities are looking for exceptional academic ability, and if you’re unable to achieve the required A-level grades, you’d be likely to struggle with the academic work required of you at Oxford and Cambridge. Of course, the reverse – i.e. that if you’re predicted to achieve top grades then Oxbridge is right for you – isn’t necessarily true. Grades aren’t everything; just because you have impressive A-level results, it doesn’t mean that Oxbridge is going to be the ideal place for you personally; so your grades are just one aspect for consideration, even if your teachers are pushing you to apply on the strength of your predicted grades.

2. You work obsessively

Do you spend most of your school lunch breaks in the library? Is homework the first thing you think about when you get home, the last thing you think about before bed and the first thing you think about upon waking up the next day? And does it always have to be perfect before you submit it? If so, Oxbridge could be a good place for you to study. The workload expected of you at Oxbridge is far heavier than at virtually every other university, and you’ll need to be the sort of person who’s motivated to work hard much of the time if you’re going to get on at Oxbridge. The reading lists you’ll be given each week will probably be the biggest you’ve ever seen, and you’ll have to write somewhere in the region of two essays a week, potentially in addition to work you’ll have to prepare for group classes, such as presentations. The Oxbridge student is resigned to the fact that they will always have a huge workload hanging over them, that they won’t have time to get every essay absolutely perfect, and that they will feel permanently guilty for not working every time they have some much-needed time off. It’s a guilt that stays with you long after you leave Oxbridge, too; so if that doesn’t sound like something you could cope with, Oxbridge may not be the place for you!

3. You like a good academic debate

Image shows Oxford students in sub fusc, deep in discussion, walking down Turl Street.
Enjoying debating is essential.

Academic discussion and debate are the cornerstone of the Oxbridge tutorial system, in which you’re expected to write a couple of essays a week for critique in a one-to-one situation with a leading academic (these are called “tutorials” at Oxford and “supervisions” at Cambridge). Oxbridge is a place where your opinions will be challenged, and where you’re expected to be able to give a spirited defence of anything you’ve written in your essays or said in a tutorial or supervision. You’ll need to be intellectually confident to get past the interview stage, and you’ll become increasingly so during your time at Oxbridge. But if you’re painfully shy, and the thought of having to give your opinion to someone who’s probably written several books about your subject makes you feel ill, Oxbridge probably isn’t the best place for you.

4. You don’t crumble under pressure

The academic pressure that’s inevitably placed on you at Oxbridge isn’t for everyone. Some people will thrive under such pressure, while others may crumble – and those who crumble under academic pressure are unlikely to find Oxbridge well suited to them. This pressure manifests itself in a variety of ways, and not just in the fact that the exams are notoriously tricky. For a start, the tutorial system piles the pressure on because you’re a lot more exposed in a one-to-one situation: there are no other students to hide behind, and it’ll be glaringly obvious if you haven’t worked hard enough or if you’ve neglected to read a certain item on your reading list. If your essay is full of holes, your tutor will notice and you’ll be squirming on the spot if you’re unable to defend what you’ve written, which is never a pleasant feeling. There will also be regular official checks on your academic progress, and (at least at some colleges) you might be placed on some kind of academic probation if you’re not deemed to be operating at a sufficient academic level. Oxford, for example, imposes what’s known as ‘Collections’ on all its students, in the form of a meeting with the president or principal of the college at the end of each term to discuss your academic progress and raise any concerns, and in the form of mock exams at the beginning of every term. These mock exams mean that you can’t spend the holidays doing nothing – you must brush up on what you’ve learnt during the previous term ready to pass an exam (usually a past paper) at the beginning of the next one. There’s no let-up in pressure for pretty much the entirety of your degree, so you’ll need to be someone who’s mentally able to withstand this.

Image shows formal hall at St John's College, Cambridge.
Formal hall is a great occasion for dressing up.

5. You like quirky traditions and dressing up

Oxford and Cambridge are steeped in quirky traditions, and students are expected to get on board with them wholeheartedly. Tradition dictates a great many aspects of life at Oxford and Cambridge, from the manner in which you dine to what you wear during exams, and it also means that there will be numerous bizarre ceremonies and other Oxbridge-style events for you to take part in. If the thought of getting dressed up in ‘sub-fusc’ doesn’t put you off, and you can see yourself keeping alive the age-old traditions that make Oxbridge so special, it could be the right place for you. You’ll have to be comfortable dressing up in black or white tie, too, as there are lots of unavoidable formal events at Oxford and Cambridge, including going to posh dinners with your tutors and attending lavish college balls.

