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pound coinsMany people are under the impression that it is more expensive to study at Oxford or Cambridge. This is emphatically not the case.

Government changes to student finance in recent years have caused some people to rethink their higher education options, reluctant to graduate in debt. A certain amount of student loan debt is unavoidable, but both Oxford and Cambridge are determined that no one should be put off from applying because of financial considerations and they have taken action accordingly.

Furthermore, the collegiate system, which does not cost Home and EU students extra, not only means extra funding opportunities, but also cheaper living costs with college accommodation. Of course, rents vary, but crucially, you don’t have to pay during the vacations, only for the eight-week terms when you are in residence.

Maintenance Bursaries from the Universities

The Oxford Opportunity Bursary (OOB) and the Cambridge Bursary have been developed to help students who are already in receipt of a government maintenance grant, meet their remaining living costs. The bursaries are means tested and awarded on a sliding scale, i.e. the lower your household’s residual income the more money you will receive. These figures are re-assessed each year of your degree, so if your financial situation does not change you will continue to receive the same level of support, but if your needs change this will be reflected in the amount of bursary you receive.

If you qualify for the maximum government maintenance grant, then you will receive the maximum bursary available, and this combined amount is intended to cover all of your living costs. It should therefore not be necessary to take out a student maintenance loan in addition to the statutory student loan covering tuition fees.

The OOB provides an additional start-up fund designed to cover the initial costs of university, e.g. specialist books and equipment, a computer, or items necessary for living away from home for the first time. Whilst the Cambridge Bursary does not provide this initial boost for poorer students, the cut off point to qualify for a bursary, in terms of residual income, is higher than the OOB, so more students receive support.

For the OOB, both you and each of your sponsors (i.e. both parents if both contribute to your household income) must consent to have your financial details shared with the University by signing the relevant part of your application for student support that you make to your Local Authority each year. For the Cambridge Bursary, your College provides you with a form when you arrive in Cambridge.

College Funding

The colleges at Oxford and Cambridge tend to look after their students very well. Although the type of support and amount of funding varies from college to college, often depending upon how relatively rich or poor they are, the following is typical of what most colleges offer:

  • Hardship Funds – for students in financial need. These may be in the form of short-term loans, grants or bursaries.
  • Scholarships, Exhibitions and College Prizes – awarded for excellent academic achievement.
  • Study Grants – to cover accommodation for students staying at university outside of term-time to continue studying.
  • Travel Grants – to cover costs of a trip related to academic work.
  • Book and Equipment Grants – to cover the cost of purchasing essential items for your degree.
  • Job Opportunities – both Oxford and Cambridge discourage part time jobs during term-time, but there are a few approved ways to earn money whilst studying, e.g. in a college library or bar. There is a huge range of full time opportunities during vacations, from retail jobs, through to assisting on summer schools, and research work. Many students enjoy being able to stay in town whilst earning money and preparing for the term ahead.

University access

Oxford and Cambridge aim to offer places to the best students with the highest level of academic potential in their chosen subject.  Both Oxford and Cambridge universities put a huge amount of time, effort and resources into attracting the top students from all sorts of different backgrounds, and are determined that no student should be deterred from applying due to financial or social considerations.  Theoretically, no-one is at a disadvantage – apart from those who don’t apply.

What are the first steps?

The first step for students thinking about applying to Oxford or Cambridge is to attend one of the nationwide Oxford and Cambridge Student Conferences, held in March every year by the universities. Open to all students, these events offer a huge range of information and the opportunity to speak to current students and discuss their experiences. 

In addition to this, both universities run a number of schemes and initiatives throughout the year to attract the best students regardless of background, and to ensure that each and every student is considered individually when they apply.

