Oxford or Cambridge? How to choose where to apply

All the major factors to consider when making your Oxbridge decision

As you can't apply for both in the same year, you'll have to choose wisely between Oxford and Cambridge using the most important criteria for you.

The two universities both say that the most important decision you'll make is your course choice, and this should inform where you choose to apply.

They have their similarities, like having colleges, more personalised teaching methods and world-renowned reputations and resources. But there are important differences to bear in mind as well.

Here's a detailed explanation of how to use this and other factors to decide what's best for you.

How to use your course choice to decide between Oxford and Cambridge

There are major differences in the courses the universities offer, so the first step is checking if you can actually do your chosen course at both universities.

For example, Cambridge offers natural sciences whereas Oxford offers standalone biology, chemistry and physics courses. Similarly, Oxford offers PPE (politics, philosophy and economics), whereas Cambridge has three separate courses in economics, philosophy and social and political sciences (SPS).

For other subjects, just because the course names are the same, it does not mean the course content and structure is the same.

TSR member Gwil is use course content to decide where to apply: "I'm probably applying to Oxford for English, and the course was the main factor that made me rule out Cambridge. I'm interested in medieval lit, which features much more heavily in the Oxford course. I strongly considered going for Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at Cambridge, but in the end I wanted more chronological breadth."

How to use league tables to inform your Oxbridge choice

After looking at course availability and content, you might want to look at Oxford and Cambridge's performance in university league tables, especially where your subject is concerned.

In the QS World University Rankings 2020, Oxford ranked fourth in the world overall, compared to Cambridge's seventh. But Cambridge ranked second in the world by academics and employers, whereas Oxford ranked third for both.

When it comes to specific subjects, Oxford is first in the world for anthropology, archaeology, English language and literature, geography and pharmacy.

Cambridge comes out top for anatomy, and second for anthropology, archaeology, English, history and modern languages.

According to their general reputation, Oxford is considered better for the arts subjects, and Cambridge for science subjects.

Other interesting factors and features that may influence you

As well as your chosen course and league tables, you might want to consider these criteria:


Oxford is very central in the south of England, about 59 miles north-west of London, and a 53-minute train ride. Cambridge is in the East Anglia region, about 62 miles north of London, and a 50-minute tran ride.

This may influence your decision if you're thinking how easy it will be to travel to and from home, and your proximity to other parts of the UK.

Gwil said that they "prefer the location of Oxford with its proximity to the Cotswolds and the Chiltern Hills."

City size and character

There's no denying that both places are aesthetically pleasing student cities (except Cambridge is technically a town), but Cambridge is thought of as prettier whereas Oxford has a reputation as being livelier.

If you prefer a small-town vibe, Cambridge is probably more your thing, though Oxford is still relatively small and easy to navigate on foot or bike.

Cambridge has very few, small nightclubs, while Oxford has many.

If you're undecided, visit both universities and look around some of the colleges and the city centres. You should get a feeling for which one feels like a place you'd like to spend three or more years.

Fees, living costs and bursaries

Both universities charge the full £9,250 per year in tuition fees for UK and EU undergrads, but the fees differ for other students.

Non-EU undergrades pay £24,750 to £34,678 per year at Oxford and £19,197 to £30,678 at Cambridge.

For UK/EU post-grads (master's and PhD programmes), Oxford costs £7,730 to £17,745 and Cambridge costs £8,337 to £16,320.

In terms of living costs, Oxford recommends allowing between £12,168 and £18,655 per year for living costs, including accommodation, food, study resources, socializing and other items. Cambridge advises students will need a minimum of £10,950 per year for living expenses.

Both universities offer financial support in the way of scholarships and bursaries, as do the individiual colleges. UK and EU undergrads with low household income can apply for bursaries of up to £3,500 per year and Cambridge Commonwealth, European and International Trust is the largest provider of scholarships for the university.

Oxford also offers bursaries to UK and EU students with low household incomes, and various scholarships for students from other backgrounds. You can find information on all of kinds of financial support on its website.

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