6. You don’t mind self-directed study

While the one-to-one tutorial system forms the basis of teaching at Oxbridge, you’ll also need to be prepared for the fact that a lot of the learning you do will be self-directed. Oxbridge favours quality over quantity when it comes to contact time with teaching staff, so while you’ll get the virtually undivided attention of your tutor when you’re with them, it’ll probably only be for an hour or two each week. Outside tutorials or supervisions you might have a few lectures and perhaps a weekly class scheduled, but the rest of the time you’ll be on your own. You’ll be given a big reading list and it’ll be your responsibility to go to the library in plenty of time, find the books, thoroughly read and absorb their contents and then produce an essay that will withstand academic scrutiny, with little or no input from your tutor. If you’re very self-motivated and don’t mind working alone, this way of doing things won’t phase you; if, however, you struggle to work on your own, and prefer learning in the classroom with others and having everything spoonfed to you by a teacher, you might find that the independence expected of you at Oxbridge isn’t the right style of learning for you.

7. You’re not intimidated by old architecture

Image shows a beautiful stained-glass window.
Oxford and Cambridge both have stunning architecture, but it’s not the most important thing.

Oxford and Cambridge are, of course, famous for their beautiful architecture, and while there are a few concrete monstrosities lurking around both universities, the college buildings on the whole are as picturesque as it’s possible for a university to be. The old and peculiarly scholarly nature of Oxbridge’s architecture contributes to the solemn, learned atmosphere that makes these cities so conducive to studying, but it’s probably not for everyone; some may find these surroundings quite intimidating, and may prefer the more laid-back vibe of a modern university. If this is the only thing that puts you off, though, you could apply to one of the newer colleges, such as St Anne’s College, Oxford; although you’ll still be surrounded by old buildings in the city as a whole, the more modern architecture of some of the newer colleges might be more up your street.

8. You’re after somewhere small and close-knit

While some people prefer the relative anonymity of a big university campus, it’s not for everyone. If you’re someone who can see yourself fitting in with a smaller student community, knowing everyone in your year, then the family-like atmosphere of an Oxbridge college would suit you down to the ground. The great thing about Oxford and Cambridge is that you get the best of both worlds – you’re part of a big university, and you have the benefits that its reputation and facilities bring, but you’re also part of a small community within a college, which makes it easier to settle in. Your college becomes your home for the duration of your course, even if you end up living out for part of it (and at some colleges you might not even have to live out, as some offer accommodation for all years of your course, not just the first year as at most other universities).

9. You have an unusual interest or hobby

Image shows a piece of embroidery with a quote from the Lord of the Rings on it.
Do you want to combine The Lord of the Rings with embroidery? In Oxford or Cambridge, you’ll almost certainly find like-minded people.

It’s obviously not essential to have some sort of eccentric interest or unusual hobby to go to Oxford or Cambridge, but one thing is certainly true, and that is that Oxbridge embraces individuality. It doesn’t matter how geeky you consider yourself to be, there will be someone else at Oxbridge geekier than you; you’ll be accepted for who you are, regardless of how niche your interests are. You certainly won’t be scorned for being passionate about The Silmarillion or heavily into an unusual sport, like fencing. In fact, there will probably be a society dedicated to your interest that you can join and meet like-minded people.

10. You wish you’d gone to Hogwarts (and the Harry Potter character you most identify with is Hermione)

And finally, are you still gutted you didn’t receive a letter from Hogwarts on your 11th birthday? If all the previous statements on this list applied to you, you’d fit right in at Oxbridge – and you’ll be pleased to hear that going to Oxford or Cambridge is about as close as it gets to going to Hogwarts. Beautiful old dining halls, picturesque cloisters and eccentric teaching staff are all part and parcel of the Oxbridge experience – indeed, it’s so alike that some of the filming for the Harry Potter movies took place in Oxford colleges. And if the Harry Potter character with whom you most identify is the studious Hermione, then so much the better: she’d fit right in at Oxbridge too.

Image credits: banner; student; discussion; formal hall; stained glass; embroidery