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Top 10 Similarities and Differences between Cambridge and Oxford

The University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford, often referred to together as ‘Oxbridge,’ are two of the most prestigious universities in the world and the two oldest universities in England. Together, Oxford and Cambridge universities have produced 193 Nobel Laureates combined. And while they share a similar reputation as world-class educational institutions, there are many similarities and differences between Oxford and Cambridge:


1. The Collegiate System


Christ Church College, Oxford

Both universities use the collegiate system, where the larger universities consist of individual colleges. When applying to Oxford or Cambridge, an undergraduate applicant applies to the college rather than the university. The scholar is accepted by the college before being eligible to enrol at the larger university. This is a traditional system, owed to the origins of the two universities being comprised of smaller colleges. Oxford and Cambridge’s colleges are independent, self-governing institutions. The University of Oxford is currently composed of 45 colleges, while the University of Cambridge is composed of 31 colleges.

This means that while students belong to the wider university, they also belong to their smaller academic colleges. The student benefits from this system, as they are eligible to use resources from both their academic colleges and the larger university as a whole.

2. Student Life


Oxford Summer Courses students punting on the River Cam

Oxford and Cambridge are both similarly-sizes small cities (Oxford’s population in 2020 is around 158,000, Cambridge’s population in 2020 is around 120,000), and therefore student experience tends to be fairly similar. In addition to student life, each city boasts fantastic restaurants, historical attractions, and outdoor activities in the English countryside.

One common summer pasttime in both Oxford and Cambridge is punting. A punt refers to a special type of boat with a flat bottom and a square-cut bow. A punt is ideal for small rivers or shallow water, making it ideal for both the River Cam in Cambridge, and the River Cherwell in Oxford.

3. World-class Institutions


Oxford Summer Courses students touring the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge

Despite being smaller cities, both Cambridge and Oxford boast world-class museums (the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge), debating societies (the Oxford Union and the Cambridge Union), botanical gardens (Oxford Botanic Garden and Cambridge Botanic Garden) and publishing houses (Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press). These prestigious institutions add to the quality of life in each city as a whole, and add to the Oxford or Cambridge student experience.

4. Academic achievements


Cambridge University is home to 121 Nobel Prize Winners

Though this will likely come as no surprise, it’s worth highlighting: when comparing Oxford vs. Cambridge, academic achievements must be taken into account. Both the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge have stellar academic reputations, spanning the past 800 years.

As of 2020, the University of Oxford can claim 72 Nobel Prize winners among its alumni. The University of Cambridge has had 121 Nobel Prize winners among its alumni as of 2020. In addition to these recognitions, both the University of Oxford and University of Cambridge consistently rank among the top 10 institutions in the world for their undergraduate programmes.

In addition to these achievements, both universities are known for their political alumni, with many of the UK prime ministers being from either the University of Oxford or the University of Cambridge. As of November 2020, of 55 UK prime ministers to date, 14 were educated at the University of Cambridge (including 6 at Trinity College) and 28 were educated at the University of Oxford (including 13 at Christ Church).

5. Formal halls


A formal hall dinner at Christ Church, Oxford

At both Oxford and Cambridge Universities, students often take part in formal hall dinners within their colleges. A formal dinner is a meal held in the college dining hall, where students are often required to wear academic attire.

Traditionally, the formal hall begins with students taking their seats before Grace is said (at times, it’s even said in Latin). The prayer is followed by a set meal, often including salad and dessert. Many of the more traditional colleges at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge have the customary high table at dinner: a long table slightly raised above floor level where guests of the college, or those from the senior dining room, would sit.

6. Keep off the grass!


Worcester College, University of Oxford

When comparing Cambridge vs. Oxford, one interesting tradition that remains for both institutions is the prohibition of walking on grass in certain areas of the universities. When visiting Oxford or Cambridge colleges, you’ll notice the pristine condition of the lawns at each college. This is no coincidence: the lawns are so pristine because it is forbidden to walk on them in either city.

In Cambridge, some colleges reserve the right to walk on the grass as an exclusive benefit for Fellows of the college. In Oxford, walking on the grass is traditionally reserved for college professors.

