What is Oxbridge: A Guide

An Introduction to the World's Leading Universities

Oxford and Cambridge, hence, Oxbridge, represent the epitome of academic excellence. As two of the world's oldest and most prestigious universities, they have been known for centuries for their rigorous academic standards, distinguished faculty, and a tradition steeped in intellectual pursuit and innovation. This article will give a brief history of the two institutions, compare and contrast their offerings, and provide insights into the Oxbridge admissions process.

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What is Oxbridge?

Oxbridge, a portmanteau of Oxford and Cambridge, embodies the pinnacle of academic achievement in the global education landscape. With roots tracing back centuries, these two venerable institutions have consistently set the standard for excellence in higher education. The term "Oxbridge" emerged as a convenient shorthand to refer collectively to these prestigious universities, highlighting their shared reputation for intellectual innovation.

Oxbridge's position in the global education landscape is complex. Criticisms of elitism and lack of diversity persist, challenging these institutions to address issues of access and inclusivity while maintaining their academic standards. Nevertheless, Oxford and Cambridge have maintained prestige and are consistently ranked as the world's most competitive and rigorous academic institutions.

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History of Oxbridge



The exact date of Oxford's founding is uncertain, but by 1096, it was already functioning as a centre for teaching and learning. Initially, it operated within monastic institutions such as the Benedictine Abbey of St. Peter in Oxford, where scholars gathered to study and teach. This early form of education laid the foundation for what would eventually evolve into the current structured university system.

Initially, scholars operated independently, but in the late 12th century, tensions between locals and students led to conflicts, prompting some scholars to move to the town of Cambridge, where they established what would become Cambridge University. In response, Oxford's scholars began forming organised communities, leading to the establishment of colleges, such as University College (1249) and Balliol College (1263).

It was in the 13th century that Oxford's ascent to prominence was propelled by increasing royal patronage and papal approval. By the late Middle Ages, Oxford had transformed into one of Europe's leading learning centres, drawing scholars from all corners of the continent. The university's reputation was further enhanced by the teachings of influential figures like Roger Bacon and John Wycliffe.

Throughout its history, Oxford University has been funded through various means, including donations from wealthy benefactors, student fees, and royal and ecclesiastical support. The endowments and patronage of monarchs, bishops, and nobles played a significant role in its development. From the 20th century onwards, Oxford has continued to expand its academic reach, embracing modern disciplines while upholding its esteemed traditions. Its enduring legacy as a bastion of intellectual inquiry and scholarship remains steadfast in the ever-evolving landscape of higher education.



Cambridge University's history, like that of its counterpart Oxford, dates back to the early Middle Ages. Over time, organised communities began to form, laying the foundation for the university's collegiate system. Notable colleges such as Peterhouse (founded in 1284) and King's College (founded in 1441) emerged, each contributing to the academic and cultural landscape of the university.

Throughout the 13th century, Cambridge's reputation grew, and by the late Middle Ages, it had established itself as a counterpart and academic rival to Oxford. Influential figures such as Erasmus and Isaac Newton further enhanced Cambridge's academic prestige.

Like Oxford, Cambridge University's commitment to intellectual inquiry and academic excellence has remained steadfast, evolving to embrace modern disciplines while upholding its esteemed traditions. Cambridge continued to expand its academic reach into the 20th and 21st centuries, cementing its status as a global leader in education and research.

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Univeristies: Oxford vs. Cambridge

While Oxford and Cambridge share many similarities in academic prestige, tradition, and global influence, they also have distinct historical origins and organisational structures that contribute to their unique identities. This section will outline the similarities and differences between the two Universities:

Academic Structure
Other universities are globally renowned for their academic rigour and excellence across various disciplines. They also both follow a collegiate system. A collegiate system is a university structure where students are members of smaller, self-governing communities within the larger institution, providing them with academic and social support.

Size and Population
Oxford is slightly larger in terms of student population and number of colleges compared to Cambridge. Oxford houses 43 colleges, while Cambridge houses 31. This discrepancy in size contributes to Oxford's reputation as having a more extensive academic and social network, providing students with a diverse array of resources and experiences. Still, both are essentially equal in academic prestige.

