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What’s the purpose of this knowledge base?

We are creating the most comprehensive and most easily accessible one-stop guide to getting into your dream university on the planet. We want to take you, dear Reader, from being all confused about what studying abroad is or why you should even do it in the first place, to crafting and sending off the perfect application, and all the way to the point where you’ve secured funding and has packed your bags for your adventure.

If it’s still a bit messy around, it’s because it’s still under construction.

Why have we gone through the trouble?

Lack of information and sheer bewilderment is probably the most important factor stopping international students from getting accepted to their dream university. Sometimes it stops people before they even begin, because they don’t know where to start. Sometimes they miss deadlines, because they lose the overview. Sometimes very smart people get rejected because they didn’t prepare in the best possible way. Personally, I never thought of going to Oxford before I was rejected by a Danish university. Randomly, travelling in Kenya in the gap year that followed my rejection, I met an Oxford student while climbing Mt. Kenya, who inspired me to apply and helped me with my application. It really doesn’t have to be that random. We’re here to change that.

This knowledge base is written by experts – students, who have been just as confused as you might be right now and who care deeply about equal access to universities. Their knowledge is structured into three sections:

  • How to choose a university
  • How to get in
  • What to do after you get an offer

Further to the information, we are also collecting personal stories and university profiles written by our mentors, to show you that all of us are just people as well, no need to be scared.

  • University profiles
  • Subject Guides
  • Mentors’ Stories

Most of our content applicable to applicants from any and all countries, but some of it is country specific. We currently have mentor networks in Armenia, Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Italy, The Netherlands, Pakistan, Poland, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Sri Lanka and Sweden. (January 2017)

If you’d like to follow our knowledge base as it grows, sign up to our newsletter, where we’ll provide you with admissions tips, university profiles, stories of students and everything else you need to make your dream reality.

If you have a very general question that others might wonder about too that is not covered by our knowledge base – or you’re a student who would like to write something for us, please email with suggestions for new entries!

How to study for your English Certificate

If you are a non-native speaker and are planning on applying to a University in the UK or US, you will most likely have to submit a language certification as part of your application.

 TOEFL, IELTS, CAE, CPE, they are all quite similar: They consist of a set of standardised questions and tasks that you have to complete, so regardless of which exam you take. It goes without saying that you need a good level of English, but here are a few tips to help you prepare:

  1. Start early
    Give yourself the time to prepare well. Start with a practice test to see where you stand and which areas you need to work on most.
  2. Practice
    There is no secret recipe for doing well in these exams. After doing a number of past exams and exercises in books, you will start to recognise that there are only a handful types of questions and you will become familiar with the way they are phrased. This is crucial. I worked through my entire book and did every exercise, checked it and took notes of words or idioms I was unfamiliar with.
  3. Master time management
    You have a limited amount of time to complete all the exercises, so whenever you practice do it under exam conditions. That means timing yourself, strictly not using your phone or computer to look something up and learn to find around things that you just cannot remember.
  4. Go above and beyond
    Learning a language is a lengthy process, you will need to invest a lot of time into it, but it should be fun! Reading helps tremendously, you can also listen to audiobooks or the news to soak up the intonation and come to grips with accents. The internet is your friend.

Don’t worry if that sounds stressful, many people have done it before and if you are well organised and practice, get exposure and keep your head cool during the exam, you should not have to worry.

Good luck!

Hannah Niese, 02 Mar 2017

English language requirements: IELTS, TOEFL, CAE or CPE, which one to take?

Prepare your English for university

Naturally, all universities in the English-speaking world expect their candidates to have an excellent level of English. But please don’t freak out – this doesn’t mean you need to write and speak like a native, especially if you never really had a chance to have English as your language of instruction at school at any stage.

This article doesn’t discuss language requirements for GCSEs, International Baccalaureate (IB), or European Baccalaureate (EB). All these diplomas are not language certificates per se and are usually fully taught in English. For instance, if you studied at a British school or did an IB programme for at least 2 years prior to the start date of your university course, you wouldn’t be obliged to sit language certificates. In order to be sure about your language waiver, you should always double check specific language requirements on your chosen university’s website.

This article will give you a brief overview of the most popular language testing systems available: IELTS, TOEFL (in its online and paper forms), and Cambridge English exams (CAE and CPE). We also prepared a table of minimal requirements for English at the best universities in the UK and some study tips.



