Which is the Best College at Oxford and Cambridge?

What is the best college at Oxford and Cambridge?

Its Personal...

That’s a little like asking which is the best city in the world, or what is the best rock band of all time. It depends on you… Choosing the best college for you at either Oxford or Cambridge can make the difference between a blissfully happy time at university and a time spent wondering if the quad really is greener at the other college. Your choice will also determine how much competition you face for an offer.  

What does "the best" depend on?

Your definition of ‘best”, your personal preferences, and your degree choice. The heart of the matter is which is the best college for you. 

How do you define the "best" Oxford or Cambridge college?

Is it the most prestigious? The least competitive to get into? The most academic? The most beautiful? Most of these factors are totally subjective criteria. King’s College, Cambridge is awe-inspiring, but some prefer the intimate beauty of a small college like Lincoln College, Oxford. How can you compare over 30 colleges at each university? Optimal Oxbridge offers an Optimizer that allows you to search for your best college match based on criteria that matters to you. The Optimizer also gives you a great deal of guidance about each variable. Do you know why the wealth of a college may matter? Is having access to a college library that is open 24/7 the advantage it may appear to be? The Optimizer will explain all. 

 Some factors that could help determine your perfect college include the size of the college or the distance from the centre. Academic performance, the wealth of the college, and the cost of accommodation are other ingredients in this swirling (and frequently bewildering) cauldron of choice. The Optimizer has 13 college choice variables for Cambridge and 16 for Oxford.  

"All of the Optimal Oxbridge staff have been extremely helpful and this fantastic website has really helped me narrow down my decision on the best colleges to apply to. I am so pleased and relieved to discover such wonderful colleges that also optimise my application."
2022 Oxbridge Applicant

Let's talk factors...

Size Matters

Some Cambridge colleges have an undergraduate body that exceeds 550. The variety within the student body that such a size affords could be just what some crave. Others might wish for the close-knit community of a small college like Corpus Christi, Oxford with an Undergraduate body of around only 265. But beware! Colleges are hotbeds of gossip and the smaller the college, the more everyone knows about you. Optimal Oxbridge’s Optimizer warns you of the pitfalls you may face with each variable.  

Location, location, location

Some colleges in Cambridge are considerably further out than others. Do you fancy getting fit walking or cycling up the hill to Girton or would you prefer the centrality of King’s or Clare? Are you an aspiring Medic who would like a college close to Addenbrooke’s Hospital such as Homerton? Is the choice of Homerton even a good one for Medicine? No, if you want a small, ancient college, and no if you want to apply for one of the least competitive colleges. The answer changes to “Absolutely”, if you would like a big Georgian college with a gender split of more than half women. Let the Optimizer help guide you around the maze of all these different factors and remove the stress associated with college choice. 

Type of School

State School/Independent School intake is a political issue that can spawn debates well into the night. We cannot say whether you have a greater chance of getting an offer if you apply to a college that has a high State School intake if you’re state educated, but what we can do is guide you as to which colleges rank where in terms of the split and you can do with that information as you like. Some people would far prefer a college with a very high state school percentage (one Oxford college has a 95% state entrance) whereas others would prefer the opposite (there is a Cambridge college with an almost 50:50 split). Optimal Oxbridge also includes an International Student variable, in case that’s important to you.  

Gender Divide

Would you like an all-female college? Cambridge has two (Oxford has none) colleges that are all female (and those who identify as female). Some Cambridge and Oxford colleges have a very low number of females (below 40%). The Optimizer has taken data from several different sources to ascertain the gender split in colleges because we know this is an important issue for some. 

What does an Optimal Oxbridge membership include?

Use Optimal Oxbridge to learn more about the universities and their various colleges. Learn about all the courses offered by the university to find the best pick for you.

The model helps you narrow down your college choices by choosing the characteristics and qualities that are most important to you, helping you to discover your dream Oxbridge college.

Using data-driven research into trending Oxbridge admissions and predictive modelling  (using various statistical methods), the Oxbridge College Optimizer guides you as to which of the colleges will fulfil your criteria as well as provide you with the greatest chance of an offer. These colleges are ranked, showing you which college you’re most likely to get accepted into for your course.