Culture and Atmosphere

Both universities have many traditions and ceremonies, such as formal dinners, academic dress, and events like May Balls and their world-famous boat races. While both universities share a prestigious academic environment, the culture and atmosphere within each institution may vary slightly due to historical and perceived differences. For example, Oxford's culture is often perceived as more traditional and formal, reflecting its long history and influence. Cambridge's atmosphere may be viewed as slightly more progressive or avant-garde, influenced by its location in a city known for innovation and technology. However, these differences are slight, and this may be a matter of personal opinion.

Subject Rankings
We will explore this further below, but both Oxford and Cambridge Universities stand as a bastion of scholarship. According to UK university ranking tables, both Universities alternate between the #1 spot in almost all academic disciplines. While Oxford is known for its humanities, such as English, the Fine Arts, and History, Cambridge tends to have a competitive edge in the Sciences, such as Chemistry, Archaeology, and the Natural sciences; though, this is a very crude generalisation.

Competitive Admissions
Admission to Oxford and Cambridge is highly selective, attracting top students from around the world who undergo rigorous selection processes. Many prospective students choose to seek academic advice for Oxbridge admissions. Ivy Education offers such services, including entrance exam tuition, and has helped many students continue their academic journey at these universities.

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Who Studies at Oxbridge?



Regarding demographics, Oxford and Cambridge attract a significant proportion of international students, with approximately 20-25% of the student body hailing from overseas.

  • According to their website, Oxford has stated that Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) students made up 27.5% of the university's domestic student intake in 2022.
  • Cambridge's Undergraduate Admissions Statistics reports that BME students comprised 27.6% of the university's domestic student intake between 2020 and 2022.

Socio-Economic Backgrounds
While there is less reliable evidence for the socio-economic backgrounds of international students, Oxford University published a report stating that 84.5% of the university's domestic intake lived in more advantaged areas. The data uses ACORN, a postcode-based tool that categorises the UK’s population by level of socio-economic advantage. No data was found for a Cambridge University report; however, the statistics would likely be very similar.

According to data found:


Acceptance Rates

Using the latest data, the following information could be found about student acceptance rates at both Oxford and Cambridge respectively:

Oxford University

Overall applications to Oxford, offers made and students admitted, according to oxford.ac.uk:

Year Applications Offers Made Students Admitted Acceptance Rate (%)
2022 23,819 3,645 3,271 13.74
2021 24,338 3,555 3,298 13.54
2020 23,414 3,932 3,695 15.77
2019 23,026 3,895 3,286 14.28
2018 21,516 3,841 3,310 15.38

Cambridge University

Overall Undergraduate applications to Cambridge, offers made, and students admitted, according to cam.ac.uk:

Year Applications Offers Made Students Admitted Acceptance Rate (%)
2023 21,713 4,605 3,599 16.58
2022 22,728 4,290 3,591 15.80
2021 22,795 4,260 3,660 16.08
2020 20,426 4,710 3,997 19.55

What does this show?

Oxford offers a slightly lower acceptance rate: Comparing the acceptance rates calculated from the tables, Oxford consistently shows a slightly lower acceptance rate than Cambridge. For example, in 2020, the acceptance rate for Oxford was 15.77%, whereas for Cambridge, it was 19.55%.

More students apply overall to Oxford: Looking at the number of applications in each year, we can observe that the total number of applications to Oxford is generally higher than those to Cambridge. For instance, in 2020 Oxford received 23,414 applications, while Cambridge received 20,426.
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Who Has Taught at Oxbridge?

The faculty at Oxbridge comprises distinguished scholars and researchers who contribute significantly to academia across various disciplines. Below is a list of some notable professors and individuals who have lectured or taught at Oxford and Cambridge:


  1. Sir Roger Penrose (1973-2020) - Legendary theoretical physicist known for his work on black holes, cosmology, and the nature of time.
  2. Richard Dawkins (1970-2008) - Renowned evolutionary biologist and author of "The Selfish Gene" and "The God Delusion."
  3. Amartya Sen (1993-2004) - Nobel laureate in Economics, known for his work on welfare economics and social choice theory.
  4. J.R.R. Tolkien (1925-1959) - Former Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, author of "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Hobbit."
  5. Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin (1960-1977) - Nobel laureate in Chemistry, known for her work on X-ray crystallography and determining the structures of important biomolecules.


