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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Possener

Oxford and Cambridge: What's the difference?

Updated: Jun 1, 2022

We take a look at the difference between two of the best universities in the world

Despite being recognised as two of the best universities in the world, both Oxford and Cambridge maintain somewhat of a 'mythical' status. Known commonly by the term 'Oxbridge' (an amalgamation of 'Oxford' and 'Cambridge') the two universities are similar, but different institutions. However - under the 'Oxbridge Rule' - candidates are unable to apply to both, and so it's important to understand the differences.

The portmanteau of 'Oxbridge' represents the idea that Oxford and Cambridge are much the same. Both are 'collegiate' systems, have similar schools and faculties, impressive alumni (with 55 Prime Ministers and 187 Nobel Prize winners between them), immense intellectual status and a level of prestige. Yet, the narrative that Oxford and Cambridge are identical is wrong – and the nuances between the two need to be understood when applying. Both have their own proud and unique histories, with different surroundings, courses and research focuses. This might help explain why the collective term only originated in 1850 – 741 years after the University of Cambridge (the younger of the two) was formed.

There are important differences - the most immediate regarding the courses on offer. For example, Oxford offers separate undergraduate degrees in Chemistry, Physics and Biological Sciences, whereas Cambridge offers their 'Natural Sciences' degree which involves taking three science courses and one mathematics course initially, before specializing in one in your final year. Similarly, Oxford offers PPE – Politics, Philosophy and Economics combined in one degree with the option to specialise later – but Cambridge offers separate degrees in Economics, Philosophy and History and Politics. Some degrees are not even on offer at both universities with Oxford being the only one of the two to offer Fine Art, and Cambridge, unlike Oxford, offering Architecture. Another distinction is the Cambridge 'Tripos' model of degree, where students may pick papers from across the subjects, whilst still receiving a degree in their chosen subject. Therefore, it is essential to understand the courses at each of the two universities and to find out which ones you are better suited to and prefer. Equally, delve deep into the modules that make up the degree as you will quickly find significant differences exist there too.

The second concerns the admission process. Every year Cambridge aims to interview over 80 per cent of their applicants. However, Oxford only invite roughly 40% of their applicants to the interview stage. This stark comparison may make Cambridge look like the easier option; however, it just demonstrates the differing levels of emphasis placed on pre-interview assessments. For Oxford, most subjects require an admissions test (TSA, BMAT, ELAT, MAT, PAT etc) and as a result, the university focus more on these test scores. This explains why their interview-rate is lower than Cambridge, where only a handful of subjects require a pre-interview assessment. This is something to consider. Are you more confident in an interview? Do you do perform better in an exam environment? Think about these questions as both universities are rigorous when choosing who to accept, so it’s important to play to your strengths.

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