How to choose between Oxford and Cambridge

How to choose between Oxford and Cambridge

Oxford and Cambridge (known collectively as ‘Oxbridge’) are prestigious and world-renowned universities, which differ from other UK universities in some key ways. Unlike other universities where students attend lectures and seminar groups, at Oxbridge students benefit from a tutorial system. Students prepare work individually and in advance for each tutorial and then spend around an hour discussing their work with a tutor and just one or two other students. The tutors are some of the world’s leading academics and so studying at one of these universities is often an opportunity to learn from one of the top experts in that field, an exciting and inspiring prospect for any undergraduate.

Undergraduates cannot apply to both Oxford and Cambridge at the same time, so students will need to choose which they are going to approach in advance. As well as their similarities, the two universities do have a number of differences to consider which will help students choose between them:

>> Click here for a summary table of the key areas to consider when deciding whether to apply to Oxford or Cambridge

Course choices and flexibility

Many courses such as computer science, engineering, history and law are taught at both Oxford and Cambridge but there are a great many more subjects that are not available at both. When you start considering your application the first thing to do is to check on course availability as this may immediately limit you to only one of either Oxford or Cambridge. Future architects and veterinarians for example will need to apply to Cambridge whereas it is only at Oxford that students can read a degree in PPE or Fine Art.

You need to understand the courses that each university offers. For example, Cambridge offers natural sciences in place of biology, chemistry or physics [whereas at Oxford you can take separate sciences]



Dr Seán Buckley, Oxford graduate and author of Getting into Oxford and Cambridge (2017 Entry)

In terms of flexibility, the two universities differ in their approach. In Cambridge, degrees are organised through what is called a Tripos – a two-part course dividing subject study into two parts. In theory, this means that students can start with one subject for Part I and then may opt to swap to a different (related) subject for Part II, although in practice this is not encouraged.

At Oxford, students are expected to remain reading for the same degree during the time they spend there. Maths and Science students will sit examinations at the end of each year, as is common practice at most UK universities, whereas Arts or Humanities students will tend not to sit examinations at the end of second year. Oxford offers more four-year degree programmes, usually leading to Master rather than Bachelor qualifications.

Subject strengths

The QS World University Rankings are a good place to learn more about particular universities’ strengths. Overall, Cambridge is currently 4th in the table for university rankings, with Oxford in 6th place. These rankings do change annually however and also differ in terms of subjects specialisms; there are more specific rankings by individual subject and a summary of subject areas as well as the overall university rankings.

A summary of 2017 world rankings for Oxford and Cambridge:

Arts and Humanities
#1 University of Oxford
#2 University of Cambridge
Engineering and Technology
#3 University of Cambridge
#9 University of Oxford
Life Sciences and Marketing
#2 University of Oxford
#3  University of Cambridge
Natural Sciences
#2 University of Cambridge 
#5 University of Oxford 
   Social Sciences and Management   
#3 University of Oxford 
#4 University of Cambridge 














Oxford and Cambridge are located in the south of England, both around an hour from London on the train: Oxford to the north west and Cambridge to the north. Oxford is the bigger of the two with a population around 26,000 larger then Cambridge but both cities are compact enough that it is possible to get around by bike, which is what many students tend to do. Some students find Cambridge’s compact size claustrophobic whereas others prefer this to being in a bigger city. The best thing to do (and this applies to all universities) is visit. Look around the university and the city and see how you feel about the possibility of studying – and living – there for three or more years. Lucy Bates, author of Getting into Oxford and Cambridge, had her heart set on Oxford until she attended an Open Day at both universities and changed her mind over where to apply, illustrating the importance of learning as much as possible about an institution and a city before making a commitment to study there.

Financial support

Oxford and Cambridge are keen to attract graduates with strong academic prowess, regardless of background, and there is financial help available for those who might otherwise struggle to attend as detailed below. 


This "Fees and Funding" webpage details the funding available to support students. A non-repayable bursary is available to help with living costs for home and EU students whose household income is less than £42,875 per annum. In addition to this, awards such as the Moritz-Heyman Scholarship are designed to support students from low-income backgrounds both financially and in providing opportunities for work experience and internships. Reach Scholarships help students from overseas who, for political or financial reasons, are not able to study in their own countries.

