From the point of view of prospective applicants, there are several important practicalities of which one should be aware. Firstly, the application processes are very different. At both universities, you apply to a particular college (there are many, and the character of each, even with a given university, differs far more than the differences between the universities as a whole). You may also submit an open application, forfeiting your right to choose yourself, although I would strongly advise putting in the effort to pick the college most right for you – they are very different!
Cambridge will invite the vast majority of applicants to interview at their college of first preference, provided their application is at all credible. Some applicants will be accepted directly into their chosen college, some will be rejected outright, and some considered merit-worthy by oversubscribed colleges placed in the “Pool,” where less competitive colleges may select them or invite them for another interview.
By contrast, Oxford interviews only somewhat over half of its applicants. These candidates are interviewed at their chosen college and one other, who compares notes. If you feel your interview performance will improve your standing compared to other candidates, that counts as a point for Cambridge, whereas Oxford might seem more attractive to those who prefer to rely more on their record. As far as I can tell, the actual interview experience at both is comparable.
Another difference is that most Cambridge colleges will provide undergraduate accommodation for the whole duration of the degree, whilst the greater compactness of central Oxford means even many of its richest colleges are unable to provide this guarantee. However, the most distant Cambridge colleges are inconveniently far from the town centre (much to the amusement of their colleagues further in), whereas most Oxford colleges are well-placed for most departments. Both cities are similarly expensive to live in, second only to London in living cost. Cambridge also retains 3 all-girls colleges, whilst Oxford is now entirely mixed. College life is all-important at undergraduate level, where your college is where you live, eat, socialise, and do most of your studying. However, at graduate level, your work centres more in your respective department, you are more likely to have to live out, and socialising happens more in the town.
In terms of academic accomplishment, as alluded above, Cambridge is generally regarded to be stronger in engineering and the sciences (especially mathematics), whereas Oxford is thought to produce better statesmen, politicians, and students of the humanities.
Cambridge’s “flagship” course is the Mathematics Tripos, whereas a degree at Oxford in Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford is a must-have for Britain’s governing elite. Course structures differ as well. At Cambridge, undergraduates studying physics, chemistry, biology and their related disciplines study under the umbrella degree of Natural Science, allowing much greater flexibility before specialising. Oxford offers joint honours degrees, allowing someone to study both their main interests (a friend of mine couldn’t decide whether to study German or Law, so studied German Law instead!) Both universities are, however, world-class across most disciplines, and you should base your application on the specific course rather than generalisations about the university.
So after nearly 7 years at Oxbridge, what have I concluded? Neither is better than the other per se. You will have to make your judgement based on the courses and which description you feel best matches your own character. I would say I am pleased I did my undergraduate at Cambridge – I was given a more rounded scientific education and the character of the city and my college provided a better environment for someone like me to develop as a person. Oxford, however, with its busier social life, more intensely focused spirit, and a research group that is just right for me, was the better choice for my graduate studies. Your choice is your own. Have fun making it, and good luck!
Educated at Abingdon School, Alex graduated from the University of Cambridge with a BA and MSci in Natural Sciences, specialising in Experimental and Theoretical Physics. Alex is currently in his third year of a PhD at the University of Oxford, in the Optical Quantum Technologies group of Professor Brian Smith. Having studied at both Cambridge and Oxford, Alex is able to advise students on the Oxbridge applications based on personal experience.
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