Month of birth affects chance of attending Oxbridge

A woman cycles past Balliol College in Oxford

The likelihood of becoming a student at Oxford or Cambridge Universities can be strongly influenced by date of birth.

Last year the chance of someone born in October becoming an Oxbridge undergraduate was more than 30% higher than for someone born in July.

In seasonal terms, compared to the summer-born applicants, autumn births were 25% more likely to get an Oxbridge place, while for winter and spring births the figures were 17% and 15% more likely respectively.

This is according to data obtained from both universities under freedom of information and analysed by the BBC.

It raises the issue of whether universities should start to consider applicants' dates of birth when deciding who to give places to.

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For someone born in September, the likelihood of an Oxbridge place in 2012 was 12% higher than for those born in August”

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It is a well established fact in educational research that children who are younger in their year group at school tend on average to do significantly worse in terms of educational attainment. Known sometimes as the "birthdate effect" or "relative age effect", this generally diminishes as children get older but does not vanish.

Less research has been done on the implications for later life, but what these Oxbridge admissions statistics now demonstrate is that the impact on life outcomes can persist beyond school.

The birthdate effect is also a recognised phenomenon in sport.

We obtained figures from both universities for the months of birth of undergraduate applicants for places in 2012. This data only refers to applicants resident in the UK, not international students. The statistics for both universities reveal a similar monthly pattern for those accepted.

Oxbridge undergraduates admitted 2012

Month of birth Oxford Cambridge TOTAL Births (1993/4) Effect

Sources: Oxford and Cambridge Universities; births data from ONS, General Register Office for Scotland and NISRA; analysis by BBC









































































This fits with the birthdate effect. The vast majority of UK applicants to Oxbridge are from England and Wales, where school year groups are formed on a September-August basis. Thus those who have been older within their year groups are more likely to reach Oxbridge than their younger classmates.

(In Scotland, school year groups are formed on a March-February basis, and in Northern Ireland on a July-June basis. But only about 3 to 4% of UK-domiciled Oxbridge students are from Scotland or Northern Ireland, so the general picture is still valid.)

Of course the number of people actually born in each month also varies, but this does not explain the variation in Oxbridge admissions. For comparison I have included in the table above the numbers of births by month in the UK in 1993/94, which is the year of birth for more than 80% of the students accepted in 2012.

The final column measures the relative impact for Oxbridge entrance of being born in that month compared to August.

The Radcliffe Camera is a building at Oxford University

This means that on this basis for someone born in September, say, the likelihood of an Oxbridge place in 2012 was 1.12 times (or 12% higher than) for someone born in August.

It takes into account the overall numbers born in that month 18 years previously. This is a simplified and quick analysis, which ignores various details. But none of these factors should alter the broad overall picture of the strong presence of a birthdate effect.

However, in all this it is very important to note that for both universities a similar pattern - weighted towards birthdays earlier in the September-August academic year - applies to all applicants, not just those who were accepted.

This suggests the birthdate effect (like some other inequalities) is already present in influencing which pupils are doing well enough at school to apply to Oxbridge.

In other words, the Oxbridge admissions process is probably reflecting a pre-established pattern of educational disadvantage, not creating it.

Both Oxford and Cambridge routinely issue a broad collection of statistics relating to admissions, such as gender, ethnicity, disability, region and school type of candidates. However neither proactively publishes the data on month of birth, which we therefore obtained through requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

Cambridge University

Both universities state they do not take an applicant's month of birth into account in the admissions process. A Cambridge spokesperson said that an analysis of admissions statistics should examine a range of variables over several years. Neither university wanted to issue any further reaction.

The impact of month of birth on a wide range of child and adult outcomes is currently the subject of a major research project conducted by the Institute of Fiscal Studies, which is expected to report in May.

Ellen Greaves, one of the IFS researchers, commented: "The data obtained by the BBC show that universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, may be missing out on some of the brightest students by accepting disproportionate numbers of pupils born earlier in the academic year."

"Although much could and should be done to address these inequalities earlier in the education system, it is in each university's interest to make sure that they consider a pupil's month of birth in their admissions process."

Martin Rosenbaum Article written by Martin Rosenbaum Martin Rosenbaum Freedom of information specialist

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  • rate this

    Comment number 202.

    CORRELATION DOES NOT IMPLY CAUSATION PEOPLE! I would have thought that a journalist who's bread and butter is statistics would have been aware of this very basic principle. News outlets need to become more educated and stop allowing this sort of half-baked statistical jiggery-pokery. Employ some journalists with useful degrees like engineering, mathematics and physics perhaps?

  • rate this

    Comment number 201.

    200 Honest-to God
    If your education had been better you might have been able to discuss the topic and not yourself.

  • rate this

    Comment number 200.

    Just mention Oxbridge and it brings out the educational snob in some; looking at some of the entries below would seem to confirm that elitism is alive and well in. No doubt I will be instantly labelled, by some, as an inverted snob/having a chip on shoulder etc. I can only reply in the affirmative; as a former iron child I do have a complex having had the roughest of rough post war education.