Our course specific interview questions give you an idea of what you may be asked for your chosen course. Our interview tips give you possible reading lists, topics to brush up on, and insider interview specifics like how long you can expect your interview to last, what the structure may be, and how many faculty members you can expect to speak to.

Written by Oxbridge alumni, we know the best insider information to increase your chance of an offer. No more scouring the internet only to find confusing information. Our insight on the structure of the application and interview process will help you feel confident in your decision of where to apply and how to increase your chance of getting in.

What's a Deer Got to Do With It?

Are you aspiring to be an undergraduate at a beautiful typical Dreaming Spires college? Peterhouse at Cambridge and Magdalen at Oxford have spires to spare and a deer park thrown in for free. One of them is fiercely competitive whereas the other is surprisingly lower down in terms of college competitiveness rankings. The Optimizer knows which is which. Perhaps you’d prefer a more modern college that feels less intimidating to you? What about accommodation? When I was at Oxford, I shared a bathroom with over 20 men and women. Things have changed but very few colleges have a large number of en-suites. Some colleges charge as much as £1,000 a year more than others for accommodation so do take a look at relative costs. On the whole, although this is a massive generalisation, the richer the college, the less expensive the accommodation.  

Geek Rating

Academic Performance is another important element in college choice and it means different things to different people. If you want to be an academic or go for a job where academic prowess is highly prized, you need to aim for a First. Certain colleges are consistently towards the top of the academic charts in Oxford and Cambridge. At Oxford, Merton and St John’s tend to be regarded by undergraduates as the two most academic colleges. Merton even has the unfortunate (and unjustified) reputation as “the college where fun goes to die”.  

 We’ve crunched the data, however, and there’s a college that should be considered as equally or more academically successful according to the Norrington Table. The Norrington Table is possibly skewed towards colleges offering a higher proportion of STEM subjects (different Oxford colleges offer different subjects in differing proportions) and this is explained in detail in the Optimizer. Also, don’t forget that although you’ve worked extremely hard to get to the point of applying, you may not want to continue working quite so hard once you’re at university. There are plenty of careers that don’t require a First. Perhaps an academic hothouse doesn’t appeal, and there are plenty of other lovely colleges that could suit you. 


Application is a Competition – What can you do to Increase your Chances?

What about competition? Does it matter? The universities argue (pretty vociferously – me thinks the lady doth protest too much…) that this is not the case. At Oxford in 2021, on a collegiate level, Worcester offered places to 8% of those who applied to Worcester whereas Wadham offered places to 15% of those who applied to Wadham, almost double the success rate. Why is this? Worcester received 1302 applications, considerably more than double Wadham’s 556 applications. Why? Is Worcester so much better? It probably comes down to marketing. Worcester has an extremely successful Outreach programme so it’s better known amongst applicants.  

What about pooling? The universities claim that pooling balances out the differences in college popularity.  80% of successful applicants to Cambridge get into the college of their first choice. Would this be the case if pooling did away with the relative competitive differences? Surely the number would be far higher? Worcester only awards 9% of its offers to imported candidates because it doesn’t need to look much beyond its large college application pool.  The universities are constituent bodies made up of different autonomous colleges and the universities cannot be seen to favour one college over another. Whilst I have no doubt (and have been told by members of various SCRs) that the universities work extremely hard to ensure that no exceptional candidate is left without a place, we believe that being aware of the Optimizer’s ranking system does help increase your chances.   

There is more interesting analysis to be done at the degree/collegiate level. In 2021, Downing College, Cambridge had 152 applicants for 12 places offered. Peterhouse, Cambridge had 41 applicants for 11 places offered. Clare College received 81 applications for 6 places offered for HSPS (Human, Social and Political Sciences) whereas Homerton received 56 applications but offered 10 places. 

Let our Optimizer help you find your college quickly with much less stress. We’ll eliminate those colleges that don’t work for you and show you the colleges that offer you the greatest chance of getting in!

Increase your chances of success today.

What do these stats mean? Can you hack the system using this data?  

