Oxford vs. Cambridge. Two universities renowned for being world-leading institutions of learning, but which is better?
At face value, Oxford and Cambridge are similar institutions: both are world-famous, both are super old, and both are competitive to get into.
However, the intricacies of student life and the similarities and differences between the two giants of academia are lesser-known.
Since it is not possible to apply to both Oxford and Cambridge in the same year, Lizzy, a former student, teacher and resident of Cambridge, explains what the teaching is like, the application requirements, stereotypes and much much more to help you make your decision.
Let’s get started with how Oxford and Cambridge perform in the world rankings.
Oxbridge World Rankings
World University Rankings
In terms of university world rankings, historically, Oxford and Cambridge have been fairly neck and neck.
Here are The Times University Rankings for 2023:
World Subject Rankings
Oxford and Cambridge are also world-leading in a range of fields. Using QS World University Rankings data, we can see how the universities perform across different subjects:
Rankings will, of course, differ between other tables and this is shown in the 2023 QS World University Rankings which have placed Cambridge in 2nd overall and Oxford in 4th after Stanford University.
It is important to remember that, on this global ranking level, the differences between Oxford and Cambridge are marginal; they both have seemingly permanent spots in the global top 10s and are firmly established among the world’s academic elite as well as in the minds of employers.
Indeed, the Oxbridge brand name is powerful; for example, Cambridge was considered second in the world by employers and Oxford third in the QS World University Rankings. So if you want to study somewhere with a solid international reputation, an Oxbridge degree is difficult to beat.
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Oxford vs Cambridge, which is more competitive?
How Competitive is Oxford?
In 2021, the offer rate was 14%, which is very low when you consider that 86% of applicants did not receive an offer.
How Competitive is Cambridge?
In 2021, the offer rate for Cambridge was just over 18%, which is very competitive when you consider that 82% of applicants did not receive an offer (nearly 19,000 applicants out of 23,140).
In 2021, the Oxford offer rate was 14% and just over 18% for Cambridge, so Oxford is currently more competitive, but that gap is closing. This can mostly be attributed to Cambridge’s faster growth in places, as Cambridge has grown by around 1,000 places a year in the past decade, while Oxford has added barely 100.
As neither university has meaningfully increased the number of places available, offer rates at both universities have fallen by around 5 percentage points. Compared with a decade ago, it is now around 30% more difficult to get into Oxbridge. Of course, it really depends on the course you’re applying to, our guide on Oxbridge Competitiveness breaks this down for you.
Oxford and Cambridge Teaching Styles
Despite their differences, Oxford and Cambridge are very similar in terms of student numbers and the type of education students receive.
The staff: student ratio is about 1:11 at both Oxford and Cambridge (10.5 at Oxford and 11 at Cambridge). Such a high number of staff is a testament to their commitment to quality teaching.
Whilst terms are relatively short (8 weeks) compared to other universities (which tend to have 10-14 week terms), they are busy! Expect a packed Monday to Saturday with a combination of lectures, practical/laboratory classes, and small personalised teaching sessions called ‘supervisions’ (Cambridge) or ‘tutorials’ (Oxford).
Oxford Tutorials & Cambridge Supervisions
Supervisions and tutorials are usually hour-long sessions, delivered up to four times per week in groups of 2-3 students. They are designed to extend students’ understanding above and beyond what is possible from lectures alone.
You will be challenged to think critically and produce thoughtful, analytical, evidence-based arguments with the help of experts in their field. A balance between intimidating and exhilarating, this style of teaching makes Oxbridge unique and its graduates so sought-after by employers.
In a typical session, you will be asked questions related to lecture content and reading from the previous week and to produce material ahead of time for discussion. This could be an essay or answers to a set of problems or even just to have completed a certain amount of reading. Either way, deadlines are tight so it is important to be organised.