By and large, it is the most popular standardised test of English. IELTS stands for International English Language Testing System and is jointly run by the British Council, IDP: IELTS Australia, and Cambridge English Language Assessment. There are two main types of IELTS: Academic and General Training. For those who apply for higher education the IELTS Academic exam is a must.

Format: IELTS is very straightforward. Total time is less than less than 4 hours. You sit in four main language parts: listening (4 recordings in 30 min), reading (40 questions in 60 min), writing (2 tasks in 60 min), and speaking (11-14 min with an examiner). In contrast to TOEFL, the speaking part is conducted face-to-face with a certified examiner.

Scoring: IELTS results are reported on a 9-band scale with 1 (which literally means no user of language) to 9 (an expert user of language, an equivalent of the C2 level).

Results: IELTS guarantees the evaluation within 13 days. You can view the results online.

Our advice: Please set up the exam dates in advance so you don’t miss a chance to sit the exam before or during the summer prior to the start of your course. We’d suggest not leaving it to the last minute. What if you missed your condition and have no other time to re-sit the exam?

Being a natural selection for students applying to UK universities, it is very likely you can enrol for the IELTS certificate with a local branch of British Council in your country. They organise IELTS examination dates a couple of times per year (depending on the branch).

For more details consult the IELTS website.


TOEFL is offered as an internet-based test (TOEFL IBT) taken in numerous centres all around the globe. It stands for Test of English as a Foreign Language. It is a trademark exam of a private non-profit from the US: Educational Testing Service (ETS).

Format: The exam takes approx. 4 hours and consists of 4 components (reading, listening, speaking, writing). During the whole test you only interact with a computer; you read and hear texts and respond to multiple-choice questions. In the speaking part, your voice is recorded and sent to a marker. There is also a paper version of the same test but the internet-based test is far more popular among students.

Scoring: Each of the 4 components is graded with up to 30 points. The total number of points is – Sherlock Holmes found it out for us – 120!

Results: It takes several weeks after the test for the results to arrive.

Our advice: TOEFL is more popular amongst those applying to the US colleges. EF, a company that specialises in language courses all around the globe, points out that TOEFL is a more logical option for students who want to pursue their studies in the US or Canada.

For more details consult the TOEFL website.



Both exams are organised by Cambridge English Language Assessment (formerly known as the University of Cambridge ESOL Examinations). The Certificate in Advanced English (CAE) is set at a high C1-C2 level (=IELTS 6.5-8.0). The Certificate of Proficiency in English (CPE) is the most advanced exam and is ranked at C2 (well above the TOEFL scale and equivalent to IELTS >8.0). In contrast to many other certificates, the Cambridge certificates do not expire.

Format: The tests are structured in a similar way to IELTS and TOEFL: writing, listening, speaking, and reading, though an important aspect of these certificates is the use of English and a focus on grammar. The first (reading and use of English) and second parts (writing) take 1h 30 minutes each, listening lasts 40min, and speaking 15min. Interestingly, the updated speaking test is taken face to face, with 2 candidates and 2 examiners to make sure the conversation measures a natural ability of communicating in English.

Scoring: The scale illustrates performance across a wide range of language ability. In CAE and CPE, scoring between 200-210 refers to a grade A (C2 level). A candidate whose score is between 193 and 199 receives a grade B. A grade C (which is still considered as Level C1) is given to scores between 180 and 192.

Results: The statement is released online, approximately 4-6 weeks after the paper-based exam and 2-3 weeks for computer-based exams.

Our advice: Both tests are very well recognised and, unlike others, do not expire which makes them particularly prestigious qualifications. But you should rethink sitting these tests in case you don’t plan to apply for the UK, as these exams really require a lot of preparation of your side. Also, unless you feel very confident in your English (and we’re talking about close-to-native skills), you should not take CPE without serious preparation.


Minimum requirements at UK universities

We’ve gone through language requirements of the most competitive universities in the UK. The table below summarises the minimum requirements for non-native speakers of English. Please consult the chosen department as some courses might slightly differ. For instance, we expect that language requirements for studying English Literature or History are higher than Engineering.


Other universities might have similar or lower expectations. For your convenience we’ve attached the links to language requirements at some selected universities:

Michal Ratynski, 02 Mar 2017

Oxbridge vs. Ivy League? The choice matters

The Choice Matters

Anyone who has ever browsed university league tables will have noticed the dominance of British and American universities in the top, and in particular, in the very, very top. Out of the top 10 places in QS’s World University Rankings 2016, nine were taken up by British or American institutions. Most famously, there is Oxbridge (Oxford and Cambridge Universities) in the U.K., and Ivy League (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and a few others on the East Coast) in the U.S. Both evoke a variety of stereotypes: ancient towers and libraries, tweed-wearing quirky professors, fashionable leather shoes, frat parties and college-crested jumpers, Stephen Hawking and Mark Zuckerberg.