Yes….and no. A brilliant student will probably get an offer wherever they apply. A mediocre applicant is unlikely to get an offer from even the least competitive college. Where do you stand? Statistically speaking, you are probably at or near the top of your school in your subject but so are all applicants. Over 20,000 competitors applied to Oxford for an Undergraduate place in 2021 and just over 3,000 got offers. Nearly every one of those 20,000 is at the top of their school and you’re competing with them for your place. How can you stand out from the crowd? Optimal Oxbridge has a plethora of tips to help you stand out at the application, exam, and interview stage.  

College competitiveness rankings should be another element of your college choice. Optimal Oxbridge’s Optimizer has taken data over more than 10 years and analysed it to create college rankings for every degree at Cambridge and Oxford. This has taken over 18 months and a team of Mathematicians (headed up by a Postgraduate Mathematician at Cambridge), Statisticians, Academics, and Data Scientists. We cannot guarantee you a place, but we can point you in the direction of a college that suits your personal preferences. We can tell you which colleges are more competitive, and which are less. 

Would we suggest that you choose based on rankings alone?

Absolutely not, and we cannot stress this more. This is 3 or 4 years of your life. Don’t just choose a college because you think it’s easier to get into. Use the Optimizer to make a shortlist of those colleges that will suit you. Play with the variables. Don’t be too narrowly prescriptive with the early variables such as size and age of college as you will end up with an extremely narrow choice. Make a short list and then see which colleges are the least competitive for your degree and make an informed choice.  

 Some factors that could help determine your perfect college include the size of the college or the distance from the centre. Academic performance, the wealth of the college, and the cost of accommodation are other ingredients in this swirling (and frequently bewildering) cauldron of choice. The Optimizer has 13 college choice variables for Cambridge and 16 for Oxford.  

Primus Inter Pares?

All colleges are great, but they are not created equal. Let Optimal Oxbridge help you find the one that suits you best and where you have the greatest chance of receiving an offer 

Our proprietary tech combines current data, predictive modelling, insider information and trending insights to give you the greatest chance of getting into the college that is right for you.


How to Write a Standout Personal Statement for Oxford and Cambridge

personal statement

In business, a company’s special value is often referred to as its USP – its unique selling point. Your personal statement is your opportunity to share your USP: what makes you different from the hundreds of other applicants who have a shining academic record? The answer: your commitment to, and your passion for the degree that you would like to read at Oxford or Cambridge. 

 If you apply to Oxford or Cambridge through the UCAS system, you will be asked to write a personal statement. We know from our experience that this is the perfect opportunity – and your only opportunity before the interview – to convince the tutors of why you would love to study the subject that they specialise in. Your academic grades, your written work, and your entrance exam (if you are asked to perform these) will prove your academic competence, but the personal statement allows you to convey your passion for the degree that you are applying for. This is your chance to add personality and flavour to your application, prove your commitment to the degree at hand, and further demonstrate your academic capabilities. You can as well try out our Optimizer – it will rank the colleges to help you with boosting your success rate! 
oxford personal statement
cambridge personal statement

As you know, Oxford and Cambridge are extremely academic universities.

Your personal statement, therefore, should reflect this fact. We have found that it is the most successful when the content of your personal statement should be at least 80% academic, if not more. Oxford and Cambridge appreciate that you are applying to other universities – universities that value extra-curriculars more than they perhaps do – and thus understand that some of your personal statement (less than 20%) may be devoted to your extra-curricular activities. We would suggest, however, that if you would like to mention extra-curricular activities, you frame them in a way that supports your academic application.

For example, if you are the captain of the swimming team and you are applying for Physics at Oxford – have you looked into how hydrodynamic drag affects your swimming capabilities? If you are a keen musician, and applying for English at Cambridge – has your interest in jazz music informed your understanding of Jazz Age Literature? Where possible, make a valid and sophisticated connection between your chosen extra-curricular activity, and the degree that you are applying to study. Remember – if you need any help with this, you can always come to us! 

Let our Optimizer help you find your college quickly with much less stress. We’ll eliminate those colleges that don’t work for you and show you the colleges that offer you the greatest chance of getting in!

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It is important to stress that Oxbridge academics reading your personal statement are entirely interested in your academic and intellectual aptitude, and your passion for the subject at hand.

You won’t win a place at Oxbridge because you are the captain of the rugby team. That is not to say that you should not mention this, but if you want to make your application as competitive as possible: frame this in a way that comes back to your academic interests.

