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5 Oxbridge Myths

As you may imagine, there are more than five myths about the UK’s Oxford and Cambridge Universities. However, for the sake of sanity I’m going to deal with them in small, sensible numbers. Some of these myths are grounded in reality somewhere down the line, but others aren’t even that. Both universities are putting their heart and soul into changing the more absurd notions about them which stop many people from applying, but they are forever at loggerheads with the media.

  1. All Oxbridge students are white, British men – now that would be boring. Admittedly that was pretty much the case until about a hundred years ago, but it isn’t anymore. Students from all over the world come to these universities, with the population as a whole being about 50% women. Certain subjects seem to attract one gender or nationality more than others, but that’s the same in any university. At the moment, the universities seem to have this panic that anything other than exactly 50% women and 50% men is a problem. The reality is that life will never be that precise. No matter how hard they try, one year there will be 52% men and 48% women, and the next year that figure could reverse. The numbers are so close that it’s not worth dedicating any more resources to changing it.
  2. Each college specialises in a subject – for those who are unaware, Oxford and Cambridge are divided into colleges, which are where students eat, sleep, socialise, and often get taught. It is commonly thought that each college specialises in a particular subject, so you’ll get parents asking which college teaches law, or medicine, or whatever else it is that their child plans to apply for. This isn’t how it works. While it’s true that certain colleges do or don’t teach certain subjects, and that certain colleges have a reputation as being particularly strong in certain subjects, that’s the long and short of it. The best way to find out which colleges offer what you’re after is to ask at the faculty. For instance, the mathematics faculty should be able to tell you which colleges offer maths, and where to find them. The other way is to look online or in the prospectus, which you can request for free, and there should be a handy list or table which tells you which colleges offer which subjects. Generally, most colleges offer the ‘normal’ subjects like maths and history; and most large colleges offer most subjects, while smaller colleges will have less space and fewer options. The only colleges which could be argued to specialise in anything are the ones which envisage you getting ordained after you graduate.
  3. Joint honours – joint honours is where you do a degree which is essentially split between two subjects. For instance, at Oxford you can do history and French. There are a lot of joint honours courses at Oxford, and a quick Google or look at the university website will tell you what they are. It has to be said that joint honours isn’t quite 50/50, and you often find yourself having more work than your single honours counterparts. This is because departments aren’t very good at communicating, so you have to be determined and be willing to speak up if you take on the challenge. Cambridge offers barely anything of this sort, but it does have its Tripos system, whereby you spend half your degree doing one subject, and then if you want can swap to something else for the second half. This is potentially a more sensible way to do it from the perspective of time management when you’re surrounded by uncommunicative academics, but in the end both systems have their pros and cons and you have to grit your teeth and go with whatever’s right for you.
  4. It’s expensive – this is not so much a myth as a point that very rarely gets any more explanation. Yes, it is expensive, but the undergraduate tuition fees are very much the same across all UK universities. It is more expensive postgraduate-wise, I won’t lie. Fortunately, because Oxbridge is quite wealthy, there are a lot of college-based, subject-based, and university-wide scholarships and bursaries (‘free money’, if you want it in simple terms). The rent can look pricey too, but on college property it’s all-inclusive, so you won’t suddenly get billed for internet or electricity unless you use an awful lot more than expected. Food is often priced on an as you buy basis, and isn’t much different from what you’d get in a café or medium-range restaurant. It is recommended, particularly for undergraduates, that you only work during the ridiculously long summer vac (‘vacation’ or ‘holiday’), because that’s the only time when you have time to do things other than study and revise. It’s possible to work during the academic year as a postgraduate, but you’d be taking on one heck of a burden. Colleges and the central university have a lot of support available if you do find yourself struggling, so it’s worth looking into that.
  5. Interviews and entrance exams are designed to catch you out – they’re really not. They look like they are because they’re designed to make you think, but it’s not the same thing. Admissions tutors are not for one moment looking for students who already know their subject inside out, because there’d be no point to teaching them. They’re looking for students with two things: passion and potential. The passion is your interest in the subject, which often manifests as a terrifying amount of knowledge from a misspent childhood reading about dinosaurs rather than playing football or whatever ‘normal’ children (not me either) do in their spare time. The passion is also your willingness to learn more. You want to discuss your subject with the people who know more than pretty much anyone else in the world. The interviews are supposed to be engaging conversations which shoot off in all sorts of odd directions because you and the tutors are being natural with each other and bonding over a shared interest. The potential is harder for an applicant to gauge unaided. It’s the ability to do well, and after almost eight centuries of practice the tutors are quite good at spotting it. They want to see that you have the determination and the capacity to achieve well in your chosen subject, and thrive in the kind of academic environment that these universities offer. That’s what the tests and the interviews are for more than anything else.

So those are the first five myths that I hope I’ve busted about Oxbridge. It’s not as scary as it looks. Admittedly, there are some people there who fit all of the stereotypes, but that’s the same for any place or situation. It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t apply if that’s what you want to do. The only way that stereotypes get broken is if people do the breaking.


What do you think?

Written by Nefertari


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  1. That is very interesting and makes me think back to when I twice tried (and failed!) to get into Oxford in1970/71. A friend and I both applied to read English at Oxford, and we took the Oxford Entrance Exam after we had done our A-levels. I had a good all round set of A-levels (grades B, C and C) and he had a distinctly mixed bag (an A, a D and a fail!). I also got a Special paper in English merit, which he did not. However, he must have impressed them with the entrance exam and interview better than I did, because he got in and I did not not. Not only that, but he went on to get a First and a D Phil, and he has spent his career as a university lecturer (now Head of Department) in universities around the world. My career has been far more modest!

    I also appreciate your comment on joint honours, because that is what I did at a non-Oxbridge university (Bangor, then part of the University of Wales). It was generally agreed that joint honours candidates worked a lot harder because they had to do about two-thirds of each single honours subject.

    • That’s interesting! Yeah, I would imagine that he showed something that sparked their interest. A First and a DPhil are impressive too. I guess it was meant to be if he’s worked in universities ever since!

      Yeah, I’ve got friends who did joint honours and they had way more work to do than the rest of us. I think it’s partly the nature of the beast, and partly the lack of communication between departments about how much their students are actually doing.

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