Oxford or Cambridge: Is Either Right for Your Child?

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Dec 26, 2016

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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.

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Written By Namita Mehta

Namita Mehta is a partner and the Undergraduate Services Manager at The Red Pen. Namita led the University Guidance Counselling Department at B.D. Somani International School in Mumbai for more than three years. As an in-house counselor, she advised students on effective profile development, managed the international university application process, and developed relationships with university admissions offices. Namita also specializes in training applicants for the Oxford and Cambridge interview process. She currently resides in Mumbai, but past homes include Hong Kong, UK and Germany. She holds a Masters in Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry, University of Oxford.

See all articles by Namita
  1. Nainika Ajani

    Thanks for an honest opinion, and for providing a holistic picture of the oxbridge experience! 🙂

  2. Sheetal

    A great insightful article on Oxford & Cambridge – The Tutorial, the Information on the Oxford Tradition were really great. Helped get a glimpse of the inside student life at Oxford – Cambridge in a brief manner!

  3. Madison Largey

    Excellent article! Very useful and insightful information for anyone interested in learning more about the schools from an insider perspective that highlights key aspects of attending.

  4. Ayush Sharma

    Well written with informative insights! Thanks for a helpful article Namita.

  5. Rahul garg

    Your article puts the art and articulate in artlicle.

    Really helps students and parents decide if a particular university especially the big 2 are actually for them.

    Now please share your contact so we can come to you for counseling.

  6. Shivam Dubey

    Great article for students confused between Cambridge and Oxford, very informative.

  7. Ashmi

    Very interesting and well written article, which clearly outlines the unique factors of the Oxbridge system. A perfect summary to help students understand if Oxbridge is the right fit for them. Thank you for sharing your insights Namita!

  8. Arpita

    Parents and students alike have huge aspirations without knowing the reality of what they’re getting themselves/their children into. There’s more to picking a university than looking at rankings. Informative article Namita!

  9. Sujata Mehta

    A really great insight to the oxbridge experience! Helps students and parents decide on their course of action! Very useful for all!

  10. Sujata Mehta

    A very useful and insightful article on The oxbridge experience! It covers all the aspects of the two top universities and helps one decide what is a good option!

  11. Shantanu

    Very informative article! One of the most descriptive and objective articles I have read regarding Oxbridge. A great resource for people considering these institutions.

  12. Sangeeta Kaul

    It was awesome reading the Oxbridge article. I liked how it highlighted the academic curriculum, the approach, location and culture that one can expect and whether it was the right fit for a student wanting to study there.

  13. ruchi kothari

    Very well written namita! Keep up the awesome work!! xxx

  14. Shaili Kejriwal

    Straight from the heart (..and the horse’s mouth!). So well broken down and articulated – super helpful for those considering Oxbridge as options. Thanks Namita!

  15. Kunal Kaushik

    A great and insightful article. Shows the real picture, in a simple way. Great work Namita.

  16. Abhinav Garg

    Very helpful article. Whereas a lot of information is publicly available on US universities, not much is known about these big two. May I request you to write another piece elaborating the application and admission process for these universities

  17. Monika

    Thanks a lot Namita! Your article reinforces our decision to apply to oxbridge for my daughter who is academically brilliant and would want to immerse herself in her subject and such a campus life. Please let us know if you can help her prepare application for Oxbridge.

  18. Salil Gupta

    You really write superbly. Very well written to help students make a quick and correct decision to go for it or not!!

  19. Nima Choksi

    Excellent article! It is a great read for students applying to colleges. I loved that it explained whether oxbridge would be a right fit for a student based on their personality and interests..Great work Namita 🙂

  20. Samyak Jasani

    Very helpful article due to the emphasis on the importance of students finding the right fit for themselves. Thank you for your insights.

  21. Chinmaya Kausik

    Wow. There is so much I did not know about Oxbridge. This is a wonderful article, and I am probably looking into more of your work now! I always had an “academically-oriented” vibe from them, but the focus on exams clearly tells me why applying would be a bad idea for me.
    Thanks so much!

  22. Tracy

    Thank you for sharing the ins and outs of Oxbridge life… it was very informative!

  23. Tracy

    Very well written article Namita, it beautifully highlights the life at Oxbridge!

  24. K. Singh

    Thanks for the brilliant insights. It was great to see your emphasis on the “right fit” as it is possibly the most important factor in choosing a university.

  25. Shonan

    This is a true-to-life account of the student experience within these universities. I know some of my friends would have benefitted from such practical guidance, before their enrolment.

    Accurately represented and insightful writing.

  26. Mangal Kothari

    Hi Namita, As a parent i find your views on Oxbridge very helpful in decision making as they are objective and stated with lot of clarity.

  27. Mangal Kothari.Pondy.

    Hi Namita, As a parent I found your inputs on Oxbridge very useful as they are objective and stated with clarity.

  28. mangal.pondy.

    Hi Namita, As a parent I find your inputs on Oxbridge very helpful as they are objective and stated with lot of clarity.

  29. Megha Mehta

    A very well written article. It is this kind of genuine dialogue that is most relevant to students today considering the unlimited opportunities before them .

  30. Sejal Mehta

    A very well written article, it is so helpful for students applying abroad . I never knew somuch about oxbridge. Thankyou somuch. Superb work !!!

  31. Aarti

    Excellent read. It’s a great insight for students considering Oxbridge. Very well written & on point.

