Oxford Vs. Cambridge – Which School Is Better?

Two of the most elite academic institutions of higher learning in the world are located less than two hours apart. In addition to their geography, Cambridge University and Oxford University share many similarities.

Most impressive is their illustrious reputation – those who earn a degree from either school will have more doors open to them based simply upon name recognition.

Both schools are the oldest universities in the United Kingdom, and the second and third continuously-operated universities globally (following only the University of Bologna in Italy).

Both schools have matriculated an abundance of highly esteemed leaders and historical figures.

Famous Oxonians include author J. R. R. Tolkein, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, astronomer Edwin Hubble, and former Prime Minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto.

On the other hand, Cambridge boasts the following alumni: scientists Alan Turing and Sir Isaac Newton, author Sylvia Plath, evolutionist Charles Darwin, broadcaster David Attenborough, and Huffington Post co-founder Arianna Huffington.

Both institutions are also endowed with substantial funding. 

Cambridge is the wealthiest academic institution in Europe, with an endowment of over 7.1 billion pounds ($9.5 billion) and additional assets of more than 12.5 billion pounds ($16.8 billion), while Oxford University’s assets equal roughly 1.3 billion pounds ($1.77 billion), and Oxford’s individual colleges’ endowments amount to nearly $6.86 billion.

Based on similarities between the two institutions, the choice of which to attend may seem impossible. That being said, several differences can clarify the decision for foreign and domestic applicants seeking an exclusive experience at one of the globe’s best universities.

Oxford Vs. Cambridge – Academic Requirements for Admission

University of Cambridge
University of Cambridge – Public domain photo via Wikimedia Commons

Admissions to Oxford and Cambridge are highly based on Advanced (A) Level qualifications earned in various subjects taken during secondary or pre-university education. Students in the United Kingdom typically pursue A-levels over the course of two years, taking three or four A-level courses in their junior year and cutting back to three in their senior year. 

Generally, students take A-level courses in the subjects they are most interested in pursuing at the university level. 

Oxford and Cambridge offer degree programs that have varied A-level stipulations. Cambridge typically accepts an A*AA or A*A*A, which is the equivalent of an A+ and two A’s, or two A+’s and one A, according to the American letter grade system. 

Oxford’s programs also vary in their requirements, ranging from AAA to A*A*A*. 

What does this mean for American students applying to either institution? 

At Oxford, students should apply with a minimum of three to four AP scores at a level 5/5, and the AP scores should come from subjects they intend to study at university. A 33 or higher on the ACT or 1480 out of 1600 on the SAT is preferred, at the least.

Cambridge maintains slightly higher AP score requirements and slightly lower ACT/SAT score minimums, with five AP scores at level 5/5, a 32-33 for ACT scores, and 1460-1500 out of 1600 on the SAT.

Both Oxford and Cambridge prompt applicants to select a college out of 29 options (for Cambridge) or 33 options (for Oxford). 

Admission to one’s desired college is not guaranteed; in fact, students are often accepted to a college that they did not explicitly mention on their applications. Generally, students apply to the college that hosts classes necessary for their course of study.

One thing that applicants should know about Oxford and Cambridge is that they are not permitted to apply to both schools. 

This rule is put in place so as not to overburden the admissions departments of both schools, who conduct in-person interviews of around 75% of applicants (at Cambridge) and 40-45% of applicants (at Oxford).

Interviews at Oxford and Cambridge seek to assess applicants’ problem-solving abilities, synthesis of ideas, intellectual flexibility, and logical reasoning faculties; usually, questions relate to the program of study to which the applicant is applying. Applicants may also be asked to apply their existing knowledge to a new context.

Oxford Vs. Cambridge – Rankings, Acceptance Rates, and More

Queen's College, Oxford University
Odicalmuse, Facade of The Queen’s College, Oxford, CC BY-SA 4.0

Since the inception of academic rankings, Oxford and Cambridge have earned spots in the top three positions within Europe, and often, the world. 

Oxford was most recently named #1 in Best Global Universities in Europe and #1 in Best Global Universities in the United Kingdom by U.S. News, and #2 by the QS World University Rankings

Cambridge, on the other hand, earned the #1 spot in the 2021 Complete University Guide, Top 3 in the 2021 Guardian University rankings, and Top 3 in the 2020 Academic Ranking of World Universities.