  1. Stephen Hawking (1979-2009) - Legendary theoretical physicist known for his work on black holes, cosmology, and the nature of time.
  2. Sir Isaac Newton (1669-1702) - Former Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, renowned for his laws of motion and universal gravitation.
  3. Bertrand Russell (1910-1916) - Philosopher, logician, and Nobel laureate in Literature, known for his work in analytic philosophy and social criticism.
  4. Alan Turing (1931-1954) - Pioneering computer scientist and mathematician, known for his work on code-breaking during World War II and the Turing Machine.
  5. Jane Goodall (1961-1965) - Primatologist, ethologist, and conservationist, known for her groundbreaking studies of chimpanzee behavior in the wild.

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What Subjects are Offered?

Unique or exclusive courses available at each university, or subjects the respective institutions are renowned for, include:


  1. Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE): This interdisciplinary program is exclusive to Oxford and is highly regarded for its comprehensive approach to understanding societal issues.
  2. Jurisprudence: Oxford's renowned Law program, focusing on legal theory and philosophy, attracts students worldwide.
  3. Asian and Middle Eastern Studies: Oxford offers various languages and cultures from the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, providing unique insights into global perspectives.


  1. Natural Sciences Tripos: Cambridge's integrated science program allows students to explore multiple scientific disciplines in-depth and tailor their studies to their interests.
  2. Engineering: Cambridge offers world-class engineering programs with a strong emphasis on practical application and innovation.
  3. Land Economy: A unique interdisciplinary course focusing on the relationship between economics, law, and environmental science, offering insights into land management and policy.

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How the System Works


At Oxford, the educational system centres on tutorials conducted by academic experts, providing personalised attention and fostering critical thinking skills. The university's collegiate structure emphasises individual colleges, each with its own unique traditions and social atmosphere. Within this framework, students engage in small-group discussions, receive tailored feedback on coursework, and benefit from a close-knit academic community.

Oxford's academic year is divided into three terms: Michaelmas, Hilary, and Trinity, with examinations typically held at the end of each term. This structure allows for rigorous academic study and assessment, ensuring students develop a deep understanding of their subjects and excel in their chosen fields.


Similarly, at Cambridge, the educational system revolves around tutorials led by academic experts, providing students with personalised guidance and fostering intellectual inquiry. However, Cambridge's collegiate system differs in its emphasis on centralised administration, with colleges playing a more supportive role rather than serving as the primary academic unit.

Despite this distinction, students still benefit from small-group teaching, academic support, and a vibrant collegiate environment. Cambridge's academic year consists of Lent, Easter, and Michaelmas terms, with examinations predominantly held at the end of the year. This structure enables students to delve deeply into their studies, engage in scholarly discourse, and pursue academic excellence within a dynamic and intellectually stimulating community.

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How to Get into Oxbridge: Requirements

To gain admission to Oxford or Cambridge, candidates typically need strong academic qualifications, including excellent grades at GCSE and A-level or equivalent. They are expected to demonstrate exceptional intellectual ability and a passion for their chosen field of study.

Additionally, candidates must often sit specific entrance exams tailored to their chosen course. These exams assess candidates' subject knowledge, critical thinking skills, and academic potential. Candidates must also apply through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) system, where they list their course choices, provide personal statements, and submit academic references. The UCAS application process allows universities to assess candidates holistically and consider factors beyond academic achievement.

Shortlisted candidates are usually invited to interviews conducted by faculty members to assess their academic abilities, problem-solving skills, and suitability for the course. Interviews aim to gauge candidates' intellectual curiosity, analytical skills, and potential to thrive in the Oxbridge learning environment.

For comprehensive guidance and tuition tailored to the Oxbridge application process, Ivy Education offers academic advice and tuition services to aspiring students.

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Why Choose Oxbridge?

Studying at Oxford and Cambridge offers international students a uniquely British experience. The picturesque campuses, steeped in centuries of tradition and cultural significance, inspire a sense of timeless charm and academic exploration with historic buildings and lush greenery. Compared to US universities, Oxbridge offers a more intimate and supportive atmosphere where students receive individualised attention and mentorship due to smaller classroom sizes and campuses.

