For Oxford and Cambridge, you apply directly to the college. But the colleges are very, very small. They may only have one or two spaces for each course, each year. Now, if you're an excellent candidate, but there are more excellent candidates at that particular college, then you may get sent to a different college. If a college thinks you are an excellent student, and you've only just missed out on a place there, because of the large number of excellent students applying this year, but on any other year they would have accepted you, because you are excellent, then at the Cambridge they'll put you into a pool or at Oxford it's called reallocation.

Colleges that have spaces, or feel that the people that applied directly to them weren't quite up to standard, can look at pooled or reallocated students. Because what each college is looking for are the best students for them. Not ones have that have necessarily applied directly, not ones that necessarily chose that college. They would rather have a better student who applied to a different college, as opposed to somebody who applied directly to them but didn't quite meet up to their standards.

Oxford and Cambridge do their initial interviews in the first few weeks of December. If a college has a large number of really good applicants that year or doesn't think you are quite the right fit for a college but you would fit in really well somewhere else, then they can choose to send you to a different college. Oxford and Cambridge do this ever so slightly differently.

Oxford do everything in one day. If you go for an interview at Oxford, you might have an interview at the college you applied to and then you might have an interview at a different college, as well. All of the Oxford interviews, the initial interviews and then the reallocation interviews are all done in one day.

Cambridge do things across two days. They have the initial interviews in December then applicants go into a pool, and then in the beginning of January, students might be get called back for a second interview by a second college. Cambridge send about a quarter of its applicants to the pool and then about a quarter of those end up getting a place at a different college.

If you get sent to a pool, or if at Oxford you get sent to a different college to be interviewed for reallocation, you may get an offer from your initial college, you may get an offer from a new college, or you may get rejected. And there is absolutely nothing you can do about this. You don't get a second choice of college. You have no influence over which college gives you an offer. You can state your preference when you apply, but it is just a preference.

Zeus’s Story - Account of an Oxford University graduate

I asked Zeus to write about why he picked Oxford and how he has found life studying there. He talks about specifics for chemistry (the degree he studied) but the ideas can be applied to any course.

I’ll start with a little bit of background about myself to give some context to the rest of the account. I’m Zeus, 22, a British citizen and I’m studying for my second masters degree here in Pharmacology at Hertford College, Oxford. My first masters is in Chemistry from Corpus Christi College, Oxford. I hope to give you a flavour for the admissions and interview process, day to day life as an Oxford student, and along the way I’ll tell you things I wish I knew five and a half years ago when initially applying here.

During my A-Levels, which are studied between the ages of 16-18 in the UK, I achieved A*AAA in Chemistry, Physics, Biology and Mathematics, respectively, which gave me a solid foundation to all of the sciences and opened many doors in terms of choosing what degree to apply for. I was always technically and analytically minded and therefore my A-Level choices were a natural decision to make.

During my A-Levels, I thoroughly enjoyed Chemistry as it suited my individual mindset and way of working. My teachers were incredibly supportive of my Chemistry education and my due to my high marks and interest in the subject, I was encouraged to apply to Oxford. That’s where the ball really got rolling. Chemistry isn’t the most oversubscribed university course, and through UCAS (UK university admissions), we are given five options which can include one of either Oxford or Cambridge. Cambridge doesn’t offer straight Chemistry, only Natural Sciences, and being quite direct minded and focused, Oxford’s Chemistry program seemed more suitable for me.

It’s very important for everyone to thoroughly research the universities you are interested in before applying. I think it’s worth visiting as many websites as possible, getting a real feel for the course, what it entails, the city, the wider picture, and then shortlist a handful of universities that you’re interested in. It is hugely beneficial to attend open days and get a real feel for the place and meet some of the people affiliated with the university. Oxford has open days a few times per year, which are really well organised.

The university is divided into individual colleges and so the open days entail visiting both the department you are interested in and any specific colleges. When applying, you can either decide to submit an open application (where the university assigns you to a college) or a direct application to a college. Either way, you become a member of a college upon your successful admission to the university. I’ll discuss this more later.

At the open days here in Oxford, the colleges will be open in which you are allowed to look around, be given tours by current students of the college and see accommodation, dining hall, chapel and where you’ll be spending the next few years (at least!). Whilst it’s not feasible to visit all 38 colleges of Oxford in a day, again it comes down to checking out the websites and trying to get an initial feel for which colleges you’d like to visit on the open days. There are some websites out there that’ll help you decide which colleges, such as The Student Room, and http://www.chooseoxfordcollege.co.uk/ .

College choice is so individual and depends on such a wide range of things like: state / private school balance, accommodation quality, location around the city, college size – you really need to think about what you’re looking for in a college. The open days are incredibly useful and full of friendly students and staff and maybe even the chance to meet other prospective applicants along the way.

Corpus Christi is a small college and I was attracted to that as my sixth form college was also small. It’s a reputable college and is known for being incredibly friendly whilst highly academic, but also a good location in the city (and an excellent library). It’s really about finding what works for you. You just need to do the most research that you can in preparation for applying and open days etc.

In terms of applying, it really does boil down to two factors: showing your academic excellence and an ability to express your passion for the subject and potential to excel in it. As Oxford is hugely competitive, it’s a challenge to really portray these things, but again, it comes down to excellent preparation and thinking outside the box – what can I do that’s a little bit different to others?

