By Gabija Žukauskaitė
Published 2022 11 14
Often referred to together as a portmanteau ‘Oxbridge’, University of Oxford and University of Cambridge are two of the oldest, wealthiest and most prestigious universities in the United Kingdom. Both of them were established more than eight centuries ago and, until the eighteenth century, remained the only two universities in England. To this day, they have been top-scoring in all major international cross-subject university rankings, which also means that they are some of the most selective universities in the world. Combined, the two elite institutions have produced 193 Nobel Laureates and award over one-sixth of all English full-time research doctorates each year.
Although these universities share a lot in common, the rivalry between the two institutions have also been well-documented since the establishment of the University of Cambridge in 1209 by scholars who took refuge from hostile Oxford townsmen. Until today, varsity matches, such as boat races, are organized between Oxford and Cambridge students. But beyond this rivalry in sports and traditions, let’s go through the major differences between these two institutions.
Although both universities offer a number of traditional programs, such as Medicine, Engineering, Law, History, Classics, and Mathematics, some courses are specific either to Oxford or Cambridge. For instance, for students interested in natural sciences, Cambridge offers the Natural Sciences program, which encompasses a wide range of physical and biological science subjects from 16 departments. Contrastingly, Oxford offers more specialized programs at the undergraduate level in Biochemistry, Biology, Chemistry or Physics. Another exception is the Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) programme, which is offered only by Oxford and is known for being a highly selective and prestigious course.
Both Oxford and Cambridge are known for their rigorous teaching and challenging examinations. However, when it comes to the formal assessment, at Cambridge, students are assessed at the end of each year, which means that their final award is calculated according to their performance in exams across multiple years of their studies. In contrast, Oxford students are assessed at the end of their first and final years of study, and the final result is usually mostly based on the examinations taken at the end of students’ final year.
Surrounded by fenland in East Anglia, Cambridge only has the Gog Magog Downs, an elevation of just 75 m above sea level, while Oxford is located to the east of the Cotswolds, an area of rolling hills, dotted with small villages. The fenland and low-lying areas around Cambridge (6 m above sea level, while Oxford is 70 m above sea level) makes Cambridge much mistier and foggier than Oxford. Partly because it is considerably flatter, Cambridge also feels a lot windier than Oxford does. In terms of the population, Oxford is considered to be bigger and livelier than Cambridge, although the difference is relatively small: while Oxford has a population of 150,000, while this number is 124,000 for Cambridge.
We have asked two of our mentors – second-year biochemistry student Titas Radzevičius from Oriel College, Oxford, and final-year mathematics student Matas Urbonas from Jesus College, Cambridge – to answer a few questions about their programs of study as well as the overall experience of living in these cities.
Since students are not allowed to apply to undergraduate programs at both Oxford and Cambridge in the same year, what have been the decisive factors in choosing the right university for you?
Titas: The main deciding factor for me was the program itself – while Cambridge offers a more varied and broader “Natural Sciences” curriculum that is great for people who have an aptitude in all STEM subjects, Oxford has more specific programs tailored to students who know exactly what interests them and where they see themselves in the future. I was certain that I wanted to study biochemistry, therefore this decision for me was a no-brainer: why spend time and energy studying string theory and fluid dynamics if I am more interested in epigenetics and drug metabolism? Both of these universities are very academic, therefore the choice should first and foremost be based on the curriculum: nothing is worse than getting into Oxford for “the dark-academia vibes” and having to suffer through a program that you do not enjoy.
Matas: For me, it was a combination of two things, both related to the course: firstly, while both Oxford and Cambridge are excellent universities, traditionally some courses are considered stronger in one university or another. In my case, mathematics is considered to have a richer tradition in Cambridge (think Newton, Ramanujan, Turing). There are also many more Lithuanian mathematics students in Cambridge than Oxford, so it was easier to get inside information. Secondly, when applying I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do maths or physics, and Cambridge has a fantastic option to do both in the first year of studies, and then letting you choose your path from second year onward. So generally, choosing the right university is all about choosing the course which suits you best.
From your knowledge and perspective, how is life and study experience different in these two cities?
Titas: Firstly, I must say that the experience in both of these two cities is very similar, there is not a very stark contrast between them and it all comes down to whichever one seems more familiar and likable personally. However, Oxford is bigger than Cambridge, meaning that there’s not only more colleges and nice buildings in town but also the possibility to escape the academic center and explore the vast cultural variety present in the Cowley area or the chic artsiness of Jericho.
Matas: Personally, I’ve never been to Oxford, so I can’t really compare them. As for the small size of Cambridge, it has its advantages and disadvantages: the fact that nearly everything can be reached within 20 minutes of walking is very convenient, and there’s also lots of green space throughout the city. However, it does feel more like a huge university campus rather than an actual city, having little activity not associated with student life.
What do applicants to undergraduate programs need to take into account before choosing a college at Oxford or Cambridge?
Titas: First of all, the energy of the college. Certain colleges are known for hosting good parties, others are big and give a lot of money to their students for study expenses, some are smaller and thus have a tighter community associated with them. It very much depends on what one expects and wants from a college – most of the undergraduate student life will be happening inside of it with the people from the same college, so a good environment is a prerequisite of a great university experience. Secondly, the tutors that will be in charge of your learning in that college are also very important. When I narrowed my choices down to two colleges, I looked at who the head tutors would be – one did work with stopping ageing and understanding cell senescence, the other had something to do with peas and plants. I presume you can deduce which one I picked. Final note – don’t do an open application, make sure you pick a college!
Matas: I must agree with Titas on the social impact a college has while studying. I would add that there are also college based sports clubs and societies, so you may consider how things you are interested in are related to the college you think of applying to. Furthermore, some colleges are known to be more international-friendly than others, i.e. they may admit more international students. This does not necessarily mean you have better chances at getting in, but it may help you connect with people in a similar situation as you, since the first times of being in the presence of British culture may be alienating or overwhelming. As for the academic experience, the courses are taught by the department, not college. The individual or small-group sessions, known as supervisions, are usually organised by the college; however, the supervisors vary from year to year, and they can be from colleges different from yours (for instance, this term all five of my supervisors are from different colleges). So college doesn’t play a big part in your academic experience. The only criterion for college selection related to this could be to consider the colleges’ location relative to the department, as you may prefer to live nearby where your lectures are.
What would be your advice for students who are considering applying to Oxbridge?
Titas: Make sure you know what you are about to sign up for – it is not just a prestigious diploma and studying in picturesque libraries, this is the most academically competitive and challenging environment in Europe. Moreover, think about what you want to get out of your student experience – having short terms (8 weeks) means that everything is much more intense and there is less time to enjoy the social life of the university. Furthermore, don’t internalize not getting an offer – because of how competitive the application process is, the decision can come down to pure luck and timing. Start preparing for your application early so that you have time to write an excellent personal statement – leaving it for the last minute can put a lot of additional stress on you. Get someone from Oxbridge (preferably someone studying the same or a similar program) to help you with the application – the open-endedness of “write a personal statement” is deceiving and advice from someone who’s already on the other side can be critical for success.
Matas: There are a few things to be considered: firstly, you should be very motivated, so that you can put up with intense workloads. Secondly, plan well in advance! Check what prerequisites are needed, what tests will need to be taken (these may differ in Cambridge and Oxford), what funding options are available, etc. Furthermore, make sure that the course you are applying to suits you well: other universities may have more specific courses, which could actually be a better fit. Lastly, try and find students of Oxbridge who are studying the course you are applying for: they will definitely give you more accurate insights into what it’s like to study in these prestigious universities.
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