Oxford and Cambridge: the similarities and differences | University of Oxford
Students at Oxford and Cambridge Student Conference
Students at Oxford and Cambridge Student Conference

Oxford and Cambridge: the similarities and differences

The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge have a great deal in common, including their collegiate structure, personalised teaching methods and wealth of resources available to students.  There are some differences between the two institutions which we’ll explain below. For more detailed information about each University, please see their Undergraduate Prospectus or get in touch.



Both institutions are involved in a range of outreach activities including the regional Oxford and Cambridge Student Conferences, which provide a great deal of information about both Universities.


Choosing a course

The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge agree that the most important decision a prospective applicant has to make is the course they wish to study, and that they should use this decision to direct and inform their choice of university. It's important that students do their research, read course details carefully and consider whether the structure and content of a course would suit them – they’ll be studying at a high level for several years, so it's important they choose something that really inspires and motivates them.

At Oxford and Cambridge, courses tend to be traditional academic courses, with a strong emphasis on more personalised teaching through small-group tuition. Most formal assessment is through written examinations.

Both Universities are committed to recruiting the best and brightest students from all backgrounds. All of our admissions decisions are made on academic criteria – an applicant’s ability and potential to succeed on their chosen course.

Choosing between Oxford and Cambridge

It's not possible to apply to both Oxford and Cambridge in the same year, so students will have to choose one or the other. As mentioned above, an applicant’s choice of university should be driven by course choice. Both Universities are world-renowned in teaching and research in both arts and science subjects, with fantastic resources and facilities, so the decision is largely an individual one.

Some courses are offered at one of the Universities but not the other – students should check each institution’s Undergraduate Prospectus/website for details of courses on offer. It’s also important to be aware that courses with a similar title at the two Universities may be different in content. Therefore, it’s important for students to check the course details to see which one will suit them best.

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Both Oxford and Cambridge are collegiate, meaning they’re made up of a number of individual colleges, as well as academic departments.

Every student is a member of the University, their department and their college. It’s the Universities (through the academic departments) that are responsible for course content, core teaching (lectures, seminars, practicals, projects), examinations and awarding degrees. This means that students are studying for the same degree, whichever college they go to.

A college will be a student's home while they’re studying – colleges provide a range of facilities, academic and pastoral support, and organise small-group tuition (which may be with a tutor/supervisor from another college).

The college system offers the benefits of being part of a large, diverse University, and also a member of a smaller, interdisciplinary college community, which usually includes both undergraduate and graduate students. Students will have access to their college's facilities, such as extensive library and IT provision, as well as the resources of the wider University.

The colleges are responsible for admitting undergraduate students, and students can indicate if they have a preference college in their UCAS application. If they don’t have a college preference, they can instead select an ‘open’ application and their application will be allocated to a college which has relatively fewer applications for their course in that year.

Both Universities work hard to ensure that the best students are successful in gaining a place, whichever college they've applied to or been allocated to (in the case of open applications). This means that applicants may be interviewed by more than one college and students may receive an offer from a different college to the one to which they applied or were allocated.

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Teaching methods are very similar at both Universities, as students attend lectures, classes and laboratory work as appropriate for their course. Unlike at many other universities, students at Oxford and Cambridge also benefit from highly personalised teaching time with experts in their field. The only difference is in the name: Oxford refers to these sessions as ‘tutorials’ while Cambridge calls them ‘supervisions’.

Students are required to prepare an essay or other piece of work in advance for these sessions. Usually, tutorials/supervisions take place weekly, with students meeting their tutor/supervisor to discuss the work in small groups (most often of up to three students, though the group size varies between courses and years). These sessions aren't formally assessed so they don't contribute to the final degree classification, but they're used to review progress and ensure students receive regular feedback.

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Students at both Oxford and Cambridge are assessed informally throughout their course by producing work for their tutorials/supervisions, which help to ensure students are on track. Formal assessment is almost entirely based on written examinations, although some courses (where relevant) may include some practical assessment and in the final year of many courses one exam paper can be replaced with a dissertation.

At Oxford, most courses are formally assessed at the end of the first and final years, with the final degree classification result usually based on the exams taken at the end of the final year.

Most Cambridge students are assessed at the end of each year and their final degree classification is determined by their performance in exams in more than one year of their course

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How to apply

Students must apply online through UCAS by 6pm (UK time) on 15 October.

At Cambridge, some students are also required to complete the Cambridge Online Preliminary Application (COPA) in addition to the UCAS application; and other deadlines may apply for some applicants. See the Applying page for information.

