Posts tagged Cambridge
Cambridge University Profile


The University of Cambridge was founded in 1209, making it one of the world’s oldest universities. Although age does not necessarily imply quality, Cambridge has aged like a fine wine, and is to this day still among the absolute best institutions of education in the world. The university is world renowned for its state-of-the art research and teaching, as well as for its beautiful architecture and mythic traditions. When people think of Cambridge University, they often associate it with rigorous academics – and not without reason! The institution is among the world’s absolute best within many fields, and throughout history, 91 Nobel laureates have been affiliated with the university – a European record! Check out the impressive list here.

In this article, we’ll give you an insight into the teaching at Cambridge, but also into the many marvellous opportunities that the university supplies beyond just academics.

Academics- the supervision system

As a student at Cambridge, one of the greatest educational perks is the supervision system. Supervisions are weekly sessions of personalised teaching. At a supervision, you sit down with a supervisor to discuss your essays and topics within your course. Sometimes you’ll be joined by one or two other students, but other times it will just be you and a world expert within your field, discussing your favourite subjects in depth! This style of teaching is an amazing opportunity to grasp foreign concepts, but it also sets certain requirements for you as a student: It’s kind of hard to hide in the back the class playing Tetris, when you are the class. If you want to get an impression of what supervisions are like, take a look at this video by the vlogger Jake Wright, a previous Cambridge student. Although Computer Science might be a foreign language to some, it does give an insight into the value and quality of supervisions as a way of educating. The supervisions are not just generic revisions of subject material, they’re actually focused on your personal work as well. Before supervisions, you will be assigned to write essays, which will be the basis of your discussion with the supervisor, your fellow students and you. If you’re curious as to what kind of super-genius you can become through a Cambridge education, check out this University Challenge match between Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, and Magdalen College, Oxford. Besides all this, there are two very important elements of the Cambridge educational system that characterises studying there: The first is the length of the terms. Terms are 8 weeks, which is much shorter than at most other universities. These short terms mean that there are very frequent and very long breaks, but they also heavily increase the workload during term. Fiercely studying your dream subject will hopefully be very enjoyable, but it is worth noting that Cambridge terms can be truly intense. Secondly, your efforts are only assessed by handwritten examinations by the end of each year. For this reason, it’s a pretty good idea to buy yourself a comfortable pen!

Living at Cambridge – the collegiate system:

When you’re a student at Cambridge, you’re not just part of the university, you’re also part of a college. Colleges are the places you live and spend most of your time, but they’re more than just accommodation. Think of them like the houses at Hogwarts, only there’s 31 instead of 4. Don’t worry about ending up at Slytherin, since everyone ends up being really happy about their specific college. The colleges have their own rules, traditions and societies, and they develop a great sense of community in their students. You will still study and hang out with people from all the other colleges, but your college is a great place to find a family away from home. Cambridge even has a “college-marriage” system, where students are “married”, and take care of two freshers together – their “children”. Since the colleges are fairly autonomous with regards to many logistical arrangements, the styles of accommodation vary greatly between the various colleges. Some places might have you live with a roommate, while other colleges generally arrange for solo accommodation.
When choosing a college, you have to decide: Do I want to live at a place that looks like it’s Hogwarts, or do I want heated floors and modern facilities?

Life beyond academics:

Cambridge is obviously a great place to study, but any student will tell you that you’re doing it wrong if that’s all you came to do. The university holds countless activities and a seriously impressive selection of student societies – in fact there are more than 700 of them! One of them is the Cambridge Union, a 200 year old debating society, where speakers like the Dalai Lama, president Ronald Reagan and Winston Churchill have spoken. It’s hardly an overstatement to say that there’s a society at Cambridge for every imaginable activity, but in the unlikely case that you find that a society is missing, the resources and enthusiastic students are yours to seize!

Sports at Cambridge:

Among all the bookworms and geniuses at Cambridge, there are of course plenty of people who enjoy sports and athletics. At the university, it’s possible to do all sorts of sports, and at various levels of skill. You can of course play casually with friends, but there’s also the option to compete with the other colleges. Once a year, however, the entire university comes together for the most intense sports events at Cambridge: The varsity matches against Oxford. The stakes are high, and the Oxbridge rivalry is at its very best during these matches. Check out these two videos if you want to learn more about sports at Cambridge University.


