Q: What do the following all have in common? ….Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Ali G, Watson & Crick, Monty Python, J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis Carroll, C.S.Lewis…?
A: They are all Oxbridge graduates
Don’t try looking for “Oxbridge” on the list of UCAS universities; it isn’t some brand new institution. It is, in fact, the name used to refer to both Oxford and Cambridge Universities – the two oldest in the UK. They were founded over 750 years ago and between them have produced a large number of Britain’s most prominent scientists and politicians, as well as notable figures in many other fields. In 2006, The Times Higher Educational Supplement’s world ranking of universities placed Cambridge and Oxford as the second and third most reputable research universities in the world after Harvard. The competition between Oxford and Cambridge also has a long history.
Oxford and Cambridge have been careful to preserve many parts of their history, retaining a number of traditions that can seem archaic and bizarre to outsiders… and even to insiders!
Hard-working… Traditional… Pretentious… Archaic… Upper Class… Ambitious… Inward-looking… Resourceful…
Conjuring up an image of Oxbridge, one might imagine “dreaming spires” or a grassy quadrangle surrounded by ancient buildings with bearded professors and studious groups of undergraduates wearing mortarboards. Whatever the image your mind, it is more likely to be completely unfounded or at least only a snapshot of what Oxford or Cambridge are really about.
The institutions themselves are often seen as quaint and charming but slow to change. There are sometimes accusations that students from less affluent backgrounds are at a disadvantage when applying to Oxbridge and that the universities have kept their traditional reputation of being socially exclusive and elitist. This is strongly denied by both universities.
In the current climate, the Oxbridge brand name can occasionally work against the universities it represents. In a society where inclusiveness, transparency and equality are increasingly the cardinal virtues, the air of mystery and privilege which envelops Oxbridge is beginning to attract strong criticism, as it risks alienating sections of society.
This is borne out by statistics. Less than 10% of British children are privately educated, but they make up 50% of the Oxbridge student body. However, the acceptance rates for the state and independent schools are actually very similar (30% and 24%). The difference is therefore due to who actually applies in the first place. This is the difference in admission and acceptance rates has brought Oxbridge a great deal of undeserved criticism. Both are working hard to change the public perception of the Oxbridge brand, but with 700 years of history behind them, it is a slow process.
One significant change in the last century has been an increase in the admission of female students. Women were not allowed to attain degrees until the 20th century. At undergraduate level, the male : female ratio is now roughly equal.
Both institutions are famed for the high quality of the educational experience they deliver. Students are generally taught by some of the world leaders in their fields. It is an opportunity to push yourself to achieve the highest levels of achievement you possibly can.
Oxbridge pride themselves on their specialised teaching system. There is more teaching individually and in small groups than most universities. You are therefore expected to be self-motivated and be able to work well independently. The principal method of teaching is the “tutorial” (Oxford) or “supervision” (Cambridge) system.
These are weekly hour-long sessions in which a small group of students (usually 1 to 3) meet up with a tutor or doctoral student within their college. Typically, you will be asked to produce an essay / assignment prior to the lesson which will be discussed during the hour along with any difficulties arising from the week’s lectures. Students typically have 2 or 3 supervisions/tutorials a week. This teaching system is not totally unique to Oxbridge but few other universities have the resources to support such a system on the scale required and rely more on a larger work group (e.g. seminars and lectures).
Small group teaching, with students being taught to communicate their ideas with an academic, is an obvious catalyst to increased confidence. If the students are constantly required to articulate, defend, think through and adapt their ideas under the most rigorous intellectual cross-examination by some of the brightest minds in the world, and they still survive, it makes negotiations in the real world a walk in the park.
o Social (clubs/sports)
o Higher level clubs and organisations
Both universities are comprised of a number of colleges that provide the environment for living, working and sleeping. These provide a small, friendly environment within the context of a huge international university. Applications are made through the individual colleges rather than the university itself, so you must choose a specific college you would like to attend (or make an open application). All colleges are part of the university as a whole and students reading (studying) the same subject will be given lectures together irrespective of their college; however, supervisions and tutorials are given within the colleges.
Accommodation and meals are generally provided by the colleges and a large part of the social life of a student may revolve around their particular college (most colleges have their own bar!). Colleges within the university generally have their own societies and teams and often compete against each other (e.g. rowing, rugby, chess, etc.); they will, however, pool their talents in university-wide teams to compete against other universities – especially the “greater enemy” (i.e. the other, either Oxford or Cambridge) in “Varsity” matches.
Reputation and Funding
Graduates from Oxbridge can generally enjoy good career prospects, as mention of these universities on a C.V. commands respect from potential employers.
Oxford and Cambridge also generally have a better level of funding than other universities, so their facilities are usually second to none. This also means that accommodation and meals are often subsidised and there are also a number of grants and scholarships available.
On the more negative side, however, Oxbridge doesn’t suit everyone. You need to be extremely motivated and dedicated to maximising your potential. In order to achieve a place, you need an outstanding academic record and also a well-rounded personality.
Is it for you?
Once you have secured a place, it isn’t all plain sailing. Oxbridge make you work very hard for your degree:
- Terms are short but extremely intense
- There are sometimes lectures on Saturdays
- There are strict rules on concentrating on your studies and not having a part-time job
Oxbridge students aren’t a certain “type” but all are focused and enthusiastic about their subject. If this doesn’t sound like you, then it is unlikely you would be happy there. The best way to check is to go and visit.
OXFORD OR CAMBRIDGE?
You can’t apply to both, so you will need to choose between them.
Both are world-class education institutions with reputations for excellence, and it is generally easier to list the similarities between them than the differences.
- Age and Tradition– old buildings and often quirky procedures
- Beautiful Colleges– most are historic buildings surrounded by beautiful gardens
- Academic Excellence– professors are often leaders in their field; both universities can name some of the most exalted political, business and academic figures in history amongst their alumni
- Social Composition– college system; teams and societies; events and competitions
- Outstanding Facilities– well funded; cutting-edge research centres; closely associated with research bodies, companies and spin-offs, especially in the sciences
- Tutorial / supervision Teaching System– small group teaching; intense but effective at maximising students’ potential
Both Oxford and Cambridge are historic towns possessing:
- Well-regarded printing houses (Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press)
- Botanical gardens
- Museums (the Ashmolean and the Fitzwilliam)
- Legal deposit libraries (Bodleian and the Cambridge University Library)
- Debating societies (Oxford Union and Cambridge Union)
- Size– Oxford is a larger city, is busier and is more industrial. This also means that there is more to do outside of the university and it can feel less insular.