Two current Oxbridge Students (Brendan and Pierre) have created guides for you on what tutorials and supervisions are really like. Check them out below:
At the end of each University year, you will sit a series of formal exams (how many depends on whether you are at Oxford or Cambridge, on your course, and on your year of study) which are used as the ultimate markers of your progress. At both Oxford and Cambridge, your degree result is heavily reliant on your final year exams (although in some courses you will also do coursework, and a component of your second year may count).
What are the Oxbridge entry requirements?
UCAS has an early deadline for those applying to Oxford and Cambridge: mid-October (usually the 15th of October) as opposed to mid-January for non-Oxbridge and non-medical courses. Aside from applying on UCAS, there are a number of different requirements that make up an Oxford and Cambridge application:
Oxbridge Personal Statement
The Personal Statement is important for standing out from the crowd and showing your potential. Therefore, make sure you dedicate time to it.
The qualities Oxford and Cambridge Admissions Tutors look for are a passion for your subject, as well as evidence you’ve gone above and beyond to pursue this passion; think work experience, extra reading and independent projects. This demonstrates commitment and your ability to work independently. Some Oxbridge courses will provide a few key personal characteristics, on their websites, that show suitability, such as on Oxford’s Medicine Website.
For more information, on what Oxford and Cambridge look for in the students and how to stand out from the pack, read through our guide on ‘How To Write An Oxbridge Personal Statement‘.
Oxbridge applicants generally have some of the best grades in the country and internationally. Let’s look at an example of a course and the standard of the applicants applying for it.
Using A-levels as an example, in the Oxford Medicine 2019 cycle:
Of course, A-levels are just one part of the application process, but they are a good indicator of the standard of students applying to Oxbridge.
Typical Oxford Offers
Conditional offers for Oxford range between A*A*A and AAA (depending on the subject) at A Level or 38–40 in the IB, including core points. Certain grades may be required at Higher Level.
Typical Cambridge Offers
The typical A Level offer for Cambridge is A*A*A for most Science courses and A*AA for Arts courses, or 40–42 in the IB, including core points, with 776 at Higher Level.
There may also be specific subject requirements for certain courses, especially in the sciences and, at Cambridge, subject requirements may vary from one college to another.
Oxbridge Admissions Tests
Cambridge Interviews around 80% of their undergraduate applicants. Oxford Interviews considerably less, ranging from 20% to 40%. This is one of the key differences between applying to Oxford and Cambridge.
These Interviews are conducted in December and are the final stage of applying to Oxbridge. They can be intimidating: essentially, you sit with a couple of experts in their field and are asked tricky questions that A-level knowledge alone will only get you so far in answering.
These Interviews are designed to challenge you to think and apply your knowledge and skills to unfamiliar problems, to see how you cope with this situation and how teachable you are.
We outline the differences between the Oxford and Cambridge Interviews in our helpful guide such as the winter pool system, what the Admissions Tutors are looking for and how to approach questions.
When you submit your application, you may be required to complete one or more additional forms. For example, Cambridge requires every undergraduate student to complete an SAQ (Supplementary Application Questionnaire) shortly after submitting their UCAS application. If you are applying from outside the EU, for Graduate Medicine, or for an Organ Scholarship, you may also need to complete the Cambridge Online Preliminary Application (COPA). Oxford rarely requires you to complete any extra forms.
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Oxford and Cambridge University Courses
When you are looking at Oxford vs Cambridge, the differences are really showcased in the courses.
What does Oxford or Cambridge specialise in?
Perhaps one of the most prestigious degrees in the country, Oxford’s PPE course (Politics, Philosophy and Economics) attracts those with political ambitions – and many leading politicians studied this at Oxford.
In contrast, Cambridge has a unique Natural Sciences degree, a three-year course in which students begin by taking a handful of science subjects (almost like an extension of A-level where you take different subjects) before narrowing down and specialising in their later years. This contrasts with Oxford’s way of teaching science; students select from the outset which science they wish to specialise in (Biology, Chemistry, Physics…) and do a three (or four) year degree in that field.