  • rate this

    Comment number 199.

    We were\are governed by the so called elite from Oxbridge in this government and the last and look what a mess they have all landed us all in. It's about time practical ability and useful skills counted for more in this country than academic learning, then we might have a chance of earning our living in the world by making things instead of depending on bankers gambling with other peoples money.

  • rate this

    Comment number 198.

    "I was educated at a state school that has recently been classified one of the worst in the country. Both my parents work for the public sector. Life long labour voter. Born and raised in the South Wales Valleys. And to top it off born in March.

    Apparently I should never have gone to Oxbridge. I graduated from Oxford in June."

    Yet can't grasp what it means for a relationship to be STATISTICAL

  • rate this

    Comment number 197.

    Why bother worrying about going to Oxbridge anyway - just look at the "calabre" of graduates they turn out.......

    Gideon Osborne
    Slasher Cameron
    Borris Buffoon
    umpteen senior bankers

    who wants an education that turns you into a complete jibbering idiot incapable of doing...???

  • rate this

    Comment number 196.

    You can indict the Oxbridge admissions process on the basis of these vacuous, self-absorbed comments from some of their alumni.

    It's a trend not an absolute rule & reasonably visible at young primary-ages.

    I blame most of the effect on (stubborn to shift) reification by school's and the kid's themselves. Countries without the problem don't measure & categorise their kids at such tender ages.

  • rate this

    Comment number 195.

    I was educated at a state school that has recently been classified one of the worst in the country. Both my parents work for the public sector. Life long labour voter. Born and raised in the South Wales Valleys. And to top it off born in March.

    Apparently I should never have gone to Oxbridge. I graduated from Oxford in June.

  • rate this

    Comment number 194.

    #184 it is so nice to see that the Guardian's statistical analysis is almost as good as their reputation for spelling accuracy To be fair this was a follow up to an article from David Lammy that got most of its facts wrong and decided, without analysis, that the fact there were few black students at Oxford that meant there was bias without considering such details as how many even applied

  • rate this

    Comment number 193.

    I thought getting a place at Oxbridge was more based on how much money you had in the bank, and whether you could afford to repay your student loan.

  • rate this

    Comment number 192.

    Does anyone know if this seasonal bias holds true for red brick universities in Australia and New Zealand where the birth cut off is 31 December? Does this skew apply for the sub sets: bankers, lawyers, accountants, hospital consultants, ... ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 191.

    Well if the month you are born in really counts for Oxbridge, then this sounds a bit like a perverse form of age discrimination by these select places of learning. But what the heck, looking at some of those who have graduated and made a real mess of things, they can't be all that they are cracked up to be.

  • rate this

    Comment number 190.

    When you look at what an Oxbridge education has done for so many members of the Coaltion Govt. the big mystery is why so many still value an education at these elite establishments?

    They seem, judging by the most prominant alumni we know of, to churn out mindless idiots who cannot think anything through...

    ...then take truly clever people like Brian Cox - they went to places like Machester.

  • rate this

    Comment number 189.

    I suspect the same applies to all "proper" universities.
    The hypothesis suggested by these statistics is that children who start school when they are among the youngest in their class tend to be disadvantaged throughout their educational experience.
    For the great innumerate note I use the word "tend." I am not saying that all be disadvantaged but that they are more likely to be.

  • rate this

    Comment number 188.

    I was born in March - but was put up a year when I was 6, so I was only 17 and a half when I went to Cambridge (to read medicine).

    At interview, the main thing the senior tutor asked about was my age: she really did seem bothered, even though in those days med students didn't meet a patient for the first three years.

    So maybe there really is an age obsession...?!

  • rate this

    Comment number 187.

    To think I'd always thought I didn't get into Oxford because I failed the entrance exam! Now I know the ugly truth - born in Feb, too pleb? This will be yet another worry keeping ambitious parents awake at nights.

  • rate this

    Comment number 186.

    I do wonder at the benefits of an Oxbridge education when I read the comments made by those who have attended. Their reading comprehension leaves a lot to be desired.

    Yes you might have been one of those who are less likely to have been accepted but that doesn't alter the facts.

    A bit like saying that my granny lived to over 90 and smoked, therefore smoking isn't harmful ...

  • rate this

    Comment number 185.

    I suppose I should count myself "lucky" then that I was born in August, and applied to Oxford a year early anyway, got a scholarship, and I was the son of an ordinary farm worker to boot.
    If you're good enough, you get in. If you're not, you don't.

  • rate this

    Comment number 184.

    Damage limitation for media reps at Oxbridge given this story and the one relating to ethnic bias in their selection processes. However I don't really think either university cares about these stats. Nothing changes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 183.

    Is there a sub-set of this research focusing specifically on membership of the Bullingdon Club? If so,this would be scientifically and socially important in influencing the birth-dates of potentially arrogant,patronising clowns in the future; so benefitting society enormously.


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