Oxford or Cambridge – Which to Choose?

October 30, 2013

Philly Malicka – Oxford graduate and writer
The clash of oars in the boat race, wood panelled rooms in musty colleges, bicycling to lectures across leafy commons and through narrow lamp-lit streets…
‘Oxbridge’ conjures an abundance of these mysterious images, but why the term and what does it mean? This bizarre compound is used in higher education terms to denote the two oldest and most prestigious universities in the U.K, and indeed the rest of the world. Last year Oxford was ranked second in the world table, with Cambridge nipping its heels at third. Yet the two institutions are also grouped together in this way because of the teaching methods its students receive, as well as to reflect the collegiate infrastructure of the universities which underpins where and how its students socialise, eat and study. (Not always in that order)
Students at Oxbridge receive an uncommonly high amount of contact time with their tutors, many of whom are world experts in their chosen fields. Hence, the application and admissions process is a lengthy and complex affair.  Tutors will cherry-pick a small handful of undergraduates (on average eight or nine per subject, per year) whose academic horizons they themselves are committed to expanding. It’s because of this that the primary, though perhaps most elusive, attributes of successful interviewees is appearing likeable and teachable: this is a crucial factor in building a rapport with your potential tutor.
But that’s still a long way down the application process, down a much scarier corridor. To begin with however, it’s essential for applicants to appreciate the implications of this teaching style. These styles are known as ‘tutorials’ at Oxford and ‘supervisions’ at Cambridge. The fact that a large proportion of your student life will be spent presenting weekly essays or mathematical problems in front of an adult academic is a learning style that will not suit everybody.  It ultimately becomes a question of academic rigour, rather than tweed-clad Dons. Can you shoulder a towering work load under the guidance of tutors who will push you to widen your learning to the extreme? Do you have the drive and personal organisation to pursue your individual academic interests in a high-pressured, dynamic environment? Oxbridge graduates can not only demand higher salaries but also network their way seamlessly across a job market which entangles many.  Providing you’re game, the returns are great.
So, Oxford or Cambridge – which to choose? And is there much difference between the two? The answer (though the author of this article confesses to be perhaps more ‘inclined’ to one over the other) is very little.
In the old days, Cambridge was better reputed for its scientific prowess, offering juicy inter-faculty degrees such as ‘Natural Sciences’ as well as steady streams of Nobel mathematicians. Meanwhile Oxford’s globally renowned manuscript collection housed in the teaming Bodleian library led to a more arts-driven reputation. But those were, truly, the old days, and in perfecting your Oxbridge application the less you dwell on those, the better. Today both institutions excel in arts, sciences, and languages in almost equal measure. The courses may differ in scope and methodology however, so it’s essential to research the course structures in their minutiae to help inform your decision. Do not assume that each university will offer your chosen subject; it’s only at Cambridge that you can study Architecture, for example and joint-subject Honours (such as History and Politics) are only available at Oxford.  It’s also important to consider the kind of city you’d like to study in. Oxford itself is much larger, and so offers its students a more diverse metropolitan experience than in Cambridge, where the university dominates the town in a more delightfully immersive way.
“Excuse me Ma’am, but could you show me the way to Oxford University?”
American tourists knocking on the doors of colleges and asking this question were usually met with Undergraduate disdain and a few weary sniggers. “But this is Oxford University, there is no such central building. Each separate college comprises the University as a whole.”
The organisational infrastructure of Oxbridge dictates that your application should be sent to a specific college, as opposed to the university in general. Open applications are accepted, but it generally displays better practice to have researched this in preparation of your application.
It takes some time to decipher which college will offer your subject, as well as its characteristics and culture. Oxbridge prospectuses will try to persuade you that there’s little difference between colleges, but this simply isn’t true. Some will be reputed for sport, others for its Marxist leanings or fierce academic record. It’s vital to visit as many colleges as possible in order to sense their atmosphere. I chanced upon my own college having attended an open day at an antiquated and sporty college nearby. Troubled by the air of misogyny and laddishness I could perceive in the current students there, I wandered across the road and through another oak doorway. The green lawns of the quad were lined with brilliant flowerbeds; one student roamed around absurdly banging a drum, another shrieked in conversation with her friend, warm organ music filled the courtyard from the chapel. It felt like somewhere I could happily spend the next three years of my life.
