I have just had a look at admissions statistics for grad school. Oxford seems to have much higher acceptance rates than, say, Princeton or Stanford. I do not want to conclude that it therefore is easier to get into Oxbridge than Ivy League Schools, lets say (for grad school that is), because I am probably forgetting some crucial factors here. Or is it just that getting into Oxbridge is easier than Top US unis?

PrincetonAdmissions Data (about 11% acceptance rate)

Oxford Admissions Data (about 24% acceptance rate)

Cambridge Admissions Data (about 39% acceptance rate)

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    Consider that the acceptance rate mainly depends on the number of applications received compared to the available places rather than the ranking. Commented Mar 16, 2016 at 6:10
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    I am not making any assumptions here, do I? To quote myself: 'I do not want to conclude that it therefore is easier to get into Oxbridge than Ivy League Schools, lets say (for grad school that is), because I am probably forgetting some crucial factors here.' Commented Mar 16, 2016 at 7:38
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    Raw percentages, or a link to the data, would make this question better. Commented Mar 16, 2016 at 7:41
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    Higher acceptance rate does not mean "harder to get into Oxford" ... it means "fewer people apply to Oxford".
    – GEdgar
    Commented Mar 16, 2016 at 11:59
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    I'm in the US, and my daughter is an undergrad at Oxford. As part of her application process, she did an interview with them. They told us we could send her for an in-person interview, or do it on skype, but that doing it in person would be more advantageous, so we bought her a plane ticket. We could afford it, but it would be a barrier that would probably prevent or dissuade a lot of non-UK kids from applying. Oxford is public. Tuition is pretty affordable compared to many US private schools, but they do have a three-tiered system, with the highest rate paid by kids from outside the EU.
    – user1482
    Commented Mar 16, 2016 at 14:42

4 Answers 4


For PhD acceptance rates, many schools/departments essentially require PhD candidates to find a potential supervisor prior to applying. My, non-Oxbridge, department's acceptance rate is something like 90% for students who find a supervisor prior to applying and 0% for those without a supervisor. This "requirement" really changes the dynamics of applying for a PhD.

For Masters programs, I think there are a number of minor factors and one large one that result in UK universities having a higher acceptance rate than US universities. Graduate classes/modules in the UK are only taken by Masters students. PhD students and advance undergraduates do not take graduate level classes. This means departments need to accept enough Masters students to make teaching the classes worthwhile.

Getting enough fee-paying students is hard and the competition between programs is fierce. Departments tend not to pass up on students that they think can pass. While "entry tariff" (basically the GPA of admitted students) is starting to count in league tables, in my experience UK universities are not as adapt at manipulating the league tables. Further, UK universities generally have a hard minimum "GPA" of a 2.1 degree classification in a related field. Since undergraduate education in the UK is more specialized than the US this means that a "related" field is much more narrowly defined. Minimum requirements are strictly enforced in the UK so Brits tend not to apply to positions that they are not qualified for. Overall, this cuts out the bottom of the application pool. That said, something like 80-90% of students get a 2.1, and I do not think thesee factors substantiallychange the acceptance rates.

What I think matters the most is the fact that students only apply to a select few schools. My UK students tend to apply from between 1 and 4 Masters programs. I have less experience with US students, but my intuition is they apply to a lot more schools. I think that the reduced number of UK applicants increases the UK acceptance rates.


The odds of a given individual being accepted (which is how I would interpret the phrase "difficulty") depend on the number of similarly-qualified and better-qualified applicants, as well as on the number of students the school intends to admit.

It is not correct to equate a lower percentage of applicants accepted with lower probability of a given individual being admitted, unless you can verify that the applicants to different schools come from similar distributions. One school may receive a large number of applications that are very weak, while the other school receives only highly-qualified applications. The presence of all those weak applications has essentially no effect on the probability of a strong applicant being accepted.

The situation described above often occurs due to differences in awareness among potential applicants of the realistic minimum qualifications for acceptance. The cost of submitting an application can also influence this, as can the general notoriety of a school.

Finally, a school will try to admit enough students so that the number of acceptances reaches the intended number. To do so, they will over-admit by a factor equal to the inverse of the yield rate. The schools may have different yield rates, which will lead to different acceptance rates even if all else is equal.


Acceptance rate is one of the factors used by U.S. News and World Report in their influential "Best Colleges" rankings. Specifically, it currently counts for 1.25% of the total score. So universities in the US have a clear incentive to decrease their acceptance rate (by increasing the number of applicants, whether qualified or not). This may play some role in the difference.


For UK PhD programmes those figures can be highly misleading.

Unlike US PhD programmes, you really need to first get the endorsement of a potential supervisor before making your application if you want to have a chance at admittance. For example, my supervisor was contacted by around 40 people but only endorsed 5. 3 applicants (including me) were made offers. I checked their Linkedin profiles and all had graduated at the top of their department as undergrads and earned distinctions on one or more masters' degrees. From what I hear, this scenario is not uncommon for Oxbridge, and the true acceptance rate must be closer to something like 5-10%. What's more, UK PhD programmes do not provide funding. Because of this, many offer holders have to decline their offers unless they are awarded a scholarship. These are extremely competitive. For example, only 17% of graduate students at Cambridge receive full funding. Prestigious scholarships such as the Gates Cambridge scholarship have success rates of 0.5%. So, as you can see, getting accepted into Oxbridge for graduate study, particularly a fully-funded, is a rare feat and a huge honour.

  • Not only do you need to find a supervisor, but many PhD positions also require you to write a research proposal, which is not a trivial task. The following interview(s) can also be challenging. Then after, and if, you get a conditional offer, you are still not guaranteed a place (as you need to satisfy the conditions of the offer). And each year there are people who decline their offers just because they were not offered places in their preferred colleges. I am not too familiar with the US system, but from what I do know, the process in the UK seems wildly different. Commented Apr 21, 2017 at 22:42
  • "is a rare feat and a huge honour" - unless you are from the EU are a woman, of course. It is no secret that those universities heavily endorse affirmative action, and that it is much easier to get a fully funded offer if you are an EU or british national.
    – Rüdiger
    Commented Apr 22, 2017 at 11:57

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