Moreover, Oxbridge's global reputation and extensive alumni networks open doors to diverse career opportunities and networks, both domestically and internationally. Students also have access to some of the best research facilities in the world, enabling them to engage in cutting-edge research and contribute to groundbreaking discoveries.

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Preparing for Oxbridge Admissions

Practical Advice for Oxbridge Admissions Preparation:

Start Early: Begin preparing for Oxbridge admissions well in advance to allow time for thorough research, exam preparation, and application refinement

Research Requirements: Familiarise yourself with the specific admission requirements and selection criteria for your chosen course at Oxford or Cambridge, including academic qualifications, entrance exams, personal statements, and interviews.

Academic Preparation: Dedicate time to strengthen your academic skills and knowledge in your chosen subject area, focusing on critical thinking, problem-solving, and independent study.

Seek Guidance: Use resources such as school counsellors, teachers, and online platforms to seek guidance and advice on the admissions process, including choosing the right course, writing compelling personal statements, and preparing for interviews.

Practice Entrance Exams: Practice past papers and familiarise yourself with the format and content of admissions tests or exams required for your course, seeking feedback and guidance from tutors or mentors.

Develop Interview Skills: Practice interview techniques, including articulating your thoughts clearly, responding to challenging questions, and engaging in academic discussions through mock interviews and role-playing exercises.


What can Ivy Education do to help?

Ivy Education provides a comprehensive range of services tailored to the individual needs and goals of prospective Oxbridge students, offering one-on-one support and guidance throughout the admissions process. Whether it be tuition, advice, or support with your application process, we will be able to assist you with your academic journey. Below is a list of what we offer for Oxbridge prospective students:

By combining personalized support, mock interviews, and tailored preparation strategies, Ivy Education's tuition services empower prospective Oxbridge students to maximize their potential, confidently navigate the admissions process, and achieve their academic and career goals.

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So, which one is better?

The truth is that both Oxford and Cambridge are outstanding choices, and the differences between them are relatively minor. Each institution offers unparalleled academic excellence, rich cultural and historical significance, and access to world-class research facilities. Consider what environment you thrive in, your preference in degree, the city you would like to call home for at least three years, and the extracurricular opportunities that excite you. Choosing between these two prestigious universities is ultimately a matter of personal preference.

At Ivy Education, we understand that this decision can be daunting. That's why we offer comprehensive consultancy and tuition services to guide you through the Oxbridge application process. Our expert advisors are here to help you make an informed choice and support you every step of the way. Contact us today and take the first step towards achieving your academic goals.

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No, Oxbridge is not the same as Oxford. Oxbridge is a term used to collectively refer to two prestigious universities in the United Kingdom: the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge. While both universities share similarities in academic excellence, tradition, and global reputation, they are separate institutions with distinct histories, campuses, and academic offerings. Each university has its own unique culture, collegiate system, and contributions to academia and society.

While having four A-levels can demonstrate a high level of academic achievement, it's not a strict requirement for admission to Oxbridge. Typically, prospective students are expected to achieve top grades in their A-levels or equivalent qualifications relevant to their chosen course of study.

Admissions decisions at Oxford and Cambridge are based on a holistic review of an applicant's academic record, performance in admissions tests or exams, personal statement, letters of recommendation, and interview performance, among other factors. Reviewing the specific admission requirements for your chosen course and consulting with admissions tutors or school counsellors for guidance on academic preparation is essential.

Yes, GCSEs do matter for Oxbridge admissions if you are a domestic student, although their significance may vary depending on the course and individual circumstances. While Oxford and Cambridge primarily focus on an applicant's performance at A-levels (or equivalent qualifications) and other aspects of the application process, GCSEs are still considered as part of the overall academic profile.

While achieving top grades (grade 9) in GCSE subjects can certainly strengthen your application to Oxbridge universities, it's not necessarily a strict requirement. As mentioned in the question above, admissions to Oxford or Cambridge is based on a holistic review of an applicant's academic profile, including A-level (or equivalent) results, admissions tests, personal statement, letters of recommendation, and interview performance.

However, if you would like to know how tohow to get all 9s in your GCSEs, we happen to have an article that can help you with just that! Read it here.

Alastair - Ivy Education - Author of What is Oxbridge: A Guide

BY Alastair

Alastair Delafield is the Managing Director and founder of Ivy Education.

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