Merton College Oxford UniversityOxford

  • UNIQ: summer school gives year 12 students from state schools the chance to live the Oxford student life for a whole week – to form their own opinions and decide whether it’s right for them. (UNIQ replaces the summer school previously organised through the Sutton Trust.  Our very own previous Managing Director, Rachel, attended a Sutton Trust Summer School at Cambridge when she applied).
  • Target Schools is a student-run organisation hosting a number of schemes to encourage applications from all backgrounds.  For example, a student-shadowing scheme enabling pupils to come to Oxford for a day, shadow an undergraduate and attend workshops on interview techniques, essay writing, and possibly even mock-tutorials.
  • Oxford, like Cambridge, is committed to accessibility for disabled applicants and students. The Disability Office can be contacted on
  • The Oxford FE Access Initiative runs a series of events across schools and FE colleges, including interview workshops, Oxford visits, talks for students from alternative educational backgrounds and staff presentations and workshops. 

Cambridge universityCambridge

  • Cambridge Special Access Scheme (CSAS) is a system designed to provide the Colleges and admissions tutors with the information required to fairly assess each candidate.  Students with particular social, personal or educational disruption or disadvantage are encouraged to apply through the CSAS (form available online), as well as those whose family or school does not have a history of sending students to university or to Oxbridge.  Laying out your personal experience and information to the tutors allows them the opportunity to place your achievements into a wider context, ensuring that they make the fairest evaluation of you alongside your fellow applicants.  The applicant’s school needs to recommend them for the Scheme.
  • Cambridge Student Union runs GEEMA (Group to Encourage Ethnic Minority Applications) and the Target campaigns, both of which are encouraging under-represented groups to apply. Target gives state sector sixth forms the opportunity to have a talk from a Cambridge student about the application process.
  • The Cambridge University Access Initiative has the aim of widening participation, raising student’s aspirations and promoting Higher Education through visits, talks and teacher programmes.
  • The CUSU Shadowing Scheme gives students from schools without a history of Cambridge success the opportunity to shadow an undergraduate in their prospective subject. All accommodation and food is free, and travel often reimbursed depending on an assessment of need.
  • The Sutton Trust Summer School is the counterpart to Oxford’s UNIQ; these are free, subject-specific summer schools that take place over the summer, and give students a mini-Oxbridge environment to become more familiar with life at the university.
  • Experience Cambridge is a scheme for students who have unsuccessfully applied for  a place at the Sutton Trust Summer School, due to applying for an oversubscribed subject. This online course allows students to work on a three week, first-year level academic project designed by Cambridge Fellows.
  • Challenge Days are open to state-maintained school students in the UK in Year 10. These days give students an insight into studying at Cambridge, by providing mini-lectures in a chosen subject area, lunch at a Cambridge college, and a group debate.

Our Access and Scholarship Schemes

Each year, for students applying to Oxford or Cambridge Universities, we run a free Access and Scholarship Scheme. The Schemes provide personalised guidance over the course of a year, including one-to-one time with one of our best subject mentors and attendance on our intensive courses.

Read more about our Schemes here.

Empire-StateLast year, over 4,200 UK students chose US universities for their undergraduate studies. With over 4,500 universities to choose from, and a whole new vocabulary to learn, the admissions process can be daunting. With a basic understanding of a few of the terms and processes, however, and a good selection of reference materials, both students and advisors can overcome the challenges of navigating the US university admissions system.


US universities, like those in the UK, accept applications during the fall, September-January.  Also like the UK, many use a common application, helpfully named The Common Application.  All parts of the application are filed electronically, but schools may choose to send paper copies of letters of recommendation and exam results.  The student will need two letters of academic reference, and one main school reference discussing the student’s contributions to the school, both in and out of the classroom.  The student is asked to write one personal essay, but should be aware that many universities using the Common App require additional supplementary statements.  Students can link to their chosen universities through the Common App and find all admissions requirements through those links.  If a university is not listed on the Common App, the student will find the application on the university’s website.

Admissions Requirements

Most US universities require admissions tests. A student can choose between the SAT or the ACT, but should check with the university website to see if either is preferred.  In addition, the most selective of US universities often require the student to submit SAT Subject Test scores.  Most students sit for the SAT or ACT twice, so it is important to start the testing process early.  Students in their AS year should sit the exam in either January, May or June, with the idea of re-sitting it in their A Level year in October, November or December.  Registration is all online, and there is no late registration.  Students may register and get more information on and  There are no minimum scores required for admission, but a university’s website will give you an idea of the range of scores they will consider.  The SAT/ACT score accounts for about half of what a university considers in evaluating applicants; the other half comes from the student’s academic record, activities and interests, and the school’s recommendation.  As admission is rarely subject-based, there are no course requirements for admissions, although applicants would be expected to have some academic background for specialist courses.

