Oxford or Cambridge?

Tough question. If you think you’ve got the brains (and the grades) to apply to Oxford and Cambridge, then you’ll be dismayed to find out you can only apply to one. That’s right, you’re going to have to stick your neck on the line and take a punt at one or the other.

On paper, Oxford and Cambridge seem like pretty similar places: they have the same collegiate system, the same teaching methods, the same level of prestige, and the same frankly embarrassing, middle-aged slang: “Shall we go to the bop tonight?” But despite often being conjoined in the Glee-style ‘mash-up’ term “Oxbridge”, they do have their differences.

So how do you decide which one to go to? Oxford or Cambridge? Here are some pointers:

The course…

Forget the dreamy spires of Oxford and the beautiful green spaces of Cambridge for a minute, and get cold and clinical as you dissect the degree courses. This should really be your first concern!

Oxford and Cambridge don’t have identical courses. Whilst there is plenty of overlap, there are some courses you can’t do at both; for instance, you can only study PPE (Politics, Philosophy and Economics) at Oxford. You can also read joint courses at Oxford, but you can’t do them at Cambridge.

Science is another major area of difference. At Cambridge you apply to the natural science tripos (alternatively known as NatSci), which allows you to choose a range of scientific courses, instead of committing to a single science course. In comparison, Oxford follows the rest of the country by offering single-subject science courses.

Not only this, but in similar courses offered by both universities, there will be some key differences. For example, in the English undergraduate course at Oxford, studying Early Medieval Literature (650-1350) is compulsory, whereas the Cambridge syllabus doesn’t go back that far and tends to focus on late medieval/early modern literature in the first year.

The trick is to go through each course with a magnifying glass. Look at the modules: do they devote more time to the subject areas that particularly interest you? How much freedom will you have to choose the modules you’ll take? Visit the different departments at open days and talk to students studying the course to find out more.

The city…

Oxford and Cambridge, despite both having stunning architecture and hordes of tourists, are pretty different cities. Oxford is livelier, busier and often clogged with traffic. It’s a bustling city in its own right, whereas Cambridge is a town dominated by its university (particularly in the city centre). If you’re looking for more of a small town kind of feel, Cambridge is the place for you.

Oxford has more shops, more bars and more clubs, Cambridge is prettier and greener, but suffers when it comes to variety. In fact, its high street was voted one of the most generic in the country; although if you venture to the east of the city you’ll find great little pubs, unusual shops and cafes.

It’s a good idea to devote half a day to wandering around the cities. You’ll either love the busy feel of Oxford, or long for something a bit more laid back in Cambridge.

The colleges…

To add greater confusion to the pile, the atmosphere within Oxford and Cambridge varies significantly from college to college. Students at one college might have an entirely different university experience from another. So it’s not just Oxford and Cambridge you have to size up, but the different colleges too.

A college that might seem overbearing and stuffy to one student might encapsulate the perfect ‘Oxbridge experience’ for another. You might actually prefer the modern colleges with their more relaxed attitudes, or long for the tradition and architecture of the older colleges.


We could blather on about how highly regarded Oxford and Cambridge are, but you’ve heard it all before. So let’s unpick their other reputations. Cambridge is often regarded as the more “sciencey” one, whereas Oxford is considered better for the humanities. Both, however, have produced their fair share of artists and scientists, so it would be foolish to base your decision solely on this. Both are equally renowned for science and humanities subjects.

Another stereotype is that Oxford is considered more conservative and Cambridge more progressive. It’s true that eight of the conservatives in the current cabinet, including our Prime Minister David Cameron, went to Oxford, but you’ll find a mixture of conservative and more left-wing values at both universities. In fact, it might be more dictated by which college you attend: certain colleges are renowned for being more conservative than others and vice versa.

Sometimes after you’ve weighed up all the pros and cons, done your research and visited both universities, you just have to go with your gut feeling. Which university and which college do you think you’ll be happiest at? 

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