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Oxford or Cambridge: Which one is right for you?


The UK has long had a reputation for the quality of the education on offer at its top universities, but none more so than Oxford and Cambridge. “Oxbridge” has become a byword for academic prestige, the aspiration for elite students the world over.


What’s so good about Oxbridge? Ancient Collegiate Universities - Oxford and Cambridge have won and maintain their reputations for good reason. Both centuries old, with fascinating traditions and customs, they are collegiate universities, where students reside in Colleges, living cheek-by-jowl with students and tutors of all disciplines. Each College has its own character, some large, others small; some dating from the founding of the Universities, others more modern foundations. Most Colleges offer accommodation for all years of a student’s undergraduate degree: your College will be your home, and students become fiercely loyal and attached. One-to-One teaching from leading academics - The teaching methods differ from most other universities too, with students taught by world class academics in extremely small groups, called tutorials at Oxford and supervisions at Cambridge. Most of these will take place within your College, but lectures are university wide, and your final degree is granted by the University. The Oxbridge tutorial/supervision system is for many applicants the main attraction: to be taught personally by a world expert in your field, your essays and other work read and discussed with the crème de la crème. Short terms, independent learning - Oxbridge terms are notoriously short: only eight weeks in which to cram in a daunting amount of academic work, plus all your extra-curricular activities; (music, sport, debating, charity work), not to mention socialising! Of course, long holidays between terms sounds wonderful, and there will be time for travel and adventure aplenty – however, there is an expectation that you will spend some of your ‘free time’ studying independently and preparing for College exams held at the beginning of each term. There is a reason that the entrance process is so difficult and daunting – not only to select the very best students, but to ensure they will stay a very challenging course. Gruelling application process - In addition to applying early through UCAS – the Oxbridge deadline is October 15th – applicants are required to be available for interview in early December, and for most courses will also need to sit a pre-interview assessment at the beginning of November, and send in examples of work. So, if you’ve decided you’re up for all that, what next? Oxford or Cambridge? Applicants to Oxford and Cambridge apply through UCAS, as for all other UK universities, but can only apply to one of the two ancient universities as part of their five choices per year. So, how to choose which one will be better for you? Geography – Both Universities are situated in the south of England, and neither is much more than an hour from London. Oxford has sometimes been called “a university in a city”, while Cambridge is “a town in a university”: Oxford is the larger, and more industrial city in the Cotswolds, while Cambridge is a small market town in the flat Fenlands to the northeast of London. Both Universities are undeniably beautiful, however, and attract huge numbers of tourists throughout the year. Size - With regard to numbers, Oxford is slightly larger, with 39 Colleges to Cambridge’s 31. Cambridge’s acceptance rate has historically been slightly higher than Oxford’s, and Cambridge invites more applicants to interview, plus a Winter and Summer Pool system, which aims to give the best applicants more chances to be offered a place. Tradition - Both Universities are steeped in tradition, and all Colleges have their fair share of ‘Formal Hall’ dinners several times a term. Most Colleges will also hold a formal ball at least once during your time there. Oxford is just a little more old-fashioned, however: students wear academic dress called ‘subfusc’ (black suits with white shirts and black bow ties for men, white shirts and black skirts or trousers for women), and gowns and mortarboards for official ceremonies and even for exams. Course content - Most important for the potential applicant, however, is to study the content of the course you wish to study. These can differ quite substantially between the Universities. For example:

  • Sciences – At Oxford, it is possible to study the Sciences as individual disciplines – Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Biochemistry, for example. At Cambridge, however, scientists apply for the famous Natural Sciences course, which is the framework by which students begin with a broad base in first year, with a choice between 16 departments, before specialising increasingly from second to third year. This is the course to choose if you’re a science all-rounder, or want the experience of studying a broader range before deciding on your specialism.

  • PPE or HSPS? – Oxford’s famous Philosophy, Politics and Economics course, known as PPE, was designed to be the modern equivalent of the traditional interdisciplinary Classics course, known as ‘Greats’. Popular with budding politicians, Cambridge has no direct equivalent, although Human, Social and Political Sciences can offer a similar even broader experience.