Choosing a university

American-StreetWith so many to choose from, it’s important that students start the process by thinking about what type of a university they want by considering location, size, academic offerings and cost.  The best place to begin is on The College Board’s Big Future website.  Here, the student will be able to research universities, majors and scholarships.  It really is a one-stop-shop!  Another great resource is The Fulbright Commission, a US-government funded organisation to promote US education around the world. Their website provides a wealth of helpful information.

Funding a US education

Make no mistake; it’s expensive to study at US universities. The vast majority are residential in nature, and a student has to consider not only the tuition and fees but the room and board.  Tuition and fees can vary significantly from university to university, as there are no standard government-set fees as in the UK.  Private universities are generally the most expensive, with state-funded universities often less so.  However, as private universities often have more financial aid available, the price for the student can sometime be even less than at a state institution. 

The best source of financial aid is always the university’s financial aid office.  Few give merit aid; most give need-based aid, but sometimes not to international students, so this should be researched early on.  In addition to Big Future, students can get information about aid and scholarships from Finaid-The Smart Student Guide to Financial Aid.


Ideally, students interested in applying to the US will begin the testing process in the spring of their penultimate year in school, with re-sits in the autumn of their last year.  Application deadlines vary, but the majority fall in November-January.  Students will receive a response to their applications in mid-late March, with April 1 being the reply day for Ivy League universities.  Students have until May 1 to make their decisions, and must notify their university of choice that they will be attending by that date.  Students who are also applying to UK universities and waiting for exam results in August should accept their US offer, and then if they decide to take their UK choice, simply notify the US university to say that their plans have changed.

So, whether it is for the flexibility of academic programs at a wide range of academic institutions or the chance to experience American university life, or simply the desire to gain a more international view of the world, there are many good reasons for students to want to study in the US.  Granted, the process is more complicated than that of UCAS, but the rewards can be great, and between The College Board and The Fulbright Commission, there is a lot of help to guide you through it!

Eileen Penman is an American-born graduate of the University of San Diego. Chair of the Guidance Committee of the European Council of International Schools (1995-2006) and member of the TOEFL Board, the SAT Advisory Board, the Advanced Placement Advisory Board, she is an expert educational consultant and adviser. Here, she shares with us essential tips and guidelines for supporting students applying to the US. More on Eileen Penman…


Magazine buttonLast year, Oxbridge Applications launched its first ever Schools’ Magazine, packed full of university admissions news, resources and titbits for you and your students.

Our second issue will be released over the summer, ready for the September term and early admissions chaos. Until then, you can download the previous issue here.

For more Schools Materials, check out our Schools Pack


Download the magazine



Request a free schools pack




Our consultant and Premier Tutor Olivia writes in the Huffington Post, exploring the rise in international applications and how this is affecting applicants, as well how much of an impact a degree from Oxford or Cambridge still has worldwide.


UCAS stats released 2016


‘University Applications Soar’

Huffington Post Piece

 Where Next?

So you want to go to Oxbridge? Tell me about a banana… is the compendium of applying to Oxbridge. Packed full of over a decade’s research and up-to-date advice on how to prepare, Tell me about a banana draws on the experiences of thousands of successful Oxbridge graduates and how they would approach the application process if they had to do it all over again.

If you would like to buy a paper copy of the book you can get it in the post for £12.99.


Order the book in hardcopy



Deciding between Oxford and Cambridge

clare college, cambridge

The process of applying to Oxford and Cambridge takes a good deal of energy, time and commitment. Our advice is simple – you need to apply for the course and university at which you would love to study. You need to be 100% motivated to study that course at that university.

At interview, Admissions Tutors want to see applicants who have a genuine love for the subject, and who have the potential to thrive studying it when they get there. This passion needs to be reflected in the personal statement – and as you’ll be spending three, potentially more years of your life studying it – you do genuinely need to like the subject!

