March 2, 2024

STRAUS | What You Should Know About Studying Abroad At Oxford and Cambridge 

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Growing up, my parents always fought to ensure that I had a good education. Their dream was to keep me at well-resourced schools where I could grow as a person and challenge myself academically. I have continued this fight throughout my higher education. I was positioned to graduate from Cornell in my third year; however, as a student who receives generous financial support, I would have sacrificed a near six-figure scholarship by graduating one year early. I brainstormed ways to allocate my extra year that would enrich my education. Ultimately, I decided to attend the University of Cambridge in the spring of 2023 and the University of Oxford in the fall of 2023.

I was a Visiting Student at both universities. Both universities use an independent learning model (called the “supervision system” at Cambridge and the “tutorial system” at Oxford). For most courses, each week students are expected to do independent readings and complete an assignment (e.g., essay, set of problems). Next, in a one-on-one weekly meeting, students get feedback on their weekly assignment. This differs from the academic system at Cornell, where most courses have multiple due dates per week and more contact hours (e.g., office hours, discussion sections). This independent learning model allows for students to refine their interests and do a deep dive into facets of a topic that most appeal to them. During my time there I came to appreciate the unique aspects of each school’s study abroad experience; however, when I first began the application processes, I had difficulty discerning which program would be the best fit for me. I am so thankful to have been able to attend both universities, but I recognize that many students only have time for one study abroad experience. Deciding between these two universities can be difficult. Therefore, I have created the following framework for potential Visiting Students to consider as they approach the application process.

The first step of applying to Cambridge or Oxford is selecting a college. “Which college?” was the most common question people asked me while I was abroad. Both universities are collegiate, meaning there is a central administration, but students attend constituent colleges within their larger universities. At Cambridge, there are 31 colleges; at Oxford, 43. Each college has an individual campus, endowment and academic faculty. Before going abroad, I did not realize how much a college contributes to a student’s academic and social experience. However, I have since learned that a student’s college becomes a large part of their identity. 

Students who study abroad at Cambridge will likely be in Pembroke College as was I, which was a beautiful, historic place to study — with many of the original architectural components from 1347 still in place. As a Visiting Student at Pembroke College, I matriculated as a Member of Pembroke College for life. Matriculation is a formal process that gives a person alumnus status — and all Visiting Students at Pembroke matriculate. At Oxford, there are many colleges that offer Visiting Student Programs, but Visiting Students do not matriculate. There I studied at Lady Margaret Hall, which has stunning gardens and was the first Oxford college to admit women. The choice of which colleges to consider typically comes down to a student researching different colleges and applying to one that they feel is the right “fit” for them.

To decide between colleges, students might consider the location, academic resources and size — which are similar criteria I used for picking a university in the United States. Some colleges are informally considered “central colleges,” meaning they are closer to the heart of Cambridge or Oxford. Pembroke is considered a central college, and Lady Margaret Hall is not. The streets outside Pembroke were typically crowded with tourists. Lady Margaret Hall was roughly a 25-minute walk to the city center. As a result, most social events took place in college, creating a strong bond among students. Academic resources are strong across all colleges at either university, but some colleges are known for specific academic fields. (Note: some colleges do not offer particular courses, but this will be apparent when applying.) For example, one degree-seeking student at Pembroke shared with me that she specifically chose Pembroke because of one of its famous law professors. In terms of size, colleges typically have a few hundred undergraduate and postgraduate students. (Some colleges only accept postgraduate students.) The population size will affect the social dynamics and the number of college-level societies (i.e., clubs). Population in combination with the physical size of colleges may affect the location of student accommodation. Pembroke provided accommodation just outside of the college grounds, whereas Lady Margaret Hall provided in-college accommodation for Visiting Students. In short, this decision is very similar to picking a university in the United States.

The second step is to choose when to study abroad, since students can visit in the fall or spring semester.  Cambridge and Oxford operate on three eight-week terms. The first term at both universities is called Michaelmas term (which takes place during the first part of fall semester in the U.S.), but the other two have different names — Cambridge calls them Lent term and Easter term, and Oxford calls them Hilary term and Trinity term. For students on semester-based systems who want to study abroad for one semester, there is the opportunity to study in the fall or the spring. In the fall, students can study for an “extended” Michaelmas term (which starts ~four weeks prior to Michaelmas term — before degree-seeking students arrive — to provide enough credits for a full semester, totaling to ~three months). In the spring, students can study for the entirety of the second and third terms, which have a five-week break in between (~five months total). The number of courses students take does not normally differ depending on whether they study in the fall or spring, so studying abroad in the fall can be more academically intense given the condensed timeline, whereas in the spring, academics are more spread out. I studied at Oxford for the “extended” Michaelmas term and studied at Cambridge for the latter two terms. The main benefit of starting at the beginning of the academic year was social, as Visiting Students join a college as an entire new cohort of students joins, making it easier to make friends with degree-seeking students. The main benefit of studying during the latter two terms is spending more time at the respective college. Eight-week terms go by extremely fast, and having two of these terms allows Visiting Students to have more time to find societies to join and meet more students. 

Students might also consider the time of the academic year and vacation time. Choosing which term(s) to study abroad is particularly important, as each term will have different events and characteristics. For example, similar to how universities in the United States give students a period to study ahead of exams, Cambridge and Oxford seldom have lectures toward the end of the academic year in an effort to allow students time to study for end-of-year exams. This difference will mean fewer contact hours for Visiting Students in the spring, and many degree-seeking students forgo social activities to revise (i.e., study) for university exams. Lastly, there is the consideration of vacation time. Visiting Students in the fall arrive at the beginning of September, and degree-seeking students arrive at the beginning of October. Both cohorts end when Michaelmas Term concludes (typically early December). Spring Visiting Students start just before the second term (typically mid-January) and end when the third term concludes (typically late June), meaning that they can take advantage of the five-week vacation period between the two terms. The Pembroke Semester Programme provided accommodation, which I used as a ‘home base’ during this break — spending most of the time traveling throughout the European Union.

At first glance, it can be hard to discern how to approach studying at Oxford or Cambridge, but while the universities both have beautiful spires and ancient legacies, each college is its own world that offers unique experiences. Studying abroad at Cambridge or Oxford can be transformative academically, professionally and interpersonally — as it was for me. I strongly encourage all students to pursue studying abroad at — at least — one of the universities. As someone who was raised in the typical United States education system, I can confirm that studying at Cambridge or Oxford will allow you to experience academia in a new way that will improve your learning and your approach to learning.

Sam Straus is a fourth-year student in the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management. He is a transfer student from Carnegie Mellon University and is originally from Los Angeles. He can be reached at [email protected]

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