- Architecture– the “dreaming spires” of Oxford give it a slightly different “feel” to that of Cambridge. Which you prefer is completely personal.
- Course structures– Cambridge offers a “tripos” structure that allows you to study quite wide-ranging subjects over the three years, whereas Oxford offers more “joint honours” courses where two subjects can be studied together.
- Unique subjects– both offer subjects not available at the other and both offer completely unique subjects not offered elsewhere at all (e.g. Veterinary Science at Cambridge but not at Oxford, PPE at Oxford, SPS at Cambridge).
- Science– Oxford offers all three sciences separately (and also some variations, e.g. Human Sciences). At Cambridge, all scientists take Natural Sciences and choose modules within this which allows more flexibility if desired.
- Exams– At Cambridge you have three sets of exams – at each stage of the tripos (end of each year – IA, IB and II). At Oxford you have two sets of exams – prelims or mods within the first 2 years, and finals at the end of the third.
Both universities have retained traditions that date back centuries. Both have unique names and terms that can initially seem like a foreign language, e.g.
SUB FUSC – formal academic dress worn for exams in Oxford
BATTELS – your bill for accommodation and food at Oxford
P’LODGE – Porters Lodge – gatehouse to the college
BEDDERS / SCOUTS – people who clean your room or empty your bins
MICHEALMAS / TRINITY / HILARY – 3 terms at Oxford
PPE (Politics, Philosophy & Physiology)
Economics & Management
Maths & Philosophy
Classics & English
Land Economy (Environment, Law & Economics)
Anglo-Saxon, Norse & Celtic
What should I take into account when choosing which of the two to apply to?
- Courses on offer
g. Architecture offered at Cambridge but not at Oxford.
Combinations of subjects (e.g. PPE, SPS, Natural Sciences)
Joint courses offered at Oxford at Oxford (e.g. History with Economics/ Politics/ English)
Cambridge – less flexibility, but with the tripos system you can move subject after the 1st year (e.g. Law / History of Art)
Oxford is larger so there is more on offer outside the university. Cambridge is more tranquil but can be more insular.
Transport to London is cheaper and easier and easier from Oxford (coach service).
Cambridge can be more isolated.
Both are surrounded by beautiful countryside.
- Family / friends
There may be a family tradition of attending one or the other (but check this suits you as well!)
CHOOSING A COLLEGE
The Oxford and Cambridge collegiate systems are a rare phenomenon. The individual colleges enjoy a surprising degree of autonomy, controlling to some extent their own entrance policies, permanent staff, finances and disciplinary proceedings. Each college employs a body of Fellows or Dons whose research and teaching largely defines its academic reputation. Each college also has a large number of non-academic staff who regulate the life of the buildings and students. The most significant for the undergraduates are the Porters and the Bedders / Scouts. The Porters are based at the college gatehouse (Porter’s Lodge) and are responsible for overseeing the comings and goings of tourists, students and visitors. Bedders at Cambridge and Scouts at Oxford clean the students’ rooms.
Each college has a dual function:
- it is the hub of pastoral life; the place where you live, eat and socialise
- it is the centre of academic life
The only areas affecting undergraduates where authority is centralised as a university-wide body are lectures and exams.
Colleges are also physically discrete: each has its own grounds and accommodation and, as a result of their physical and academic independence, each college has a strong character of its own, and a separate identity that its students are free either to embrace or ignore. The character of a college depends both on its make-up of students and fellows/dons, and its traditions and history, with records and stories that stretch back for centuries. Not only does this guarantee a unique experience for the members of each college, it creates tremendous diversity in the university as a whole: each friend you make in a new college opens up a new experience.
The colleges also provide a close, friendly, familiar environment. Whistle college life tends to be warm and inclusive, none of the activities that bind a given college are ever compulsory, and some people choose to participate mainly in university-wide or town activities. Broadly speaking, the collegiate system offers all the care and individual attention of a tiny establishment, with the resources and academic clout of a huge one.
There are over 60 Oxbridge colleges including some that are for mature students only. For undergraduates, there are 29 at Oxford and 25 at Cambridge to choose from.
There are several factors you need to consider when choosing the correct college to apply to:
- Does it cover your subject?
- How likely am I to get in?
- What is the application: place ratio for my subject?
- What is the academic reputation for my subject?
- Don’t just look at overall academic rankings – rankings within your subjects are more important. Also, the number of applicants per place doesn’t give an idea of the quality of those applications.
- Quality of teaching
- How many tutors are there for your subjects?
- What is their reputation?
- What do the current students think of the professors that teach them?
- How academic?
- Will you be under great pressure to achieve?
- Does this type of environment suit you?
- Is the library well stocked for your subject?
- Architecture / Feel
- Gothic? Renaissance? 1960’s concrete? Historical or modern environment?
- Spacious gardens or compact? Are you allowed to sit and relax on the grass?
- Sleepy and quiet or busting and active?
- “Personality” of the college – do you feel content here?
- Gardens, accommodation, computer facilities, gym, sports facilities, theatre, choir, and, chapel, etc.
- How many meals in college per week? Formal Halls? Cost of these?
- Is accommodation available for all three years? How close is the accommodation to the college/town/faculty? (Some college housing may be away from the main college site)
- Proximity to the town centre/your faculty
- Single-sex colleges
- Cambridge – Newnham and Murray Edwards (New Hall) are female only
- Does this environment suit you? It may cause you to interact more with other colleges
- In mixed colleges – what is the male: female ratio? Does this matter?
- Anonymity or community?
- Small colleges can be more friendly but also insular and claustrophobic
- Large colleges can be intimidating or they can provide diversity
- Is the college one of the more famous (e.g. Trinity or St John’s in Cambridge or Christ Church in Oxford) – will there be tourists walking through the college daily – will this be a problem?
- Richer colleges may provide subsidised food / accommodation
- Are there grants and scholarships available for my subject?
- Is this well stocked?
- How big is it? (Will it become crowded / full in summer term?)
- Would it be a good environment for me to work in?
- Bar and social life
- What is the bar like? Is there a thriving JCR? How expensive is it?
- Are there regular events / parties?
- How often does the college hold formal dinners (“formal halls”)?
- Are there sports facilities? (sports ground / boathouse, etc.) Where are they?
