In the world of higher education, the historic, twin-like nature of Oxford and Cambridge is completely unique. The similarities between them make other famous pairings such as Harvard and Yale or University College London and King’s College London look like distant relatives by comparison. They are twin-like (though more fraternal than identical) because their comparable age, beauty, reputation and excellence make them more similar than they are different. Consider the following:
Oxford was established roughly 930 years ago, while Cambridge was founded 113 years later, populated in part by Oxford faculty and students.
Oxford has thirty-nine colleges, with the oldest continuous college, Balliol, dating back to 1263; whereas Cambridge has thirty-one, with Peterhouse harkening back to 1284.
Oxford has 72 Nobel Prize winning alumni and faculty, among them the physicist Roger Penrose, the economist Joseph Stiglitz, and the author V.S. Naipual. Cambridge, by contrast, has won 121 Nobel Prizes but funnily enough includes amongst their laureates both Joseph Stiglitz and Roger Penrose.
Oxford’s notable alumni include everyone from Margaret Thatcher and Boris Johnson to Stephen Hawking, Tim Burners-Lee, J.R.R. Tolkien and Mr. Bean! Not that Cambridge lacks by comparison. It boasts such luminaries as Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Alan Turing, Zadie Smith and Prince Charles.
From even this cursory survey it’s obvious that Oxford and Cambridge have a lot in common. They likewise share many similarities, which range from beautiful quods and stately courts, gorgeous gardens and meandering rivers, cavernous museums and a mind-boggling array of student clubs and societies (which vary from blind wine tasting and sky diving to fencing and orchestras). There, are however, some important differences that prospective students should keep in mind.
The first of these is size. The city of Oxford is much larger than the ‘city’ of Cambridge, and they both have quite a different ethos. Cambridge has more of a ‘town’ feel, replete with cows grazing in city-centre fields; while Oxford feels both denser and more intense. Neither is good, neither is bad: it’s simply a question of preference.
Second, while both universities have top-ranked departments across every academic discipline, the atmosphere at Oxford tends to bend slightly towards the arts and humanities (no doubt as many prime ministers have attended it). Meanwhile, Cambridge is somewhat more oriented around mathematics and the sciences. That does not mean that you would be out of place studying something like history at Cambridge or biochemistry at Oxford. I studied political thought and intellectual history at Cambridge and never lacked for anything in anyway—but the profile of the arts and humanities is a little more entrenched and outspoken in Oxford. Likewise, I have many friends studying in the sciences at Oxford and there is nowhere else they would rather be.
In total honesty, however, I loved studying at both Oxford and Cambridge. I don’t have a favourite in the traditional sense of the word. I tended to prefer my time in Oxford for the beauty of its libraries (the Rad Cam and Bodleian are stunning) as well as for its pubs; while I favoured the pastoral qualities of Cambridge (especially the river and the College Backs) and the grandeur of attending evensong at Kings College Chapel. But I made amazing friends and incredible memories at both. The quality of my education has likewise been outstanding at each university.
As such, I would recommend that you personally visit each university in order to sample them. To maximize your time, focus on a few different colleges that you would like to see in person and inquire about their visiting hours and admissions events. Unfortunately, both geography and the current pandemic can pose challenges for those visiting from abroad. But do not worry. The team at Think Tutors is well equipped to find innovative and personalised ways to bridge these problems and help guide you through the application process.
Likewise, the next blog in this series is all about studying at Cambridge (followed by one on studying at Oxford).