Even though work experience / shadowing is not necessary for Chemistry, unlike Medicine, I still knew that it’d give me a competitive advantage against most other candidates who didn’t do those things. It certainly wouldn’t do any harm, right? I spent a couple of days at a paint company seeing the chemistry behind paint processing. In their personal statement, most people discuss books which they’ve read around the subject (which is highly recommended) but it’s always about proving to the admissions tutors why you are different, why you are capable of being an Oxford student and why you want to study the course that you are doing. Taking part in Olympiads but also attending conferences and seminars is another cool and somewhat unique way to demonstrate your passion, beyond a standard extended project that more and more people are doing now. It’s a good talking point for interviews, too.

In terms of college choice, a lot of people play the “statistics game” thinking that commonly undersubscribed colleges (I won’t name any names) are easier to get into than the more popular and prestigious colleges. This is really not the case. The only advice I would give in terms of college choice from an admissions point of view is – know the type of academic interest that the college tutor has. Read up on what they do, what they like and their way of talking (or typing). It’s surprising how much information you can gather, and this is really important in terms of the interview.

The interview itself is incredibly academic and probably won’t involve questions such as “why Oxford?” or “why this subject?” – that’s not to say they won’t be asked, though! The whole purpose of the interview is to see if you are suited to the tutorial system of Oxford. As an Oxford undergraduate, your tutor will give you a week’s worth of work to do, which you’ll discuss in a one to one, or two students to one tutor format every week. The whole purpose of the interview is to demonstrate that you can be engaging, interactive and suggest answers and thought processes to the problems that they throw at you. It’s less about getting the right answer, but more about verbally expressing your thought processes and your willingness to try. Don’t come out with “don’t know” answers, instead, ask “could you please give me a little hint?”. Try to work with them, it’s to replicate what you’ll be doing every week for three years.

The interview is as much about making sure Oxford is right for you as it is you being right for Oxford. Don’t be afraid to get the wrong answer, but verbally express your thinking and show willingness to try. Your interview may be based around interesting bits of Chemistry that you’ve stated on your personal statement, so make sure you know everything you’ve listed on there exceptionally well, as well as all of your current A-Level syllabus work. It’s not about seeing how much Chemistry you’ve crammed into your brain, but your ability to think, reason and interact, showing a potential for growth and improvement. They are likely to ask things related to their area of interest, for example a Physical Chemistry tutor isn’t likely to ask you on Organic Chemistry, so you can sort of direct your preparation according to the interviewer and their specialisms.

The interviews are all conducted in December (probably just before you finish for the Christmas break) and you’ll typically have 2-3 interviews over the span of a couple of days. The interviewing college will provide free accommodation for that period where you can get a little snippet to life at Oxford and when you’re not being interviewed, meet other students, college staff and have a look around the city. The same is offered for international students and is, as far as I know, the same as for a local student.

All of the offers are made on the same day in January to commence studies in October. In the meantime, the college that offered you a place will send you a college contract and other slightly boring documents to complete so that everything’s in place for when you arrive at Oxford. A lot of people go onto the forums, such as The Student Room, to try to connect with their course mates before they arrive at Oxford. I found that really useful and nice to know some people for when I arrived.

Upon arrival to Oxford, the first week is known as “fresher’s week” and is essentially an induction week: you get to meet your peers, other people in the college, lots of socialising, lots of induction talks, getting familiar with your department and meeting your tutors. It’s an action-packed week, and there’s lots of opportunities for partying for the outgoing types, but the small and friendly collegiate system means there are also excellent opportunities for the more introverted types at Oxford. There’s absolutely something and somebody for everyone here at Oxford. In fresher’s week, you’ll also attend “fresher’s fair” where you can meet and sign up to a lot of societies, clubs and even get free pizza! It’s a great opportunity to take up a sport, join a society or a club and really branch out and make new connections.

Life at Oxford is, unsurprisingly, very difficult. It’s a steep learning curve and requires you to really get to grips with managing your time, stress levels and finding the appropriate work-life balance. I’ve learned more about how to deal with life and what it throws at you, much more than any academic knowledge I’ve attained here at Oxford. The short (8 week) but intense terms really set you up to deal with anything. The skills and attributes of an Oxford graduate is sought at for much more than just the knowledge you’ve acquired, but also your attitudes.

You really do need a passion for your subject because it’s really hard going here. It’s a means to an end though, it’s only a few years and it’s going to pay off for the rest of your life. Should you get through it, you’ll really reap the awards. Oxford is a great place to make connections, to network and to develop your confidence and open your mind to new cultures and ways of life, as it is so diverse here. That experience and immersion is invaluable, you can’t put a price on it. Sometimes I think about if I’d have gone to a more “normal” university, maybe I would have had a more fun and well-rounded experience. But it really is what you make it; if you manage your time really well, stay on the ball and keep your head straight, you’ll be able to lead a balanced life and enjoy yourself in the process. Fall behind on work and get lazy, you’ll suffer. There’s many lessons I’m still learning about Oxford to this very day, after five years here, and you never stop learning. You’ll hit the ground and be dragged around a fair few times by the rigour here, but you’ll get up stronger.

I take so much pride to think where I’ve come over the past five years since my school days, what I’ve learned, overcome and achieved here in Oxford. There’s no better place; you are truly at a world leading university with the brightest minds, talking about a subject that you should (!) have a passion for and love talking about. If your subject keeps you up at night, if you love solving problems and remain curious – if you live, breath and sleep your subject, Oxford is the place for you. Do your research, ask the right questions, prepare yourself for what will probably be the most challenging few years of your life, that’s all you can do.