– Formals: Formal halls or formal meals are dinner that take place in the college’s gorgeous dining halls. Each college have their own traditions and norms related to the formals, including various dress codes and frequencies. While some colleges may have dinners much more frequently than others, they in turn have “Superhalls”, which are occasional excuses to dress up in black tie and enjoy a delightful meal with fellow members of college. Under different circumstances, it is allowed to invite friends from other colleges to join your college’s formal, and it is a widely held goal to attend a formal at least once at each possible college, although not everyone get to cross of every college from the list. For the pre-arranged meals, the colleges do of course consider various dietary requirements such as vegetarianism or food allergies.

– Relations to Oxford (aka “The other place”): Cambridge University was originally founded by a group of scholars who were seeking refuge from hostile townsmen in Oxford. Ever since, there has been an ongoing rivalry between England’s two most famous universities, although there is also a sense of mutual respect between the two institutions – most of the time! Many Cambridge students insist to refer to Oxford as “The Other Place”, kind of like in Harry Potter, where it is forbidden to mention Voldemo… I mean, “You-know-who” by his name. Many of the university’s traditions, norms and internal jokes refer to this age-old British rivalry.

– May balls: A highlight at the Cambridge colleges are the May Balls. (Ball as in a fancy dance party, not a round object used for play) Ironically held in the month of June, the May Balls are extravagant parties with strict dress codes and fabulous entertainment. While the parties vary a great deal from college to college, they’re all known to be incredible fun.

More links:

– – Insiders’ view at life at Cambridge, written by students.. Prospectus’ for specific colleges can also be found online.
– – Undergraduate courses
– – Graduate courses
– – a more informal source of impressions of Cambridge
– Jake Wright youtube channel – Vlogs of the life as a Cambridge student. (British Computer Science student)

Joshua Teperowski Monrad, 18 May 2016

How to ace Oxbridge interviews: insider’s tips

There is one component more dreaded than all other in the application process to some of the English universities: the Oxbridge interviews. While there are some very good reasons to be nervous, interviews are in reality a quite pleasant shadow of the mythical and terror-inducing experiences often talked about. That being said, it’s gooto know a thing or two about them. In this guide, we will go through what can be expected from an interview at Oxbridge, and how to best approach them. First we’ll have a look at some of basic things to know about interviews, and what they’re about. After this we’ll discuss some things to keep in mind to perform at your very best.

What are interviews?

First things first; what are we talking about? Interviews are a component of the application process to some universities in the UK, Oxford and Cambridge specifically. (It is beyond the author’s knowledge whether they are practices by any other institutions, and whether they would be similar. This guide focuses on interviews at Oxbridge). If invited to an interview, you will receive the invitation a few weeks before they take place, but you might not be given much notice (~10 days is not uncommon). Some international students are given the option to perform the interview via videolink if they are unable to attend, though we recommend to attend in person if at all possible. You will then be invited to stay in the college which summoned you for a few days, during which the interviews take place.

What is the format of an interview in Oxbridge? Unfortunately there is no single response. It depends on subject, college and what your interviewer feels like doing. In general, however, a candidate has 2-4 interviews during her stay, each being 15-30 minutes long, with one or more professors attending. The interview is meant to be very similar to a tutorial, which is the personal teaching sessions which are considered unique to Oxbridge. The interview consists largely of the professors asking questions within the subject, allowing you to respond, and then asking you to elaborate on some aspect. When answering questions you will experience a queasy feeling of being stupid, thinking all your responses are wrong. Don’t worry however, all candidates share this fear, and most likely you’ll be doing better than you think.

What is it like?

To paint a more concrete picture I will give a quick account of my own interviews. I applied to Philosophy, Politics and Economics, and had one interviews of 15 minutes in each of the topics. In my philosophy interview I was asked about how philosophy relates to economics and politics, answering something about morality which didn’t particularly seem to impress my interviewer. I was then given a problem to judge whether certain propositions where implied by others (if X then Y; X is the case, is Y the case?). Other candidates were asked ‘do you know that your suitcase is currently in your room’? While thinking about the problem my interviewer told me I had 15 seconds to respond, whereby I panicked and blurted out answers, to which she said ‘ok, now you have to go’.

The day after I had interviews in politics and economics. In the politics interview I was asked to look at some statistics and explain what they indicated. After this we discussed democracy, and some of its problems. In my economics interview I was amongst other things asked about the value of gold, and whether one should smelt gold coins and sell the raw material if the value of gold increased or decreased in different ways relative to the monetary value of the coin. To each of my responses my interviewer looked sharply at me with a blank expression and slowly said ‘ok’, with a terrifying effect. These examples are mine, and experiences vary immensely between colleges, interviewers and candidates.