- Does the college have a team for your sport? Is it competitive??
- Is there a choir / orchestra?
It is also possible to make an “open application”. If there is no college you would prefer not to attend, then this can be a wise move, as you will be allocated to the college with the fewest applications for your course.
Bear in mind that your choice of college doesn’t necessarily need to be the defining feature of your Oxbridge experience. Lectures are university-wide and many students prefer to base their social life around pubs, clubs and societies within the city itself.
This is the process where some students are put into a central “pool” and any college any college many pick them up (i.e. you may end up being interviewed at, or accepted by, a different college than the one to which you made your initial application).
The “pooling” system occurs in different forms at both universities. Colleges will pool candidates only if they have an exceptionally strong series of interviewees for a very limited number of places and they feel that another college could benefit from seeing someone who they haven’t been able to accept.
At Oxford you are often interviewed by another college when you go down for interview. Cambridge, on the other hand, has a “Winter Pool”, which you may enter after your first interview and from which you may be subsequently called back for an interview at another college.
- Balliol– Well situated with an excellent academic reputation, grants available
- Brasenose– Castle-like appearance with a deer park! Good reputation for Law and History
- Christ Church– Largest, most prestigious, touristy, “dreaming spires” – Harry Potter was filmed here!
- Corpus Christi– Small, pretty, near the river, quite insular, low application rate
- Exeter– Nice atmosphere, small and friendly, musical
- Hertford – Friendly and central, good reputation for Geography
- Jesus– Small and friendly, good social life and sports teams
- Keble– Unique architecture (red brick), theatrical, large dining hall, good state school intake
- Lady Margaret Hall– Away from the centre, large grounds, less daunting, tennis and football pitches on-site
- Lincoln– Small and friendly, cosy and relaxed atmosphere, good food!
- Magdalen (pronounced ‘Maudlin’) – Very beautiful, spacious (deer park!), May Day traditions, good funding, quite touristy, one of the best bars in Oxford! Choir is world-renowned
- Mansfield– Smallest college, can be insular
- Merton– Oldest college, very academic, good reputation for history especially
- New– Good accommodation, beautiful gardens, well equipped, good for sports
- Oriel– Small, quite insular, sporty, only recently accepted women – can be intimidating, good drama and sports, the rowing college
- Pembroke– Friendly, good JCR – lots of events organised, good bar
- Queen’s– Good choir, sporty, croquet played on the lawn in the summer! Traditional roots in the North of England
- Somerville– Reputation for “feisty girls and non-sporty boys”! Slightly left wing
- St Anne’s– Out of the centre, more arty / drama than sporty, relaxed
- St Catharine’s (St Catz) – Large, modern, young, liberal environment, diverse and friendly, modern and architecture
- St Edmund Hall (‘Teddy Hall’) – Popular rugby college, good atmosphere, cosy and active bar, very sporty
- St Hilda’s– Last all women’s college (began to admit men in 2008), has its own punt house, cheapest bar in Oxford!
- St Hugh’s– Extensive grounds, less traditional, out of the centre
- St John’s– Richest college – many grants, very academic, central, beautiful grounds
- St Peter’s– Central, young college, sporty, small and compact, friendly
- Trinity– Small insular, good food, large lawn to student ratio!
- University– Rich college, traditional, central, good sports teams, can be touristy
- Wadham– Down to earth, left wing, less traditional but beautiful buildings
- Worcester– Beautiful grounds and a lake, 2 bars! Sporty (especially women)
- Christ’s– Quiet but central, strong academically, bar closes early! Strong Christian Union
- Churchill– Friendly and unpretentious, slightly out of centre, sports-based social life
- Clare– Strong musical side, less sporty, friendly, well-renowned bar (Clare Cellars)
- Corpus Christi– Very small sense of community intimate, not very sporty
- Downing– Large grounds, peaceful, strong at sports and good reputation for Law
- Emmanuel (‘Emma’) – Friendly, lovely gardens including a duck pond and an outdoor swimming pool! Active societies and bar, can be oversubscribed
- Fitzwilliam– Non-elitist, sporty, slightly out of the centre, less traditional
- Girton– A long way out of town, strong sense of community, extensive grounds, indoor swimming pool, fewer applicants per place
- Gonville & Caius (pronounced ‘Keys’) – Traditional, rich, sporty central, good music and drama
- Homerton– PCGE students only, friendly and laid-back, facilities all on-site but out of the centre
- Jesus– Excellent sports facilities, beautiful grounds, quite central, balance between traditional yet relaxed
- King’s– Large, central, touristy, world-renowned choir and carol service, welcomes variety, tolerant of minority groups, less traditional
- Magdalene (pronounced ‘Maudlin’) – Small but pretty, central and bustling, can be cliquey, less academic
- New Hall– Female only, friendly, unpretentious, less traditional buildings, slightly out of the centre
- Newnham– Female only, good for sports, close to the arts faculties, less academic
- Pembroke– Friendly, strong drama society, quiet gardens, close to the science faculty
- Peterhouse– Oldest college, small and traditional, can be insular, sports clubs are very active
- Queens’– Medium-sized, central, academic, famous ‘mathematical bridge’ over the Cam, good drama society, sporty
- Robinson– Less traditional, slightly out of the centre, good community spirit, supportive atmosphere, good film society
- Selwyn– Next to the arts faculty, attractive and sociable, quiet – not very vibrant, not very sporty, good music society
- Sydney Sussex– Small, close – knit community, sociable, active Students Union, central, notorious drinking societies!
- St Catherine’s (‘Catz’) – Well – balanced, central, friendly, very sporty, can be insular, good choir
- St John’s– Large, central, touristy, rich – many grants, traditional, well renowned male choir, competitive, sporty, good facilities, lots of variety
- Trinity Hall (‘Tit Hall’) – Small and friendly, strong musically, bar and library quite small, good academically but a party reputation!
- Trinity– Largest college, central, traditional, touristy, beautiful gardens on the backs’, diverse range of students, facilities and grants excellent, less sporty, strong choir
The Personality of a College
THE SPORTY ONE: Lots of teams at all levels, kits in college colours, sports teams, drinking societies, team formal halls, trips to Varsity matches. Inclusive or cliquey?
THE ARTY ONE: Well established drama society, music groups, film nights, art loans, theatre productions, band nights in the bar. Insular?
THE TRADITIONAL ONE: Majestic buildings, accommodation steeped in history, quirky traditions. Often rich and well funded, but pressure to succeed/complete. Touristy. Living in a museum?
