Oxford and Cambridge – two of the world’s most prestigious universities, separated by about 90 miles in the heart of England – can hardly be mentioned separately. So how should aspirational international students break down an Oxford vs. Cambridge matchup when considering where to apply?
Both Oxford and Cambridge have hosted dozens of Nobel Prize winners and scores of famous alumni. Both UK universities have quirky and solemn traditions. And both Oxford and Cambridge will test your academic skills like few other prestigious institutions on the planet.
With that in mind, we created a breakdown of what advantages Oxford and Cambridge offer prospective students, and render our Oxford vs. Cambridge verdict at the end.
Where is Cambridge located?
Cambridge University is located in the city of Cambridge, England, roughly a 90-minute drive north from the heart of London. The University – located on the banks of the River Cam – features 31 self-governing colleges with a host of famous alumni.
Cambridge: A quick overview
Cambridge is a small, student-run town. It’s made up of a series of colleges similar to Oxford (the two universities are sometimes referred to as “Oxbridge”). Cambridge even has a famous landmark: King’s College Chapel, which was completed in the 16th century. Known for it’s gothic architecture, it’s an active house of worship today and is often shown as a symbol of the university.
What’s student life like at Cambridge?
With respect to tradition, Cambridge is slightly less formal than Oxford, but still has its quirks. Students are strongly discouraged from having a job during the academic year, they assemble a “college family” and can get fake married (we’re serious – though it’s largely a device for mentorship) and they can attend fancy college balls when exams are over in May.
Many Cambridge students also attend their respective college’s formal hall, usually consisting of multi-course dinners that require formal dress (suits and gowns).
Cambridge is a great place for extracurriculars, too. Cambridge Union was founded in 1815 and is the world’s oldest continuously running debating society. Meanwhile, C-Sunday – which falls in early May – is an excuse for students to get in some drunken debauchery as a group before exam season begins.
Who are Cambridge University’s most famous alumni?
An impressive list of names have passed through the halls of Cambridge University.
From the world of science: Stephen Hawking attended Trinity Hall, while Charles Darwin attended Christ’s College. Isaac Newton was the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics there, and his papers are in Cambridge’s library. A pair of famed World War II scientists also studied at Cambridge’s King’s College: Alan Turing and Robert Oppenheimer.
From the world of politics: Current British monarch King Charles III attended Cambridge, as did famous English Civil War military and political leader Oliver Cromwell, whose head is supposedly buried beneath the chapel at his alma matter – Sidney Sussex College.
From the entertainment world: Sacha Baron Cohen is an alumni of Christ’s College at Cambridge (that’s right – “Borat” went to Cambridge). Actor Huge Laurie was a rower at Cambridge and attended Selwyn College. And actor Emma Thompson went to Cambridge’s Newnham College.
Where does Cambridge rank among the world’s best schools?
In the Oxford vs. Cambridge debate, this one is a huge victory for Cambridge. Cambridge appears at the No. 2 spot in the 2024 QS World University Rankings, just behind the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (which, interestingly enough is in Cambridge, Massachusetts).
How many Nobel Prizes have Cambridge-affiliated academics received?
Cambridge-affiliated academics have won 121 Nobel Prizes, more than any other university except Harvard (which has over 160).
What colleges make up Cambridge University?
Arguably the most famous individual colleges at Cambridge are Trinity College (which has been home to 34 Nobel Prize recipients), Christ’s College, Pembroke and Peterhouse.
Other colleges include Churchill, Clare, Clare Hall, Corpus Christi, Darwin, Downing, Emmanuel, Fitzwilliam, Girton, Gonville & Caius, Homerton, Hughes Hall, Jesus, King’s College, Lucy Cavendish, Magdalene, Murray Edwards, Newnham, Queens’ College, Robinson, Selwyn, Sidney Sussex, St. Catherine’s College, St. Edmund’s College, St. John’s College, Trinity Hall and Wolfson.
How much does it cost to attend Cambridge?
Cambridge is expensive for international students, but will cost you less than four years at the most prestigious Ivy League schools in the U.S. Tuition fees for a four-year undergraduate degree will be ~$170,000 before any external financial support like scholarships (which are available) or need-based financial aid.
University of Oxford
Where is Oxford located?
Oxford is roughly 55 miles west-northwest of London. Whereas Cambridge has more of a small town vibe, Oxford features a livelier environment. And while both are considered great college towns, there are historic frictions with locals who are unaffiliated with the colleges in each location – rivalries often referred to as “town and gown.”
Oxford: A quick overview
Founded in 1096, Oxford is the oldest university in the English speaking world. In fact, in 1209, a group of Oxford professors left the town to establish Cambridge amid a series of disputes with Oxford residents.
