Applying to Oxbridge and the US

Posted on 7th November 2022

Every year high-achieving students aim to apply to both highly selective US universities and Oxbridge. While this is possible with a high degree of organisation and hard work, making both sets of applications is very demanding; even the most diligent student may struggle to stay on top of the workload at periods during the Autumn Term. There are also competing sets of timelines and priorities that do not always tessellate well with one another. Below we have outlined a few different areas worth considering before deciding to apply to both Oxbridge and the US.

1. The workload. Applying to US colleges typically requires the completion of the Common Application, and potentially other university application portals too. This involves requesting up to three letters of recommendation from teachers, completing an activities list, writing a personal essay of 650 words, and potentially submitting an artistic portfolio or writing sample. Most colleges will also require supplementary essays of at least 300 words, and highly selective colleges may ask for up to 1,000 words on top of the Personal Essay. So if a student applies to the recommended ten colleges, he or she could easily end up with a writing workload of 6,000 words for the US alone, equivalent to an extra EPQ! These essays require extensive thought and often several rounds of feedback and re-drafting.

For Oxbridge, the writing workload is considerably less onerous, as a student will have to write a Personal Statement of around 600 words. However, certain courses (particularly at Oxford) may require preparation for an additional exam such as the TSA, MAT, or PAT. Then there is the interview process. Oxbridge interviews are very rigorous and interviewers (who are members of faculty at the university) will ask searching questions that demand a high level of critical thinking and subject knowledge. Preparing for the interview properly will often take several months of wider reading around the curriculum, extension classes at school if these are offered, and interview practice.

Some US colleges have interviews as well, but these are typically offered by an alum of the university, much less formal, and require little if any subject knowledge. In other words, there is very little overlap between the two sets of skills required in the application process. Managing both requires a student to have an extremely high level of organisation. We would in fact recommend that students applying to both Oxbridge and the US draft all of their essay supplements in the summer before their senior year (year 13). That means that the first term of Upper Sixth can focus on Oxbridge preparation and maintaining high standards in the A Level or IB.

2. The “fit”. The first question you should be asking yourself is: am I genuinely a good fit for both the US and Oxbridge, or am I merely applying to both because they are prestigious? US universities are looking for students with intellectual curiosity, but also a high degree of extracurricular involvement, leadership, and community service. Oxford and Cambridge, by contrast, place much more emphasis on intellectual ability alone and are less concerned with a student’s extracurricular profile. Bar a few broader courses such as PPE and Natural Sciences, Oxford and Cambridge courses will involve intense academic depth in a student’s chosen discipline, with very few opportunities to explore beyond the curriculum. US universities, by contrast, offer a much broader undergraduate curriculum (often referred to as the liberal arts) where for the first two years in particular, students will gain exposure to a wide range of different disciplines, from languages and humanities to natural and social sciences. Even specialist undergraduate courses such as business and engineering will involve some degree of academic breadth across different disciplines. Students who are a good fit for the US experience are often much broader academically and might not have a clear idea yet what they want to major in at college. Oxbridge applicants, by contrast, will be successful because they can articulate their deep love of a particular subject.

3. The timelines. As mentioned above, Oxbridge and US application timelines do not often sit comfortably on top of each other. You can see the important dates below:

Deadline Notification of interview Notification of offer
US Early Decision/Action1 NovMid-December (some colleges may only release EA in Jan)
Oxbridge15 OctBetween mid-Nov and early DecMid-January
US Regular DecisionEarly JanuaryAround 1 April

The problem is that students will not find out whether they have received an Oxbridge offer until mid-January. Students applying to a US college via an Early Decision programme, which provides students with a significant advantage, will have to withdraw in mid-December from all applications globally if admitted, including Oxbridge. So, the Oxbridge offer won’t arrive until the point after which students would have to withdraw!

Therefore students applying to both Oxbridge and US colleges should consider Early Action rather than Early Decision. Many highly selective colleges, including Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and Stanford, offer a Restrictive Early Action policy (where an applicant may only apply to one private college early) but others such as Columbia, Brown, and Dartmouth only offer Early Decision. A student applying to one of those colleges but unwilling to make a commitment to an Early Decision application will have to apply Regular Decision, for which the acceptance rates are much lower.

These are just a few of the considerations when deciding to make an application to both Oxbridge and the US. If you would like to talk through the decision-making process with one of our founders, then please write to us at or book in a call using the link

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