It’s also wise to select your college strategically. Oxbridge prospectuses will give a helpful indication of the ratios of successful applications per subject for each college, so study this carefully. The larger and well-regarded colleges will attract more applications, sometimes eight or nine students per place, while others offer more feasible numbers. A recent graduate from St John’s College, Cambridge also advises some further cunning: “your college website will list the tutors who will be receiving your application and potentially facing you at interview. Google them.  Analyse their academic specialities in detail, research their recent publications and keep their interests in mind while you craft your submissions.” This is not to say that you should repeat their viewpoint or sycophantically reference them in your material, but simply to be aware of their focus and harness your common sense. Don’t write a personal statement denying Shakespeare authorship if your prospective tutor is a pre-eminent scholar of the Bard, for example, since you risk receiving a hard grilling at interview or worse, an outright rejection.
In days of yore, an application to Oxbridge rested on your statement of purpose via the UCAS system and interview alone, but now supplementary work is required. Cambridge now demands a second personal statement, while both institutions also request coursework essays and participation in a written test. Providing your school grades meet the specified requirements and the test was not a disaster, you will be summoned for interview in the December of the prior academic year for which you are applying. A History Fellow at Oxford recently revealed how carefully they treat the components of each application: “This year’s intake was some of the poorest performers in the written test, yet they excelled at interview. We seek to reward academic potential, enthusiasm and simple love of subject over spoon-fed cumulative knowledge. In short, it’s not about how many books you’ve read, but how dedicated you are to expanding your own horizons in your chosen field.”
Unlike the American system, which rewards a ‘rounded’ student, Oxbridge does not take any extra-curricular activity into account. You are selected solely on the basis of your past academic endeavours and the passion for your subject. So feel free to liberate your inner geek. Ensure your personal statement outlines the wider reading or research you have conducted above and beyond your schoolwork. Try to show an awareness of the theoretical issues which underpin your subject field, and ensure you are prepared to analyse these when invited for interview. All European applicants are expected to travel to Oxford or Cambridge for interviews and must, unfortunately, cover their own travel costs.
There are scores of horror stories which circulate regarding Oxbridge interviews. Did you hear about the student who encountered a tutor sitting with his legs astride a table, holding a piece of paper, and purring “surprise me?” Or what about the Biology Don who asked his student how much water was in a cow? The interview is likely to be stretching and eccentric, but not so wildly unpredictable. Candidates should prepare to talk about the topics you’ve referenced on your personal statement, so keep your mind flexible and you won’t be flummoxed.
The most valuable piece of advice I received before my interview was delivered coolly by my sister, herself a Cambridge undergraduate at that time. “Nothing you say will ever truly impress your interviewers,” she warned, “these are the smartest brains in the world, your definitive answers are unlikely to enlighten them. It’s much more about the approach you take to answering their questions.” As deflating as this was for a plucky applicant to hear it was sound advice. Ask questions, think aloud to demonstrate your thought processes, and phrase statements personally rather than launching into sweeping generalisations about a topic.
If your passion for your subject is deep-rooted and genuine then let it show. “I call it the sparkling eyes effect”, explains one tutor. “We can tell when a student really wants a place here, it’s written all over their face.”  Though traditional institutions, Oxbridge are forward-looking in their approach to selecting candidates. Your background, race, nationality or gender will not figure in the decision process, but swoony-eyed students with a thirst for knowledge will be rewarded.
Your letter will arrive around Christmas time, or thereabouts, hopefully inviting you to ‘go up’ the following October. ‘Go up’ is Oxbridge slang for enrolling and a fitting phrase. The years that follow are unimaginably expansive, both intellectually and socially. Even upon leaving, your prospects are so bright, Oxbridge graduates can have the confidence that life will continue to go up… and up, and up.

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