THE MODERN ONE: Less majestic buildings (often 1970’s concrete!) Laid back and relaxed, less pressure. Unpretentious. Lack of atmosphere?
THE SMALL ONE: Cosy atmosphere. Friendly. Everyone knows everyone else. Can be cramped and noisy. Usually city centre, close to shops/bars/faculties. Close ‘family’ feel?
THE LARGE ONE: Sprawling grounds, relaxing, ‘escape’ from the bustle of town. Often a walk from the city centre. Usually on-site facilities. More students lends to a more diverse atmosphere. Oasis of calm or anonymity?
THE SOCIAL ONE: Active JCR/MCR. Frequent events, attracts people from other colleges. Thriving ball committee. Drinking and social societies. Can be noisy. Usually less academic. Work/life balance?
THE ACADEMIC ONE: Good reputation. Tutors are well renowned. High in league tables. Pressure to succeed. Sports/drama, etc. may be discouraged. Desire to be pushed to your potential?
ARE YOU A STRAIGHT A GRADE STUDENT?
Oxbridge will only seriously look at you if you have at least 3 straight A predictions. All applicants will be capable of the highest academic standards so this is not the determining factor for admissions.
All applicants to Oxbridge are “straight A” students. The colleges, therefore, are looking for something beyond current academic ability and exam grades. They are also looking for individuals who display:
In addition to your predicted A-Level results, they will use some or all of the following methods to determine these additional attributes:
- Cambridge or Oxford Application Form
- Personal statement
- School reference
- Work submitted to the college
- Interviews (which may include written tests)
- STEP papers and/or BMAT/LMAT, etc.
No other university admissions system has quite so much mystery or rumour surrounding it. This is mostly to do with age-old stories of crazy interviewing techniques and a strong lingering air of an “old boys network” and public school bias. Neither of these are at all still in existence and the process is becoming much more open and transparent, although still very tough, competitive and challenging.
|BMAT (Medical Admissions Test)||5 Nov|
|Submission of written work (if required)||By mid-Nov|
|Applicants notified by letter||Late Dec (Oxford); Early Jan (Cambridge)|
|Finalise course and college choice||June-July|
|Attend general open Days||Late June (Oxford); Early July (Cambridge)|
|Perfect UCAS form and separate Oxford or Cambridge form||June-September|
|Submit application to UCAS and Oxford or Cambridge||1 Sept-15 Oct|
|LNAT (Law Admissions Test)||Sept-Nov|
UCAS AND OXBRIDGE FORMS
As well as completing the normal UCAS form (which will include Cambridge or Oxford as one of your choices), you must also submit a separate form either to a specific Cambridge college or Oxford Admissions office.
This form must be submitted by the 2nd / 3rd week in October, which is earlier than the UCAS deadline. You must therefore be very organised and put together your UCAS personal statement ahead of schedule. It is a good idea to complete both the UCAS form ad the Cambridge/ Oxford form by the end of the summer holiday so you can get a tutor to check them at start of the autumn term.
Both university forms also allocated space for a mini personal statement just like the one on the UCAS form. It is a good idea to rewrite your UCAS statement and to tailor it specifically to Oxbridge. This gives you a great opportunity to explain why you specifically want to attend Oxbridge and why you think it would suit you. Some people choose to tailor their statement to specific college they have applied to. This is often a good idea, but don’t go overboard on this as you must bear in mind there is a chance you may be pooled.
As with the UCAS personal statement, assume you will be asked everything about it at the interview. Therefore, make sure it is truthful and that it reflects you and your personality. There are generally 3 types of tutors at the interview.
- Those that read the statement thoroughly and ask about it.
- Those who read it during interview to check it reflects the person sitting in front of them.
- Those who read it after the interview because they don’t want to be influenced by it – they use it to confirm the view they have made at interview.
Oxbridge often ask you to submit some work so that they can see evidence of your ability. You may be asked to send this in advance of your interview or take it along at the time. You need to check whether they want:
- a piece of school work that has already been assessed and marked
- a piece of work put together especially for the interview (they may provide a title or choice of titles)
With either of these scenarios you will need to:
- Provide GENUINE work – you will be easily found out in an interview
- Read any instructions carefully and stick rigidly within the constraints of the title and specifications (word counts, etc.)
- Send or make photocopies – the work won’t be sent back
- Know the subject well and in further depths as you will have to expand on the topic at interview and explain any opinions put forward.
At both universities it is almost universal that you are asked to take an extra test set by the university, either before the interview or when you go for interview. The details of this are given in the entry requirements for each course but the tables below give you an indication of what might be required. These requirements vary from college to college and course to course so check in advance.
For specific subjects you will be asked to sit specific national tests before the interview, for example ELAT, LNAT and BMAT for English Literature, Law, and Medicine respectively. Usually you don’t have to receive a specific grade in these but they are used to compare candidates (as all those applying will be predicted A grades). It is sometimes the case that you will be asked to take additional exams when you sit your A-levels (e.g. STEP levels) and the results of these may form a part of your conditional offer.
1) Tests at Interview
You will usually be told beforehand that you will be asked to sit a test on attending the interview, but if not then it is safe to assume, especially at Oxford, that you may be asked to do so.
Don’t worry if you don’t finish the test – candidates often don’t. The test will be used as a basis for a discussion in the interview so, regardless of your success on the test, you still have a chance to prove your potential.
HOW DO I PREPARE?
There are specifications available for most of these tests and they are broadly based on A-Level work, although they will be designed to push you slightly beyond this to see how you deal with it. It is advisable to revise your A-Level work well prior to the interview and check the college or faculty website for any example papers. Depending on your subject, extra reading may also help.
The maths tests at both Oxford and Cambridge usually don’t allow you to use a calculator so practise without
Some subjects/ colleges at Cambridge may ask you to take STEPs (Sixth Term Examination Papers) and may include them as part of a conditional offer. These are extra exams that you take at the same time as your A-levels. They used to be offered in a range of subjects, but now generally only the Maths STEP is in use. All Cambridge colleges except for King’s require a STEP in Maths for their Mathematics course. Other courses such as Engineering and Computer Science may also ask for the Maths STEP paper as well. It is based on the A-Level syllabus, but tests students to take further level. Have a look at some past papers on the website below. There are 5 grades: S (Outstanding), 1, 2, 3 and U (Ungraded). A typical offer for example may be AAA1.
