Harvard vs. Oxbridge: Which University Should You Pick?

The Ivy League and Oxbridge. Harvard, Cambridge, and Oxford. If you think of the top universities globally, these are the names that immediately spring to mind. They regularly rank in the top five universities worldwide when it comes to the league tables, and all three institutions offer an excellent education. So, who wins in the Harvard vs. Oxbridge debate?

There are numerous and substantive differences between Harvard and the top UK universities. 

In this article, we’ll look at some of these key differences, from history and culture to the admissions process and style of education you receive. 

Harvard vs. Oxbridge: Ranking

The difference in global rankings is a relatively superficial one: when it comes to worldwide prestige and quality of research output, there is very little separating Harvard, Oxford, and Cambridge. 

The QS World University Rankings for 2022 have Oxford at second, Cambridge in joint third place and Harvard coming in at fifth. By contrast, the Times Higher Education Rankings puts Oxford in the first position, with Harvard in joint second and Cambridge in joint fifth. The CWUR 2021-2022 Edition puts Harvard at first, with Cambridge at fourth, and Oxford at fifth. 

As you can see, all three colleges are consistently ranked amongst the best of the best globally because of their teaching quality, research output, and international outlook. 


All three universities have an incredibly impressive list of alumni. Harvard has a host of alumni that includes Barack Obama, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Matt Damon, Natalie Portman, and Bill Gates (although he dropped out after his sophomore year). 

Key cultural figures like John Milton, Charles Darwin, Sir David Attenborough, and three of the Monty Python members went to Cambridge. Oxford has produced a number of world leaders, from Indira Gandhi and Imran Khan to Clement Attlee, Harold Macmillan, and David Cameron. 

Whichever university you choose, you will be retracing the steps taken by many of the brightest and most iconic leaders in their field. If there is a certain figure whose success you wish to emulate, you might wish to attend the same institution they did. Otherwise, you can rest assured in the knowledge that a degree from Oxford, Cambridge, or Harvard will help you get where you plan to go in life.

Harvard vs. Oxbridge: History and Traditions

Here is where the differences between the UK and US universities become more apparent. Though Harvard is the oldest university in America, established in 1636, both Cambridge and Oxford predate it by centuries. 

Cambridge was founded in 1209, while Oxford academics began teaching at the beginning of the 11th Century. 

To some prospective students, that extra five centuries of history really matters. Other people will care much more about the aesthetic of buildings at each university. Traditional Oxbridge colleges have a similar look to each other: many of the older Oxford buildings are built with gorgeous Headington stone, while the Cambridge colleges are made up of materials like limestone, white stone, and Ashlar stone. 

By contrast, many of Harvard’s most iconic buildings are made up of red bricks, while some were built in the Georgian style of architecture. Walking around Harvard Yard, you’ll find that it has a very different feel to it than you’d find in the quad of any old Oxbridge college. 

Both Harvard and Oxbridge have a large number of traditions. Here’s a quick list of some of the main yearly practices at the universities: 


  • Housing Day: this is when upperclassmen from each of the twelve residential houses storm the freshmen’s dorms and tell the first-years which house they’re going to live in from sophomore year onwards. 
  • Harvard vs. Yale football game: this takes place on the weekend before Thanksgiving, and is the biggest sporting event in the Harvard academic calendar.
  • Yardfest: this is an open-air concert held in Harvard Yard every Spring.
  • Head of the Charles Regatta: this happens every Fall semester, and is one of the biggest college rowing regattas in the States.


  • The Boat Race: this is the world-renowned annual rowing race between an assortment of Oxford and Cambridge rowing crews. 
  • Formal Halls: colleges host Formal Halls on several nights of the week, allowing you to dress up in formal wear and gown and enjoy a three-course meal. 
  • The Varsity Game: this is the famous spectacle that’s played at Twickenham every year between the Oxford and Cambridge men’s and women’s rugby teams.


The cost of attending either Harvard or Oxbridge is really dependent on your circumstances. 

If you don’t receive any Financial Aid, you’ll have to pay upwards of $50,000 per year for tuition fees at Harvard. However, Harvard has an astonishing endowment which means it can afford to offer Financial Aid to anyone who requires this type of help.

The college has an excellent and groundbreaking record of meeting 100% of the demonstrated financial need of its offer-holders. The admissions process is also need-blind, which means your financial need will not negatively affect your application to Harvard.