Some candidates might be invited to attend interviews at other colleges. When this happens, applicants usually cannot help but speculate in the reasons behind such invitations, which is rarely of any use. This is because the reasons vary a lot, from the feared I’m-not-good-enough-for-the college-I-applied-to-so-they-want-to-ship-me-over-somewhere-else, to logistics due to some professor who really wanted to get home early to watch football. Therefore, better not to speculate and spend one’s time worrying about better things.

What are they looking for?

So far so good, but now to what you’re really reading this post for: what are the interviewers looking for in candidates? The simple answer is that they are looking for academic potential. Unlike the typical American university, Oxbridge doesn’t care if you’re active or lazy, timid or sociable; they care only about how well you would do in the field you’re applying to. In an interview a professor is trying to figure out whether they could make you flourish as a student of their field, and your job is to convince them that you have the potential and desire to do so. If there is anything you need to know about interviews it’s this, all that follows are just effective ways to do this.

Before progressing to some advice on how you’ll be able to project your awesomeness, let’s consider an interview from the perspective of a professor. Firstly, professors have lives, in which they partly live like most of us but also do research and sometimes take time to explain to undergraduates why they’re wrong. Once a year they set all that aside to conduct interviews and find new students to join the institution. The reason this is good to remember is this: every time you start speculating in what the true intention of your interviewer is (Is this a trick question?; I think I missed her hint to change topic; Oh my god, why is he staring at me like that?), remember that the truth is that they simply have better things to do than to plot elaborate schemes of how to question you. What they really want is to effectively understand your potential, and try to figure out whether they would want you as a student.

How can you convince them that you’re their ideal student?

It is difficult to give any clear cut responses, but some general advice can be given.

Make sure you respond to the questions being asked. It’s very easy to turn a question in a way that allows you to answer it in a way you know well, or might have prepared in advance. This will only frustrate the interviewer, who wants to find your potential to understand new concepts, not hear what you already know. Therefore, though it’s a bit scarier, it’s a lot better to listen to the question being asked, take some time to think and really engage with it on the spot.

Be nice and demonstrate your enthusiasm. Your interviewer will effectively be choosing her students for three years to come, and will prefer someone they tolerate. The best way not to annoy professors is by being humble, and listen and think about what they’re saying. A very good practice is to seriously consider counterarguments to your position in their strongest form. Furthermore, professors like engaged students. If you are able to effectively show your interest in the topic, this will likely make a better impression than if you were to only show an aptness but indifference to it. This brings us to the last point.

Enjoy the experience. It’s very easy to get bogged down in strategies of how to approach an interview and purport yourself in them. Like a date, the best way to make an interview worse than it could have been is by thinking too much about how you’re doing. Instead, take the occasion for what it is: a chat about some field of mutual interest between two people, namely you and the interviewer. If you can think of an interview as nothing more than a chance at an interesting conversation, you’re well on your way to be accepted.

Wrapping up

Let’s review some of the points we’ve brought up here:

  • Interviews are components of the application process to Oxford and Cambridge
  • Interviewers aim to discover your capacity and enthusiasm for the subject you’re applying for
  • Focus on the topic and questions being asked, don’t worry about any hidden intentions from your interviewers
  • Be humble and demonstrate your enthusiasm
  • Enjoy the experience

In the end there’s only one other thing that needs remarking. If you’re invited to an interview, that means you have the personal capacity to be accepted, otherwise you wouldn’t have been invited. So don’t worry and enjoy the interview experience, because you can feel confident that you’re good enough to be there.


Below you will find a quick FAQ of some of the questions which haven’t been handled in the guide above:

Q: How much should I prepare for my interview?

This depends, and the recommendation varies with subjects. Some subjects don’t allow for much preparation that you could have use of in an interview. I recommend to prepare enough that you (1) you feel confident in your subject and (2) you are ‘in the mindset’ when you enter your interview. For a topic like Mathematics, or Economics, it’s definitely advantageous to have all the base concepts clearly in your mind so you don’t have to infer the definition of calculus in your interview. For others, like English or Philosophy, there isn’t too much preparation you can do, and the risk of preparing too much is that you’ll have a bunch of clever responses you really want to mention though they don’t necessarily fit the question. This might ruin your interview. Therefore, the best thing is to prepare so that you have all the basic knowledge in the subject necessary to think on our feet and tackle any question thrown at you.

