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What Sets Oxbridge Apart from Other UK Universities?

We spend a lot of time on our blog talking about how to prepare yourself for Oxford or Cambridge and how to make a winning application (of course we do, that’s kind of our job!) But we don’t often stop for a minute to think and discuss what factors actually make an education at the Oxbridge universities different from other UK Universities. Why are these two universities considered different to other UK institutions? Does this mean that they are inherently better than the others? This blog article will discuss these questions and more by talking you through the key aspects that make Oxford and Cambridge different from other UK universities, hopefully helping make your decision easier when thinking about where to study!

Included in this article:

  1. The Collegiate System

  2. The Tutorial/Supervision System

  3. The Application

  4. The Term Times

  5. Summary



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The Collegiate System

One of the first things that strike potential university applicants (and viewers of University Challenge!) about Oxbridge is that there seem to be various different colleges underneath the umbrella of the university. Indeed, for the uninitiated, it can be very difficult to work out where ‘college’ ends and ‘university’ begins. This is different to most (although not all - looking at you, Durham!) UK universities, and is one factor that you could take into account when considering whether to study at Oxford or Cambridge. 

Both Oxford and Cambridge University are organised into colleges. This means that your home (at least in the first year) and study takes place in a relatively small community, like a mini campus. The collegiate system is one of the many factors that make these two universities such special and unique institutions. The college community is a ready-made social group with its own traditions, events and clubs. And, since most colleges offer most subjects, the student body is academically diverse, which nurtures the intellectually stimulating environment of a college. Some people like to think of colleges as akin to different halls of residence (accommodation) buildings at other universities - but they’re more than this! Depending on the size and set up of your course, you may also receive some or all of your teaching in college, from tutors affiliated with it, and so the choice of college can also affect your educational experience as well (although this is not to say that your education will be of a greater or lesser quality by being at a certain institution, just potentially slightly different). 

If you’re set on Oxbridge and are wondering how to distinguish between all these seemingly similar colleges, head to our blog pages on how to pick an Oxford or Cambridge college. 

The Tutorial/Supervision System

The tutorial (Oxford) or supervision (Cambridge), although not being unique to just these universities, is not something used as standard across most UK universities like it is at Oxbridge. A tutorial/supervision is essentially a meeting in which a tutor and a student (or a group of two or three students, this can vary) go through a piece of work, problem sheet, or essay on a topic set by the tutor which the student has produced and handed in prior to the tutorial itself.

This is a way of teaching that essentially involves the student (i.e. you) teaching themselves with books and outside materials in order to produce an output which the tutor can mark and then use as a starting point for further academic discussion in the class time. This is intended to streamline and make the most of the time spent in class with world-leading academic tutors; rather than have them teach you simple facts, they instead discuss the finer points or particular issues you may have had with the topic straight off the bat. This is a tried and tested method of teaching at both universities, but can be quite intense and therefore isn’t for everyone, so make sure to think about how you feel regarding this aspect of the teaching before making your applications - you could be sitting in tutorials up to twice a week! 


The Application 

As most applicants are painfully aware, the application process is also something that makes Oxbridge distinct to other UK universities. We don’t need to go into too much detail here as we have plenty of free resources and blog posts discussing this already (check out our Oxbridge application timeline for more details), but there are several key aspects in which an Oxbridge application differs from a non-Oxbridge one.

Firstly, the UCAS application deadline is in October rather than January, which will mean getting your admin done much earlier! Secondly, there are often admissions tests to be sat as part of an application to Oxbridge, so be sure to check in advance whether your course/college requires this, when it is to be sat, and when the deadline to register is. Lastly, Oxford and Cambridge both interview their candidates. Whilst this happens at some other universities (check out our blog article on interviews to see which other UK universities regularly interview their candidates), Oxbridge interviews can be unique in just how academically-focused their interview procedure is. 

The Term Times

Oxford and Cambridge are notorious for having very short terms and very long holidays. “Great”, I hear you say, “Where’s the problem with that?”

Well, although these short 8-week terms and long 6-week vacations (apart from summer which is about three months long!) sound great, bear in mind that this does not mean that the work load is any lighter. Indeed, on some courses Oxbridge is known for setting even more work than at other universities, meaning that students have the same, if not higher, number of essays, assignments, or topics to get through but in a much shorter time. In addition, most undergraduate courses set something called ‘collections’, which is a small exam (which doesn’t count to your final grade) at the start of every term to check that you have kept up with the previous term’s content and have been revising over the vacation. We’re not saying all of this to scare you… far from it, again these teaching methods have been tried and tested by thousands of successful Oxbridge students that have preceded you.

This is just a reminder that winning an offer to study at Oxford or Cambridge is just the start to a challenging, and in most cases very rewarding, academic lifestyle!


In Summary

To summarise, there are multiple aspects that set the Oxbridge universities apart from others (such as the college system, tutorials/supervisions, the application process, and term times), making them quite a unique and challenging beast for the applicant deciding where to study. The bottom line is that if you like your subject, enjoy being challenged academically, and are keen to socialise with other like-minded students, all whilst spending three to four (or sometimes six!) years living in a historical English university town, then the challenge might just be for you!


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