Remember that courses at Oxford and Cambridge are often different in structure and topics covered, if not in duration. Some courses are only found at Oxford or Cambridge. For example, Human Sciences at Oxford and HSPS (Human, Social and Political Science) at Cambridge.

Things To Think About…

Your school examination grades

salle de classe, salle d'examenIt is also worth considering the grades you might need to attain to gain a place. Nearly all Cambridge courses now require at least one A* and applicants for Science, Maths and Engineering at Oxford may be given offers requiring at least one A* at A level.

This follows moves by Cambridge, Warwick and Imperial to introduce the new A* grade into their offers. Applicants for Mathematics and joint honours including Mathematics may be given an offer requiring two A*s at A level.

As you know, to get an A* in your A levels, you need to get an A overall for the full A level (including your AS marks) and score over 90% for the A2 year. You can only get an A* for a full A level and not for an AS level or a particular module. If you have any concerns about how this will affect you, or if you are worried about getting the A* you need for Oxford or Cambridge, speak to your teacher or get in touch with us to see how we can help you.

“Ask an Oxford graduate as to whether they think they went to the best university…and they’ll say yes. Ask a Cambridge graduate, and they’ll tell you the same.”

Module marks

Cambridge asks applicants to submit details of the individual module marks, whether certified or not. Applicants fill out a separate SAQ form once they have submitted their UCAS form. Oxford University does not ask for this breakdown, so if your UMS scores aren’t looking too good, this might be something to help you make a choice.

Admissions Tests

The two universities also use the various Admissions Tests slightly differently. Oxford uses the results of Admissions Tests to short-list applicants for interview, and therefore tends to interview fewer candidates than Cambridge.

Cambridge on the other hand, tends to interview most applicants, even if their Admissions Test score is not as strong as they would typically expect from a successful applicant.

Geography, location and feel…

The Bridge of Sighs, Oxford, Oxfordshire, EnglandAsk an Oxford graduate as to whether they think they went to the best university…and they’ll say yes. Ask a Cambridge graduate, and they’ll tell you the same (and we should know – we’ve spoken to thousands!).

The two cities have their differences. We certainly advise visiting the two places to work out where you think you’ll suit. Do you prefer the tranquillity of Cambridge or the bustle of Oxford? Does the location affect you? Ask yourself will it be difficult to travel home for the holidays?

Given you will be spending the next three, or potentially more years of your life there, you need to feel excited by the place. After spending a summer school in Cambridge, one applicant that we supported decided that it simply was not the city for her. Another however, fell head over heals in love…she’s now graduated and is planning to stay in Cambridge to do a PhD.

Really have a think about what you are looking for from a university – academically and socially. Which do you like the feel of? Where can you see yourself? Although family, friends, teachers and us can help you to decide, the ultimate choice is yours!

So How Did Our Oxbridge-Graduate Tutors Decide?


We sent a quick survey round to our tutors to find out how they chose. Here are some of the replies:

Jenni, English Graduate of Cambridge.

I chose Cambridge because the course seemed more flexible and modern. You weren’t required to do Old English and there was scope to write about film, opera, international and very contemporary literature. I was also very into close analysis of texts, so liked the Practical Criticism as a basis of the course – this turned out to be my best paper! The Cambridge course was stronger on foreign languages, which I loved studying. I knew the drama at Cambridge was better (more than 40 plays a term) and I’m now training to be an actor. I also didn’t want to stay at home in Oxford!

Bertie, Classics Graduate of Oxford.

In contrast to most people, I didn’t have any difficulty deciding on Oxford. The Classics course at Oxford is so different from the Tripos that I never really considered the latter. I never felt in any great rush to get through my time at university, and it felt natural to choose the option which would enable me to study more material in greater depth. Obviously, it didn’t hurt that I have always found Oxford more aesthetically pleasing and knew that the city was a bit more lively.