Q: How should I dress for my interview?

Many candidates worry about this. The truth is that it really doesn’t matter. The reason is not (only) the immense tolerance of the professors, but rather – as mentioned above – that they have so many better things to think about than your sense of style. The only recommendation I would give is not to give them a reason to think about it either. In other words, don’t dress in a way that might make them distracted from what you’re saying (e.g. military outfit, Pikachu outfit or underwear are less recommended). In my interviews I wore trousers with a jacket, while my friend who has just flown in from a hitchhike in Uzbekistan wore sandy jeans with big holes in them, and we both got in.


Paul De Font-Roux, 18 May 2016

HSPS at Cambridge

Tell us about yourself

I’m Duy, 2nd year HSPS student at Cambridge. I did my A-levels in Singapore.

What is HSPS – Human, Social and Political Sciences?

The course is designed to be broad in your first year so that you can try out subjects you might not have taken before and becomes more focused in your second and third year.

In your first year, you take 4 papers, choosing from: Politics, International Relations, Social Anthropology, Biological Anthropology and Sociology. You can replace 1 paper with an archeology or psychological and behavioural sciences paper.

In your second year, you choose to specialise in 1 of the 3 tracks: Politics and International Relations, Social Anthropology, or Sociology. You also have the option of doing a joint track Politics and Sociology; Politics and Social Anthropology, or Social Anthropology and Sociology. There is an optional statistics paper you can take in your 2nd or 3rd year if you want to develop some quantitative skills.

I applied to HSPS, not having done any of the subjects before (I did Maths, Chemistry, Biology, and History for my A-level). I intended to specialise in politics, but now I am doing social anthropology. One of the strengths of HSPS is that it allows you to try different disciplines at university level before deciding to commit to any one of them.

What is the content of your course?

In my first year, I took politics, international relations, sociology and social anthropology. You don’t need any prerequisite knowledge. In fact, I did not take any of these subjects before. All of the papers are designed with the assumption that you have no prior knowledge. All 1st year papers, thus, contain an eclectic mix of many subfields within them. Social Anthropology, for instance, has anthropological theory, anthropology of kinship, of religion, of economics, and of politics. The purpose is not for you to go in depth, although you have considerable room to choose to do so if one particular area interests you, but to sample the breadth of the discipline. Below I give a bit more details of each paper, but please go to the hsps website for a more detailed paper guide.


Political philosophy (Hobbes, Weber, Marx, Hayek, etc) – you will find little discussion of contemporary political issues, and a lot of the things discussed do not seem relevant today immediately. But don’t let that put you off. It is a critical foundation that more contemporary theorists keep coming back to. I found this part of the paper quite challenging, but also gratifying when you manage to understand the philosopher in his own term (yes, his. Most people covered are dead, white men)

Democracy: a combination of classic work (Tocqueville) and more contemporary stuff. Does democracy work? Does democracy bring about better material wealth? Does democracy bring about more equality/inequality? and more questions like these. If you abhor the philosophical, you will find this interesting for its immediate relevance.

International Relations

Theories of international relations, causes of war, the workings of international institutions, international economy, etc. For international relations, it is a mixture of both theories (most of which were formulated not long ago – 1940s onwards, unlike politics), and contemporary issues (environment, nuclear proliferation, war, etc).


Classical theorists: Marx (capitalism, industrialisation, class struggle, communism),  Weber (rationality, bureaucracy, religion and modernity), Durkheim (positivist methodology of social sciences, using statistics in sociology, division of labour in society, social solidarity).

Contemporary sociological topics: class, gender, ethnicity, race, nationalism, welfare states

Social Anthropology

The subject matter overlaps quite significantly with sociology, split broadly into identity and differences (kinship, ethnicity, nationality, gender, class, race), economic anthropology (gift exchange,  how money works,  capitalist economy and pre-capitalist economy), political anthropology (nationalism, state, conflicts) and symbolic anthropology.

Anthropological theories (structural-functionalism, structuralism, interpretivism, practice theories)

Here’s a whole other article about Social Anthropology.

How are you taught and what is the workload like?

Most papers are taught through lectures and supervisions. Usually you have about 2 hours of lecture every week for each paper, so about 8 hours a week in your first year.

