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What are the Differences Between Combination Courses at Oxford and Cambridge?

Can you choose just one subject? Some students are champing at the bit to narrow their courses of study to just on subject that they feel passionate about. However, others find that they are eager to explore more than one interest to a degree level, and find it more natural to approach their studies from multiple perspectives. Whilst neither attitude is right or wrong, if you find yourself in the second of these two camps then you’ll be pleased to know that both Oxford and Cambridge universities have systems in place that allow students to study more than one subject. Indeed, there are even subjects that can only be studies in conjunction with another.

All good so far, but here’s when it gets complicated. Combination courses look quite different at Oxford and Cambridge, suiting different interests and requiring different application styles. In this post we’re going to take a look through how combination degrees at each university work, as well as the advantages and disadvantages of both, to hopefully make your decision a little easier!



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Oxford has the more clear-cut way of studying more than one subject; joint honours degrees. Through joint honours, certain subjects can be studied in several different combinations: for example, History can be combined with English, Economics, Modern Languages, or Politics, whilst Philosophy can be studied alongside Modern Languages, Politics and Economics (PPE), Theology, Psychology, Psychology and Linguistics (PPL), Physics, Maths, or Computer Sciences. Notably, at Oxford you cannot study Philosophy on its own. Many languages can also be studied in conjunction with another (including Classics and some Oriental Studies).

How does the application work?
When you apply to a joint honours course, your application will be assessed and your interviews conducted by admissions tutors in both of the subjects/departments that you have applied to. This may take the form of separate interviews or of multiple tutors from different subjects within one interview, depending on the course and the specific college. It’s therefore important that your structured questions (formerly the Personal Statement) and application overall demonstrates aptitude and passion for all subjects within your chosen course equally, even if you feel like you prefer one over the other.
Is a joint honours degree harder?
As a general rule of thumb, there is a greater workload attached to a join honours degree compared to single honours, but it won’t be double the work! Whilst your tutors will belong to only one of your faculties and therefore won’t know exactly what commitments you have on the other side of your degree, they will be aware that you’ve got other assignments on and won’t be able to put in the same amount of time and effort as their single honours students. At the start of your degree, you will split your time fairly evenly between the two subjects, and as you get towards the final years of your course you will get the chance (should you wish) to focus more on certain areas within one subject or the other. It is also worth noting that there may be less flexibility when it comes to picking modules as part of a joint honours degree, as a lot of your time will be take up with mandatory core courses from both of your chosen subjects, so do bear this in mind if you’re thinking of branching out into the more niche areas of either degree course.


Cambridge, on the other hand, has fewer options in terms of combination degrees. One exception is the faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages, within which you can study two out of French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish, or alternatively combine any one of these with Classical Latin or Classical Greek. There is also the possibility to combine these languages with Arabic, Hebrew, or Persian by applying for Asian and Middle Eastern Studies.

There is also the chance to study a combination of subjects as part of the HSPS degree course (Human, Social, and Political Sciences), which comprises subjects from three different departments; the department of Politics and International Studies, the department of Social Anthropology, and the department of Sociology. This is different from studying joint honours at Oxford because it is not a combination of existing separate degrees, but rather one course organised specifically by different faculties.


How does the application work?
Aside from these specific combination courses, some Cambridge degrees also offer the chance to take papers in a subject outside of your own department if they’re relevant to your degree (for example, English students can take a paper in the literature of another language). Many scientists who at Oxford might have applied for Physics or Chemistry individually will at Cambridge find themselves taking the Natural Sciences Tripos, which covers a broad range of sciences and which requires students to study multiple disciplines at least in first year.
In Theory, this tripos system, which essentially divides degrees into a part 1 and 2, should allow students to switch course after part 1 with the consent of their college if they are unhappy with their original choice. Whilst this gives a good degree of flexibility, this is not something that you should apply to Cambridge with the intention of doing. An application to switch course is dependent on the student’s specific situation, their academic record so far, and the opinions of their tutors, and so cannot be guaranteed.
In short, whilst Oxford offers more joint honours courses than Cambridge does, the standard degree at Cambridge offers a greater degree of flexibility than Oxford courses. So if you’re interested in looking at different disciplines but perhaps don’t want to commit to completely splitting your time, check the course pages to see what options are available to you within a particular Cambridge course.

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