Oxford and Cambridge (known collectively as Oxbridge) have an almost mythical status in the world of universities, and not just because many of the colleges have been film sets for Harry Potter movies. All universities differ in some way, whether it be the courses on offer, the quality of the teaching, or the male/female ratio. However, Oxford and Cambridge are distinct in some key ways which mean that if you want to go to one, you have to go through a slightly different procedure than for other universities.
They are different from other universities in the UK not least because of their international reputation, and it’s true that Oxford and Cambridge spend their time alternating between slots one and two in the UK University League Tables. They also have their own admissions process, their own teaching methods, their own strange (and slightly silly) traditions (such as walking backwards around a courtyard drinking Port) and even their own phrases to describe things non-Oxbridge students use English for (pidge, scout, mods).
Weird quirks aside, however, they provide an academically world-renowned and well respected (by both academics and employers) degrees, and if you’re predicted to get top grades at A-Level you might want to think about giving Oxbridge a shot.
The key differences between Oxbridge and other universities are:
Applying: Oxford and Cambridge both have slightly early deadlines for admissions – usually around 15th October. This is because they have a commitment to interview most of their applicants so that they can see what you’re like in an academic setting.
While many universities interview some of their applicants, the sheer numbers Oxbridge have to interview means they take a slightly longer time to decide on whom to offer a place to than other universities. If you do get invited to an Oxbridge admissions interview it’s an important way of testing how you’ll cope in that sort of environment, so just relax, take your time and don’t be afraid of changing your mind – and above all show how clever you are!
Colleges: Some universities are collegiate, which means formed of a group of smaller colleges. For most of them, this simply means that each college has a separate student and staff body and that you stay in particular buildings. When you go to lectures or seminars students from every college will be there, being taught the same thing. However, at Oxbridge colleges are more like mini-universities in their own right and you apply to study a subject at a particular college (each with a particular feel and history) rather than just to the university.
You’ll probably be able make yourself at home at whichever college you end up at, but bear in mind they do have different strengths, interests, traditions, atmospheres and above all locations, so do make sure you check the college out before you apply – the people there will be your extended family for the next 3-4 years if you get in, so get to know them!
Teaching: Oxford and Cambridge runs a slightly different teaching system to other universities, as you will mostly be taught in college. The core of the courses you study at other universities will be the lectures you attend. That is where you will be given information central to your studies. Group tutorials and seminars are viewed more as a follow-up and an opportunity to discuss the content of the lectures.
At Oxbridge, however, the core of your course will be one to one (or two to one) tutorials with your tutor, supplemented by lectures. This means that you get a lot of individual attention and keep on top of your subject by coming in front of learned and challenging (but usually very friendly) tutors every week. Whilst this gives you a really intense learning experience, if you haven’t read the books they’ll know straight away and there is no hiding in the corner like in group tutorials. The terms are also only eight weeks long so you’ve got to pack a lot into quite a short space of time.
Unfortunately, each year applicants that should apply to Oxford and Cambridge don’t because they’re put off by “myths” surrounding them.
‘I’m not bright enough’
It’s certainly true that academic standards at Oxbridge are tough, and every year people with three As get turned away. But if you are predicted top grades then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t get in, as long as you can demonstrate a keen interest in your subject and the potential to go further with it. This is one of the reasons why Oxbridge hold so many interviews – the numbers of high-scoring students increases every year and the universities know that your predicted grades only show one thing about you.
For some of you, the prospect of using your A-level knowledge to battle a professor who is an expert in the subject in interview is more than slightly intimidating, but remember they don’t expect you to know everything about a subject. They just want to make sure that they can get something out of teaching you for the next three of four years.
‘Everyone is from a posh public school’
It’s true that they do have a higher percentage of public school students than other universities, but over 50 per cent in both are now from UK state schools and both universities are making efforts to expand this and ensure that they constantly attract the brightest and the best. Most important of all, however, is that once you arrive your fellow students will care less about your school and more about which college you belong to. Many students nowadays say that there really isn’t a ‘class divide’ amongst students and that actually it’s the odd snooty student that’ll quickly end up becoming the outcast. And for the record, no one cares whether you own a pony (or an entire county) or how you pronounce your words.
‘I’ll have to spend my entire time in a gown’
There are occasions when you’ll have to wear a gown in Oxford and Cambridge. At Oxford you have to wear them for your end of year exams, and in both Oxford and Cambridge you have to wear them for some dinners and meetings, but aside from that (and these occasions can be as infrequent as you want) jeans and t-shirts will suffice. Gowns may seem stuffy, but students seem to get a lot of fun (if you can call it that) running around town pretending to be Batman or Harry Potter. Other than the gowns there are a few other quirky traditions at Oxford and Cambridge, but almost all of them are voluntary (there are no weird old initiation rituals that we are aware of) and are generally treated as fun additions rather than taken too seriously.
‘Workload will be too much’
The minimum workload expected of you is certainly higher at Oxford and Cambridge, although the amount of reading you do at other universities varies entirely on how driven you are. You might have one or two 3000 word essays to do a week and a mini-test on top of it if you’re a scientist. Unless you are super-organised (and we really do mean super) you will most likely end up pulling the occasional all-nighter to meet a deadline. But as much as tutors might pretend that you’re expected to spend 40 hours a week working, the truth is most people will not do that and easily get into the rhythm of things, which means there’s still plenty of time to go out clubbing or whatever else you’re into and do other extra-curricular things. Oxbridge students pride themselves on a ‘work-hard, play-hard’ mentality, and with opportunities such as student politics, the Oxford Union, rowing, and tens of plays a term, most people end up fitting their degree around their extra-curricular activities rather than the other way around.
‘Everyone will be straight’
No university is completely straight, and Oxford and Cambridge are no different. Both Oxford and Cambridge are gay-friendly universities (in fact a recent survey by one of the Oxford student newspapers found that only 35 per cent of men at Oxford identify as exclusively heterosexual). Both universities have really active LGBT societies, and the gay scenes, though small, are certainly enthusiastic with the seemingly higher proportion of openly gay people meaning that even ‘straight’ nights have a noticeable gay presence. If you get bored of the Oxbridge gay scenes they’re both only an hour away from London.
‘I won’t be able to afford it’
Oxford and Cambridge aren’t any more expensive in terms of their fees than any other university in the UK, and they also provide some of the most generous financial support in terms of bursaries (which don’t have to be repaid) of any university in the UK. This means your family wealth should never be a barrier to application.
Oxford and Cambridge clearly aren’t for everyone, but for some of you they’ll be just what you want from your time at university, and you certainly shouldn’t be put off because of your background, sexual orientation or any other factor other than your academic potential, so go to some open days, chat to some former students and give it a shot!