Considering Study Abroad in Oxford and Cambridge (page 3)
The Universities of Cambridge and Oxford are among the oldest universities in the world and among the largest in the United Kingdom. Both have worldwide reputations for outstanding academics and original research.
In general, Oxford and Cambridge universities prefer to accept full-year visiting students who demonstrate exceptional motivation and enthusiasm for their major subjects. Visiting student applicants must have a solid foundation in their majors, a strong grade-point average (GPA) — 3.5 or higher — and they must already have completed two years of study at their own universities.
At most colleges, you're allowed to study in only one department (your major) during your time at Cambridge or Oxford, or no more than two. Cambridge tends to restrict students to one subject more often than Oxford. This limitation may cause difficulties for students with plans for completing more than one major at their home universities, so be careful. Oxford offers a number of combined courses, or joint schools, as they are often called. They allow you to choose areas that interest you from two different disciplines, sometimes across arts and sciences, such as physics and philosophy. If you are a double major in, for example, English and biology, you probably will have to choose study in just one of those subjects.
Oxford and Cambridge are on trimester schedules. The first term, which is known as Michaelmas, runs from the beginning of October until the first or second week of December. The second term, known as Hilary (at Oxford) or Lent (at Cambridge), runs from the beginning of January until Easter. Third term, Trinity (at Oxford) or Easter (at Cambridge), which is slightly shorter than the first two terms, runs from after Easter until mid-June. The third term is primarily for studying and exams, but because visiting students don't take degree exams, they spend the third term taking tutorials, just as they would in the previous two terms.
Understanding the university structure
The structure of the undergraduate education system at Oxford and Cambridge is different than that of undergraduate institutions in the U.S. and even other British universities. The university handles administrative duties such as defining academic standards and degree requirements and maintaining facilities.
The college is another thing entirely: Imagine that at your current university, you live, eat, study, go to class, and have access to a library all within your dorm. You don't have to leave your dorm to go to class, unless you wanted to hear a large lecture or go to a sporting event. That's what a college is at Oxford and Cambridge.
The college is the center of university life at Oxford and Cambridge. Students live, study, and socialize within their own colleges. The many small colleges, with between 200 and 700 students, make up the larger university. Oxford has 30 undergraduate colleges, and 6 private halls that were founded by different Christian denominations and still retain a religious character. Cambridge has 31 colleges, three of which are for women and two that are exclusively for graduate students. When applying to Oxford or Cambridge, students are admitted to a college and are members of the university by default.
If you're attending a women's college, you still can eat and attend social events at any other colleges. The colleges tend to be located fairly close to each other. Going to a women's college doesn't mean that you'll have a single-sex educational experience. Your experience still will be coed.
College communities include undergraduate and postgraduate students, teachers, and lecturers. Students attend tutorials within their colleges. Each college has libraries, computers, common rooms, and academic and personal support. They provide recreational activities, including entertainment, sports, music, drama, and other special events.
Delving in to your topic: Tutorials
The tutorial system at Oxford (known as the supervision system at Cambridge) is organized by each college and is a highly individualized approach to learning, where you meet weekly with a tutor (sometimes with another student) to discuss a particular subject in depth. The tutorial usually centers around an essay, which you prepare the previous week and then submit to the tutor, or, if the tutor is a very traditional one, read aloud during the tutorial. The tutorial allows you to receive focused instruction from the tutor, and you can also learn from the other student in your tutorial.
While studying at Oxford or Cambridge you attend lectures and labs offered by the university and tutorials organized by your college. Generally, lectures are not required but are available to supplement your education at your discretion. Your tutor often can advise you about which university-run lectures and practical classes are useful for your studies.
The people who lead tutorials are professors. The tutorial system is not equivalent to having a discussion or conference section led by a graduate student in the U.S.
The goal of the tutorial is to review your answers and theories and to raise new issues related to your topic. The tutor may also critique your essay's content and approach. Your tutor may even ask to take the essay at the end of the session to read it over and make comments — or not.
At the end of the session, you and your tutor decide on a topic for the following week and suggested readings. You usually are free to explore the tutor's suggested readings or to venture out and find your own readings related to what you're studying.
The tutorial system is a highly personalized form of teaching and learning designed to show students how to think critically, independently, and creatively. Tutors are more concerned with increasing your knowledge than they are with awarding grades.
Success with tutorials is really up to you, the student. You need to adequately prepare for tutorials so that you're ready to exchange ideas with your tutor and other (one or two) students during your meetings. Don't worry about arriving at Oxford with polished presentation or public speaking skills. Part of tutorials is discovering how to prepare and present your ideas and how to defend your opinions or theories.
Your tutor may arrange for you to have tutorials in another college whenever he or she doesn't cover a certain specialty. Doing so exposes you to different points of view and different ways of conducting tutorials.
In nearly all cases, Oxford colleges will not accept a study abroad student without a good idea of what the student wants to study, and it's difficult or impossible to change these tutorials once a student has arrived at college. A list of tutorial subjects is actually part of the admissions process for most Oxford colleges. At Cambridge, students don't generally finalize supervision subjects until their arrival, but they do have to submit the subject area in which they are interested at the time of application to a college.
Trying triposes at Cambridge
Degree courses at Cambridge are called triposes. Cambridge courses cover subjects very broadly before becoming more specialized and offering a wider range of options. Triposes are divided into blocks lasting one or two years. In some subjects, there is a two-year Part I (which may be divided into Part IA and Part IB) and a one-year Part II. In others, Part I lasts a year and is followed by a two-year Part II.