Cambridge also asks all applicants to complete an online Supplementary Application Questionnaire (SAQ) after submission of their UCAS application to ensure consistent information about all applicants.

Oxford does not require students to complete any extra forms.

Applicants typically need to take a written test/assessment as part of their application and may be asked to submit some written work. If a student’s application is shortlisted, they'll be invited to the relevant University for interview.

For further details:

Assessing applications

Entrance requirements

Applicants should make sure they’re expected to achieve the required A Levels, International Baccalaureate (IB) grades or other equivalent qualifications. There may also be specific subject requirements for particular courses, especially in the sciences. At Cambridge, subject requirements may vary between the colleges.

Conditional offers for Oxford range between A*A*A and AAA (depending on the course) at A Level, or 38-40 in the IB, including core points. Certain grades may be required at Higher Level.

The typical conditional A Level offer for Cambridge is A*A*A or A*AA, depending on the course; or 40-42 in the IB, including core points, with 776 at Higher Level. Applicants may be required to achieve certain grades in particular subject(s), depending on individual circumstances.

Other equivalent qualifications are also welcome.

For further details


Cambridge Admissions Tutors are provided with up to six types of publicly available data (including geo-demographic and school performance data) to help them contextualise educational achievement when considering applications. In addition, the Extenuating Circumstances Form gives teachers the opportunity to provide greater detail about an applicant’s particular circumstances (where appropriate) so they can be fairly assessed.

Oxford encourages teachers to include details of any special circumstances or other relevant information in the main UCAS application. Oxford also uses publicly available information to indicate those applicants who may have experienced educational or socio-economic disadvantages. Where applicants demonstrate the necessary academic aptitude for Oxford, they’re likely to be considered for interview and seen in addition to students identified through the normal shortlisting process.

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Many applicants are predicted to achieve top grades and many also have excellent references. Therefore, it’s not possible for Oxford or Cambridge to select the best students based on their UCAS applications alone. Each University has a slightly different approach to differentiating between applicants.

Oxford asks applicants for most of its courses to take a test as part of their application. Tutors then shortlist applicants based on students’ applications and performance in the test. Where applications are around three per place, most applicants are shortlisted. For the most competitive degrees far fewer will be shortlisted, to allow those who most closely meet the selection criteria to have multiple interviews. AS Level grades and Uniform Mark Scheme (UMS) scores are not a key element in shortlisting.

Cambridge interviews around 75 per cent of undergraduate applicants. AS Level grades and UMS scores are considered (where available), alongside all the other information available to selectors, both in deciding which applicants will be invited to interview and which will be offered a place.

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Assessments/tests before interview

All students applying for the Standard Medicine course (A100) at either University must take the BMAT as part of their application, as must candidates for the graduate entry Medicine course (A101) or Biomedical Sciences course (BC98) at Oxford.

Please note that Oxford will only accept the November BMAT results for A100 and BC98.

Oxford requires applicants to take written tests before interview for most other courses. Please note that separate registration is required. These tests are usually taken in students’ school or college.

About half of the courses at Cambridge require applicants to take a subject-specific pre-interview written assessment. Most students will be able to take their pre-interview assessment in their own school/college, and must be registered in advance for this by their assessment centre.

Assessments/tests at interview

Cambridge requires applicants to some courses to take a subject-specific written assessment when they’re in Cambridge for interview (if interviewed). Students don’t need to be registered in advance for an at-interview written assessment.

For further details

Written work

Both Universities require some applicants to submit samples of written work as part of their application. At Oxford the deadline for the submission of this work is 10 November.

Applicants to Cambridge will be advised by their college when it needs to be submitted (usually early November).

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The purpose and structure of these interviews is very similar at both Universities. They’re a lot like a mini tutorial or supervision, where students may be given a small passage to read or perhaps set a small problem which they’ll discuss in the interview.

The main focus of interviews is to get a sense of how the student applies their existing knowledge and skills to unfamiliar problems, and how they process the information available. It's not a matter of how quickly – or even whether – the student arrives at a particular answer. There often aren’t right or wrong answers, and it’s the process of reaching their answer that’s generally of most significance (rather than the answer itself). The interviewers just want to get an insight into how the student thinks.

It’s important for students to understand that their performance at interview alone doesn’t determine the outcome of their application – admissions decisions are made holistically, taking all available information into account.

Both Universities are aware of private companies and individuals who offer, at a charge, information and advice on our admissions process, tests/assessments and interviews. We DO NOT support or encourage any of these commercial enterprises. We’re unable to verify the accuracy of the information these companies/individuals may provide.

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