Updated: Jan 13
A brief overview of the components of the UCAS application process.
The below article is split into the following sections:
Picking your subject
The Personal Statement
The Teacher's Reference
The Admissions Exam
Before we dive into the components of the application process, it's worth taking a step back and assessing whether an Oxbridge undergraduate experience is something that would interest you. If you're reading this, then it probably does, but in case you're still undecided, here's a link to Cambridge's explanation of their degrees and what they're looking for in applicants, and here's a link to Oxford's.
Both Universities' websites are packed with useful information about how to stand out, what looks good in an application, and what doesn't. It's worth taking some time to go down the rabbit hole and seeing what you pick up. Oh, and here's a link to an article explaining the collegiate system used by Oxbridge. The best analogy I can think of are the different houses within the school of Hogwarts. The colleges are analogous to the houses, and Hogwarts is analogous to the University.
Now, let's get into it!
1. Picking your Subject
The first task is choosing which subject you'd like to apply for in either Oxford or Cambridge (you cannot apply to both as an undergraduate).
It is essential that you do your research here and do not jump to whatever might sound good. Oxbridge admissions staff look for students who are passionate about their subject, and this is much easier to demonstrate when you have a genuine interest in the topic. Your personal statement should reflect this interest and interviewers will be looking out for this passion. Moreover, you should be aware of the entry requirements for each subject, which I have linked here for Cambridge, and here for Oxford. The last thing you want to do is put time and energy into an application for a degree onto which you can't be accepted due to your chosen subjects at Leaving Certificate or your predicted grades.
You will likely have some idea of what you'd like to pursue as a degree, and equipped with this knowledge you should read through the subject breakdowns on both the Cambridge and Oxford websites. I have linked the Cambridge one 'here', and the Oxford one 'here'. This should tell you what is covered in each degree, the entry requirements, the acceptance rate etc.
I would recommend making notes on the degrees that interest you most and creating a shortlist. From here you can conduct further research on these subjects to help inform your decision, such as watching YouTube videos from current students, reading blogs etc.
Don't skip over certain subjects assuming that they won't be of interest. I did this with 'Land Economy' at Cambridge (which is actually a mix of Law and Economics), and regret not looking into it further! Something else to remember is that some degrees require you to have taken certain subjects at Leaving Certificate (e.g. you must have taken Chemistry if you want to apply for Medicine at Cambridge). Nevertheless, do not be put off by the fact that you haven't taken a subject that might appear to be highly relevant, but is not marked as essential. A friend of mine is studying Economics at Cambridge and he didn't take Economics at A-Level!
Once you've chosen your degree, you can get to writing your personal statement.
2. The Personal Statement
The Personal Statement is your opportunity to explain why you want to enrol on your chosen course, and why you are a good fit for the degree.
You have a maximum of 4,000 characters to work with and the piece is academic. While some universities might take into account any extra-curricular activities completed, Oxbridge admissions is purely academic. I would recommend including some extra-curriculars at the end of the document, but the vast majority of characters should be used for academic purposes. That being said, extra-curricular activities can be invoked to convey the development of certain skills and attributes that are highly relevant to the degree (e.g. time-management, analytical skills, critical thinking etc). For example, if applying for Mathematics, it will be highly relevant if you competed in the International Maths Olympiad, or a similar competition.
The key to the Personal Statement is to show proactivity. What have you done to find out more about the course? What steps have you taken to improve the necessary skills for the degree? For many humanities subjects, this can be done by outlining books that you've read on certain topics that interest you and that you wish to explore further at undergraduate level.
For a more in-depth analysis of the Personal Statement, check out our article 'here'.
3. The Teacher's Reference
In a way, the Teacher's Reference is similar to the Personal Statement, only it is written by your teacher/tutor/principal etc. Personally, the vast majority of my reference was written by my History teacher at Leaving Certificate, with only the introduction and conclusion written by my school's principal.