Getting into any of these places is a job well done, and having the option to pick between them is, as it were, a first-world problem on steroids. Whether you are fortunate enough to be pondering offers from both sides of the Atlantic, or whether you are simply trying to figure out what the differences are between these places, read on. I will try to highlight some similarities as well as differences in a way that can hopefully help you make up your mind, wherever you are in the process. But do note I don’t talk about financing issues in this piece, and that summary overview cannot replace researching the specific universities you are considering. Also, these thoughts are my own and are based on research I have done and anecdotes I have; others might disagree and you should always do your own research, with your own goals in mind. But even so, this article might be a place to start doing that.


Since you will spend most or at least a vast amount of time studying at any of these universities[1], understanding the differences in academic experience is very important. In short, at Oxbridge you will spend three (or for some courses, four) years exploring the subject(s) you have chosen in depth. In particular, in the social sciences and humanities, which are less standardised in terms of curricula, you will dive deep into the specific options that you pick, gaining a strong command – though not necessarily much of an overview, unless you add that yourself – of your subject(s).

Meanwhile, an American liberal arts degree (which you will get at the Ivies) encourages and even requires wide exploration of varied subjects (at Harvard, undergraduates do 32 options over their four years). In theory there is significant room for specialisation through taking the maximum allowed number of courses in a particular subject. However, apart from the fact that the chance to experiment is one to make use of, the large number of different courses will tend to push towards overview and brief familiarizing, compared to the narrower rigour of Oxbridge. The takeaway point, then, is the choice between the curious exploration and general education at the Ivy League on the one hand, and Oxbridge’s emphasis on sustained study and subject-specific mastery on the other. Debates will continue to rage over the advantages of each, but largely this distinction should feed into personal reflection on which is right for you, given your goals, ambitions, and interests.

Study aside, there are other important things to think about (something of which I was sublimely unaware during my own application process). Non-academic factors can be subdivided into two categories: Non-academic university life, and what we may broadly call background culture.


Beginning with background culture, it’s undeniable that spending your undergraduate years in the U.S. or the U.K. will shape you into different persons. As one person unhelpfully reminded me as I was personally battling with the decision between Oxbridge and Ivy League: “Wow, just remember that you are really choosing what kind of person you will be for the rest of your life.” As much as this was an exaggeration (as I also told my distressed self at the time), it is true that American and British general culture (norms, bureaucracy, behaviour, partying) differ and that you will be influenced in different directions depending on in which you choose to immerse yourself.

The best way to get a sense of this is, if you are able, to visit and experience the respective cultures (hint: google open days for your favourite universities or send them an email). However, that’s far from always possible. (I’d never visited the U.S. when I got admitted.) But this is difficult to advice on generally, so I will just mention a couple of points: First, talk to as many people with relevant experience (e.g., fellow nationals who have lived in one of the countries) as you can, and see if you really struggle to picture yourself in either of the images that emerge. Second, think about how much you value a cultural and social challenge in itself. From a European perspective, anecdotally it seems to me that those of my friends at Ivy League colleges had a much more challenging time to feel at home, on average, than those in the U.K. Is that part of the challenge you are aiming for, or something which would stand in the way of your goals?

Life In The Bubble

When it comes to non-academic university life, there is more that unite than separate Oxbridge and the Ivies. Frankly, old elite universities share a number of features, including the strong sense of “living in a bubble”, curious traditions and many scarily intelligent peers. As well as, of course, drinks and parties, competition for social status, and performance anxiety. But similarities aside, there are, needless to say, differences.

One of the most notable differences is probably how extra-curricular activities are viewed. An American friend on an exchange year from Columbia to Oxford told me that she had asked the President of Columbia in her first year, “What should I prioritise, my studies or getting an internship?” The President had answered that to be frank, from the university’s point of view it was the internship. In my experience, this is the opposite of the typical attitude among Oxford tutors, although this is an area of massive individual variation. This is not to suggest extra-curriculars are dead at Oxbridge – very much to the contrary. But it does say something about the greater institutional support available at American universities and about the general difference in attitudes. Once again, the ideals of the education of citizens (Ivy League) and the education of thinkers (Oxbridge) come out.