You will also have about 2 supervisions a week (so 2 2000-word essays a week) on average, although this varies week to week. There are weeks with no supervision, and there are weeks with three. There are usually 2-4 students in a supervision in your 1st year; and 2 from your 2nd year onwards.

The majority of your time will be self-study. There are a lot of readings to cover. I spent on average 6 hours a day in the library in my 1st year.

How did you prepare for your application?

You do not need to have any prior knowledge of any of the subjects. I did not know the difference between social anthropology and sociology at the time I applied.

I was really interested in politics and contemporary issues, and read a lot of Economists. I also found my A-level History knowledge particularly helpful. My interview and essay thus focused on contemporary issues and not the philosophical or theoretical aspects of social sciences. Focus your preparation on what interests you by reading and thinking a lot about it.

You certainly don’t have to prepare for all the subjects HSPS covers. Read whatever interests you really. You can take a look at the paper guides to see what the suggested readings for first year students are, but don’t feel restricted to this list.

The assessment is not a test of your knowledge, but your ability to think, and construct an argument (even from a point of ignorance). It is to see how you respond to cue, help, challenge, probe from the interviewers so that they know whether the supervision system is suitable for you. You can’t possibly predict the topics you will be asked, and you can’t cover all of them, so focus on a few that interests you and try to apply them flexibly to answer different questions.

Mock interview helps. Ask your mentor to give you one.


Links for further references

Politics and International Relations


Social Anthropology

Alternative Prospectus on HSPS

Duy Le, 26 Feb 2017


Mathematics, what you need to know

Do you enjoy solving mathematical problems and puzzles? Are you thrilled by the perspective of exploring the infinite possibilities of mathematics? Are you looking for a subject that will open to you a wide range of career paths? If so, choosing mathematics at university is your best bet. Here are a few things you need to consider before you make your choice.

The first thing you should know about maths at university, is that it’s quite different from high-school maths, both on a structural level, and in terms of work approach and content.

There are usually two types of classes at Mathematics departments: Lectures and tutorials/workshops. Simply put, lectures are one, two or three hours long classes where the lecturer will go through chapters of the course, laying out proofs and working out examples. Tutorials are usually one hour long sessions, given by a postgraduate student, with the aim of correcting a problem sheet given a week before, in a small class. These tutorials present an opportunity to ask more precise questions and discuss particular parts of the course more informally. While it certainly takes time to get accustomed to lectures and their sometimes impersonal nature, a student coming from high school will surely find the format of tutorials and workshops to be familiar enough.  Adding up time spent in class comes to about 13 to 20 hours a week of taught classes. This might seem like a relatively small number if you’re coming from a demanding high school programme, but you will notice that the time spent at the library, catching up on lectures and preparing yourself for incoming class tests and problem sheets quickly compensates…

Another fundamental difference between high-school and university maths, is the work approach and the amount of time you’ll spend studying outside of class, figuring out that one proof that the lecturer chose not to cover because of its “trivial” nature.

You’ll also notice that apart from a few modules in your first year, the emphasis will be on proofs and reasoning based on brand new concepts, instead of methods and applications. But enough about the technical details, what is better than feedback from current maths students, to get a better idea of what studying maths at different universities in the UK is like?

Interview 1: Mamoune, Mathematics with Management and Finance, King’s College London

Mamoune has agreed to give us an insight about his experience as a Maths student at King’s College London.

-Could you first give us a quick introduction about yourself?

My name is Mamoune Chaoui. I’m a second year Mathematics with Management and Finance student from Morocco.

-Why have you chosen this particular programme?

I have always loved playing with numbers and functions, solving limits and integrals, but I was also seduced by the many possible ways in which maths could be applied in our everyday life. When I learnt about this programme, I immediately made it my firm choice.

-Could you now tell us about a typical day?

I have 15 hours of class per week with 2 to 5 hours per day. So far, I have had a combination of 3 maths modules and one management/finance module each semester. In terms of classes, each maths module is taught in three hour lectures and one hour tutorials where you can ask the tutor any question related to the module. On the other hand, management and finance modules are taught in two hour lectures and one hour workshops/tutorials.

During a normal day, I wake up around 8am, have my breakfast and get ready for uni. Once the first class is finished, I either have lunch at home or at one of the restaurants at my university, depending on how long is the gap between the two classes is. After I have finished all my classes, I go to the gym for about one and a half hours, take a shower and go for a drink with friends. I usually spend my weekends at the library to catch up on any classes or lessons I missed, work on examples that were shown in class and go through parts of the course I don’t fully understand yet.