Oxford and Cambridge both offer a variety of traditional subjects, including Geography, History, Mathematics, Medicine, English, Classics, Linguistics, Law and Engineering. However, there are some degrees that Oxford offer and Cambridge do not offer and vice versa. For example, Cambridge is the only one of the two with Architecture and Veterinary Medicine courses, whilst Oxford uniquely offers Art and Design.
Oxford vs Cambridge - Which is better for science?
Sciences at Oxford and Cambridge are very different.
At Oxford, science courses are taught similarly to other universities such that individual subjects are taught as separate degrees. Whilst it is possible to study for a joint or multidisciplinary degree such as Biomedical Sciences, Biochemistry, Mathematics and Computer Science, it is important to understand that these are all separate entities.
At Cambridge, you take Natural Sciences which is similar to A-Level “Triple Science” where you would be taught a wide variety of subjects without any major specialism for the first year, although you would choose three Science subjects and one Mathematics subject.
Single courses vs. multiple courses
For students who are certain which science they wish to study at university, Oxford would make a far more obvious choice as students will begin studying their chosen subject from day one. This is advantageous over the Cambridge Natural Sciences system as it allows students to immerse themselves fully into a single subject, and explore all its complexities.
However, for students who would like flexibility and the option to try subjects before committing, the Natural Sciences system is by far the best choice. Students in this system are given complete control of their subject choices from the first day, ideal for students who wish to take charge of their learning from the beginning. This can be quite intimidating for some.
3 or 4 year degrees
For the majority of science degrees at Oxford, it is the norm for students to complete 4-year undergraduate degrees and to leave with a Master’s qualification.
Some courses, for example, Chemistry, are only offered as 4-year degrees whereby students may only leave after 3 years in exceptional circumstances after withdrawing from the university. Many other sciences have options to graduate after 3 years, however, the overwhelming majority of students choose to continue to the fourth year. The general requirement to progress to the fourth year is the achievement of a grade 2.2 at the end of the third year.
This is not the case at Cambridge, where the majority of Natural Sciences students graduate after three years, and where progression to the fourth year is different per academic department.
At Oxford, the final degree classification awarded is dependent on the course studied, for example, 4-year undergraduate programs in Physics lead to an MPhys, Earth Sciences to MEarthSci, etc. This is not the case at Cambridge, where students may leave with a Bachelors degree after three years or continue for an MSc Master’s degree.
Which is the better choice?
The right choice between Oxford’s system of single sciences, versus the Cambridge system of Natural Sciences, depends on your personality. Use the summer to fully explore courses at both universities in detail, and make a judgement based on your interests and what is available to you at each university.
Oxford vs Cambridge - Which is better for Medicine?
Many students wonder about what the specific differences between the Medicine A100 course at Oxford and Cambridge are like, so this section covers this.
Rather than bore you with pages and pages of information, here’s a quick comparison:
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Oxbridge Tuition fees and financial support
Oxford and Cambridge charge different tuition fees depending on students’ nationalities. Here’s a quick table to summarise the information:
|UK||£9,250||£9,250||£8,844 – £80,000||£8,290 – £63,000+|
|International||£22,227 – £58,038||£28,370 – £35,380||£25,758 – £80,000||£27,460 – £63,000+|
The tuition fee changes after the 1st of August 2021 are significant for EU applicants. We recommend you read our article that outlines the changes to international tuition fees for UK universities.
Are Oxford and Cambridge more expensive than other universities?
It’s important to note that many applicants are under the impression that Oxford or Cambridge cost more to go to than other universities. For applicants who live in the UK, this is actually the opposite since the terms are 8 weeks long, compared to a normal 10-14 week term at another university. Oxbridge students only pay accommodation fees for term time. However, this does have the inconvenience of Oxbridge students having to “move in” and “move out” of your college more frequently throughout the year, hence being inconvenient for non-UK residents.
