Ivy League v Oxbridge: Which Suits You?

Posted 2 years ago
US Education v UK Education, Oxbridge v Ivy League, Liberal Arts

There are two big players in the field of global, elite universities: the US and the UK.

Ivy League and Oxbridge.

Both are home to incredible and highly unique universities - Oxford, Cambridge and LSE in the UK and Stanford, Yale, and Harvard in the US (to name a few!).

They're known as the places that produce the movers and shakers; the Nobel prize winners, politicians, glamorously disheveled tech geniuses who drop out to work on their apps ... you get the picture.

Between them, they dominate the global league tables for university rankings.

But that's about as far as we can go by grouping the two systems together, because in many ways they're actually pretty different!

They have quite different teaching styles, and tons more divergences start to appear when you consider their cultures and campus lifestyles.

Obviously, this split can be pretty confusing for students looking to apply overseas, and one of the most common questions is whether one system is inherently better than the other.

From our experience talking to students at a number of these universities, that's just not the case.

Though undeniably the US has more variety and flexibility (not to mention just having more universities to apply to), the UK has many strong points, especially for people who already have an idea of what they would like to study.

Knowing what'll work best for you is a crucial part of deciding where to apply, and so in this post we're giving you a quick run-down of the two systems.

The US

In the US, you get liberal arts degrees at a college.

You've got your expected stereotypes such as your jocks, frats, in your dorm you get saddled with a roommate who's smelly and awkward (or worse, impossibly charismatic).

There are GPAs and cramming for midterms to worry about, and afterwards, most likely involving themselves in the plethora of social events put on.

Sports are somewhat important (understatement). And you spell all your words with z's instead of s's.

The UK

And in Britain, you read for a degree at a university (colleges exist, but they're something you belong to within a university - I know, it's complicated); chips are crisps, your mates are cheeky, pants are called trousers, you trade in those sport-heads for aloof Etonians, and it's a 'subject' not a 'major'.

You don't generally have to deal with roommates - smelly or otherwise.

So that's enough about uni life - how about what it's like to study at these places?

The Education

Both groups are renowned for their academia, but the systems work along quite different lines.

There's no denying the US education is more varied; it's breadth while the UK is depth.

It tests in increments (you work to maintain a GPA) whereas the UK by and large bases grades on a final set of exams.

The US terms (semesters) are often longer (there are four instead of three!).

The big advantage that UK universities like Oxford and Cambridge have over the US is their tutorial system, which basically means you have one-on-one tutorials at least once a week with a tutor (an academic employed by your college, and often a leading expert in your given subject).

This is advantageous for obvious reasons - lots of tutorials means lots of contact time, a focus on individual learning, and a space where you get academically stretched by someone who really knows their stuff.

It's also great if you're attracted to something specific - Stephen, who studies Geography at Cambridge, admits that it was a subject that grabbed him straight away: "when I read about the lectures, I kind of got nerdily excited! I wanted to get stuck in right away".

Personally speaking, I was also one of those people - I knew what I'd like to study, and got nerdily excited (yes, I freely admit it too) when I read about Oxford's English course.

The big advantage that US colleges have over the UK is two-fold: lots more contact time, and degrees which place less pressure on you to decide on a major early on.

Both can be really useful in helping you to decide what you'd like to do with your life, but more than that, the US is way more flexible in letting you explore your interests. Want to study Neuroscience but also have an interest in children's literature? Totally possible to study both. And while I was immediately attracted to the UK, my best friend was the opposite; she chose to study at Stanford, largely because she could combine her many and varied interests in a creative and flexible way (and also because, well, it's Stanford).

Final Thoughts

To sum things up, in the words of Benjamin (another one of our CrimsonHub speakers) the US system "really lets student explore what they're interested in and not only be studying because they think it will land them a successful job".

Whereas, in the UK, studying a degree "requires a student to be very independent, very motivated" - and to have made their minds up slightly more about what they'd like to spend their time studying.

Ultimately, you should decide for yourself which suits you more.

To make the process even easier, I'll end with a simple, two-question test that might help you make up your mind!

A. Torn between studying art history and studying astrophysics? (if yes, the US is for you! If no, go to B)

B. Ambivalent towards and/or ignorant of what the mysterious sport called 'baseball' entails? (if yes, come to the UK).


This article was written by Hope S.

Hope is currently in her second year at Oxford University reading English. She gets quite nerdily excited by such fascinating concepts as ampersands and Old English jokes. In her spare time, she enjoys boxing, cooking, running, and painting with unusual substances (bioluminescent bacteria probably being the weirdest). Her aim is to write a thesis extolling the lyrical genius of eminent rap artist, Kendrick Lamar, legitimising rap as a form of literature.

Hope attended ACG Parnell College in Auckland, NZ, graduating in 2014 as Proxime Accessit. She achieved a Top of New Zealand in IGCSE English Language and a Top of the World in AS English Language in the Cambridge examinations.

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