After my studies I would like to get work experience in investment banking for a few years before going back to my home country and have my own company.

Interview 2: James, Mathematics, Queens’ College, University of Cambridge

To put this into perspective and to get a better idea of how maths might be differently addressed at another university, I have asked James, a former maths student at Queen’s College, Cambridge, a few questions.

-How is your course structured?

In first year, you have 12 lectures per week (10-12 Mon-Sat) covering all areas of pure and applied maths. The majority of your time is spent doing sheets of maths problems (called “example sheets”) – there is one sheet per 6 lectures. Then for every example sheet, you have a supervision (thus about two supervisions per week). This is where a maths fellow/postdoc/PhD student goes through the example sheet questions, showing how the questions are ideally tackled and answering any questions. At some colleges (e.g. Queens’) you may also have example classes. In later years, you have a wider choice of courses and more flexibility to how many courses you take.

-Which modules do you find to be the most engaging?

Personally, I found the applied courses more interesting and I was also better at them. In my second year, I concentrated on the applied and probability/statistics courses, and in my third year I did mostly theoretical physics. My favourite courses were General Relativity (Einstein’s theory of gravity, where mass causes space and time to be curved) and Statistical Physics (how large scale phenomena such as ferromagnetism, phase transitions etc. in 10^23 particles can be derived by considering individual particle interactions and the applying statistical arguments). However, the year seems to split fairly evenly among pure/applied/stats courses, so your interest may take you anywhere! It’s worth saying that what is called “pure” maths at school is actually considered applied maths at university: university pure maths is all about rigorously defining mathematical concepts and proving theorems about them.

-How many hours do you spend studying outside class?

This is a tough one. In my final year, I think I was studying more than 40 hours a week in addition to all my supervisions and lectures. In my first year I worked hard, but not very consistently and did a lot of extra curricular activities and social events so it’s hard to estimate how many hours I actually did!

Studying Mathematics at university doesn’t mean you will spend most of your time performing dull, repetitive, obscure tasks on your own, day and night, without clear purpose. You will improve your communication skills, your creativity and of course your analytical skills while being surrounded by passionate, highly skilled, like-minded individuals. Mathematical studies at university level are as diverse as any other academic path, ranging from “straight maths”, to mathematics and philosophy, and mathematics and finance. So if you are up for the challenge, hesitate no more!

Ali El Bedraoui, 19 Feb 2017

Oxbridge vs. Ivy League? The choice matters

The Choice Matters

Anyone who has ever browsed university league tables will have noticed the dominance of British and American universities in the top, and in particular, in the very, very top. Out of the top 10 places in QS’s World University Rankings 2016, nine were taken up by British or American institutions. Most famously, there is Oxbridge (Oxford and Cambridge Universities) in the U.K., and Ivy League (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and a few others on the East Coast) in the U.S. Both evoke a variety of stereotypes: ancient towers and libraries, tweed-wearing quirky professors, fashionable leather shoes, frat parties and college-crested jumpers, Stephen Hawking and Mark Zuckerberg.

Getting into any of these places is a job well done, and having the option to pick between them is, as it were, a first-world problem on steroids. Whether you are fortunate enough to be pondering offers from both sides of the Atlantic, or whether you are simply trying to figure out what the differences are between these places, read on. I will try to highlight some similarities as well as differences in a way that can hopefully help you make up your mind, wherever you are in the process. But do note I don’t talk about financing issues in this piece, and that summary overview cannot replace researching the specific universities you are considering. Also, these thoughts are my own and are based on research I have done and anecdotes I have; others might disagree and you should always do your own research, with your own goals in mind. But even so, this article might be a place to start doing that.


Since you will spend most or at least a vast amount of time studying at any of these universities[1], understanding the differences in academic experience is very important. In short, at Oxbridge you will spend three (or for some courses, four) years exploring the subject(s) you have chosen in depth. In particular, in the social sciences and humanities, which are less standardised in terms of curricula, you will dive deep into the specific options that you pick, gaining a strong command – though not necessarily much of an overview, unless you add that yourself – of your subject(s).