3) Subject Exams
Some subjects may require you take national tests specific to the course you wish to read (see the tables below). Usually you don’t need to attain a certain grade but the results will be used as a comparison between students.
- a) BMAT – Biomedical Admission Test – bmat.org.uk
This is required for Medicine at both universities. It is taken at a centre near you and the grade sent to the university. The test has three sections and tests both your background scientific knowledge as well as problem solving and data analysis skills. You register online and the registration number must be put on your UCAS form.
- b) LNAT – National Admissions Test for Law – lnat.ac.uk
This is required for Law at both universities. It is an on-screen test taken at a centre near you and the grade is sent to the universities. The test is a mixture of multiple-choice questions and an essay and must be taken anytime between early September and early November (check exact dates). You register online and the registration number must be put on your UCAS form.
- c) ELAT – The English Literature Admissions Test – elat.org.uk
This is a test specifically for those applying for any English courses at Oxford or Cambridge. It is a 90-minute test in which you must write one essay to compare two or three pieces of unseen poetry or prose. It is not a test of wider reading but you are expected to have read certain standard texts by this point. You take it at a centre near you and the grade is sent to Oxford.
- d) TSA – Thinking Skills Assessment – tsa.ucles.org.uk
This is a test used for a variety courses including Land Economy at Cambridge and Economics & Management, Geography, Experimental Psychology, and PPE at Oxford. It is a 90-minute test comprised of 50 questions. Its aim is to test your critical thinking and problem-solving skills rather than specific knowledge. There are some practice tests on the website and also some recommended reading if you want to learn more about the style of the test. The grade you achieve in this is not important – it is merely used as a comparison between candidates (the average score last year was 63%).
CAMBRIDGE – you take some tests before the interview at a centre near you and some tests in Cambridge when you go for interview.
OXFORD – you take the test at a centre near you and the grade is sent to Oxford. You must register online via the website.
Summary of requirements for CAMBRIDGE courses
|COURSE||SUBMIT WRITTEN WORK PRE-INTERVIEW||PRE-INTERVIEW TEST||TEST AT INTERVIEW|
|Anglo-Saxon, Norse & Celtic||Most colleges||Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic Admissions Assessment||X|
|Archaeology||Some colleges||X||Archaeology Admissions Assessment|
|Architecture||Portfolio||X||Architecture Admissions Assessment|
|Classics||Most colleges||X||Classics Admissions Assessment|
|Computer Science||X||X||Computer Science Admissions Test|
|Economics||A few colleges||Economics Admissions Assessment||X|
|Education||Some colleges||X||Education Admissions Assessment|
|Engineering||X||Engineering Admissions Assessment||X|
|Geography||Some colleges||Geography Admissions Assessment||X|
|History||Most colleges||History Admissions Assessment||X|
|History of Art||Most colleges||X||History of Art Admissions Assessment|
|Land Economy||A few colleges||X||TSA|
|Law||A few colleges||X||Cambridge Law Test|
|Modern & Medieval Languages||Most colleges||X||Modern and Mediaeval Languages Admissions Assessment|
|Music||Most colleges||X||Short tasks|
|Natural Sciences||X||Natural Sciences Admissions Assessment||A few colleges|
|Asian & Middle- Eastern Studies||Most colleges||Asian and Middle-Eastern Studies Admissions Assessment||X|
|Philosophy||Some colleges||X||Philosophy Admissions Assessment|
|Psychological & Behavioural Sciences||Some colleges||Psychology and Behavioural Sciences Admissions Assessment||X|
|Theology, Religion & Philosophy of Religion||Most colleges||X||Written response to lecture|
|Veterinary Science||X||Natural Sciences Admissions Assessment||X|
Summary of requirements for OXFORD courses
|COURSE||SUBMIT WRITTEN WORK PRE-INTERVIEW||TESTS REQUIRED|
|Archaeology & Anthropology||All colleges||X|
|Classical Archaeology & Ancient History||All colleges||X|
|Classics||All colleges||Classics Admissions Test|
|Computer Science||X||Mathematics Admissions Test|
|Economics & Management||X||TSA|
|English Language & Literature||All colleges||ELAT|
|European & Middle Eastern Languages||All colleges||Modern Languages Admissions Test and Oriental Languages Aptitude Test|
|Fine Art||Portfolio (Ruskin School of Art)||Practical test at interview|
|History||All colleges||History Aptitude Test|
|History of Art||All colleges||X|
|Mathematics||X||Mathematics Admissions Test|
|Modern Languages||All colleges||Modern Languages Admissions Test|
|Music||All colleges||Practical test|
|Oriental Studies||All colleges||Oriental Languages Aptitude Test|
|Philosophy & Modern Languages||All colleges||Modern Languages Admissions Test|
|Philosophy & Theology||All colleges||Philosophy Test|
|Physics||X||Physics Aptitude Test|
|Theology & Religion||All colleges||X|
N.B. Be aware that combined courses or double honours courses usually require you to take the tests for both subjects, for example for English and Modern Languages you would have to take the ELAT and the language tests. An exception is History and English, for which you take the HAT and not the ELAT. Therefore you must CHECK on the relevant websites for your specific course.
INTERVIEWS – “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition”
“Does a computer have a conscience?” Law, Cam ?!? “Why are we here?” Medicine, Ox
The infamous “Oxbridge Interview” is shrouded in myth and legend. Obscure, bizarre and downright surreal can be used to describe some of the stories of horrifying experiences potential students have faced on turning up at Oxford or Cambridge for an entrance interview. None more typical than the old adage:
“When you walk into the interview, the fellow throws you a rugby ball. If you drop it or it hits you in the face, you are out, if you catch it, you are in, and if you drop kick it back, you get a scholarship.”
As more and more school leavers obtain the 3 or 4 A grades that Oxbridge colleges demand and there are as yet no brackets to distinguish a “high A grade” from a “low A grade”, the universities must look elsewhere to differentiate the candidates. They need to sift through an already highly impressive pool in order to narrow their choice in as fair and efficient a way as possible. The two obvious options are:
- To set a extra test of their own
- To make ever more use of the interview as a selection tool
Around 90% of applicants are invited for interview so provided your grades are up to scratch this is the best opportunity for you to make an impression.
Why the obscure questions?
To test ‘innate’ qualities which are not revealed through A-levels or a UCAS form.
