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.

Project Access is a non-profit startup run by students from Oxford, Cambridge and other top universities. We believe that information should never restrict people from studying at their dream university.

Erik Hammar, 28 Jun 2016

When to start university applications

The most frequent question we get when doing workshops for high schoolers is: ‘when do I have to start working on my university application?’ The easy answer to this question is 3-6 months before the deadline. That’s approximately the time it takes to get an overview of the admissions process, find out what universities are looking for, write your personal essays/statements, prepare for tests, get references, etc. The right answer, however, is that thinking about this question as a matter of number of months is the wrong mindset.

It is definitely possible to “play” the admissions system; sign-up for a gazillion extra curricular activities if you are applying in the US, or play the ‘grades game’ to impress your high school teachers if you are applying to UK universities. Most students at the top universities have done this to some extent, but the fact remains that the best way to maximise your chances of getting into your dream universities is to dedicate time and effort to your academic passions.

Although there are many tedious aspects of university applications, the process becomes significantly easier if it follows naturally from being passionate about what you want to study. If you like maths, then don’t restrict yourself to textbooks. If you are interested in studying literature, then read (a lot of) books. It sounds almost banal, but the single most important element in your university application is to be truly curious and dedicated to becoming better at what you want to study.
What we’re getting at here is that creating a successful application to a top university does not consist (merely) of a set of robotic motions. It is about dedicating your time to becoming an applicant worthy of attending a top university – whether this means becoming really good at some extra curricular activity or being insightful about the subject you’re applying for. It also helps if you can find the school you really want to attend and start reading about the quirky, fun aspects of life there: personally, this made me extra motivated to spend that extra hour fine-tuning my personal statement. None of this starts some arbitrary number of months before the deadline, it starts as soon as you discover your passions.

What does this mean for you if you don’t know exactly what you want to study? If you’re 1-2 years away from applying, there’s a significant chance that you’re not quite sure yet. Don’t panic – but know that the best you thing you can do then is to start finding out. The best way to do find out what you really enjoy is to dive deep into the subjects that seem the most interesting. Watch TED Talks, read outside your school curriculum, find inspiration in your preferred university’s ‘pre-reading list’ for that course. Plunge into different subjects, be aware of how much you enjoy it. Follow the trails you find most interesting. Once you start reading something that your teacher doesn’t care if you read or not, it will be much clearer if you enjoy it or not. If you can’t focus for the length of a TED talk, there’s a good chance you won’t enjoy spending thousands of hours on it during university. If you really aren’t sure, US colleges may the be better choice for you because that way you don’t have to choose a major straight away.

If you do know what you want to study, get started. Work hard, but ensure you don’t burn out – many good students do nowadays. Spend your spare time in ways you truly enjoy but also make an attractive candidate. Have fun and don’t get too caught up in the “game” of admissions, where you try to model yourself to fit an admissions officer’s ideal candidate. If you are the type who brings psychology books on the Summer vacation with your parents, you will soon discover that this passion is what will really distinguish yourself from the other applicants.

Steven Yew, 18 May 2016