Meanwhile, an American liberal arts degree (which you will get at the Ivies) encourages and even requires wide exploration of varied subjects (at Harvard, undergraduates do 32 options over their four years). In theory there is significant room for specialisation through taking the maximum allowed number of courses in a particular subject. However, apart from the fact that the chance to experiment is one to make use of, the large number of different courses will tend to push towards overview and brief familiarizing, compared to the narrower rigour of Oxbridge. The takeaway point, then, is the choice between the curious exploration and general education at the Ivy League on the one hand, and Oxbridge’s emphasis on sustained study and subject-specific mastery on the other. Debates will continue to rage over the advantages of each, but largely this distinction should feed into personal reflection on which is right for you, given your goals, ambitions, and interests.

Study aside, there are other important things to think about (something of which I was sublimely unaware during my own application process). Non-academic factors can be subdivided into two categories: Non-academic university life, and what we may broadly call background culture.


Beginning with background culture, it’s undeniable that spending your undergraduate years in the U.S. or the U.K. will shape you into different persons. As one person unhelpfully reminded me as I was personally battling with the decision between Oxbridge and Ivy League: “Wow, just remember that you are really choosing what kind of person you will be for the rest of your life.” As much as this was an exaggeration (as I also told my distressed self at the time), it is true that American and British general culture (norms, bureaucracy, behaviour, partying) differ and that you will be influenced in different directions depending on in which you choose to immerse yourself.

The best way to get a sense of this is, if you are able, to visit and experience the respective cultures (hint: google open days for your favourite universities or send them an email). However, that’s far from always possible. (I’d never visited the U.S. when I got admitted.) But this is difficult to advice on generally, so I will just mention a couple of points: First, talk to as many people with relevant experience (e.g., fellow nationals who have lived in one of the countries) as you can, and see if you really struggle to picture yourself in either of the images that emerge. Second, think about how much you value a cultural and social challenge in itself. From a European perspective, anecdotally it seems to me that those of my friends at Ivy League colleges had a much more challenging time to feel at home, on average, than those in the U.K. Is that part of the challenge you are aiming for, or something which would stand in the way of your goals?

Life In The Bubble

When it comes to non-academic university life, there is more that unite than separate Oxbridge and the Ivies. Frankly, old elite universities share a number of features, including the strong sense of “living in a bubble”, curious traditions and many scarily intelligent peers. As well as, of course, drinks and parties, competition for social status, and performance anxiety. But similarities aside, there are, needless to say, differences.

One of the most notable differences is probably how extra-curricular activities are viewed. An American friend on an exchange year from Columbia to Oxford told me that she had asked the President of Columbia in her first year, “What should I prioritise, my studies or getting an internship?” The President had answered that to be frank, from the university’s point of view it was the internship. In my experience, this is the opposite of the typical attitude among Oxford tutors, although this is an area of massive individual variation. This is not to suggest extra-curriculars are dead at Oxbridge – very much to the contrary. But it does say something about the greater institutional support available at American universities and about the general difference in attitudes. Once again, the ideals of the education of citizens (Ivy League) and the education of thinkers (Oxbridge) come out.

As for living arrangements, it is difficult to generalise. Oxford and Cambridge offer a combination of secluded life in a college, yet with a wider (though not extremely large) city surrounding it. Many students spend part of their degrees living in normal shared flats. Top U.S. colleges offer quite different experiences depending on location – Columbia University is in the middle of New York City, whilst Harvard and Princeton have highly concentrated campuses without that much going on in the immediate surroundings. Dartmouth, on the other hand, boasts extensive access to the outdoors. All in all, these differences underline the fact that you are looking for a place to live, rather than just study, and that’s something you need to keep in mind.

In The End

In the end, though more alike than different, Oxbridge and Ivy Leagues present two distinct alternatives, and which you choose makes a difference. Do your research. Think about whether you are looking for liberal arts breadth or Oxbridge depth as far as your studies go.  If you feel strongly in the direction of one country, direct your application resources (time and effort) accordingly. Try to move beyond the stereotypes. Remember that most people you ask for advice will (and who could blame them?) base their answers on exactly such stereotypes. Don’t stress, take your time. This is a tricky choice, and requires careful thinking about yourself and what matters to you.


Erik Hammar graduated with a B.A. in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from Christ Church, Oxford, in 2015. After leaving high school, he received offers from Harvard College as well as Christ Church, Oxford. He is now working in London.

[1] I will use the word “university” throughout, even if “college” is more accurate as far as U.S. undergraduate degrees are concerned.

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Erik Hammar, 28 Jun 2016