What Parents Of Oxbridge Applicants Need To Know In 2020

Applying to university is a significant step in many students’ lives. Deciding what course to follow and where to study are equally important choices. For some high achieving students, the dreaming spires of Oxford and Cambridge are the ultimate goal, and as a parent you’ll want to know how you can help them to get there.

The stages of applying this year are the same as any other – but there are a few changes to the process and some considerations that your teen will need to take into account as we continue to feel the effects of COVID-19. Below we go through everything that students would normally need to think about, and what changes there are to this year’s application process so that you’re best placed to advise and support them every step of the way.

 Be picky

You may already know that students can only apply to either Cambridge or Oxford – and once they’ve decided on which, most also pick a specific college (but you can do an open application). Oxford and Cambridge are collegiate universities, meaning that students are accepted by a particular college, rather than the university department for the course they apply for. If applicants don’t get accepted by their first choice college, they may still be taken by another, either through extra interviews or a university-wide pooling system.

The University of Oxford has created a video to explain what colleges are, and your teen will find it provides useful information on how to decide which is right for them. Cambridge has also provided similar guidance and a video on how to choose a college. Encourage your teen to first check which colleges offer their course (Oxford or Cambridge) and spend some time together on college websites to get a feel of the environment.

When helping your child choose which college to go for, ask them what type of community and surroundings they would like to live amongst. Are they looking for old and traditional, or would they prefer to be somewhere more modern? Think also about the size: some people like being in a tight-knit community while others would rather be in a larger cohort. Location of lecture halls may also be a deciding factor, along with what extracurricular activities and sports certain colleges are known for. Age and gender may also be significant, as some colleges only take female or mature students.

Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, students won’t be able to visit any of the colleges in person in 2020. But virtual open days are a possibility, or you could always offer to take your teen to the cities and walk around them together to get a sense of the external environment. Talking to someone who has studied or is studying at one or the other will also offer the best insight

How and when to apply

As with every other British university, students apply through UCAS. However, the submission deadline is much earlier than the general UCAS one. Every part of each application must be completed by 15th October 2020 at 6pm UK time. The University of Cambridge also requires a Supplementary Application Questionnaire (SAQ) to be completed, where applicants give a little more information about themselves and what they’re studying, along with a transcript of any results in the absence six or more GCSEs or five or more Scottish National Qualifications in the last three years.

The application process at Oxbridge is a little longer than for most universities. Once your teen has chosen a course and college (or open application), they’ll also need to find out if there are any tests they might need to take. Some courses only require a written assessment of students invited to interview, but for others, pre-interview assessments happen in November upon invitation. Remind your teen that they need to factor in how to prepare.

The way these tests are delivered may change, subject to COVID-19 guidelines, so keep a keen eye on the relevant web pages. Oxford is currently expecting tests to go ahead in testing centres, and the ‘Pre-Interview assessments’ section of the Cambridge coronavirus website has the latest information. Cambridge Assessment Admissions Testing (CAAT) sessions will now all take place over 4th and 5th November

Many courses at both universities also require submission of written work before the interview stage. The deadline for this is 10th November at Oxford but it will depend on the college at Cambridge. Help your teen to understand what pieces of work they’ll need to have completed by this time, and make sure they’re as strong as they can be. If they express concerns that their written work has been affected by school closures, it’s best that they contact the college as soon as possible.


Both Oxford and Cambridge conduct interviews with applicants. Students are invited by the college they’ve applied to if their application and pre-interview assessment have impressed. Interviewing is usually done at the college applied to in early December, but this year it will be done remotely to minimise contact. Alternative arrangements have not yet been finalised at Cambridge but Oxford has confirmed that interviews will take place online. Direct your teen to the Oxford and Cambridge websites for more information on how to prepare for interviews.

Going remote, but not for good

If your teen knows that they want to apply to Oxbridge, they shouldn’t let the circumstances of this year put them off. Colleges are very understanding of the disruption to students’ studies, and are making every effort to minimise contact throughout the application process. At present, neither university has any plans to continue teaching remotely after the current academic year.