If you consistently achieve high grades, you’ve probably been advised to consider Oxbridge. And with good reason - Oxford and Cambridge have an international reputation for excellence and their impressive array of alumni includes the likes of Albert Einstein, T.S. Eliot, Adam Smith and the majority of the UK’s Prime Ministers.
Getting into Oxbridge, however, isn’t exactly a walk in the park - it requires you to have an excellent academic record, meet an early application deadline, pass an admissions test and attend an interview. Before you commit, it’s worth putting prestige to one side and thinking carefully about whether or not Oxbridge is truly the right option for you. Here are a few things to consider...
A collegiate system
Oxford and Cambridge are fairly unique in that they're each split up into different colleges, such as Jesus College at Cambridge and Corpus Christi at Oxford. While academic departments are responsible for core teaching and assessment, a college will be your home when studying, providing you with academic and pastoral support.
This collegiate system will create quite a close-knit community for you whilst at university, with some of them having as few as 50 people per year group. You'll very likely spend most of your time there, including eating and socialising, and there's a good chance that most of your friendships will be formed within that college. Whilst this is ideal for some, others might find it oppressive or too similar to school and opt for a university with more of an 'open' structure.
For some, a big part of going to uni is about gaining independence - planning and cooking your own meals, sorting out accommodation, paying bills - basically, learning how to adult.
At Oxbridge, a lot of that will be taken care of for you - most people choose to live in college-owned accommodation, which comes with regular hot meals, cleaners and a college porter who takes care of everything from lost keys to administering first aid.
In addition - and this is quite a big deal for some - you won't be permitted to have a job during term time. Arranged internships and summer jobs are fine, and there are scholarships available to help with funding, but some might resent the lack of financial independence.
The idea behind all this is simple - the less time you need to spend worrying about day-to-day tasks, the more you have to focus on your studies. Perfect for those who want to go to uni primarily to delve into their subject; less ideal for those who want a little more independence.
A different way of socialising
If you choose a city-based university, going out to bars and clubs will be a major part of your social life. You'll be able to find a student night in a club pretty much any night of the week, many of which will offer cheap entry and drink deals.
Oxbridge does things a little differently. Because both universities are situated in quieter towns, and partly because of the collegiate system, most of your socialising will take place within the colleges themselves. At Cambridge, for example, each college has its own bar and regularly puts on 'BOPs' (Big Organised Parties) and big boozy dinners, together with more formal dinners for special occasions. There's also May Week, which is in fact a two-week bonanza of college parties at the end of the academic year. You'll still get to socialise and have a brilliant time, but you won't find the same student nightlife or drinking culture that exists at many other unis.
A different style of teaching
In addition to lectures and classes, at Oxbridge you'll also be expected to attend tutorials/supervisions each week. These are one-to-one discussions with your professor, often about that week's essay. It goes without saying that you won't be able to wing these - you'll be expected to attend, to have completed the work and to be able to express your opinions clearly.
The benefits of tutorials/supervisions are huge - they'll act as an incentive for you to get the work done and explore your topic thoroughly. They’re essentially a conversation with an expert about a subject you enjoy, and you’ll even have the opportunity to steer them towards a topic that particularly interests you. However, they might not appeal to those who are less confident, those who don't express their views well under pressure or those who want a more flexible, laid-back style of teaching.
Pressure to succeed
Few universities can rival Oxbridge in terms of workload , making it all the more important that you choose a subject you love. A lot of emphasis is put on academic achievement and you may find yourself trapped in a pressure cooker of expectation, whether this comes from your tutors, director of studies or even just yourself. If you’re applying to Oxbridge, it’s likely that you’ll be used to achieving the best grades in your year. However, some find that when they arrive at Oxbridge, they start to feel more 'average’ – some students love being able to learn from those around them, but others find it quite difficult to adjust to not being 'the A* student'.
Whether or not this should impact your decision very much depends on how well you respond to academic pressure. You might find that it encourages a drive to succeed and the end results could be brilliant. It’s also worth noting that Oxbridge do have services in place to help with work management and stress. Some, however, might still feel that the pressure is all a bit too much and this could then lead to anxiety or a feeling of immobilisation.
An emphasis on tradition
Matriculation ceremonies, formal dining, choir singing, robes and Latin – lots of Latin. It’s no secret that Oxbridge like to keep things old school, and they each have plenty of quirky traditions that have been kept for centuries.
For those of you who love that kind of thing and see Oxbridge as the next best option after Hogwarts, these historical and traditional aspects might be very endearing, and you’ll probably find that it’s all a little tongue-in-cheek anyway. Others, however, might find the emphasis on ritual to be quite elite and alienating. If you think this might be the case with you, it’s worth considering more of a ‘modern’ college, as some of them have moved away from this image.
If you’ve considered the above points carefully and feel that Oxbridge will give you what you want out of a university experience, you should absolutely go for it. Don’t be dazzled into simply assuming it’s the right choice for you because of prestige, but if you’re certain it is, the quality of education you’ll receive is well worth the challenging application process. One of the things that shouldn’t worry you is that you might not be the right fit – there is no such thing as a specific ‘type’ of person who gets into Oxbridge – you simply need to love your subject and show a genuine ability to succeed in it. If this sounds like you, get applying!