Whilst one may be wary of the amount of ‘extra’ curriculars that they include in their Oxford or Cambridge personal statement, you are actively encouraged to discuss many of your ‘supra’ curricular activities! Supra-curricular activities are things that you have done outside of the confines of your syllabus to deepen and better your understanding of your chosen subject. For example, have you attended a university level lecture on the period of History that you’re studying at A Level? Have you listened to a Ted Talk, or podcast, that relates to your subject? We are happy to help if you want a brainstorming session – sometimes, other people see more in you than yourself. 

In addition, we recommend you BBC Radio 4’s fascinating series called ‘In Our Time’, and covers topics from History, Literature, Culture, Science, and a range of other academic disciplines. These can be found on the ‘In Our Time’ website, as well as Apple Podcasts and Spotify. Both Oxford and Cambridge offer a number of talks and lectures online that have been made available to the general public. Remember – it’s always good to listen to what the insiders have to say. If you want more insider info, we got you has well! 

These are all brilliant ways to show tutors that you are passionate about your subject. A key thing to remember when writing your personal statement is to show, not tell. Telling the tutors that you are passionate about Psychology is not good enough. You need to show it, and the personal statement allows you to do so, by demonstrating the ways in which you have gone above and beyond the confines of your school syllabus, to explore the subject that you are applying to spend the next 3,4, or even up to 6 years studying.


The Oxbridge Personal Statement Service

Perfecting your personal statement to match Oxbridge high standards

What our service includes:

While there is no set formula for a personal statement, here is a suggested structure:

1. Make a point:

‘I am fascinated by Modernist Literature’.

2. Ground this in something you've done/read:

‘I read Virginia Woolf’s ‘The Waves’, and was intrigued by her use of soliloquy because…’

3. What next? What has this inspired you to do?

‘My enjoyment of Woolf’s novels encouraged me to explore some other Modernist fiction. I read Dubliners and watched Jeri Johnson’s lecture on James Joyce. I found it fascinating that…’

For every statement you make, back it up with evidence: a book you have read, a class you have attended, a museum you have visited, etc. For every piece of evidence you provide, what has this thus led you into thinking or doing? Clearly outline your intellectual journey, so that the tutors are able to understand the way in which you have engaged with the subject, thus proving your commitment to it. 

How else can I maximise my chances of getting accepted into Oxbridge?

Did you know that which college you apply to is more important than you probably think?

Whether you are applying to  the University of  Cambridge or the University of Oxford, we are here to help streamline the application process and give you insider intel and a great advantage. You have a ~15 – 20% chance of getting into Oxford or Cambridge University (slightly higher offer rate for Cambridge, but often with more demanding conditions of acceptance).

We can show you the colleges for your course where the offer rate could be as high as 50%!  It’s said that you can’t play the numbers. Don’t believe this. You can take advantage of the differences in competition, and we will show how. We can’t guarantee that you will get an offer, but we are providing you with supersmart insider intel. Then it’s up to you.   

Increase your chances of success today.

Admission Test Registration Deadlines 2022

Don't Forget Your Admission Test Registration Deadline!

Remembering deadlines is crucial but don’t worry,  we’re here to help you! See below to check the deadline for your degree’s admission test registration.

·         University of Cambridge

15th September 2022  

  • LNATregistration deadline – Law    

30th September 2022  

  • BMAT registration deadline – Medicine   
  • ENGAA registration deadline – Engineering 
  • NSAA registration deadline – Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology, Natural Sciences, and Veterinary Medicine all require NSAA
  • TMUA registration deadline – Computer Science and Economics both require TMUA  

University of Oxford


15th September 2022  

  • LNATregistration deadline – Law or Law with Law Studies in Europe        

30th September 2022  (16th September 2022 for modified paper)