Whether you can:
- Think on your own feet
- Structure an argument
- Defend your beliefs
- Come up with new ideas
- Respond well to ‘tutorial’ style teaching methods.
The interviewer needs to judge how “teachable” you are (i.e. how much you are likely to respond to their teaching methods and develop over the next 3 or 4 years). You need to be able to show that you are committed, engaged, keen to learn and stimulating to teach. The kind of people who will benefit most from and contribute most to tutorials are those who are willing to expound their own views and to listen constructively to the views of others.
The interview system is looking for the best people who offer themselves on the day. By “best”, they don’t mean the people with the most crammed knowledge, but for the people with all-round intellectual ability linked with academic curiosity and commitment. Nobody can obtain these things over the counter or learn them especially for the day; they are intrinsic to any individual who is prepared to stretch themselves to the limit and aim for the highest.
Unlike most other university interviews, Oxbridge interviews usually take place over a few days. Your food and accommodation during these days will usually be provided by the college. Despite being intimidating this actually gives you a great opportunity to spend some time in the college/ Oxbridge environment in order to determine whether it really is right for you.
TIP: Make sure you don’t just hide away in your room, meet some of the other interviewees, discuss your experiences, gain some useful advice, chat to the existing students, see what the college/ town is like…
You will be told where and when your interviews are. Make sure you leave plenty of time to find them, ask at the porters’ lodge if you are unsure. You will more than likely attend at least 2 or 3 interviews. At Cambridge there should all be within the college you applied to, in Oxford you will more likely be sent for an interview at another college as well – don’t panic – this is standard practice!
If you have submitted work or taken a test then at least one of your interviews will be based around this. This is often with a Professor or a Director of Studies. You may also have another ‘subject-based’ interview (with a tutor/ graduate student) and additionally perhaps an interview based around your personal statement and UCAS form (often with a Senior Tutor Head of College).
The subject based interviews can often be ‘practical’ in nature i.e. you are given something to look at and think about e.g. a poem (English) or scan/x-ray (Medicine). In my Natural Sciences interview, I was given an animal skull and asked to deduce which animal it belonged to. These are triggers for discussion – don’t be put off – you don’t need to know all the answers straight away!
|Unless specified there are no official dress requirements so wear something comfortable and don’t feel that you have to wear a suit if you don’t want to.||** Be on time **|
|** Be yourself **||Don’t be afraid to say ‘no’ or ‘I don’t know’: the interviewer is not setting out to trap or fool you they want to see how you think not what you know. Generally the interviewer should guide you through to an answer and give you clues as to whether you are heading in the right direction, the last thing they want is someone who is too proud to learn.|
Bear in mind that the tougher an interview appears to you, the better it may be going. If the interviewer has to work hard to push you to the limits it demonstrates a good level of potential. An aggressive interview provides an opportunity for you to really show what you can do and fight your corner.
|LISTENING to the interviewer and taking their point into account.||…BALANCE…||Maintaining and DEFENDING your own views.|
Try and back up your arguments with examples. Conversely don’t dig yourself into a hole – if you can no longer defend your argument then back down, the interviewer knows their subject backwards and there is no shame in them proving you wrong.
Panel interviews are more common at Oxford than at Cambridge. You shouldn’t let these intimidate you and be confident that a more subjective view may work in your favour.
What are interviewers looking for?
You should be able to speak about your subject as if it really matters to you. Your enthusiasm should come across in the extra curricular knowledge you can bring to the conversation ad being able to discuss new ideas.
TIPS: Read beyond A-level, volunteer information, enjoy it!
Logical, Critical and Analytical Ability
You are expected to develop a ‘rigorous critical mindset’.
Oxbridge teaching aims to instil an ‘enlightened scepticism’ and an ability to ‘deconstruct’ problems in order to understand them fully; i.e. lateral thinking. So they are looking for a measured and intelligent approach to a question and the capacity to appreciate different sides of an argument. You will need to order your answers and not just say the first things that come into your head.
TIPS: Break down questions, look for wider issues, don’t answer directly, and structure your answers. Watch the news, read newspapers/ book critically, do you agree?
Can you use questions as a stimulus to your imagination – can you come up with new ideas? You need to be bold in offering new solutions – it doesn’t ultimately matter if you are right or wrong but you need to be confident in what you say.
TIPS: Practice forming links between topics, mind-maps may help.
Listening and “Teachability”
The interview is practice for the tutorial system. Listen to the question being put to you and answer that question not another one. Ask for clarification if you don’t understand (this actually demonstrates confidence and humility). You need to remain flexible though – remain open to new facts and opinions which may make you revise your ideas.
TIPS: Discuss topics with teachers or friends. Get used to talking about your subject.
Knowledge is important – it is an indicator of a candidate’s commitment but it is not always a reliable indicator of academic potential. It is therefore not necessary to know absolutely everything about your subject.
TIPS: Revise A-Level well. Back up points with an example or fact. Don’t ramble or directly avoid questions. All answers need to be relevant.
The followings are all examples of questions asked in recent Oxbridge interviews:
ARCHAEOLOGY & ANTHROPOLOGY
- Where do you think the Elgin Marbles should be, London or Athens?
- How does studying History link with archaeology?
- Why do we still celebrate Christmas? What do you think makes Christmas such a long-lasting and widely celebrated holiday? Why is it so special?
- What are the roles of archaeologists and museums?
- What is the importance of light in architecture?
- How much do you think architecture changes views in society?
- Who do you say is the most important architectural writer?
- What is your favourite building?
- Who is your favourite architect?
- Questions about your portfolio (submitted at an earlier date).
ANGLOSAXON, NORSE & CELTIC
- What is the difference between literature and history?
- How can we date a source when we don’t know when or by whom it was written?
- Which ASNaC papers are you looking forward to studying most?
BIOCHEMISTRY, MOLECULAR AND CELLULAR
- How do amino acids behave in both acidic and basic conditions?
- What is the significance of the Humane Genome Project?
- How does DNA fingerprinting work? What is its use?
- Why are there so many steps in the cascade of reactions?
- What are the differences between a human enzyme and the enzymes of bacteria that live in a hot spring?
- Give me an example of how specialist biological knowledge has helped food production.
- What is a mitochondrion? Why do you only inherit mitochondrial genes from your mother?
- Why is carbon of such importance in living systems?
- Why is there a higher probability of being killed by an asteroid collision than by a heart attack?
- What kind of changes would occur to the environment if a large asteroid impacted Earth?