7. Filming Locations


The staircase at Christ Church, Oxford, was also used as a filming location in Harry Potter

You may feel a bit of déjà vu when walking the cobblestone streets of Oxford and Cambridge. It may come as no surprised that the picturesque buildings and streets in these two cities have served as the backdrop for dozens of films.

In Cambridge, you may find yourself on the former set of Chariots of Fire, The Theory of Everything, or the History boys. We’ve even rounded up our top 5 favourite films set in Cambridge for our students – recommended viewing for anyone preparing to visit the city!

With so many novels set in Oxford, it’s no wonder that it’s a popular film setting as well. With its dreaming spires and incredible architecture, Oxford has been the filming location for various Harry Potter films, Brideshead Revisited (2008), Tolkien (2019), and the His Dark Materials series on BBC (2019), among many others.

8. Teaching methods


Oxford Summer Courses uses the traditional Oxbridge tutorial method for students aged 16+

The University of Oxford and University of Cambridge use a similar method of teaching. Known for their rigorous academic teaching, both Oxford and Cambridge students benefit from individualised attention from their tutor, in one-on-one or two-on-one sessions. This style of teaching is supplemented by full class, or seminar, teaching, and gives the student a chance to discuss the subject matter with an expert while the tutor challenges their preconceptions. The only difference here is what each university calls these session. In Cambridge, students refers to these sessions as supervisions, while Oxford refers to the sessions as tutorials.

9. Academic Interviews


The Radcliffe Camera, Oxford

“Talk about a lightbulb.” This is one example of an interview question asked during a challenging Oxbridge admissions interview. After applications are initially screened, those candidates which are short-listed are invited to a series of interviews and tests with university academics. Oxford and Cambridge interview questions have a reputation for its challenging questions, meant to challenge an interviewee. Past interview questions have also included questions such as, “Do you think you’re clever?”. Many of these questions have no one correct answer, but are meant to challenge the student to address their preconceptions – which is considered crucial to student success under the tutorial/supervision system.

10. A blossoming start-up scene


Business and Entrepreneurship class at Oxford Summer Courses

Both the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge offer critical support to start-ups from their student body, contributing to the blossoming start-up scenes in both cities.

Cambridge is a powerhouse in the tech start-up scene in the UK, bringing to life the some of the nation’s most brilliant ideas in science and tech. The booming tech start-up scene has been given the nickname, “Silicon Fen”, comparing it to Silicon Valley near Stanford. In Oxford, promising startups in AI, fintech, and more are contribute to its booming entrepreneurial scene.


1. Courses


Oxford Summer Courses students walking at the University of Oxford

When comparing the universities of Oxford vs. Cambridge, prospective students should consider the course they’d like to study at each institution. Both Oxford and Cambridge both offer many traditional subjects, including History, Mathematics, Medicine, English Literature, Classics, Law, and more. However, there are some courses offered which are specific to one of the two universities. For example, only the University Oxford will offer an Art and Design degree, while the University of Cambridge uniquely offers an Architecture degree.

2. Origins


Summer school students punting down the River Cam in Cambridge

Did you know that the University of Cambridge was founded by a group of scholars from the University of Oxford? The Cambridge vs. Oxford rivalry may have originally began with the founding of Cambridge University by a group of Oxford University students.

The University of Oxford is 924 years old, founded in 1096. Following a conflict between the townspeople and Oxford students, a group of scholars left Oxford to found a new university in the city of Cambridge in 1209.

3. The subfusc


Academic robes worn by Cambridge summer school staff

Both Cambridge and Oxford hold the traditions of academic dress for its students and scholars, to be worn at events such as matriculation, where students officially become a member of the university, or at formal dinners. However, Oxford also has the additional tradition of wearing a type of academic dress known as the subfusc, to be worn while sitting examinations. Every undergraduate and graduate student must wear a specific gown, cap and tie to these events, which makes up their subfusc, which means “of a dark hue”. In 2015, Oxford University students voted whether or not to keep the archaic subfusc, and opted to continue wearing it to formal occasions and examinations.