  • BMAT registration deadline – Biomedical Sciences and Medicine both require BMAT
  • CAT registration deadline – Classics, Classics and English, Classics and Modern languages or, and Classics and Oriental Studies all require CAT
  • ELAT registration deadline – English Language and Literature, Classics and English, English, English and Modern Languages and History and English all require ELAT. 
  • HAT registration deadline – History, History (Ancient and Modern), History and Economics, History and English, History and Modern Languages and History and Politics all require HAT
  • MAT registration deadline – Computer Science, Computer Science and Philosophy, Mathematics, Mathematics and Computer Science, Mathematics and Philosophy and Mathematics and Statistics all require MAT
  • MLAT registration deadline – European and Middle Eastern Languages, Classics and Modern Languages, English and Modern Languages, History and Modern Languages, Modern Languages, Modern Languages and Linguistics, and Philosophy and Modern Languages all require MLAT 
  • OLAT registration deadline – Arabic, Hebrew, Jewish Studies, or Persian as part of Classics and Oriental Studies (Oriental Studies with Classics), European and Middle Eastern Languages, Oriental Studies, and Religion and Oriental Studies all require OLAT
  • PAT registration deadline – Engineering, Materials Science, Physics, or Physics and Philosophy all require PAT
  • Philosophy Test registration deadline – all candidates wishing to study Philosophy and Theology are required to take the Philosophy Test
  • TSA  registration deadline – If you’re applying for Experimental Psychology, Geography, Human Sciences, Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) or Psychology, Philosophy, and Linguistics (PPL), you will be required to take the TSA. Applicants for Economics and Management or History and Economics courses are required to take Section 1 of the test. 
  • Fine Art Practical and Music Performance Test do not require candidates to sit for a test, though candidates will be asked for more materials once shortlisted. 

Money matters: Why wealth is vital for Oxbridge colleges

Money matters: Why wealth is vital for Oxbridge colleges 

In March 547, St Benedict is thought to have died of a fever at the Abbey of Montecassino. A thousand miles away, and well over a millennium later, his Oxford namesake could also be approaching its end. 

A permanent private hall (PPH) founded by monks from Ampleforth Abbey in the late 19th century, St Benet’s problems are more financial than feverish. According to The Oxford Student, it is trying to secede from the Abbey but has struggled to show it has the money to do so. (It has also reportedly been excluded from the university’s emergency Covid funding, even though PPHs are usually poorer than the established colleges). The situation is so serious that the Hall has stopped taking undergraduates. Its senior tutor, Dr Bernard Gowers, has admitted it could shut its doors for good in 2022. 

But even if St Benet’s disappears after 125 years, this won’t mean much for the rest of Oxford – at least directly. All but three colleges are financially independent, with a combined wealth of roughly £6 billion. On average, 40 per cent of a college’s funding comes from rent and teaching, with 30 per cent from investment income. A further 20 per cent is the result of donations and legacies, which is why Dr Gowers says St Benet’s is negotiating with “potential donors”. If one college falls, the rest will quietly trundle on. 

So, is college wealth largely irrelevant if you’re applying to Oxbridge? Not exactly. There’s a massive disparity between the different institutions: at both Oxford and Cambridge, the two richest colleges own more than their 17 poorest rivals. And the richer the college, the more scholarships, subsidies, and grants it can provide. A good rule of thumb is whether the college is called St John’s – it used to be said that, without leaving land owned by St John’s, you could walk from Oxford to Cambridge. 

Trinity college Cambridge is the wealthiest of them all, with assets of over £1.5 billion: it even owns the O2 Arena in London. It provides bursaries for people from all over the world, with its latest, for EU students, having come into force in October 2021. Trinity is comfortably one of the cheapest colleges for renting, while St John’s – worth £835 million – offers the second-cheapest accommodation. In fact, of the top 10 most affordable colleges, all (with the honourable exception of Wolfson) have assets of £100 million or more. 

There are some obvious candidates at the other end of the scale who are a bit more strapped for cash. None of the Cambridge mature colleges have more than £70 million, while none of Oxford’s mature colleges or PPHs own more than £50 million. But our data shows there are some more surprising candidates – such as Lady Margaret Hall – which could be important to bear in mind when you apply. 

Of course, colleges are far more than bank accounts with pretty buildings. They’re a student community, and will probably be the place where you spend most of your time, meet most of your friends and think of as “home” during your undergraduate years. This, above all, is what the St Benet’s students stand to lose if the Hall is closed down. The signs are positive, with its management reaching an agreement “in principle” with the Westminster College Trust to secure “credible financing”. If this falls through, though, graduates and undergraduates could be left in limbo: members of the university, but not of a college. Most of the time, money is about subsidised food and reasonable rent, but sometimes it can be an existential consideration. 