As for living arrangements, it is difficult to generalise. Oxford and Cambridge offer a combination of secluded life in a college, yet with a wider (though not extremely large) city surrounding it. Many students spend part of their degrees living in normal shared flats. Top U.S. colleges offer quite different experiences depending on location – Columbia University is in the middle of New York City, whilst Harvard and Princeton have highly concentrated campuses without that much going on in the immediate surroundings. Dartmouth, on the other hand, boasts extensive access to the outdoors. All in all, these differences underline the fact that you are looking for a place to live, rather than just study, and that’s something you need to keep in mind.

In The End

In the end, though more alike than different, Oxbridge and Ivy Leagues present two distinct alternatives, and which you choose makes a difference. Do your research. Think about whether you are looking for liberal arts breadth or Oxbridge depth as far as your studies go.  If you feel strongly in the direction of one country, direct your application resources (time and effort) accordingly. Try to move beyond the stereotypes. Remember that most people you ask for advice will (and who could blame them?) base their answers on exactly such stereotypes. Don’t stress, take your time. This is a tricky choice, and requires careful thinking about yourself and what matters to you.


Erik Hammar graduated with a B.A. in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from Christ Church, Oxford, in 2015. After leaving high school, he received offers from Harvard College as well as Christ Church, Oxford. He is now working in London.

[1] I will use the word “university” throughout, even if “college” is more accurate as far as U.S. undergraduate degrees are concerned.

Project Access is a non-profit startup run by students from Oxford, Cambridge and other top universities. We believe that information should never restrict people from studying at their dream university.

Erik Hammar, 28 Jun 2016

When to start university applications

The most frequent question we get when doing workshops for high schoolers is: ‘when do I have to start working on my university application?’ The easy answer to this question is 3-6 months before the deadline. That’s approximately the time it takes to get an overview of the admissions process, find out what universities are looking for, write your personal essays/statements, prepare for tests, get references, etc. The right answer, however, is that thinking about this question as a matter of number of months is the wrong mindset.

It is definitely possible to “play” the admissions system; sign-up for a gazillion extra curricular activities if you are applying in the US, or play the ‘grades game’ to impress your high school teachers if you are applying to UK universities. Most students at the top universities have done this to some extent, but the fact remains that the best way to maximise your chances of getting into your dream universities is to dedicate time and effort to your academic passions.

Although there are many tedious aspects of university applications, the process becomes significantly easier if it follows naturally from being passionate about what you want to study. If you like maths, then don’t restrict yourself to textbooks. If you are interested in studying literature, then read (a lot of) books. It sounds almost banal, but the single most important element in your university application is to be truly curious and dedicated to becoming better at what you want to study.
What we’re getting at here is that creating a successful application to a top university does not consist (merely) of a set of robotic motions. It is about dedicating your time to becoming an applicant worthy of attending a top university – whether this means becoming really good at some extra curricular activity or being insightful about the subject you’re applying for. It also helps if you can find the school you really want to attend and start reading about the quirky, fun aspects of life there: personally, this made me extra motivated to spend that extra hour fine-tuning my personal statement. None of this starts some arbitrary number of months before the deadline, it starts as soon as you discover your passions.

What does this mean for you if you don’t know exactly what you want to study? If you’re 1-2 years away from applying, there’s a significant chance that you’re not quite sure yet. Don’t panic – but know that the best you thing you can do then is to start finding out. The best way to do find out what you really enjoy is to dive deep into the subjects that seem the most interesting. Watch TED Talks, read outside your school curriculum, find inspiration in your preferred university’s ‘pre-reading list’ for that course. Plunge into different subjects, be aware of how much you enjoy it. Follow the trails you find most interesting. Once you start reading something that your teacher doesn’t care if you read or not, it will be much clearer if you enjoy it or not. If you can’t focus for the length of a TED talk, there’s a good chance you won’t enjoy spending thousands of hours on it during university. If you really aren’t sure, US colleges may the be better choice for you because that way you don’t have to choose a major straight away.

If you do know what you want to study, get started. Work hard, but ensure you don’t burn out – many good students do nowadays. Spend your spare time in ways you truly enjoy but also make an attractive candidate. Have fun and don’t get too caught up in the “game” of admissions, where you try to model yourself to fit an admissions officer’s ideal candidate. If you are the type who brings psychology books on the Summer vacation with your parents, you will soon discover that this passion is what will really distinguish yourself from the other applicants.

Steven Yew, 18 May 2016