Oxford and Cambridge: the similarities and differences
The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge are frequently cited together by journalists, politicians and the world at large.
Whilst our two institutions have a great deal in common – including the collegiate structure, personalised teaching methods and the wealth of resources available to our students – there are a number of notable differences, which are explained below.
For more detailed information about each University, please see the relevant Undergraduate Prospectus or get in touch.
Both of our 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.
Both Universities are committed to recruiting the students with the most academic ability and potential, who are best suited to the course applied for, and who will most benefit from and thrive in the learning environment we offer, regardless of their background.
Therefore, when considering their degree course choice(s) students should be encouraged to:
- identify their interests and motivations. Students should consider what they most enjoy learning about – this may be particular topics within subjects currently being studied and/or something from their wider interests. It is crucial that they have a genuine personal interest in their subject to be motivated and successful at university
- be open-minded and avoid limiting themselves to the more ‘obvious’ or familiar sounding courses – there may be wider courses available that incorporate a number of their subject interests, or more specialised courses that satisfy very specific interests
- not make assumptions about career prospects. While a small number of professions do require specific qualifications, most employers do not specify particular degree subjects, and Oxford and Cambridge graduates are highly sought after regardless of degree discipline. Students with a particular career in mind should be encouraged to research what those in that profession studied at university – they may be surprised at the range they discover
- research course outlines and understand what they entail. Courses with the same title at different universities can vary greatly, with different entrance requirements, content, structures, options, and teaching and assessment methods
It is not possible to apply to both Oxford and Cambridge in the same admissions round.
- Some courses/combinations of subjects are offered at one of the Universities but not the other – students should check each institution's Undergraduate Prospectus/website for details.
- Courses with a similar title offered at both of the Universities may be different in content – it's important for students to check the course details carefully to see which will suit them best.
Conditional offers for Oxford range between A*A*A and AAA (depending on the subject) at A Level; or 38-40 in the IB, including core points, with 7s and 6s in Higher Level subjects.
Most conditional offers for Cambridge are A*AA at A Level for arts subjects and Psychological and Behavioural Sciences (PBS), and A*A*A at A Level for science subjects (excluding PBS). Conditional offers for the IB are typically 40-41 including core points, with 776 at Higher Level.
Teaching methods are very similar at both Universities, with students attending lectures, classes and laboratory work, as appropriate for their course. Unlike at many other universities, students at Oxford and Cambridge also benefit from more personalised teaching time with world experts in their field – at Oxford these small-group teaching sessions are called 'tutorials', while at Cambridge we call them 'supervisions'.
Students at both Oxford and Cambridge are assessed informally throughout their course by producing work for their tutors/supervisors for weekly tutorials/supervisions. Formal assessment is almost entirely based on examinations (students on most courses can expect to be examined at the end of each year), although in the final year of many courses one examination paper can be replaced with a dissertation.
At Oxford, the final degree classification result is usually based on the examinations taken at the end of the final year. Cambridge students, in contrast, are assessed through examinations in more than one year of their course.
The collegiate structure is very similar at both Universities, with students belonging to a College (their base throughout their course) as well as the wider University and their academic faculty/department (where they will attend lectures, seminars, practicals etc).
Students really have the best of both worlds: being members of a smaller College community and a large international University.
If a student decides to apply to one of our Universities, they can either indicate a preference College or an ‘open application’ (and accept the allocation made by a computer program) in their UCAS application. At both institutions, this choice makes no difference to the chances of being made an offer or to the course they study (all students, regardless of College, are taught together in the academic faculties/departments).
How to apply
All students must apply through UCAS by 15 October (though please note that the process may vary for international students).
Cambridge also asks all applicants to complete an online Supplementary Application Questionnaire (SAQ) shortly after they have submitted their UCAS application to ensure consistent information about all applicants. Students applying for the Graduate Course in Medicine and/or for an Organ Scholarship must submit an additional application as well.
Both Oxford and Cambridge consider a number of types of contextual data in order to gain a more complete picture of the educational and social environments that underpin students’ applications and their performance in our assessments. These include prior education factors, socio-economic aspects, and personal circumstances.
In addition to publicly available data, Cambridge has the Extenuating Circumstances Form, which gives teachers the opportunity to provide extra information about any applicant who has experienced particular personal or educational disadvantage so they can be fairly assessed.
Oxford encourages teachers to include details of any special circumstances or other relevant information in the main UCAS application.
The majority of applicants to both Universities are predicted to achieve top grades, and many also have excellent references. Therefore, it’s not possible for Oxford or Cambridge to select the best students based on their UCAS applications alone. Each University has taken a slightly different approach to differentiating between applicants.
Oxford asks applicants for most of its courses to take a test as part of their application (see below). Tutors then shortlist applicants based on students’ applications and performance in the required test. For some courses (typically those that receive fewer applications per place), more than 90 per cent of applicants are shortlisted for interview. For the most competitive degrees (those that are most heavily oversubscribed), only 30 per cent may be invited to interview to allow those who most closely meet the selection criteria to have multiple interviews. AS Level grades and UMS scores are not a key element in shortlisting.
Cambridge makes less use of pre-interview tests and interviews around 80 per cent of all undergraduate applicants. AS Level grades and UMS scores are considered alongside all the other information available to selectors, both in deciding which applicants will be invited to interview and which will be offered a place. Only applicants for Medicine and Veterinary Medicine are required to take a test before coming to Cambridge to attend an interview (see below).
All students applying for the standard Medicine course (A100) at either University, must take the Bio-Medical Admissions Test (BMAT). Students are responsible for registering online for the BMAT before they submit their UCAS application (they will be required to provide their BMAT registration number as part of their application), and will sit the test in early November. Candidates for the accelerated (graduate entry) Medicine course, A101, at Oxford are also required to take the BMAT.
All students applying for the Veterinary Medicine course (D100) at Cambridge or Biomedical Sciences at Oxford (BC98) must also take the BMAT as part of their application.
Cambridge does not require students to take any other written tests before interview.
Oxford requires applicants to take written tests before interview for several other subjects, and separate registration is required. These tests are usually taken in your school or college. See the relevant course entry on the Oxford website for more information.
Both Universities require some applicants to submit samples of written work as part of their application, discussion of which may form part of the interview. At Oxford, where required, the deadline for the submission of this work is 10 November. Applicants to Cambridge will be advised by their College when it needs to be submitted.
Applicants who are invited to interview in Cambridge are normally interviewed in one College, often on a single day. In some cases students are invited to travel to Cambridge the day before their interview and stay overnight in the College (in which case they will not normally be expected to pay for accommodation or meals).
A College may be impressed by a student's application but be unable to make an offer because of the strength of the competition at that College. In this case, the application may be placed in the ‘winter pool' and perhaps picked up by another College, who may make the applicant an offer or may ask them to attend a further interview in January.
Applicants invited to interview at Oxford are asked to go for one or more days (depending on the subject), and may have interviews at more than one College during their stay. For some subjects, interviews at a second College are automatic for all applicants.
The actual purpose and structure of the interviews themselves are very similar at both Universities.