Oxbridge Vs. The Ivy League?

Oxbridge Vs the Ivy League

For some university applicants, the choice won’t just be between joining Oxford or Cambridge, but Oxbridge or the Ivy League. It’s a difficult decision – there’s an awful lot more separating them than just 4,000 miles of the Atlantic Ocean. Course structure, student population, and academia all need to be weighed up and considered. Of course, there’s no wrong answer when it comes to elite universities, but some will be a better fit than others.

In terms of raw academic performance, Oxbridge is a much more consistent performer. Oxford secured the crown in the most recent Times Higher Education rankings, and Cambridge took fifth. Whilst Harvard secured a respectable silver medal, the only other Ivy League-ers in the top 10 were Princeton and Yale. Beyond them, performance was erratic, from Columbia (11) just falling short of the crème de la crème, to Dartmouth (99) squeezing into the top 100. Yet places are more sought after in the US institutions, with the pandemic pushing acceptance rates down to historic lows. While Oxbridge takes around 20 per cent of applicants, Dartmouth – on the outer ring of the Ivy League – took just 6.2 per cent this year. Harvard is almost half of that.

The US universities also vary massively in terms of their student population. Dartmouth, Brown, and Princeton accept well under 10,000 each, whereas Harvard, Columbia and Penn take an Oxbridge-sized cohort of around 20,000. On the other hand, the English universities can feel more intimate than you’d expect because they’re divided into colleges. If you end up at a small one – like Corpus Christi in Oxford or Cambridge’s Peterhouse – then you might have a fairly cloistered existence in a small community.

In fact, the personal experience is something Oxbridge does extremely well. Ivy League universities are structured around seminars, lectures, and the like, but across the Atlantic there’s a focus on tutorials (even scientists have weekly or twice weekly tutorials, despite spending most of the working week in the lab). Tutorials are possibly Oxbridge’s greatest selling point and certainly a key factor in their academic and reputational dominance. In personal meetings with a tutor, you can discuss your work, explore ideas with an intellectual latitude, and put questions to and be questioned by one of the experts in your field (if not the expert). Some tutors might even offer you a drink – a sherry is not unfamiliar to some of the older dons – and it’s a distinctive academic experience that you won’t get anywhere else. I found the tutorial system turned me into quite a salesperson. If I can convince one of the most renowned Philosophy dons in the world that I know what I’m talking about, I can sell anything. These soft skills gained from the tutorial system are often overlooked, but be open to their ability to help you land your dream job in a few years’ time.

The Ivy League can’t muster this deep dive into a subject, but it does have the great merit of breadth. Rather than picking one subject during their application, students “major” in one subject – making up the bulk of their degree – which they generally don’t have to pick until the end of their second year. They also pick a “minor”, potentially unrelated, subject. Of the Oxbridge universities, Cambridge comes the closest to offering something similar, where undergraduates have more scope to specialise in modules after their first year. But there’s no real counterpart to the US system.

One other factor is cost. If you’re a UK resident, able to get home status, a year at Oxbridge will cost £9000 in fees and another £10,000 at the absolute most for living expenses. You should be able to qualify for a student loan to help with this. If you’re travelling to the US, without a scholarship, you’re looking at fees of over $50,000 (over £40,000 as of 18th May 2022). You then need to live and get there, and that could easily cost another £10,000 a year. Ivy League, for a UK student, is considerably more than double the cost with no UK government student loans available. There is, however, plenty of financial support from Ivy League universities available. Ivy League universities do not, however, offer academic or sports scholarships; they are all based on financial need.

So, Ivy League or Oxbridge? It depends what you’re looking for and what you can afford. Oxbridge opts for depth whereas the Ivy League goes for breadth. In England, you can get an in-depth look at a subject (or at two or three, if you’ve chosen joint honours), and strike up a more personal relationship within a college and with your tutors. If mixing and matching is more your style, then consider the Ivy League, and take your pick from the varied assortment of universities. Would the intimacy of a collegiate system work for you? If so, Oxbridge is best. Above all, it’s a good idea to visit the place where you might end up spending (at least) three years of your life.