Going to the dark side vs seeing the light
Since I've now been lucky enough to attend both Oxford and Cambridge, I thought it'd be interesting to compare and contrast the two. Bear in mind that I only spent one year in Cambridge, and that graduate students' experiences differ significantly from those of undergrads. Also note that there are many aspects of Oxford and Cambridge which are practically indistinguishable, and so I've skipped over most of those similarities. Nevertheless, here are some comparisons which have stuck in my mind - and which might help you decide (in the words of the particularly obnoxious Boat Race slogan) "which blue are you?"
- Oxford is a bigger city than Cambridge, with its suburbs stretching out much further. In Oxford, students who live outside the city center in places like Cowley or Summertown are surrounded by shops, bars and restaurants; whereas in Cambridge, they'd be surrounded by quiet residential neighbourhoods or paddocks. Since student life is so based around the city center, though, I don't notice this difference too much.
As a university, Cambridge is much more spread out than Oxford. The two most distant colleges at Cambridge are an 80-minute walk from each other; at Oxford, the equivalent figure is less than half of that. Even discounting the outlier that is Girton College, getting from any of Cambridge's Hill Colleges to the train station takes longer than any trip Oxford students would commonly need to make. Cambridge also has a separate West Cambridge site which is much further away from the city center than any group of departments at Oxford - I sometimes had back-to-back lectures in the Computer Laboratory on the West Cambridge site and the central Engineering Department, a 38-minute walk apart.
- It takes about an hour to reach London from each, but tragically the only way to travel between them directly is a miserable 4-hour bus trip.
- Cambridge's proximity to Stansted Airport is very nice. From Oxford, the easiest airport to get to is actually Birmingham, via direct train - although, to be fair, it's also closer to Heathrow than Cambridge is.
- Punting is much nicer in Cambridge; you get to go right past the most beautiful colleges, instead of just through meadows like in Oxford.
- Both cities are also home to a smaller former polytechnic university - Oxford Brookes and Anglia Ruskin, respectively.
- The wealth and prestige of Cambridge colleges is skewed at the top end by Trinity and Johns, which between them have almost as large an endowment as all other 29 colleges combined. At Oxford, no colleges are nearly as dominant; rather, the bottom end of the distribution is skewed instead, since there are still 6 Permanent Private Halls. These are like colleges, except that they are run by various Christian groups and focus heavily on theology; they are also very small and poor compared with the proper colleges.
- Oxford has significantly more colleges - 38 (or 44 including PPHs) to Cambridge's 31. Cambridge's undergrad population is actually slightly larger than Oxford's, but Oxford has around 50% more postgrads than Cambridge.
- Cambridge has colleges - most notably Trinity and Churchill - which focus heavily on STEM subjects. Trinity accepts about 40 mathematicians each year; Churchill's undergrad population is mandated to be at least 70% STEM. I don't think any Oxford colleges (apart from PPHs) specialise to a comparable extent.
- Oxford colleges are all coed, and I think all fairly gender-balanced. By contrast, there are still three women-only colleges at Cambridge. Several other Cambridge colleges, especially the STEM-focused ones, are disproportionately male.
- Both have notoriously left-wing colleges (Kings and Wadham respectively), and notoriously right-wing colleges (Johns and Oriel).
- The overarching stereotype is that Cambridge focuses more on sciences, and Oxford focuses more on the humanities. As far as I can tell, this is reasonably accurate. Cambridge's CS department, for example, is much bigger and well-resourced than Oxford's. I got to know many more computer scientists in my one year here than during all three years at Oxford - due in no small part to the newly-constructed Computer Laboratory in Cambridge, whose sprawling, spacious architecture contrasts sharply with the warren that is Oxford's CS department. I was also able to choose from over five times as many machine learning courses as Oxford offers (although Oxford is stronger for more theoretical CS).
- Oxford offers many more joint degrees - for example, you can't take philosophy by itself, but have to pair it with subjects like Computer Science, or Maths, or Psychology and Linguistics. I'm a big fan of this, since degrees at English universities are otherwise very narrow, and I think that exposure to a broad curriculum provides valuable perspective. (In particular, I've noticed that Cambridge philosophy students tend to focus on more traditional problems than philosophy students at Oxford, and be more absolutist in their views.) However, the rigour of Economics at Oxford probably does suffer from the fact that it's only available as a joint degree.