Your chosen referee (the person writing the reference) should include examples of your skills and talents most relevant to the course. As I was applying for law, I was aware that there is no one subject at Leaving Certificate that can prepare you for law at undergraduate level, and so essay-writing subjects are the closest thing to good preparation. This is because you exercise clarity and conciseness of writing, while simultaneously developing analytical skills and critical thinking. This is why I selected my History teacher, ensuring he provided examples of how I had improved these skills, and how I was performing in assessments.
We dive into the Teacher's Reference in more depth 'here', and also provide useful links that you can give to your referee to help them understand how to write the reference and what universities are looking to see.
4. Achieved Grades
The University to which you are applying will also receive your Junior Certificate (or equivalent) results.
Oxford are more focused on Junior Cert results than Cambridge. If you have high grades in this regard, you can feel comfortable applying to either Oxford or Cambridge. However, if your JC results are slightly weaker, it might be better to consider Cambridge. The reason for this is that Oxford invite far fewer applicants to interview than Cambridge do, and so they are more critical of JC grades in deciding which students to reject. Just something to be aware of...
Your school might also be asked to provide an academic transcript of results achieved between your Junior Certificate and 6th year (when you are applying). It is worth finding out in advance (if possible) what results your school will be sending over. For me, it was the grades achieved in my 5th year Summer Examinations, but this might change from one school to the next.
5. Predicted Grades
Your school is also required to attach Predicted Grades to your application. These are submitted by your teacher in each of your respective Leaving Certificate Subjects.
It is essential that your predicted grades are - at the very minimum - the same as the grade requirements for your degree choice. If they fall below this, the University will not invite you to interview. In reality, your predicted grades should be ideally be all H1s, or as close to this as possible. It does not matter if you don't end up achieving 7 H1s in the Leaving Certificate, but rather Oxbridge expect to see the ability that you can do so, and Predicted Grades indicate this ability. Furthermore, all schools in the UK inflate their predicted grades and so, to compete, it is necessary that your predicted grades are also extremely high.
Due to most teachers in Ireland lacking understanding of the UCAS system and their role in giving predicted grades, I emailed all of my teachers just before the summer holidays in 5th year. I explained that I would be applying to Cambridge and that I required a predicted H1 in their subject, even if I didn't end up achieving it in the final exams. I then requested tips for revision of their subject, so that I could guarantee by the time application season swung around, I would be of a H1 standard.
I believe that by explaining the process to my teachers, and the importance that a predicted H1 would have in providing me with a realistic shot of being made an offer, they were more likely to predict me straight H1s. Moreover, it demonstrated my willingness to work at their respective subject to ensure that I would reach the H1 level.
Some teachers/schools might react badly to this approach, however, and so I recommend it if the context permits. Only you, the student, will be able to judge this.
6. The Interview
When Oxford/Cambridge have and analyse your Personal Statement, Teacher's Reference, Achieved Grades, Predicted Grades, Academic Transcript, and - sometimes - Admissions Exam (if the Admissions exam is sat pre-interview, as opposed to at interview), they will decide whether or not to offer you an interview.
To explain what I mean by Admissions Exam pre-interview and at-interview, I'll draw on my own experience. The admissions exam for Law at Cambridge has since changed, but when I was applying one would take the Cambridge Law Test when they had been invited to interview. This differed from Oxford where the LNAT would be taken pre-interview, the results of which they would then analyse in deciding whether to offer an interview, along with the other factors outlined above.
We explore the interview process in more detail 'here'.
7. The Admissions Exam
As outlined briefly above, many Oxbridge degrees require an Admissions Test to be completed as part of the application process. This might be a requirement irrespective of progression to Interview, e.g. the LNAT for law, or it might be conditional upon invitation to interview, e.g. English at Cambridge.
Admissions Exams can be prepared for, and we take a deeper dive into preparation techniques 'here'.
Once all of the steps above have been completed, the University will inform you of whether you have been successful over the next month or two. In my experience, I had completed all interviews and admissions exams by mid-December, and then received my offer on 25 January.
I hope this has been of some help and if there's any other information that you think might be helpful, do not hesitate to fill out the contact details at the bottom of this page.
Best of luck in your application!