- What are the arguments for preserving biodiversity?
- Why does the boiling point of water rise as salt is dissolved in it?
- What makes drugs physiologically active?
- Explain the bonding in benzene
- How would you calculate the inter-atomic spacing of particles in this room?
- You are shown a block of iron. You are asked to name the element, explain why it rusts and how to stop it rusting.
- Why do you think Ancient History is important?
- How civilised was the Roman world?
- When would you start a book about the history of England?
- What is the difference between a debate and a philosophical conversation?
- Do you think that Tacitus was biased in his writings, and if so, does that render them useless?
- Are history and myth compatible?
- What underlying messages are there in the Aeneid suggesting that Rome and its foundations were not very secure?
- Tell me about binary searches. What about their efficiency?
- It is a fact that, apart from the peripherals, the whole of a computer can be made from NAND gates. The Egyptians created NAND gates using marbles rolling down chutes and then used them for booby-trapping pyramids. Did, then, the Egyptians invent the computer? If not, explain fundamentally why not.
- “The game of chess will be played perfectly by the computers of 2010”. What is the meaning of the statement and is it likely to be true?
- Suggest a list of conditions necessary to sustain life on Earth.
- What do you believe would be the major differences on Earth if:
- No atmosphere had ever evolved?
- There was no water?
- Plate tectonics did not exist?
- Why did the dinosaurs become extinct?
- What would you expect to see at a compressional / extensional / passive margin?
- List a number of possible different methods for dating a rock specimen.
- How do mountains originate?
- Should governments subsidise agriculture?
- What are the consequences of charging interest rates?
- What is the point of privatisation?
- How would you make a hypothetical sandwich stall more profitable?
- What is a monopoly? What are the advantages / disadvantages?
- Relate Keynes’ work to the dot.com boom.
- What is the difference between a correlation and a cause and effect relationship?
ECONOMICS AND MANAGEMENT
- Consider a production line. What could be done to help the worker to get away from the routine?
- Discuss the interaction between fiscal and monetary policy.
- Are large or small companies more successful?
- Why does Rolls Royce build cars by hand, and Toyota by machine?
- What is the basis of performance-related pay?
- What first interested you in Egyptology?
- How was Egyptian mythology recorded?
- Describe how the Egyptians preserved their dead.
- Show the forces acting on a ladder.
- Explain the following to someone with no knowledge of physics: force, momentum, power and work.
- What are the fundamental differences between engineering and physics?
- If you had a cylinder, sealed at both ends, with the pressure rising inside, would it blow at the end or split along the side first?
- If I am in a room with 5 people and guess all their birthdays, what is the probability of getting (only) one correct?
- At what altitude h above the North Pole is the weight of an object reduced to one half its value on the Earth’s surface? Assume the Earth to be a sphere radius R and express h as a fraction of R.
- Why do we read literature?
- Read and date this short, anonymous poem. Who do you think wrote it?
Comment on the use of imagery used and its effect; does this poem remind you of anything you’ve read?
- Do you think the ending of “The Mill on the Floss” in poor?
- George Orwell’s 1984 – is it still relevant? How does it relate to the media, politics and surveillance?
- What is the difference between a simile and a comparison?
- What is a tragedy?
- How would you design a scientific experiment to show that a certain substance is addictive?
- How come a painting by a four year old of “a tiger amongst tulips” (as described by the child) doesn’t look like a tiger despite the child studying a tiger at the zoo the day before and being satisfied with the outcome?
- If a man has no hair (n) he is called bald. If we add hairs to his head using the formula n+1, he would still be called bald. Is this correct?
- Discuss the origin of phobias (nature vs nurture)
- Explain cliff formation after looking at a photograph. How can computers aid geographers in understanding such processed?
- What is the relevance of physical geography to human geography?
- Are there any articles you’ve read in the paper recently that are relevant to physical geography?
- What are the advantages for retailers to concentrate their activities in malls rather than disperse through towns?
- Do you have an interest in saving the environment? What evidence is there for human influences on climate?
- If you could take a non-geographer anywhere in the world to convince them geography was important, where would you go and what would you say?
- Do you think that all of history is a history is thought?
- Would history be worth studying if it didn’t repeat itself?
- Is national character a useful concept in history?
- How can one define a revolution?
- How would you differentiate between power and authority?
- How does a historian gather information?
- How do today’s interpretations of democratic values differ from those of the 19th century and how have they evolved?
HISTORY OF ART
- Discuss restoration and conservation. Are they good or bad?
- What is your opinion on the Turner Prize and Brit Art?
- How does art reflect its society?
- What work of art would you most likely to own?
- Discuss restoration and conservation. Are they worthwhile investment?
- What kind of transport policy could be implemented in Cambridge?
- Why is traffic so bad in cities and what would you do about it?
- Should fox-hunting have been banned?
- Why are wages higher in London?
- What do you think are the implications for shopping with the phenomenon of the internet?
- If someone is acquitted in Criminal proceedings, can they, and should they, still be liable to be sued in Civil Law?
- How do you think the House of Lords should be reformed?
- Summarise an article of 1,300 words in 150-200 words.
- What have you read in the papers recently that relates to the International Law?
- What is the difference between intention and foresight?
- Smith sees Jones walking towards the edge of a cliff. Smith knows Jones is blind, but doesn’t like him, so allows him to walk off the edge. Is this murder?
- Should judges have legislative roles?
- How many 0’s has 30 factorial?
- If X is odd, prove X squared – 1 is always a multiple of 8
- Draw a graph of y=(x-3)(x-2)/(x-2)(x-1)
- A body with mass m is falling towards Earth with speed v. It has a drag force equal to kv. Set up a differential equation and solve it for v.
- Prove that any number consists of prime factors or is a prime number.
- What makes a good doctor?
- Can you describe and experiment to differentiate between a normal and a multi-resistant strain of bacteria?
- How would you determine whether leukaemia patients have contracted the disease because of a nearby nuclear power station?
- What would life be like without enzymes?
- What interests you most about current advances in medical technology?
- Why is it that cancer cells are more susceptible to destruction by radiation than normal cells?
- What is the normal level of potassium? What is it used for? How does it move in and out of cells?
- Why do you want to study a literature-based degree?
- Do you notice any differences between English and English Literature? If so, why might these exist?
- What do you think Voltaire meant by ‘Il faut cultiver notre jardin”?
- What are the differences between Spain and Latin America?
- How does Le Monde differ from British broadsheets?
