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Oxford or Cambridge? How to choose

Oxford or Cambridge? Both universities have a world-famous academic reputation and share a great deal in common, but you can only put one of them down on your Ucas form – so which one should you choose?

As the two oldest universities in the UK, Oxford and Cambridge are very similar in terms of their prestige, collegiate structure, teaching style and rigorous application process so what sets them apart from each other? If you've set your sights on Oxbridge but don't know if it's the Ox- or the -Bridge that's most suited to you, we've tried to highlight some of the key differences.
 

Oxbridge course choices

First things first – Oxford and Cambridge don’t actually offer identical courses. While some courses have a lot in common, there are certain courses that are only available at one of the Universities. For example, you can only study PPE (politics, philosophy and economics) at Oxford, while Cambridge is the only one of the two to offer education at an undergraduate level.

There are also big differences when it comes to science courses. At Cambridge, you apply to the flexible natural sciences degree, allowing you to combine any of the biological and physical sciences or specialise based on your interests, while Oxford offers single-subject science courses.

And you can take a joint degree at Oxford, but – while you might be able to do a module in another subject area – you can’t study a combined degree at Cambridge.
 

Course over college?

Make sure that the course you want to study is top on your list of priorities when it comes to choosing between the Universities:

Oxford and Cambridge Universities agree that the most important decision a prospective applicant has to make is the degree they wish to study, not which university they want to apply to. University Of Cambridge

And just as similar courses vary at any other university, the content of similar courses at Oxford and Cambridge will have key differences, so be sure to get into the detail.

Which modules best match your interests? How does the split between exams, coursework and practicals suit you? It's worth visiting the relevant department at both Universities on an open day and getting a real feel for what the course is like. Both Universities offer general institution-wide open days where you can visit departments and different colleges, but also look out for open day activities organised by the individual colleges themselves. 

And a quick reality check. You'll need to ensure your academics (and beyond) match up to what both universities are looking for, too - see our five-step guide to Oxbridge applications for more. Not all successful applicants to Oxford and Cambridge have a clean sweep of A*s at GCSE and A-levels – but let’s face it, quite a few do!
 

Oxford versus Cambridge: city showdown 

With their ancient architecture and world-famous universities, both cities are tourist hotspots – but they offer quite a different student experience. Here’s each city in a nutshell:


Cambridge

  • A small city where almost a fifth of the population are students and the centre is dominated by the University; it could be the place for you if you’re after a small town feel.
  • Cambridge is more laidback than Oxford and arguably prettier, with a river flowing through the city centre and countryside surroundings.
  • If you’re into pubs more than clubs, Cambridge won’t disappoint.
     

Oxford

  • If you’re after a bustling city, Oxford is livelier and busier than Cambridge, but it’s still small enough to cover on foot.
  • The city may appeal to culture fans with its museums and galleries – and it’s got more shops, too.
  • Oxford has more in the way of nightlife than Cambridge with more bars and clubs.
As with the Universities themselves, the only way to really know which city will suit you is to go there and see what it's really like on the ground. 


Best of the best

There isn't much difference when it comes to the prestigious reputations that go hand-in-hand with both Oxford and Cambridge Universities. You can often find Oxford or Cambridge alternating between first and second place in the annual university league tables, and both Universities are highly esteemed by academics and employers globally.

However, there is a common perception that Cambridge is slightly better for sciences, while Oxford is marginally stronger for social sciences and humanities - but both Universities insist there is no significant difference. 
 

Oxford and Cambridge quirks 

Most unis have special traditions or traits - and Oxford and Cambridge are definitely no exception to the rule...

  • The well-renowned teaching style may be the same at both Universities, but the very small study sessions are called ‘tutorials’ at Oxford (also referred to as 'tutes') and ‘supervisions’ at Cambridge. 
  • Cambridge has the May Week tradition, a period of celebration following end-of-year exams. Expect balls, events and garden parties.
  • Twenty-six British prime ministers went to the University of Oxford, including David Cameron, Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher. Fancy yourself as the next?
  • The University of Cambridge has its very own private police force, the Cambridge University Constabulary. The Constabulary plays an important role at graduation, controlling crowds and assisting visitors.

A final thought. Once you've settled on which university to apply for, you've got another choice to make - which college? This is worth bearing in mind when you're deciding between the two.

So Oxford or Cambridge? 

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