4. Setting


An Oxford Summer Courses student taking a photo from the River Cam, the central river in Cambridge

When comparing Oxford vs. Cambridge, it’s easy to see many similarities between the two settings in the UK. Both are located about 50-55 miles from central London, in small cities surrounded by the British countryside. Cambridge is surrounded by the marshy area known as the Fens, a flat, coastal plain in eastern England. Oxford is located in southwest England, bordering on the picturesque Cotswolds.

However, the small cities also have their differences. Oxford is larger in size, with a population about 30% larger than that of Cambridge. And while both cities are located near rivers, the sole river in Cambridge, the river Cam, flows through the city centre. Oxford, on the other hand, has two rivers (Thames and Cherwell) which flow around the city centre.

5. Weather

Oxford-Summer-Courses-students-enjoying-a-sunny-day-in-Cambridge Cambridge summer school

Yes, even the weather is different! This is in part due to their different settings in the UK. Cambridge is located in an area of the Fens which is roughly only 6m above sea level, while Oxford is nearly 72m about sea level. One thing that you will immediately notice about the Fens when visiting Cambridge is how flat they are. Because of this, Cambridge is known to have more fog, as well as stronger winds, compared to Oxford.

6. May Day


Oxford students gathering near Magdalen College on May Morning

Crowds gather every May Day morning to view a tradition unique to Oxford. The celebrations begin the night before, where students typically party throughout the night, ending just before six in the morning. At daybreak, as the sun rises, viewers congregate together underneath the tower of Magdalen College for what is a special occasion each year in Oxford.

As the sun rises, the choir of Magdalen College begin to sing the Hymnus Eucharisticus from the top of the tower, something that has happened there on May Morning for five hundred years. Next, there is a prayer for the City and University. Though banned, the festivities commonly end with one or two students jumping from Magdalen Bridge into the canal below.

Then the wider festivities begin, from brass bands to Morris Dancing troops – traditional entertainment to welcome in spring in Oxford.

7. Ascension Day


A window reflection from a college building at the University of Oxford

On Ascension Day, a Christian feast day celebrated 30 days after Easter a tradition unique to Oxford takes place at several of the colleges. At around 11am, after a short service, a large group of school children, no older than eleven or twelve, emerge from the different churches clutching long wooden sticks.

The group proceed to walk from the Church to different points in the city, through shops and Colleges alike, to do something known as ‘Beating the Bounds’. What they are doing is marking out the boundaries of the church parish, a practice which made much more sense in a time before maps.

This is done in a peculiar way – drawing a marking on the wall (or the floor) at different points in chalk, normally a cross, with the initials of the Church and the year in each quadrant. The children then take the wooden canes and hit the marker, to encouraging shouts of “Mark! Mark! Mark!” At each point, the marking is often followed by the singing of a Hymn. This is typically followed by a reception at the colleges.

8. Admission of women


Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford

The history women being accepted to the universities also differs between Cambridge vs. Oxford. For both universities, only men were permitted to enrol as students for most of their histories. It was only in the late 19th century that both universities established residential colleges exclusively for women: Girtion College in Cambridge (1869), and Somerville and Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford (1879).

While Cambridge was the first to welcome female students, women could not become full members of the university until the 1940s. In Oxford, on the other hand, women were welcomed to become full members in 1920. Today, there are still three colleges at Cambridge which are exclusive to women, while all Oxford colleges have been made coeducational.

9. Assessments and testing


Students walking while taking part in Cambridge summer courses

While both universities offer very challenging examinations, the assessment process differs greatly between the two universities for students. At the University of Oxford, students are assessed at the end of their first and final years of study, with the final result usually based on the examinations that they take at the end of their final year. At the University of Cambridge, students are assessed at the end of each year, and their final result is determined by their examination performance across multiple years of their course.

10. A-level exam scores


An Oxford Summer Courses student studies outside

During the application process, the University of Cambridge Cambridge routinely will ask student who take A-Level exams to report their exact scores. This is done to distinguish between high A-grades and grades closer to the A/B borderline. The University of Oxford instead asks for exact scores on a voluntary basis when applying.

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The similarities and differences between Cambridge and Oxford create an environment of shared respect and friendly rivalry. Which will you choose when you apply to study with us?

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What is the difference between Oxford and Cambridge University? Do they have have a lot of similarities? We discuss in our latest blog post. 

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