Acceptance rates to both universities are among the most competitive across the globe. Recently, over 17,000 students applied to study at Cambridge, and only 3,500 were accepted (an acceptance rate of ~21%). 

Acceptance rates at Oxford are even lower at 16.25% – in the past academic year, they accepted 3,250 students out of 20,000 submissions.

Students who enroll at either Oxford or Cambridge can expect to pay high tuition rates and fees, particularly if they are international applicants. 

The fee for ‘Home’ students to enroll at either university is 9,250 pounds ($12,538 US dollars). Enrolled ‘Home’ students have the option to take out a government loan to cover tuition expenses, which can be deferred until the student has graduated and is earning a minimum salary.

International tuition fees are considerably more expensive and depend on the intended course of study; international students are not eligible for tuition assistance from the UK government. 

Depending on the program, international Oxford students can expect to pay between 27,840 and 39,010 pounds ($37,737 to $52,878 US dollars).

For most course pathways at Cambridge, 2022 international tuition costs 23,340 pounds ($31,288 US dollars). 

However, course pathways in mathematics, architecture, music, and geography are about 5,000 pounds more expensive; several fields in the sciences and engineering areas are 12,000 pounds more expensive; medical and veterinary sciences account for 60,954 pounds.

Both Oxford and Cambridge charge additional college fees collected on behalf of either university, which range from 8,250 to 10,939 pounds per year; Cambridge estimates that minimum living costs are approximately 11,480 additional pounds.

Oxford-Cambridge Rivalry – The History Behind It

University of Cambridge Newnham College
Cambridge University’s Newnham College – Public domain photo via Wikimedia Commons

Oxford and Cambridge are the two oldest universities that have operated continuously in the United Kingdom. 

Both were founded over 800 years ago, and the rivalry between the two institutions dates back to 1209. The story goes that Cambridge was founded by scholars who sought refuge from a mob of Oxford townsmen. 

To this day, the schools celebrate their rivalry through events like the Boat Race and the ‘Varsity Match’ (an annual rugby game). Cambridge currently maintains a slight lead in both events over the history of the institutions’ existence.

Oxford fully admitted female students in 1920, while Cambridge did not do so until 1947. Both schools have matriculated many of Britain’s most prominent figures, including domestic and foreign leaders, authors, inventors, Pulitzer Prize winners, and Nobel Prize laureates. 

Specifically, Oxford is home to nearly 67 Nobel Prize winners, while Cambridge takes the lead at nearly 120.

Students who graduate from either school or have received an honorary degree are eligible for nomination to the Oxford and Cambridge Club – new members must be nominated by current members.

Deciding Whether to Attend Oxford or Cambridge

The truth is that Oxford and Cambridge are much more alike than they are different. And since there is no possibility that a student could gain admission to both schools in the same year, the decision of whether to attend Oxford or Cambridge is made at the application level. 

Oxford’s lower acceptance rate, which was previously mentioned, may make Cambridge a “safer” choice for less-confident applicants.

Undergraduate teaching methods are highly similar at both schools. Typically, students attend weekly or more frequently hour-long classes in a small group format with a professor or doctoral candidate. 

They are normally required to write an essay or complete an assignment before class, which they will discuss in their groups.

The town of Oxford is large, more urban, and more industrial compared to Cambridge, which more closely resembles a smaller town focused on a farm-based market. 

Which School Is Better – Oxford or Cambridge?

St. John's College, Oxford University
Andrew Shiva / Wikipedia, St John’s College Oxford, CC BY-SA 4.0

Asking whether Oxford or Cambridge is the better school is both difficult and subjective. Both institutions are highly selective, competitive, world-renowned, and endowed with substantial funding. 

The better question to ask is, which school is better for the applicant? Depending on the course of study, one school may offer better programs, research opportunities, facilities, faculty, and experiential learning opportunities than the other. 

Additionally, Oxford requires students to choose their specialty upon applying, while Cambridge students can opt to make that determination at a later time.

Regardless of the school to which the applicant applies, they can be sure to experience a world of opportunities at their fingertips. Upon graduating, they benefit from the globally-recognized reputation associated with either school name.