A few others…

  • ‘The course was better suited to me, given the greater focus on historicism and actual text itself, rather than getting too bogged down in critical debates. Also, the city is lovely!’ Oxford
  • ‘I had family links with Cambridge and it seemed like a nicer town.’ Cambridge
  • ‘Oxford’s closer proximity to London was a factor as well as its slightly more urban feel. I also think Oxford has a reputation as the better institution for the arts, although I think this is more a product of tradition than indicative of any bias towards Humanities.’ Oxford
  • ‘Smaller, quieter town. My heroes had gone there. It had a better reputation for the arts.’ Cambridge
  • ‘I always had an ambition to go to Cambridge! I never really considered Oxford, as my mind was set on Cambridge. I visited the university a few times and loved it.’ Cambridge
  • ‘The honest answer is that I went with the statistics; I didn’t think I would get into Maths at Cambridge! Both would have been incredible in their own ways I’m sure. I have heard that Oxford’s music scene puts Cambridge’s to shame though.’ Oxford
  • ‘I lived in Oxford – didn’t want mum dropping in for tea!’ Cambridge
  • ‘Better clinical teaching at Oxford than at Cambridge. Preferred the look of Oxford as a town as it seemed more fun than Cambridge and much more lively.’ Oxford
  • ‘It wasn’t really a choice between Oxford or Cambridge. I heard about the Natural Sciences course at an outreach event and was sold by the structure of the course. The opportunity so study a combination of Mathematics, Chemistry and Biology before becoming more specialised seemed perfect for me.’ Cambridge

Both Oxford and Cambridge have fearsome reputations. Deciding whether and how to encourage a student to apply can be a difficult decision. The Oxbridge system can appear opaque to many, and it is essential to appreciate what the system provides in order to understand how to support your students.

The teaching system

Traditional Chesterfield armchair

The world-famous one-to-one teaching systems – supervisions at Cambridge and tutorials at Oxford – are perhaps the most significant elements in explaining why alumni go on to become leaders in their fields, often on an international stage. The teaching system and academic environment promotes independent scholarship and the opportunities for students to develop self-motivation and intellectual curiosity are enormous.

All students are taught through tutorials at Oxford or supervisions at Cambridge. These are formed of a tutor, whether a senior fellow or a junior researcher, and anything from one to three students. Some papers may make use of supplementary seminars, which resemble A level classes more closely, and usually all courses have accompanying lectures. Generally, each student takes a paper or two over the course of a term. A typical humanities student would be expected to produce between six to sixteen circa 3000 word essays in each eight week term; whereas a science student would have problem sheets for each tutorial alongside sessions in “labs” for which they must produce “lab reports”. Tutorials or supervisions are focused on the work each student has produced: a humanities student may be expected to email their essay a day in advance then be prepared to discuss their arguments in depth with their tutor.

Although this may sound somewhat gruelling, the tutorial system offers a rewarding and personal teaching medium. Even the most shy academics are nurtured into communicating effectively, and the most headstrong are challenged to deconstruct their arguments. Furthermore, the abilities of students to balance extra-curricular activities with academic life develops individuals with strong time-management skills alongside outstanding sporting, dramatic or musical talent.

The competition, though gruelling, is a mark to any employer that the candidate is outstanding. Oxbridge not only denotes intelligence, but also crucially, drive, perseverance, stamina and the ability to thrive under pressure.

The teaching staff

vecchio libro con stilografica

The prestige of Oxbridge attracts many of the greatest thinkers in the world as tutors for the university, allowing passionate young students to speak face-to-face on a weekly basis, about a subject they love, with the best academics worldwide.

The flexibility of many Oxbridge courses allows students to choose from often dozens of different papers, all designed and run by a leading scholar on that topic. The collegiate system does not confine people to their college: although broad papers will frequently be taught in college, more specific papers may well be taught in another college. As such, there is no need for a student to make their college choice on the basis of a single tutor, and they may even find that the tutor is on research leave when they arrive!


Man Wearing Suit unsureThe competition, though gruelling, is a mark to any employer that the candidate is outstanding. Oxbridge not only denotes intelligence, but also crucially, drive, perseverance, stamina and the ability to thrive under pressure. Where most universities require around two essays to be completed per term, at Oxbridge, two essays are expected as standard per week.