- Discuss current affairs issues relevant to the countries you hope to study.
- Discuss ways in which plants are adapted to dry conditions.
- Why are big, fierce animals so rare?
- How does the immune system recognise invading pathogens as foreign cells?
- Write down an organic reaction you have studied at school and explain its mechanism?
- What makes some chemicals explosive?
- When an ice cube melts in a glass of water, does the water level increase, decrease or stay the same?
- Explain how we know centripetal force exists and how we can prove the presence of its forces.
- Why is the sky blue?
- How does depressing a piano key make a noise?
- How is a rainbow formed?
- How does the glass transmit light?
- Why does metal expand when it’s heated?
- Which reached the bottom of the hill faster, a ball rolling down the hill or a ball sliding down the hill?
- Give me a brief case study of an area of Middle Eastern politics that has interested you.
- How many cultures are grouped together under the label “China”?
- Please construct a sentence using the word “up” as verb.
PHILOSOPHY, POLITICS AND ECONOMICS (PPE)
- It is a matter of fact or knowledge that time travels in only one direction?
- Would you agree that “if P is true and S believes P, then S knows P”?
- Differentiate between power and authority.
- Why do you think communism was unsuccessful in the Russian countryside?
- What would you say to someone who claims women have equal opportunities already?
- Why do we need government?
- Discuss perfect and imperfect competition.
- Would it be feasible to have an economy entirely based on the service sector?
- Can faith in quantum physics and invisible forces tie in with the faith in an invisible God?
- What are the origins of wage inflation?
- Is profit maximisation the only objective of a business?
- Explain how we know centripetal force exists and how we can prove its presence.
- Why is it not strictly true to say that one planet orbits another?
- Why does metal expand when it is heated?
SOCIAL AND POLITICAL SCIENCES
- Does the welfare state trap people into poverty?
- Distinguish between a society, a state and an economy.
- Should museums be free?
- Is there tension between British Nationalism and local patriotism?
- Should children always be educated in a co-ed environment?
- What is the best reason you can think of for believing in God? Do you think this course could be persuasive on the matter?
- Do the Gods command it because it is great, or is it great because the Gods command it?
- How valuable do you think the Bible is to us today?
- What are the moral implications, if any, of voluntary euthanasia?
- Animal behaviour – Why do dogs behave badly?
- Would you prefer a large or small animal practice?
- How have vets lives changed in the last 30 years?
- Is selective breeding tantamount to genetic modification?
- Can you describe an experiment to differentiate between a normal and multi-resistant strain of bacteria?
- Discuss the mechanisms underlying sensory adaptation.
More Obscure Questions
“Devise an equation to estimate the number of aeroplanes in the sky” Natural Sciences, Cam
“Compare these bottles of Tesco and Timotei shampoo” Law, Ox
“Do you think the Bavarian peasants of 1848 had an ideology?” History, Cam
“Define irony” Classics, Ox
“Is the moon made of cheese?” Vet Sciences, Cam
“How many molecules are there in this room?” History, Cam
“If there was an omnipotent god, would he be able to create a stone that he couldn’t lift?” Classics, Ox
How many atoms are there in a Brussels sprout?” Natural Sciences, Cam
“How would you measure the weight of your own head?” Medicine, Cam
“Is ‘Taggart’ an accurate portrayal of Glasgow?” English, Ox
“Is altruism dead?” SPS, Cam
“Don’t you agree that Shakespeare was a waste of time and totally irrelevant to today? Modern and Medieval Languages, Cam
“How would you define a book?” PPE, Ox
“What has been the most significant event of your life so far?” Geography, Cam
“Is the chair really there?” Philosophy, Cam
“Shipwrecked sailors are forced to eat a shipmate. Is this a crime?” Law, Cam
“What questions would you like us to ask you?” Medicine, Cam
“Why do seals exhale before they dive underwater?” Natural Sciences, Cam
“Why is this piece of string red”? Natural Sciences, Cam
Q: Will applying to Oxbridge affect my other university applications?
A: NO. Other applications cannot be viewed by a university on your UCAS form. Other universities may guess you have applied to Oxbridge as your application has to be in earlier but this should only really stand in your favour as they should see that you are a committed, ambitious and motivated applicant.
Q: If I don’t achieve my grades can I pick up a place through clearing?
A: NO. There will be no clearing places for Oxbridge. It is extremely unlikely that there would be any spare places if you don’t achieve the grades.
Q: Can I still apply if my GCSE grades are not all A* but I am a predicted straight A’s at A-level?
A: YES. You can still apply – especially if the lower grades are in unrelated subjects to that you are wishing to study.
Q: Should I be doing more than 3 A-levels?
A: Not necessarily.
“For Arts and Social Sciences courses… we are much keener that applicants show a broader and deeper knowledge of their chosen subject rather than accumulating extra A-levels. If students have a genuine interest (and can sustain high quality work) in more than three A-levels then we, of course, have no objection to them pursuing these – but we are not usually going to require that they do… For those applying for Mathematical and science subjects we are aware that the academic value of taking for A-levels is clearer…we would very actively encourage all applicants in Physical Natural Sciences, Computer Science, Engineering, Chemical Engineering and Mathematics to take Further Maths if available.”
Dr Sewell, Admissions Tutor, Selwyn College, Cambridge
Q: Can I re-apply if I don’t get in?
A: Yes. BUT think carefully about this. The Oxbridge colleges are good at choosing people who have the potential to fit in and do well in this very specific environment. If they reject you, it may just be that it would not be the best place for you to maximise your potential. If the college is oversubscribed but still think you worthy of a place, then the pooling system would make sure that you are not rejected out of hand.
If you think your application could have been better prepared but Oxbridge if still the place for you then it is worth reapplying – you don’t need to mention your previous application so you will be treated afresh BUT don’t reapply for the same subject at the same college as likely to get re-interviewed by the same tutor(s).
Q: Do Oxbridge accept GAP year applications?
A: Yes, however check the college policy on this. Some tutors are of the opinion that you may go “off the boil” during a GAP year, especially in ‘hard’ subjects as it is difficult to keep up to speed. Engineering is an exception – GAP years are actively encouraged.
Q: Is it an easier option applying for a joint course at Oxford?
A: No. These are traditionally popular and competitive. You need to be equally outstanding in both subjects. If you are poor in one but strong in the other you may be offered single honours; or you may be rejected and told to apply for a single honours in the following year.