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Managing US applications alongside Oxbridge

It can be a challenge to navigate simultaneous applications to both top US universities and Oxbridge due to significant differences in the process. In this post, ESM counselor and international admissions expert Sam Harris discusses how to consider the differences between these options, tailor your application materials, and strategize timelines effectively for the best chances of success.

Students who are thinking globally about their university applications often inquire about the feasibility of applying both to top US universities and to Oxford or Cambridge (Oxbridge) in the same application cycle.

While this is something that you can do, it’s important to consider whether it’s the right choice and how best to balance the workload of the two application systems. If this is the path you intend to follow for your own university applications, you should be aware of how an application to Oxbridge may impact the strategy and timeline for your US applications.

Should I apply to the US and Oxbridge?

I often see students express interest in applying to the most elite universities globally: ‘I’m targeting Oxbridge and the Ivies’, they say. For many students, this intention stems from a real academic ambition and a desire to compete for university places at the highest level.

The education offered at Oxbridge and in the US is meaningfully different, however. For one, students at Oxford or Cambridge study their chosen subject, and only their chosen subject, from the first day of their degree to the last.

In the US, on the other hand, a degree is broader and more flexible by design. Even if you declare a major as part of your application you will almost certainly be required to study subjects outside this major to fulfill the requirements of your degree.

This fact alone creates two very different undergraduate experiences in the US and at Oxbridge. It is rare that both systems suit a student equally well, but in some circumstances it does make sense to make applications to top universities in both countries.

The takeaway:

Do careful research into each of the universities to which you intend to apply to ensure that your chosen course or major meets your expectations for your degree. Remember, this is three to four years of your life, so you need to know that you’ll enjoy it!

Will my application materials overlap?

The difference in the type of education in these two systems has a knock-on effect on the required application materials and on how these materials are evaluated.

There is very little overlap between the personal essay that you must write for the Common Application, for example, and the personal statement that you submit with your application to Oxbridge. The former is much more open-ended and therefore feels rather personal, and the latter is entirely focused on your academic preparation and ambitions as they relate to the subject for which you are applying. It’s worth noting that the content of an Oxbridge personal statement might be repurposed for supplemental essays to US universities.

There is similarly little overlap in many of the other application materials. The interview process is different (in the US, less important and sometimes not offered; for Oxbridge, crucial and very subject-specific). Letters of recommendation for these two programmes also differ significantly, so you will likely need two different sets of recommendations.

Your actual grades submitted to the US and to Oxbridge may be the only true overlapping element, but this is before you begin the conversation about standardized test scores (optional but encouraged for many US universities, required by others, and not considered by Oxbridge).

The takeaway:

There is little overlap in the actual materials produced for the two applications; however, your academic preparation may often overlap, and your extracurricular preparation could overlap somewhat. Ultimately, this means a greater workload.

How will my timeline change?

In general, the best advice for preparing US applications is to start early, but this is even more true when you know you will also be applying to Oxbridge. You will need to leave plenty of time to create and compile materials for these two very different applications.

Unfortunately, the weeks leading up to application deadlines at many US universities often clash with key stages in the Oxbridge process. The mid-October application deadline for Oxbridge applications falls when students are often the busiest finalizing their early applications for the US, and Oxbridge interviews in December again overlap with the run-up to the regular decision deadline for the US. Your college counselor can help to tailor your timeline to manage these conflicting deadlines and pressures.

Keep in mind that you will also need to make considered decisions about which deadlines and decision plans to use for the US. For example, you should avoid closing the door on a potential Oxbridge offer by opting out of an Early Decision application. This will give you the flexibility to have both US and UCAS offers (hopefully Oxbridge!) on the table at the end of the process.

The takeaway:

You will want to complete your application materials well in advance, despite most likely not making use of an ED application plan.

What about my options at the end of the process?

Let’s assume that everything works out in the best way possible—you receive acceptances to one (or several) US universities and an offer from either Oxford or Cambridge. Congratulations! You now face a tough decision: where to attend.

Universities in the US expect students to commit to their place at their chosen school by May 1, and in most cases this commitment takes the form of a deposit on university fees. This date is, of course, well ahead of the release of exam results and in some cases even ahead of exams themselves. Some students, however, are confident that a US university is their first choice school, and they commit by May 1. Others are not as excited by their US options at the end of the admission cycle and opt in favor of their Oxbridge offer.

There is, however, a third group of students who want to keep both options open as long as possible. For example, some students consider using their US option as a “Plan B” in case they miss their Oxbrige offer when exam results are released. In theory, it is possible to keep a place at a US university on hold in case you don’t meet your offer for Oxford or Cambridge, but you need to be aware that you will lose the deposit you put down on a US place (often several hundred dollars) if you do not attend.

This is the best-case scenario, however. Ultimately, students who are applying to both the US and Oxbridge need to think very carefully about building in a safety net as part of their application strategy—remember, top US universities are not safety schools for Oxbrige and vice-versa, even for the most high-attaining students!

The takeaway:

You’ll need to decide by May 1 in your final year of school if you intend to take up a place at a US university. This is often months in advance of the release of public exam results; if you’re in the fortunate position of also having an Oxbridge offer, you’ll have to make this decision before you receive final results and learn whether you’ve met your offer.