Each individual college will also offer its own forms of financial assistance – both in the form of means-tested bursaries and through scholarships, which are most commonly offered to musicians. Slightly more than half of the Oxford Colleges offer Organ Scholarships, the exact amount and terms of which differ between colleges, and Choral and other Instrumental Scholarships are also awarded to students every year, full details of which can be found on the university website.


Like Oxford, Cambridge offer a bursary to students whose household income is less then £42,875 per annum and individual colleges will also make awards to students – occasionally grants to help with financial support but more often musical scholarships: as well as Organ Scholarships, Choral and Instrumental Awards are available to students. The requirements of scholars and the financial reward will vary from college to college so students who are interested will need to do some careful research before applying. Scholarships tend to be valued more due to their prestige (and the accompanying free music lessons) than in terms of financial gain. 

Being a choral scholar is one of the best experiences that Oxbridge has to offer. It’s enormously enriching musically [and] masses of fun

Jack, University of Cambridge

Additional factors

There are many aspects of life at Oxford and Cambridge that are very similar. Tuition fees will be the same at both institutions (£9,250 per year for a UK/EU undergraduate) and living costs are comparable. Cambridge indicates that students should budget at least £8,360 per year for living costs while Oxford suggest £8,727 so there is a small difference between the two. Perhaps as the larger city, it is inevitable that costs at Oxford would be slightly higher.

The student mix at Oxford and Cambridge is similar: more men than women at both (by 8% at Oxford and 6% at Cambridge) and an international student body of 17% and 18%, respectively. Cambridge still has women-only colleges, which Oxford does not. Assessment at both universities is primarily through examination. Final degree classification at both universities is usually awarded based on performance in final year examinations.

In terms of research standards, Oxford employs more world-leading academics than any other UK university and has the highest income from research of any UK university. On the other hand, more Cambridge academics have won Nobel prizes than any other university in the world. There is no doubt that at both universities, you will have chance to learn from some of the brightest minds at work today.

It is advisable for all undergraduates to avoid part-time work during the university terms wherever possible. At Cambridge, students are actively discouraged from working alongside their degrees whereas at Oxford, undergraduates are offered some opportunities for paid work within college, perhaps in the bar or the library. 

A summary table

Below is a summary table of the key areas to consider when deciding whether to apply to Oxford or Cambridge:

Factor to Consider



Course choice and flexibility

Change in subject usually discouraged

Offers PPE, separate sciences and Oriental studies

Tripos system may permit some undergraduates to alter subject choice

Offers architecture, education and management studies
Subject strengths
(according to QS rankings)
Strongest in Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences Strongest in Sciences, Engineering and Technology

60 miles from London in the south east of England

The larger of the two (population 150,200)

62 miles from London in East Anglia

More of a town feel than Oxford (population 123,900)
Financial Support

Grants for students whose household income is <£42,875

Organ, Choral and Instrumental Scholarships

Grants for students whose household income is <£42,875

Organ Scholarships, Choral and Instrumental Awards
Undergraduate Tuition Fees £9,250 per year £9,250 per year
Living costs Suggested budget £8,727 per year  Suggested budget £8,360 per year
Student mix (undergraduate)

54% male

46% female

17% non-EU international

53% male

47% female

18% non-EU international

Some women-only colleges

Through examination at end of final year


Through examination at end of final year


The most academics of any UK university

Highest research income of any UK university


Highest number of Nobel Prize winners of any university in the world

Part-Time Work

Some positions in college available



>> Click here to download the table

Deciding which university to go to is a big decision for any undergraduate. Students will spend a minimum of three years reading their degree and need to feel comfortable in the university and the town where they choose to study. Many graduates look back on their time at university as some of the best years of their life. Taking the time to carefully research options and learn as much as possible about a place before committing to it will help undergraduates to find somewhere that will allow them to make the most of the time they spend doing their degree.