Visiting students typically study at the second-year level. After consulting your director of studies, you register for one part of a tripos relating to your major field and take the appropriate courses. Depending on which part of a tripos you take, you may or may not have to sit for an exam.
Applying to Oxford and Cambridge
Applying to Oxford and Cambridge is a rigorous process. In addition to an application form and academic transcripts, these universities typically require two recommendations from college professors and two graded writing samples.
Oxford offers a circulating application that enables you to list four colleges of choice in order of preference. Candidates are considered by their respective colleges, in turn, by the order of preference. Oxford encourages prospective visiting students to write to the tutor in charge of admissions at their first-choice colleges during the September or October of the year before admission so they can discuss possible supervisors and branches of study. The circulating application isn't available for applicants who apply through a U.S. university or program.
Cambridge, on the other hand, doesn't have a circulating application. If you're interested in studying as a visiting student at Cambridge, you need to write or e-mail your first-choice college early in the fall semester of your sophomore year, making sure that you to state your major field and request an application form.
Students applying to Cambridge need to submit SAT scores. Because you'll be reporting your scores more than a year after your high school graduation, you need to contact the College Board in Princeton, New Jersey, at 609-771-7600 to make this report request.
Admissions at Oxford and Cambridge are made on a rolling basis. Spaces can fill before the program deadline dates, so, apply to these schools as early as possible in the fall semester of your sophomore year for admission during the following fall. Plan to send an updated transcript after you finish the fall semester of your sophomore year.
Oxford and Cambridge colleges, whether through a U.S.-based program or direct enrollment, are expensive. A few U.S. universities have direct exchanges with one or two Oxford and Cambridge colleges. This can be the easiest and least expensive way of studying at Oxford or Cambridge, so ask your study abroad director if your home university has an exchange like this. If you're on a tight budget for study abroad, you can still have a great academic experience at a less expensive university in the U.K.
Admission for visiting students at Oxford or Cambridge is, at times, peculiar. Outstanding, well-rounded students have a good chance at being admitted. Factors that often affect admission include the popularity of the subject you want to study there and how many other U.S. students are applying. So don't be discouraged if you are not admitted; not only is Visiting Student admission at these colleges extremely competitive, but factors that are beyond your control also are involved.
Several institutions in the United States sponsor programs at Oxford and Cambridge. The experience provided by these programs is often not the same as it is when you're admitted via direct enrollment as a visiting student. Visiting student status means that visiting students have all the privileges and status of regular degree-seeking students, both within their college and throughout the university. The only restriction on visiting students is the Oxford and Cambridge rule that limits degree exams to full degree students only.
If you study with an American program that grants you associate student status, this means that that your privileges at the University are more limited than if you were a visiting student. You also have limited or no access to libraries, university facilities, or college grounds. Furthermore, you usually do not live in an Oxford or Cambridge college but rather off-campus with other Americans. If you chose to pursue one of these programs, you won't have a very authentic experience and you'll most certainly need to get the approval of your home university.
Butler University's Institute for Study Abroad has a visiting student program with several colleges at both Oxford and Cambridge and you can apply through Butler to several colleges. See www.ifsa-butler.org.
Getting social: The "scene" at Oxford and Cambridge
Some students find that the college they attended while at Oxford and Cambridge had a bustling social life, while others think the social scene was fairly boring or they had trouble making friends because of the tutorial system.
Firstly, the tutorial system at Oxford and Cambridge don't exactly make it easy to meet other students. You probably will only meet a handful of students in your tutorials, whereas in the U.S. it is easy to meet many other students who have class with you — class size at home is much better! Additionally, realize that much of the on-campus accommodation at Oxford and Cambridge are single, as opposed to shared, bedrooms. While this may be a nice break from having to share a small dorm room, it makes it very possible for you to go through your day with a limited amount of contact with other human beings!
Students who've studied at Oxford and Cambridge report that in general, you're going to have to be extra outgoing to make friends. The best way to meet people is through events sponsored within your college or by joining societies. One student joined as many as five societies in order to meet people! However, students who studied at either school for only one term explain that that limited amount of time (eight weeks) is really too short to get into societies and other social groups.
A great kick-off to the year and way to make friends happens in the fall during "Fresher's Week," which international students are invited to attend There's plenty of orientation sessions designed to introduce you to all aspects of college and university life. During this week, there will be a fair where most of the university societies, clubs, and sports teams have booths promoting their activities where you can sign up to join. While initially this sounds appealing and as if you'll emerge from Fresher's Week with many new-found friends, realize that the primary audience for Fresher's Week is first-year students and you're probably a junior. Students report that it is difficult to find Oxford and Cambridge students who are third years; students your own age have already formed their social cliques.
Students who did not live within a college at Oxford and Cambridge, and for one reason or another, lived away from campus, highly advise against this choice if you're hoping to have a social life. Most students who live off-campus find it difficult to be part of the social life when living off campus and don't feel 100 percent a part of the community — they report going into college just for tutorials and computer access.
Another social trap to be extra careful of at Oxford is Cambridge is the tendency to hang out with other American visiting students. There are so many Americans at Oxford and Cambridge that it is easy to find them and stick with them as opposed to meeting native or other international students. And, this tendency will cheat you out of part of the experience of living in England.