Deciding on which university to attend is an important and sometimes tough decision, Oxbridge or otherwise. In this blog, I hope to help you start thinking about how you could narrow down your choices, and give you some ideas about where to go and what to do for guidance. I’ll keep my focus to Oxbridge, but these tips can be applied to the other universities you will apply to as well.
Perhaps you narrowed down your choice by first looking at leader boards or university reports and finding the top performing universities in your subject. Or you may like the look of a university for its location, its academic reputation, student life or any other advantages it may give you later in life. But by far, the most important thing to connect with is the course itself, and the course content. After all, this will be your primary activity for 3 or 4 years, so you need to be sure you’ll be interested, passionate, and committed enough to do it for that time.
Find the course page online, or in a prospectus and look at the content and pathway of what you’ll be studying. I was also able to find a timetable for each year to get an idea of what studying that course at that university would involve.
While there are a lot of similarities between Oxford and Cambridge, with Sciences at least, there are differences in the courses: fundamentally, Cambridge starts with a broader base of related subject areas, while at Oxford, you apply for the one subject as your focus area from the start. The course at Cambridge might suit you more if you want a broader base, or are unsure right now where you’d like to focus within Physical Sciences. As an example, you know you like Physics, but studying Chemistry, Geology, Material Science, and Philosophy of Science can give you a sound basis around Physics. At Oxford, through the 3 or 4 years, you also take ‘short options’, such as Philosophy of Science, which you may decide does the same thing, or not. I came to the conclusion that I was happy to keep my focus to Physics as it is a very broad subject and offers a lot by itself, so that was my decision. But not without a lot of work to get to that point.
I found what was unique about the Oxford course, for me and that I would enjoy. And I did the same for the Cambridge Physical Natural Sciences Tripos course. I was very tempted by Cambridge, so I did a 4-day placement that Cambridge offered to potential Natural Sciences applicants to see what it would be like to study and live at Cambridge, which helped me a lot in my final decision.
For some of you, the Undergraduate degree could be the first step to an academic life of further study and research at that institution. So, knowing what the future pathway could be in that university for your subject could be a factor in choosing the university. There are leader boards and statistics for universities’ research achievements and facilities too to help you compare. Sometimes, there are tutors who are present at Open Days who are more than happy to speak with you about it.
Studying at Oxford and Cambridge is very different from most other universities in a few ways. We have short 8 week terms to pack in a lot of work and play. Yes, we do have some of the longest holidays, but you’ll find that you need that time to not only relax, but go through the material more thoroughly at your own pace, as the pace during term time is very quick!
Looking from the outside in, you can build an idea of what the subject and place could be like, but its always nice if you can get a sense of what it is actually like, say by attending an Open Day, or finding and talking to people who are currently there and could give you an insider’s view. Open Days are one of the best places to talk to current students and tutors – they are the best people to help honestly answer any questions or concerns you have.
There are also ways to reach out to key people online: dedicated areas on the website, forums; some have dedicated students and staff to contact and they will advertise this online. I attended open days and got contact details of the people who didn’t mind keeping in touch if I had questions for them later too as I carried on researching. Online, I also found a student and a tutor, who were happy for me to contact them to ask questions.
Community and life outside is important, but don’t forget that your focus should be your subject. After all, that is why you are there. That is what is keeping you there. If you miss your grades, or lose that connection, then you lose your place at the university. For me, a balance is crucial. I wanted to enjoy student life at university, (and there is a lot available to you at Oxbridge!), so long as I managed my course expectations well enough. I was advised once: “It is all about good time management. You need to balance your time to give the needed focus to your course, so that you don’t end up missing out on doing fun things because of work”. A tip: a golden find, I was able to get a hold of alternate prospectuses for some of my university choices, including Oxford. Written by students, it shared so much about life at the university which only a student like you can tell you. I recommend reading these if you get the chance: both Oxford and Cambridge publish them.
For Oxford and Cambridge, you will be based and living at a college. It is true that colleges usually don’t make too much difference to what you study and how you study as all exams you’ll sit are centralised. We all cover the same topics through the year, and you’ll always have support, so long as the college offers the subject. Where colleges do differ is in terms of your living preferences, e.g. accommodation beyond first year, architecturally old or modern, self-catered or catered halls, big college or small college. I chose and loved Christ Church: I wanted the option to stay in college all 4 years. It is one of the biggest colleges, so I knew I’d be around people with diverse interests. However, such a famous and beautiful college is very competitive, something it’s not a bad idea to be aware of!
Regardless of whether you apply with or without having chosen a college, there is so much on offer at Oxford and Cambridge. Your college is a hub, your primary circle of friends and societies. But there are so many opportunities for at a university wide level, you will feel like the whole university is open to you.