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Course Matters: A nitty-gritty guide to choosing an Oxbridge course 

So, you’ve decided to apply to Oxbridge. Congrats! That’s already a significant first step that many don’t take. Now you’re on to the next step: choosing a course. The decision can be overwhelming. With over 80 undergraduate subjects offered between the two universities (plus well over a hundred Modern Language combinations), where do you even start? Whether you’ve always been sure about what you want to study or are very undecided (like many people are!), this article aims to demystify the process and offer guidance and insider tips. 

The big choice: Oxford or Cambridge?   

Despite the famous portmanteau, ‘Oxbridge’, it’s essential to distinguish Oxford and Cambridge as two separate universities with similarities and differences. While both have the same annual deadline for applications and a similar admissions process culminating in the infamous ‘Oxbridge interview’, you can only apply to one of them. There are also crucial differences, particularly regarding the courses they offer. 

For starters, a few courses are only available at either Oxford or Cambridge. For example, between the two, PPE (Politics, Philosophy, and Economics), Human Sciences, and Earth Sciences are only offered at Oxford. At the same time, Veterinary Medicine, Land Economy, Education, and Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic are available only at Cambridge. Some courses offered at both universities can be completed as a joint honours degrees. At both Cambridge and Oxford, you can do History and Politics. You can combine English with Classics or a modern language only at Oxford. Overall, Oxford has a larger selection of joint honours degrees. You can study Economics as a single subject, at Cambridge but you can only study Economics at Oxford as a Joint Honours degree, combined with Management, History or Politics and Philosophy (PPE).  

It’s also important to note the structural differences between the same courses across the two universities. For example, you may love History at Oxford but dislike studying it at Cambridge. You will have to study all the major sciences in your first year at Cambridge under the ‘Natural Sciences’ course. Oxford offers distinct courses in Chemistry, Biology, Physics, and other associated degrees. You have to study ‘Old English’ in its original Anglo Saxon under the English Language and Literature degree at Oxford, whereas Cambridge’s English degree makes this an optional module. Check out the course outlines under the course pages of both universities on this website for a summary and a personal taste of the course. We also recommend taking a look at the university websites and the relevant faculty websites for further detail; Optimal is an extra and very helpful resource but it isn’t a substitution for the official websites. Combined, Optimal, the university, and the faculty websites will give you a clear idea of the content covered within the degree across the years of study and an insight into a practical ‘day in the life’. 

Consider whether admissions tests are required. Certain Cambridge colleges will ask students to sit pre-interview exams while others may ask applicants to sit tests during interviews. On the other hand, most Oxford courses require specialised pre-interview tests. 

Lastly, consider the importance of interviews and the potential offer. At Cambridge, most applicants are interviewed. But this also means a higher offer (as high as A*A*A or 42 IB points) if you’re successful at interviews. On the other hand, Oxford tends to interview a smaller pool of its applicants, but offers are less demanding, with humanities subjects asking applicants to achieve AAA or 38 IB points. The number of applicants interviewed will also vary significantly from one course to another. At Oxford, 89% of Chemistry applicants were interviewed (on average, between 2019 and 2021) compared to only 25% of Medicine applicants.  

Let’s break it down: Factors to consider 

The basics 

  • Identify your interests. Look at your school subjects: which ones do you enjoy the most? More importantly, why  do you enjoy them? Can you find the same skills and content you like in more courses than your obvious first choice?  
  • Look beyond the information listed on the University, Faculty and Optimal website. Watch YouTube videos of current and former Oxbridge students giving honest reviews of their experiences with their course. Optimal Oxbridge’s course summaries offer detailed breakdowns of all the courses available between the two universities. 
  • Consider your course through its negatives. Is one course more archaic compared to its equivalent at the other university? Are you comfortable with the topic areas that you will be limited to? Do you hate essay-writing. Then don’t apply for History, for example. 
  • Make sure your subjects align with the course requirements. A lot of Oxbridge courses don’t have specific subject requirements. Optimal’s “The Facts” page for each course covers the subjects you must have studied (if applicable) and those that could be helpful.  
  • Ensure you’re on track to meet the grades in relevant subjects.   

Think outside the box 

  • Consider what your extracurricular interests are. Are you interested in debating? An avid member of your student council? These two could form the basis of a strong interest in PPE, HSPS, Law, or History and Politics. Have you done work experience at a hospital but enjoyed the work you did in the labs the most? Perhaps Biochemistry or Biomedical Sciences at Oxford or Natural Sciences at Cambridge might be more “you” than Medicine.  
  • Think about ‘non-traditional’ courses, like Land Economy, which encompass a range of exciting sub-disciplines. The point is to look beyond the subjects you studied at school and see how they may give you a good grounding for subjects you may not have considered before. 
  • What possible career paths are you interested in? If you’re set on Medicine or becoming a Vet, then the course choice is more obvious. But many 18-year-olds have no clue what careers they’d like! Focus on what you’re passionate about, and don’t worry about whether it may obviously lead to a defined job. Most Oxbridge subjects aren’t vocational. Above all, an Oxbridge degree will equip you with vital transferable skills, connections, and ways of thinking. A degree in History or English can very well lead you to a career in Law or the Civil Service or even a Tech company. There are many careers that you may not even know about yet, but university will open your eyes to the skills that will be useful for your job search later. 
  • If specific career paths are important to you, look at the LinkedIn pages of people who’ve done the courses you’re interested in. This is a great way to see the diversity in opportunities available with any given Oxbridge course. 

What makes you special? 

  • The conventional advice Oxbridge tutors will offer is that “you’re not expected to be an expert”. Whilst it’s true that you aren’t expected to be a world expert in your subject, tutors will expect something. Even if you haven’t studied the subject you’re applying for before, do some research. Actually, do a lot of research. Make sure you understand the overarching concepts and identify niche areas that you’d like to discuss in some detail. Optimal Oxbridge offers course-specific interview questions to give you a flavour of the things tutors may expect you to know to some level. 
  • Look at the subject reading lists on the Faculty and University websites.  
  • Come in with something original or with an unconventional approach to popular ideas! For PPE, an interviewer may ask about governments and their relationship with citizens. Using examples close to home or bringing in personal experiences can be an excellent way to be fresh and differentiate yourself from the other applicants. 
  • Courses at Oxbridge can be unique. Make sure your personal statement can justify your interest in the ‘Oxbridge’ course and the other university options you’ve listed. 

You’ve got this! 

Ensuring that the subject you pick is right for you can feel intimidating. Remember that tutors want to see you succeed! Successfully choosing a course at Oxford or Cambridge requires a mixture of recognising your passion for your subject and a genuine desire to learn more. We hope that the resources here at Optimal Oxbridge equip you with a better understanding of the courses you’re interested in and the confidence to put yourself forward and show Oxbridge what you’re made of. 


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