  32. Aditi Chandarana

    An insightful and well-articulated article which highlights the key aspects of an “Oxbridge” education.

  33. Rafiq Balwa

    Great Article. Throwing light on the key points for both the universities.

  34. Janvi Mehta

    Amazing article! Thank you for such an amazing insight on oxbridge. Now I would know what would be a right fit for me

  35. Natasha

    A great read!! A wonderful article for the new students thinking of applying!!

  36. Bhavini Jairazbhoy

    Very informative and well written! Gives one a true insight for both unis

  37. Shifa

    Well written article with an interesting insight for applying for one of the two colleges. The bite made in the article about ‘right for’ is highlighted very well.

  38. T. Singh

    What an insightful read.Gives an insider’s view to these two prestigious institutions. It’s the little details that you point out that matter so much.

  39. Kate Warre-Cornish

    Really clear and well written article. Super helpful for students and parents making this important decision.

  40. Mokshi Shah

    Such a great article, debunking the myths attached to Oxbridge rankings. Your emphasis on the right fit is just what the new generation of students and parents need. Thank you for the thoughtful insights!

  41. STEP Maths Preparation Courses

    Thanks for your insight and a very useful article Namita! We always emphasise that passion for the subject is the strongest indicator of how well a student will navigate through his or her degree. Particularly the case in Maths where you can be staring at a Maths problem for several hours before the inspiration hits you!

  42. STEP Maths Preparation Courses

    Thanks for your insight and a very useful article Namita! We always emphasise that passion for the subject is the strongest indicator of how well a student will navigate through his or her Oxbridge degree. Particularly the case in Maths where you can be staring at a Maths problem for several hours before the inspiration hits you!

  43. Renuka Gangadi

    Extremely well-written, Namita. Concise and yet provides the relevant information to be able to make an informed decision.

  44. Nidhi Ghia

    Good Advice. Precise and clear. Thank you Namita. Very well explained.

  45. Jasmine parikh

    A well – written article which gives an all round insight to parents & prospective students into what to expect from Oxbridge!

  46. Arnav Mehta

    Very well written and informative, it will guide me for my future educational endeavours. Thanks!!

  47. Namrata Virani

    A very complete and well written article about the Oxbridge experience! The focus on the right fit is especially appreciated as students and parents can make an informed decision.

  48. Yuti

    Very insightful article. It’s always better to be fully aware of what one is getting into. This article provides all the inside view of what the Oxbridge life will be like for a student with information not always shared through brochures and websites.

  49. Vrinda

    Great article. It highlights the learning environment and culture of both universities and helps an applicant determine if they will ‘fit’ with the university. Thank you for sharing these nuances that aren’t easily available on the websites of these schools.

  50. Vrinda

    Great article. It highlights the learning environment and ethos of both universities and helps an applicant determine if they ‘fit’ with this culture. Thank you for sharing nuances – information that is not easily available online.

  51. Nilay Shah

    An amazing article. Really helped to understand the Oxbridge college life along with the different traditions.
    It also really helps to understand the differences between Oxford and Cambridge and which of them would be the best fit for students.
    It really helps to get deep down into the student experience which is hardly ever talked about and helps to understand if this would be a right fit for students thinking about applying to Oxbridge.

  52. Melusi Dlamini

    A well-written article and an interesting glimpse into the life of an Oxbridge student. I’m sure that many prospective applicants will find it helpful.

  53. Melusi

    A well written article and an interesting glimpse into the life of an Oxbridge student. I’m sure that many prospective applicants will find it helpful.

  54. Misha Patel

    Fantastic article. A great insight into the entire university experience at Oxbridge, beyond academia, that are often overlooked or not considered in much detail. Very helpful in determining whether the universities are a right fit for prospective students

  55. Anju Goela

    Very informative article, specially for me, since my daughter will be applying to undergraduate colleges this year. It is a comprehensive look at Oxbridge, its culture, curriculum, grading systems, campus life and traditions. It has given me plenty of food for thought. Thank you for the detailed insiders view on Oxford and Cambridge – a lot of which can only come from having been part of the system

  56. Arnav

    Perfect prognosis of Oxbridge being right for a student who knows what his dream is and subjects of interest are before he can enters university. We seldom realize that this is the classic difference between top universities in the USA and the U.K. And their education systems. Thanks for highlighting this.

  57. Ruth

    This is incredibly insightful, thank you. My son has been wanting to attend oxford for years, given the rigid subject focus and stress on exams it is definitely not right for him as an undergraduate. It may be perfect for postgraduate study.

  58. Karishma J

    Clear and concise! Thank you Namita for this insightful read.

  59. Ansh

    Thanks a lot Namita, for such a comprehensive and insightful article on the Oxbridge experience. It is an extremely precise and honest opinion about the two institutions.
    As a student it will be extremely handy for my future endeavors!!

  60. Alyssa

    What a fantastic article! Extremely insightful- A perfect introduction to the oxbridge experience! Very informative and well written! Prospective Students ( and parents) are lucky to have you in their corner ! Keep up the good work! Looking forward to your next article!

  61. Priyal Mehta

    Thanks a lot Namita. A very well written article giving a detailed insight on both universities. Will definitely help lots.

  62. Ashini

    Insightful summary! I would definitely recommend anyone applying to consider the points you have shared before making a decision.

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