- The most well-known degrees at both universities are in fact joint degrees. At Oxford, it's Politics, Philosophy, and Economics, which churns out Cabinet ministers by the dozen; Cambridge's is the Natural Sciences Tripos, which crams together many different scientific disciplines.
- The exam schedules differ somewhat. At Oxford, science students have exams in their second and third years, which are combined to give a final degree result; humanities students only have exams in third year. At Cambridge, everyone has exams in both their second and third years, but those results are never officially combined - you end up with two grades for the two parts of your degree. I think that a combination of these two systems, with everyone sitting exams in both years then combining the results, would probably be more sensible than either.
- While admissions are roughly equally competitive, Cambridge are more focused on grades than Oxford. For prospective undergrads, Cambridge requires A*A*A or A*AA at A-level, whereas most Oxford courses only require AAA (and in practice are often willing to accept some Bs from students who interviewed well). For graduate admissions, Cambridge usually requires a 1st at undergrad, whereas Oxford usually doesn't set that as a condition.
- The academic differences trickle down to affect the activities that students do. Oxford is much more political, with many students attending events like Port and Policy (or the host of other drinking and debating nights put on by various political societies). Cambridge seems to have more attendance at niche and/or nerdy clubs - e.g. juggling, Go, maths, and gaming societies.
- Cambridge students celebrate summer by throwing lovely garden parties, many more than in Oxford. On the other hand, one of my favourite parts of summer in Oxford was the garden plays that were staged in many colleges, which sadly seem to be lacking in Cambridge (perhaps because second-year humanities students also have exams there?)
- Colleges at both universities regularly throw lavish balls. Oxford usually has several balls each year where tickets nudge above 200 pounds and white tie is compulsory. At Cambridge, dress codes and prices are more relaxed - however, the balls are no less splendid. In particular, Trinity and Johns have spectacular annual balls which are so oversubscribed that only those colleges' students and their guests can get tickets. These fall in the middle of June, during a raucous celebratory fortnight known for some unfathomable reason as "May Week". (There's no equivalent to May Week in Oxford, probably because exams are more spread out.)
- Oxford still has elaborate exam traditions. It is compulsory to wear suits and gowns (or equivalent) to exams; candidates also customarily wear carnations indicating how far through their exams they are; and after finishing, they are usually "trashed" with champagne, cream, confetti, etc by their friends, then thrown in the river. Cambridge used to have similar traditions but fairly recently decided to abolish them (via a combination of student votes and university administrator decisions).
- There is a stereotype that Oxford is posher and more elitist than Cambridge. Overall this is probably true - in addition to differences like the ones mentioned just above, Cambridge's undergraduate intake has about 10% more state school students than Oxford's. However, several events I've attended at Trinity and Johns (in Cambridge) have been fancier than any I went to in Oxford, so perhaps the variance within Cambridge is higher.
- There are many slight differences in terminology - e.g. supervisions vs tutorials, Lent and Easter vs Hilary and Trinity terms.
- Formals are much more expensive in Cambridge: typically £13-£18, compared with £4-£10 at Oxford.
- Cambridge's online resources are better. I particularly like the online lecture timetables and centralised lists of talks, which allow you to explore events outside your department much more easily.
- The food trucks are much MUCH better in Oxford. Especially Hassan's!
- There are many more nightclubs in Oxford; in Cambridge, people often resort to dancing at the local Wetherspoons.
- Cambridge has the Gates scholarship; Oxford has the Rhodes. The former is accessible to students from more countries, but also has a strong bias towards Americans. In other ways, they seem fairly similar.
- Oxford has an ice rink which hosts late-night pick-up hockey games twice a week - one of my favourite parts of undergrad. Unfortunately, the closest rink to Cambridge is a 45 minute drive away.
- Membership of the Cambridge Union is significantly cheaper than that of the Oxford Union, and the former seems better-run in several ways (e.g. more online content, more representation for competitive debaters). On the other hand, the Oxford Union has nicer buildings, particularly their library; I also think more people get involved in debating at Oxford.