Harvard vs the Top UK Universities

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. All three offer an excellent education, however, there are numerous and substantive differences between Harvard and the top UK universities. Some of these differences such as position on a league table are not actually that important. However, others such as the application process and the type of education you receive are crucial to how happy and how successful you will be studying there.


You may be wondering which is the best of the three. According to the 2019 Times Higher Education Rankings, Oxford comes in first, Cambridge second and Harvard sixth amongst the world’s universities. However, the QS World Rankings for the same year place Harvard 3rd, Oxford 5th, and Cambridge 6th. Where each institution places in global rankings changes each year and depends on the league table. So, do not put too much emphasis on which one is the very best school as all three are consistently amongst the world’s top universities because of their teaching, research, and international outlook. Your experience at these universities has very little to do with it is number one or number three on a league table.


All three have an impressive list of alumni. From Nobel Prize winners to famous novelists to Olympians. Out of US universities, it is Harvard that has produced the most world leaders. In the UK, it is Oxford. Don’t discount Cambridge though, it has produced almost twice as many Nobel Prize Laureates. Whichever you choose, you will be retracing steps taken by many 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, be assured that a degree from Oxford, Cambridge or Harvard will help you get where you plan to go in life.

History and Traditions

Here is where the differences become more apparent. Though Harvard is the oldest university in America, established in 1636, both Cambridge and Oxford predate it by centuries. There is evidence of teaching from as early as 1096 for Oxford and Cambridge was founded in 1209. To some, that extra five centuries of history is important. If your interest is history, for instance, living and studying at a university that has played a pivotal role in British and even World history is exciting.

Both Harvard and Oxbridge have a host of traditions. At Harvard, you can experience the American College experience such as attending football games. At Oxford and Cambridge, you have the chance to attend formal hall – a formal dinner in a medieval hall where gowns are worn. Which of these sounds more interesting to you?


The cost of attending either Harvard or Oxbridge is really dependent on your circumstances. The cost for one year of tuition at Harvard is $46,340. For UK, EU or Islands students, a year of undergraduate study is £9,250 at either Oxford or Cambridge. If you are an overseas student, tuition ranges from £24,750 to £34,678. These are just the ‘sticker-label’ fees. It is more than likely this is not what you will actually pay. Harvard guarantees need-based financial aid for all students that need it. So, you will only be charged what the school believes you can afford. If you are a UK student, the government offers loans – regardless of family circumstance – to cover the cost of tuition. Bursaries and scholarships are available, but you will probably have to go hunting for ones you are eligible for. My advice, do not be put off by the initial cost – do some research into what you will actually pay.

Admissions Process

There are several key differences in how you apply to Harvard and how you apply to either Oxford or Cambridge. First, the admissions portal. In the UK you apply through a centralised system called UCAS. You can apply for up to five courses through UCAS, crucially all universities will receive exactly the same information. You cannot tailor your application to a particular university. 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. To apply to Harvard, again there is a centralised system – you can choose to apply through either the Common Application or the Coalition Application. There are also two deadlines to take note of; the deadline for Restrictive Early Action is November 1st, Regular Decision is January 1st. The Common App and the Core Essay go to all schools you apply to, however, Harvard also has additional writing supplements where you can demonstrate why you are suited to Harvard specifically.

If you have applied to either Oxford or Cambridge, you will likely need to sit one of their subject-specific entrance tests. For instance, the BMAT for medicine, or Oxford’s history admissions test, the HAT. Depending on the subject, you might also be required to submit additional work such as essays you have produced in the course of your studies. After this, your application will be reviewed and you might be invited to interviews. Interviews are usually held early to mid-December and you will hear whether you have been offered a place in mid-January.

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.

What type of candidate do they want?

Though all three institutions want the best and the brightest, they prioritise different qualities when making a decision of who to admit. UK universities are very academic orientated. They care about your intellectual potential and your passion for a particular subject. Extracurriculars are valued, but only when they are relevant to your subject. Do not talk about your prowess on the slopes unless there is a reasonable link to your chosen subject. In comparison, Harvard takes a more holistic view and your involvement in community and charity work, sport or music and so on is a key factor in choosing to grant you a place. Academics are still extremely important, however. You will not get into Harvard unless you have impressive SATs and a strong school transcript.

Type of Education

Whilst both Harvard and Oxbridge offer excellent education, the type you receive is significantly different. Oxford and Cambridge want you to specialise early. You choose a subject to study and you spend three or four years learning it inside out. In comparison, Harvard encourages a broader range of study through its liberal arts curriculum. Have a think about what sort of student you are. Do you want the variety offered by the US, or is the thought of studying anything other than your chosen topic shudder-inducing?

Making a decision

When deciding between Harvard and Oxbridge you should not view as a competition of which one is better where you compare the number of Nobel Prize winners or the university’s endowment. 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. So be sure to do your research, if you are unable to visit the universities, explore the university’s website. A&J Education have a wealth of resources on our website, YouTube channel and Instagram account. Take a look and best of luck in your applications.