It’s really well worth examining the University websites and Departmental pages to ensure you’ve identified the course which is right for you: you are much more likely to be successful in your application, not to mention enjoy your degree! What’s so good about Oxbridge? Ancient Collegiate Universities - Oxford and Cambridge have won and maintain their reputations for good reason. Both centuries old, with fascinating traditions and customs, they are collegiate universities, where students reside in Colleges, living cheek-by-jowl with students and tutors of all disciplines. Each College has its own character, some large, others small; some dating from the founding of the Universities, others more modern foundations. Most Colleges offer accommodation for all years of a student’s undergraduate degree: your College will be your home, and students become fiercely loyal and attached. One-to-One teaching from leading academics - The teaching methods differ from most other universities too, with students taught by world class academics in extremely small groups, called tutorials at Oxford and supervisions at Cambridge. Most of these will take place within your College, but lectures are university wide, and your final degree is granted by the University. The Oxbridge tutorial/supervision system is for many applicants the main attraction: to be taught personally by a world expert in your field, your essays and other work read and discussed with the crème de la crème. Short terms, independent learning - Oxbridge terms are notoriously short: only eight weeks in which to cram in a daunting amount of academic work, plus all your extra-curricular activities; (music, sport, debating, charity work), not to mention socialising! Of course, long holidays between terms sounds wonderful, and there will be time for travel and adventure aplenty – however, there is an expectation that you will spend some of your ‘free time’ studying independently and preparing for College exams held at the beginning of each term. There is a reason that the entrance process is so difficult and daunting – not only to select the very best students, but to ensure they will stay a very challenging course. Gruelling application process - In addition to applying early through UCAS – the Oxbridge deadline is October 15th – applicants are required to be available for interview in early December, and for most courses will also need to sit a pre-interview assessment at the beginning of November, and send in examples of work. So, if you’ve decided you’re up for all that, what next? Oxford or Cambridge? Applicants to Oxford and Cambridge apply through UCAS, as for all other UK universities, but can only apply to one of the two ancient universities as part of their five choices per year. So, how to choose which one will be better for you? Geography – Both Universities are situated in the south of England, and neither is much more than an hour from London. Oxford has sometimes been called “a university in a city”, while Cambridge is “a town in a university”: Oxford is the larger, and more industrial city in the Cotswolds, while Cambridge is a small market town in the flat Fenlands to the northeast of London. Both Universities are undeniably beautiful, however, and attract huge numbers of tourists throughout the year. Size - With regard to numbers, Oxford is slightly larger, with 39 Colleges to Cambridge’s 31. Cambridge’s acceptance rate has historically been slightly higher than Oxford’s, and Cambridge invites more applicants to interview, plus a Winter and Summer Pool system, which aims to give the best applicants more chances to be offered a place. Tradition - Both Universities are steeped in tradition, and all Colleges have their fair share of ‘Formal Hall’ dinners several times a term. Most Colleges will also hold a formal ball at least once during your time there. Oxford is just a little more old-fashioned, however: students wear academic dress called ‘subfusc’ (black suits with white shirts and black bow ties for men, white shirts and black skirts or trousers for women), and gowns and mortarboards for official ceremonies and even for exams. Course content - Most important for the potential applicant, however, is to study the content of the course you wish to study. These can differ quite substantially between the Universities. For example:

  • Sciences – At Oxford, it is possible to study the Sciences as individual disciplines – Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Biochemistry, for example. At Cambridge, however, scientists apply for the famous Natural Sciences course, which is the framework by which students begin with a broad base in first year, with a choice between 16 departments, before specialising increasingly from second to third year. This is the course to choose if you’re a science all-rounder, or want the experience of studying a broader range before deciding on your specialism.

  • PPE or HSPS? – Oxford’s famous Philosophy, Politics and Economics course, known as PPE, was designed to be the modern equivalent of the traditional interdisciplinary Classics course, known as ‘Greats’. Popular with budding politicians, Cambridge has no direct equivalent, although Human, Social and Political Sciences can offer a similar even broader experience.

It’s really well worth examining the University websites and Departmental pages to ensure you’ve identified the course which is right for you: you are much more likely to be successful in your application, not to mention enjoy your degree!

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