Oxbridge Funding and Scholarships
The cost of attending Oxbridge adds up and so for many students, some form of financial support is needed. Tuition fee loans from the UK government are available for UK students, taking massive amounts of pressure off from the get-go. Read on for more information on financial support with Oxford applications. Oxbridge Universities offer a wide range of scholarships and grants for both domestic and overseas students, details of which can be found on Oxford and Cambridge’s main websites.
What is the Oxford and Cambridge collegiate structure?
The Oxbridge College System
Every Oxford and Cambridge student belongs to the university, their department and one of the 30+ colleges. Subject-specific departments are responsible for course content, core teaching, exams and awarding degrees, which means students get the same degree whichever college they go to. However, their college is a student’s home. Essentially, it is the place where they eat, sleep and do the majority of their socialising.
Colleges are responsible for admitting undergraduates, and students can indicate if they have a college of preference in their UCAS application. If you do not have a college preference, you can instead select an ‘open’ application and it will be allocated to a college that has relatively fewer applications for their course in that year. Once you have submitted your UCAS application, however, you will be committed to your choice of college. Looking for more information on how to choose the right Oxford College or Cambridge College? We have the perfect guides for you.
It is important to note that, whilst all Oxford Colleges are now co-ed, Cambridge still has a few colleges exclusively for women. Similarly, Oxford and Cambridge both have a handful of ‘mature student’ colleges – those which only accept students over the age of 21.
Oxford and Cambridge - which is the better city?
The biggest difference between Oxford and Cambridge is that Oxford feels bigger – more like a city that has a university, whereas Cambridge is more like a large campus that happens to also be a city. This gives the two universities very different atmospheres. What unites both locations, however, is the air of excitement, learning and possibility – something which enchants any Oxbridge student.
Views around Oxford
Views around Cambridge
Both Oxford and Cambridge are conveniently located about 60 miles (or an hour away by train) from London. Train travel is perhaps the most convenient and reliable form of transport in and out of the cities; cars are strongly discouraged due to inconvenient one way systems and non-existent parking.
Traveling around the cities
Travelling around the cities themselves is best done via bike or foot. Cambridge is more compact than Oxford and the roads less congested; this means cycling is more enjoyable and walking everywhere is much easier. However, Oxford does have a fantastic bus system, making getting from A to B simple.
This is essential, as teaching locations are spread across the city. For some courses, classes might be in one place, but this may be far from your College.
Which city is prettier?
Oxford, being that much bigger than Cambridge, is generally considered to be a bit livelier, and Cambridge prettier. Let’s be honest though: both are gorgeous places to be and both have a selection of great places to hang out. If you like pubs, The Eagle in Cambridge is famous for being where Watson and Crick came up with their theory for the structure of DNA, and the Lamb and Flag in Oxford was frequented by C.S Lewis, who wrote the Chronicles of Narnia.
Both cities have nightclubs offering a selection of music styles and vibes, with student nights pretty much every day of the week. The ‘town vs gown’ issue is not huge, but sometimes places just get super busy and tensions can bubble after a few drinks. Many Colleges hold ‘bops’ (AKA parties) within their own walls for students (both members of the college and members of other colleges). These are often themed (think St Patrick’s Day, Rubik Cube, Neon…) and are great ways to meet new people.
Oxford vs Cambridge - Famous Alumni
Both universities have had a plethora of notable students throughout their centuries-long histories, many of whom are now honoured within the campuses themselves. From science to entertainment, this is just a handful of people who once walked the same streets as current Oxbridge students:
Famous Oxford Alumni
Politics & History
Famous Cambridge Alumni
Politics & History
Oxford vs Cambridge - Extra-curricular activities
Have a hobby other than sport? Oxbridge will probably cater for it; there are literally 100s of societies and clubs from politics to painting, from wine to watching movies. These all come together at the annual ‘Fresher’s Fair’ a great chance for new students to join societies. Each has a stall with lots of eager current members ready to give you more info and help you decide what new and current hobbies you want to pursue during your spare time.
