Choosing Between Oxford and Cambridge

Many prospective UK students who are academically bright and intellectually capable will find themselves choosing between Oxford and Cambridge when it comes to the university application process. 

Sixth-form students aren’t allowed to apply to both Oxford and Cambridge in the same academic cycle (this is to ensure that admissions teams at both universities are able to process individual applications thoroughly and efficiently). 

So, which university should you pick? It’s no secret that both institutions are some of the best and most prestigious in the world, with both appearing in the top five for the 2022 THE global university rankings. 

If you’re struggling when choosing between Oxford and Cambridge, it’s useful to take into account some key similarities and differences between these two ancient institutions. Our guide will break down these factors, before offering some useful advice on the Oxbridge application process.

Choosing Between Oxford and Cambridge: Some Key Similarities

There are many similarities between Oxford and Cambridge. Colloquially, we all tend to view these two universities as being on an equal footing in terms of prestige and quality: we often even mash the two words together to prove this point (“Oxbridge”). 

Here are some of the main similarities between Oxford and Cambridge, many of which differentiate these universities from the rest of the other high-quality institutions in the UK.

  • The collegiate factor. Both Oxford and Cambridge run on a collegiate system, meaning that every incoming undergraduate applies to and lives in one of the many residential colleges in the city. You’ll often find that you’ll meet your new best friends in these colleges, with their social areas, dining rooms, and various student-run events.
  • Tutorials and one-on-one style of learning. Technically, Cambridge students refer to these tutorials as “supervisions,” but this style of teaching and learning is pretty much the same at both Oxford and Cambridge. Each student will have one or two sessions with a specialist academic tutor every single week. You may be one of two or three students with the same tutor, but these intimate chats allow you to explore new ideas and initiate intellectual conversations with an expert in their field.
  • The interview process. Anyone who applies to an Oxbridge college will have to go through a series of academic interviews as part of the rigorous application process. These interviews are designed to test you intellectually and to give you an opportunity to showcase your capacity for dealing with new ideas that challenge your existing viewpoints. 
  • Formal dinners. Students at Oxford and Cambridge have the opportunity to attend so-called “Formal Halls” for a slightly later dinner in any college dining hall. You’ll normally have to book a ticket, and will be expected to dress up in formal attire for the occasion. 
  • Varsity, Blues, and extracurriculars. There are several key sporting traditions that Oxford and Cambridge share. Firstly, the men’s and women’s 1st rugby XV’s play each other in the Varsity Matches at Twickenham every year. Secondly, the world-renowned Boat Race takes place between the main rowing crews from Oxford and Cambridge every summer. Finally, if you’re a varsity athlete and have competed against either Oxford or Cambridge in your sport, you may receive a full Blue: this is an incredible achievement that demonstrates sporting excellence.

Choosing Between Oxford and Cambridge: Some Key Differences 

At first glance, you might think that Oxford and Cambridge are pretty similar institutions, with a host of quirky traditions, well-known collegiate systems, and equal levels of prestige. 

However, there are several key differences between Oxford and Cambridge, including: 

  • The types of degrees available to undergraduate students. While both universities offer some highly similar degrees, like Classics, Law, Medicine, English Literature, Geography, and Maths, there are several specialist courses that you can only find at one or the other of the two institutions. For example, Oxford offers a Fine Art degree, while Cambridge doesn’t. On the flipside, Cambridge offers an excellent Natural Sciences degree that allows undergraduates to explore a range of sciences further before specialising in one subject later on. If you’re applying to Oxford, you’ll have to pick one science as part of the application process. 
  • The location and size of each campus. This is one of the most obvious differences between the two universities. Oxford is home to over 24,000 students during the school year, of which on average 12,000 are undergraduates. Cambridge is slightly smaller with just short of 19,000 students on campus. While this doesn’t seem like a huge difference, Oxford tends to feel like a busier and livelier city than Cambridge, which is more gentrified in the centre. Both universities are similar distances away from London, although Cambridge is a slightly faster route, taking 45 minutes on the fast train compared to Oxford’s 58 minutes. London has excellent transport connections to the rest of the country and into Europe, so being close to the capital has its benefits for all students.
  • The founding origins of each university. There’s evidence of teaching at Oxford that dates back to 1096, which, according to university records throughout history, makes this institution the oldest university in the English-speaking world. Cambridge is the younger of the two universities, having been established in 1209 when Oxford academics quarrelled with locals and moved east to set up the University of Cambridge in protest. 
  • Forms of assessment. Cambridge undergraduates take a series of Parts and Triposes to earn their final university degree. This means that they are assessed at the end of each of their three (or four) years, and each of these assessments plays into the final grade or degree result. By contrast, students at Oxford are assessed primarily on their Finals in their last year at university. 
  • Admissions tests and requirements. While Cambridge interviews around 80% of its applicants, Oxford admissions tutors interview far fewer candidates (between 20 to 40%). That’s because Oxford filters out many of its applicants when they take an admissions test like the TSA or PAT. Cambridge doesn’t tend to give these tests. Also, generally speaking, Cambridge has slightly higher entry requirements when it comes to final-year exam results than Oxford. For example, an average offer for a Cambridge course may be conditional on you achieving an A*AA or A*A*A* at A-level or 40/42 points in the IB. Compare this to the average Oxford conditional offer, which is AAA to A*A*A* or 38/40 points in the IB. 

How to Get into an Oxbridge University: A Quick Summary

After choosing between Oxford and Cambridge, you’ll need to follow these steps to ace the application process. 

  • Submit a UCAS application. UCAS, or the Universities and College Application Service, is the central agency for applying to universities in the UK. You’ll complete and submit your application via the UCAS website. The main difference between standard university applications and an Oxbridge application is that Oxford and Cambridge candidates need to apply a year ahead of the start date. Your UCAS application will contain details of your academic references, your qualifications, and your Personal Statement, and you must submit it by the 15th of October if you’re applying to Oxbridge. For more in-depth info on how to write a strong Personal Statement, check out the Acing the UK Admissions Process section of our site. 
  • Send a copy of your written work, if required. Some courses will require students to carry out written work to submit with their UCAS application. This will vary depending on the subject but you can double-check for any information on the type of written work required on the university’s individual course webpages.
  • Sit an admissions test, depending on the course. These skills tests are timed written exams which are designed to assess students for their ability to analyse and solve tricky questions. They determine how well students can apply their learned knowledge to complex and new situations. You’ll need to register for these tests as part of your UCAS application. 

Choosing Between Oxford and Cambridge: Which University is Better?

In short, there’s no definitive answer to this question. A lot depends on what you’re looking for in a university. Do you want to attend a university in a larger, busier city or a smaller, quieter place? Do you want to take Fine Art or Natural Sciences? Only Oxford and Cambridge offer these courses, respectively. 

If given the opportunity, prospective students and their parents should visit both universities in person. Look around the residential colleges, the departments, the cities, and try to talk to current students and academics to get a real, authentic feel for the place. 

If you want more incisive and in-depth advice on how to strengthen your university application and increase your chances of getting into Oxbridge, get in touch with us at A&J Education to book a free consultation.

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