Oxford and Cambridge

Guides / UK

I regularly speak to international students, who have high grades and are hoping to apply to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

When I ask them why they want to apply, typically the response will be something like, “because they are the best.” Rarely do I hear, “because I like the way they teach.”

In advising students about UK university options, rarely does the topic of ‘fit’ come up as it would do when looking at universities in North America. However, for Oxford and Cambridge in the UK, ‘fit’ is all important. These universities aren’t just some of the top-ranked UK ones, they teach in a fundamentally different way which may not suit every student.

The key thing to understand is that these universities are focused on intensive student – professor interaction, in a way that very few other universities worldwide can provide. While at many other world class universities, the closest an undergraduate may get to  the world expert in their field might be in a lecture series with 100, 200 or more students in attendance, at Oxford and Cambridge they will likely have a sequence of small-scale classes (called tutorials at Oxford and supervisions at Cambridge) in groups of three, two or even just one student.

These tutorials are a chance for intensive and focused discussion of subject matter, with no hiding place for the student. You may find yourself being quizzed on a topic that you have spend one week studying, when the questioner is the leading global expert on that topic and have spent their entire career exploring it.

Students who apply to Oxford and Cambridge therefore need to be aware of this different system: they may be excellent at maths, for example, but are they also excellent at talking about maths? Do they have the intellectual confidence to challenge a professor, or raise their own topics for discussion? Have they read widely around the subject they are applying for in order to have the academic grounding to success in this method of teaching?

It is for this reason why both Oxford and Cambridge select via interview. Students might be succeeding at a very high level in school, and be able to get stellar results on the entrance tests, but being then able to think out loud in the format of an interview (which, in itself, is a mini-tutorial) is a step beyond this. It’s not enough to be good at Physics; students need to be good at talking about Physics as well.

This video from the Oxford Maths department is excellent at explaining more:

For students who look at this and think that the tutorial style of teaching is not for them, then it’s better to know now then when it’s too late. There are some amazing other universities in the UK where the style of teaching is different, and students can explore those to find their own academic fit.