Scientists work in some of the most famous and best resourced laboratories in the country, and often under internationally famed tutors. Many courses use the combined undergraduate and master’s course structure that allows students the security to stay on and focus on a single topic, helping them to enter the job market ahead of other candidates.

The difficult admissions process actually treats a student as an individual better than any other more simple system – working to ensure that each student can represent their unique mind in an interactive conversation

The application system

Oxford, EnglandThe difficult admissions process actually treats a student as an individual better than any other more simple system – working to ensure that each student can represent their unique mind in an interactive conversation, rather than in 4000 characters on a UCAS screen. As the teaching system revolves around tutorials, the interview system offers more than any other universities can, as it essentially constitutes a taster of the university experience.

Of course, there are many steps before the interview. The most demanding of these is the admissions test, which is as much a filter for the candidates with the requisite academic potential as it is a chance for the best students to achieve an outstanding score. If admissions tutors are forced to decide between two similar candidates, often their test score is a factor in making that all-important decision: the test is far more than a simple hurdle to clear.

Am I good enough for Oxbridge?

Queen Caroline Statue, Queen's College, Oxford

Oxford and Cambridge look at a number of different factors when considering applicants for places:

  • The average GCSE results of your school (or equivalent)
  • Your GCSE results (or equivalent)
  • Your personal statement
  • Your school/tutor reference
  • Module marks at AS/A2 (Cambridge in particular like to see your UMS scores) (or equivalent)
  • Predicted grades for upper sixth form exams
  • Your written work submission (if applicable)
  • Your score in the university/college Admissions Test (if relevant)
  • Your performance at interview

You will need to assess whether you will make an impressive applicant against these criteria. Oxford and Cambridge are interested in your academic potential, so it is key that your application demonstrates a wealth of this at all stages.  

The best first step for assessing how competitive a candidate you are is to look at your grades. 


Are my grades good enough?

Will the work/life balance at Oxbridge be right for me?

Rugby Player scoring a Try!Even the most studious of university hopefuls can be a little nervous about this. After all, university is as much a chance to flee the nest and spread your wings as it is to study further. 

When it comes to Oxbridge, there is no doubt that your work load tends to be on something of a different level. At many universities, you might be set a couple of essays a term. At Oxbridge it’s likely to be up to two each week. The pace at which you learn is exhilarating, but it’s demanding – and you’ve got to be sure you can handle the workload.

In our experience, students don’t give up on a varied life… they give up  TV and sleep

Female athlete competing in the pole vault

However, we are very keen to dispel the myth that this means students do nothing but work.

Oxford and Cambridge provide a plethora of non-academic clubs and activities to fill your time with, both at university and at college level. Whether you are a fantastic fly-half, a budding thespian, the ultimate, ultimate frisbee-er or you’re obsessed with Sherlock Holmes, there is a something for everyone. 

Oxbridge terms are a bit like the 400m. 8 weeks – it sounds short but sprinting for 8 weeks is no mean feat. Rather than give up extra-curricular pursuits or a decent social life, in our experience, students give up TV and sleep. 

So is this kind of busyness something that appeals to you – do you like the idea of handling your term like an academic Michael Johnson? 

Do I really love my subject?

Books And Clock

Most essay subjects require around three essays per fortnight, and science subjects will usually require you to be in lectures or labs all week. It’s a lot of work – which is why Admissions Tutors will want to know whether you really love your subject.

There are few of us who enjoy the slog of 3,000 words to write before morning, or hard-core revision by candlelight in the library. No amount of love for a subject can make finals a wholly enjoyable experience. However, if you do not get an inherent pleasure from studying your subject, you will find it very difficult to cope with the kind of work load you’ll be expected to handle. If you haven’t already chosen your course, this is your number one priority.


Choosing your course

Still Unsure? Meet Our Expert Consultants For An Honest Assessment

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Our consultants are available between 9am – 5.30pm Monday – Friday, with additional availability on weekends, evenings and school holidays

Dukes Consultancy 14 – 16 Waterloo Place, London, SW1Y 4AR


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