Oxford or Cambridge: Is Either Right for Your Child?
Pop culture has elevated not only the architecture of Oxford University to mythic status (read: Harry Potter), but also some of the practices that make Oxford University and Cambridge University experiences unique.
But life is not a movie, and the Oxford or Cambridge (often abbreviated as ‘Oxbridge’) experience isn’t for everyone. So, here’s a peek into what an Oxbridge education is really like, to help your child decide if it’s the right fit for her.
The tracking. Oxford University and Cambridge University, like all UK universities, require students to apply to a particular major or course, which cannot be changed. Oxford is particularly rigid about this; Cambridge offers marginal flexibility through their tripos system, which enables interdisciplinary study.
This means that Oxbridge may only be right for a student if he truly enjoys living and breathing one subject. It is not suited to anyone looking forward to exploring new and multiple subjects at university. (If the latter is your preference, then an American university, where a liberal arts education philosophy promotes holistic learning, might be best.)
Oxbridge is about deep-diving into a single passion — be it the nuances of medieval dream poems, postmodern fantasy, or climate change — to the exclusion of other subjects. If your student doesn’t care to ever again solve another maths problem, or conversely, analyse another novel, the one-track focus of Oxford and Cambridge is right for her.
The tutorial. The tutorial (as they say in Oxford) or supervision (as they say in Cambridge) system is the hallmark of an Oxbridge education. In the tutorial/supervision system, each week students sit one-on-one (or max, three-on-one) with a tutor to question and analyze a given problem. In this environment, there is no hiding in a crowd. Students need to be comfortable expressing and defending opinions in close conversation.
The campus. The University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge comprise unique colleges (38 at Oxford, 32 at Cambridge) — essentially, communities within which students eat, sleep and socialize. These colleges mix students studying all subjects, as well as undergraduates and postgraduates. If your child thrives in a smaller community, the collegiate system will give him or her the best of both worlds: being part of a small, friendly community within a large, global university; attending intimate classes with access to world-class research.
The exams. Oxbridge places heavy stress on exam performance. For example, for a student reading molecular and cellular biochemistry, 60% of her final grade is determined by six back-to-back exams at the end of the third year. For politics, philosophy and economics majors, the entire degree depends on final year exams.
This make-or-break stress is probably well familiar to most Indian students coming off their board exams. But higher education is a choice. If a student prefers project work and cumulative assessment, or finds it difficult to handle exam stress, then Oxford University or Cambridge University would not be a constructive learning environment.
The traditions. Oxbridge is full of quirky traditions that might seem cool to outsiders. And indeed, if your child is a social person who enjoys a degree of formality and tradition, then he’ll have a wonderful time. Oxford and Cambridge universities are famous for their May Balls (extravagant parties with strict black/white tie dress codes); a practice called formal hall in college may be familiar from movies, too; it’s when students and tutors sit down for a three-course meal wearing their gowns. (This can happen up to three times a week.)
And during exams at Oxford, students wear sub fusc, that is, a black gown, white shirt and black trousers, with a carnation pinned onto the gown (a white blossom for the first exam, pink for the middle and red for the last).
These are some of the experiences that make an Oxbridge education unique and define students’ memories. But for a student who is impatient of traditions or looking to set his own, other schools might offer a better experience.
The towns. Both Oxford and Cambridge are university towns, nestled in the British countryside with rivers running nearby. Life at Oxford or life in Cambridge can be a jarring change for a student coming from an urban metropolis. If your child wants a fast-paced environment with plenty of activities and areas completely independent of her university, then she should think twice before applying or attending Oxbridge.
There are plenty of phenomenal institutions outside of the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge. While Oxford and Cambridge are unique – both intellectually and culturally – they are not for everyone. Help your child consider all aspects of university life, as well as her own personality, to make sure her education decision is best for her.