Oxford’s 44 residential colleges are spread around the city, as opposed to having one unified campus. The university features England’s first public museum – The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology. And while both schools own esteemed publishing houses, The Oxford University Press is the largest university press in the world, dating back to the 15th century.
Finally – and perhaps most notably to some readers – several scenes from the “Harry Potter” movies were filmed on Oxford’s campus, including at Bodleian Library and the prestigious institutions of Christ Church College and The New College.
What’s student life like at Oxford?
Oxford has a wide variety of academic offerings, with teaching methods focused on giving students self-directed learning experiences.
Like Cambridge, it features several traditions that seem quirky when viewed through a modern lens. These include a dress code referred to as sub fusc – a combination of black and white apparel often paired with an academic gown and mortarboard. Some students choose to wear carnations for good luck on their exams: a white carnation for their first exam, and a pink carnation for every subsequent exam until the final, when a red carnation is worn.
Many Oxford students also participate in formal hall – potentially multiple times per week, depending on their college’s traditions. These formal hall events often consist of fancy multicourse dinners.
But perhaps our favorite fact is students will operate on Oxford Time, which is five minutes behind Greenwich Mean Time. Lectures at Oxford routinely start at five minutes after the hour to honor this tradition.
Who are Oxford’s most famous alumni?
Oxford has been home to many great intellectuals and achievers (known as Oxonians). Among them:
From the world of science: World Wide Web creator Tim Berners-Lee graduated from The Queen’s College and is a research fellow at Oxford today. Albert Einstein famously lectured at Oxford in 1931 (the blackboard he used became so famous, it has it’s own Wikipedia page).
From the political world: Twenty-eight former British Prime Ministers have studied or taught at Oxford, including former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who studied chemistry at Somerville College. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton studied at Oxford’s University College while on a Rhodes Scholarship.
From the entertainment world: Academy Award nominee Riz Ahmed has a degree from Christ Church at Oxford, and rom-com staple Hugh Grant earned a scholarship to New College, where he joined the Oxford University Dramatic Society. Famed playwrights T.S. Eliot and Oscar Wilde also attended Oxford, as did “Lord of the Rings” creator J.R.R. Tolkien.
Where does Oxford rank among the world’s best schools?
Oxford finished one notch below Cambridge in the 2024 QS World University Rankings – though being No. 3 in the world is hardly an indictment of the school’s academic achievements.
How many Nobel Prizes have Oxford-affiliated academics received?
Oxford-affiliated academics have won 69 Nobel Prizes, perhaps the most significant “underperformance” in the Oxford vs Cambridge comparison.
What colleges make up the University of Oxford?
Forty-four institutions of higher learning make up Oxford – 39 colleges and five permanent halls – with The New College, St. Catherine’s College and Queen’s College being among the most famous.
Other Oxford colleges – many of which host overseas students – include All Souls College, Balliol College, Brasenose College, Christ Church, Corpus Christi College, Exeter College, Green Templeton College, Harris Manchester College, Hertford College, Jesus College, Keble College, Kellogg College, Lady Margaret Hall, Linacre College, Lincoln College, Magdalen College, Mansfield College, Merton College, Nuffield College, Oriel College, Pembroke College, Regent’s Park College, St. Anne’s College, St. Antony’s College, St. Benet’s Hall, St. Catherine’s College, St. Edmund Hall, St. Hilda’s College, St. Hugh’s College, St. John’s College, St. Peter’s College, Somerville College, Trinity College, University College, Wadham College, Wolfson College, Worcester College, Blackfriars, Campion Hall, Regent’s Park College, St. Stephen’s House and Wycliffe Hall.
How much does it cost to attend Oxford?
Oxford’s tuition fees mirror Cambridge’s. Both Oxford and Cambridge Universities will run international students ~$170,000 for a four-year undergraduate degree. And just like Cambridge, financial support – including scholarships – are available for Oxford students who qualify. The good news is Oxford helped students attain nearly $10 million in aid to cover educational and living costs last year.
Verdict: Oxford vs. Cambridge – which university is the best?
Both Cambridge and Oxford have advantages you won’t find in many educational institutions. But with undergrads only being allowed to apply for entrance to one each year, which one should be your top choice?
If you’re playing the odds: Apply to Cambridge, as their overall acceptance rate – and acceptance rate for international students – is slightly higher than Oxford.
If you’re focused on the humanities: Apply to Oxford. After all, 28 former prime ministers can’t be wrong, right?
If you’re focused on natural science: It’s Cambridge. All those Nobel Prizes probably weren’t a mistake.