If you are feeling intellectual one evening, check out what is on at the Oxford or Cambridge Union; these host regular talks by political figures, TV personalities, famous scientists, and more. Past speakers include Pamela Anderson, Stephen Fry and Sir Ben Kingsley! The Oxford and Cambridge Unions also hold weekly debates, which are exciting to watch and/or participate in.
Oxford vs Cambridge - Employability
Let’s be real: one of the biggest life-long perks of attending Oxbridge is that your CV is going towards the top of the pile for whatever internship or job you apply for.
While this may sound unfair or like an exaggeration, an Oxbridge education is second to none; the intense way you study means not only are you incredibly knowledgeable in your field by the time you graduate, but you also have a suite of transferable skills that employers are hungry for. You are organised, determined, driven, analytical, meticulous, and articulate. This really opens doors for your future career and studies.
Many graduates go on to study for their Masters or PhD and pursue work in academia. Others, however, may change direction completely; for example, I know plenty of NatSci (Natural Science) graduates that now work in finance. While you may choose to stay in Oxford or Cambridge post-graduation (for example, many science and engineering firms choose to base themselves near Cambridge), the world is brimming with opportunities for Oxbridge graduates.
Oxford and Cambridge Stereotypes
Oxbridge holds a unique place in many people’s imaginations. Countless appearances in novels, films and TV programmes combined with hundreds of years of reputation as the best of the best in education, means there are some popular (albeit often false) stereotypes about its students.
To the wider world, Oxbridge students are generally perceived to be extremely posh and privileged. Although it is certainly a massive privilege to study here, Oxford and Cambridge seek to attract the best and brightest students regardless of background. Some may have come from private education, others may be state educated; it is a fairly even split.
Oxbridge students are also reputed to be massive nerds with no social skills. Again; this is partly true. Anyone who studies at Oxford and Cambridge by default will enjoy learning to some extent. However, the philosophy, ‘work hard, play hard’ comes to mind. It is essential to get that balance between studying hard and taking time out, and luckily most Oxbridge students recognise this.
Those from outside Oxbridge also do not realise that stereotypes exist within the universities, between members from different colleges.
- Members of Merton College, Oxford and Trinity College, Cambridge, are generally reputed to be the ‘nerds’ (yes that right, even at Oxbridge you get a group singled out as the smart ones).
- Meanwhile, Kings College, Cambridge is famous for its communist flag in its college bar.
- Wadham College, Oxford is known for being particularly LGBTQ+ friendly, and St John’s College is known as the one with loads of people from private schools.
These stereotypes are harmless, not universally the case, and used only for banter on nights out and during inter-collegiate sports matches.
Oxford vs Cambridge for Specific Subjects
If you are looking for a more direct comparison between Oxford and Cambridge for specific subjects, then we have a selection of guides that explore the differences in teaching and facilities between Oxford and Cambridge. Read through them below to help you decide on which university would suit your needs best:
We have a series of guides available analysing the university rankings for various subjects, have a read through them below:
Oxford vs Cambridge - The rivalry
A healthy rivalry exists between Oxford and Cambridge; they are, after all, considered the best, and are the two oldest universities in the UK. In fact, Cambridge was set up after a fight in Oxford forced scholars to flee in 1209. Oxford has always been viewed as a city of institution and order, and Cambridge the rebel.
Oxford students call Cambridge students ‘Tabs’, a derogatory term derived from ‘Cantab’ (the abbreviated Latin word for Cambridge) and varsity sports matches (those between Oxford and Cambridge) are always filled with emotion and pride, the most famous meet being the annual Oxford/Cambridge boat race on the Thames in London.
All that matters, in the end, is the question: ‘light blues’ (Cambridge) or ‘dark blues’ (Oxford)?
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