Harvard’s Financial Aid programme is one of the most impressive in the world: if the admissions tutors believe you’re the right fit for the university, the college will match whatever financial needs you have. 

Course fees for Oxford and Cambridge are £9,250 per year for three years of study. If you are an overseas student, tuition ranges from £22,000 to £39,000, depending on the course. If you’re applying for Medical and Veterinary Science at Cambridge, you may need to pay £58,000 per year.

If you are a British student, you should be able to take out a loan to help cover the costs of your tuition. This is something that’s worth checking with your college before you commit to an education you can’t afford.

Harvard vs. Oxbridge: Admissions Process

There are several key differences between how you apply to Harvard and how you apply to either Oxford or Cambridge. 

Firstly, the admissions portal itself is different. In the UK, you apply through a centralised system called UCAS. You can apply for up to five courses at five separate universities through UCAS, and each of these universities will receive exactly the same information.

You cannot tailor your application to a particular university, although you will fill out an SAQ form for Cambridge applications. You also cannot apply to both Oxford and Cambridge in the same cycle.

There are two UCAS deadlines. If you are applying to either Oxford or Cambridge or intend to study Medicine, Dentistry, or Veterinary Science you must apply by October 15th. 

If you have applied to either Oxford or Cambridge, you may need to sit one of their subject-specific entrance tests. You’ll need to take the BMAT if you’re applying for Medicine, or the ELAT if you’re applying for English at either of these two universities. 

Depending on the subject, you might also need to submit additional work such as essays you have produced in the course of your studies. After this process, the admissions tutors will review your application, and may invite you to an interview.

Interviews are usually held early to mid-December and you will hear whether you have been offered a place in mid-January.

If you’re applying to Harvard, you’ll likely do it via the Common App. This centralised portal allows you to send your admissions essay, references, and basic information to up to twenty separate colleges at once. However, many colleges will also have additional written requirements or essay prompts: this allows you to tailor your application depending on which university you’re applying to. 

When it comes to the US application process, there are also two deadlines to remember. The deadline for Restrictive Early Action is November 1st, and the deadline for Regular Decision is January 1st

Once you have sent your application to Harvard via the Common or Coalition App, there are further steps to your application. You will be required to send an update of your transcript and you will likely be contacted by an interviewer. Unlike with Oxbridge, these are most often alumni rather than current teaching staff.

The process is far more informal when it comes to Harvard interviews: you’ll get lunch or coffee with a former alumnus and chat about your passions, discuss current events, and have an interesting, insightful, and energising conversation. 

Harvard vs. Oxbridge: What Type of Candidate Do They Want?

Though all three institutions want the best and the brightest students, Oxbridge tutors prioritise different qualities from their Harvard counterparts when making a decision of whom to admit. 

UK universities are very academic-orientated. They care most about your intellectual potential and your passion for a particular subject. They’ll only really value your extracurriculars if these are directly relevant to your subject. In the majority of cases, Oxbridge offers are conditional on you achieving the very best results in your final year exams. 

By comparison, Harvard takes a far more holistic view when it comes to the admissions process. The admissions team cares a lot about your involvement in community and charity work, sport, or music. They want to know more about you as a rounded, characterful individual who can bring something unique to the college community.

Your academic talent is still extremely important, however. You will not get into Harvard unless you have an impressive SAT score and a strong school transcript. 

If you want more advice on building a strong application for top US universities, check out the Building a Successful Application section of the A&J Education website. 

Type of Education

Whilst both Harvard and Oxbridge offer an excellent education, the type you receive is significantly different. 

When it comes to your academic subject or degree, Oxford and Cambridge want you to specialise early. You choose a course to study during the application process, and you spend three or four years learning this subject inside out. 

By comparison, Harvard encourages a broader range of study through its liberal arts curriculum. A liberal arts education allows you to explore a range of academic subjects before specialising later on during your degree. 

Harvard vs. Oxbridge: Making a Decision

When deciding between Harvard and Oxbridge, try not to focus too much on factors like the number of Nobel Prize winners or the university’s world ranking. These facts will have very little to do with your experience studying there. 

It is important to think deeply about what type of student you are, and what you want from your time at university. 

Be sure to do your research. If you are unable to visit the universities, explore the university’s website and reach out to former and current students to hear about their experiences.

If you want more in-depth advice, A&J Education has a wealth of resources on our website, YouTube channel, and Instagram account.

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