Ivy League or Oxbridge: Can you do both?

In their penultimate school year, many students find themselves considering an application to Oxbridge as well as the Ivy League universities in America. With Oxford and Cambridge ranked No. 1 and 2 in the world by Times Higher Education, and Ivy Leagues’ Stanford, MIT, CIT, Harvard, Princeton and Yale, directly behind, it’s not hard to see why it is a difficult choice for high performing students. But is it possible to do both?

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Many of u2’s mentors were faced with the difficult decision between Ivy League and Oxbridge. u2 mentors, Cyrus (Human, Social, and Political Sciences) and Finn (English Language & Literature, Cambridge University) give their views on some of the differences between the Universities and their application processes, as well as their own experience in application:

Finn:

Two years ago, I was at the UK-US university impasse. I had spent six months on the Sutton Trust US Programme, a scheme designed to give British students a taste of US higher education. We had visited four Ivy League giants in a week-long summer residential – Harvard, Columbia, Princeton, while staying at Yale. They all boasted incredible facilities: Columbia’s unbelievable library, Princeton’s picture postcard grounds nestled in woodland, Harvard’s idyllic quads, Yale’s vast lecture theatres (and the best cafeteria in the world, hands down). I ultimately took the UCAS (UK University entrance) route. I didn’t think I’d be organised enough to have a go at both and I didn’t want to jeopardise my application to Cambridge, which still stood as my outstanding favourite. Applying to both Ivy and Oxbridge is a great way to keep your options open, but you absolutely need to think about how it’s all going to fit in.

So if you are still thinking about applying to Ivy League as well as Oxbridge, what considerations should you bear in mind?

Ivy League & Oxbridge: What’s the difference?

Those who are familiar with both systems know that the application process is significantly different. While both will obviously have a large emphasis on academic achievement, Oxbridge applications are very much focused around your suitability and passion for your particular subject, whereas for Ivy Leagues it is much more about you as a person, and your extra-curricular interests outside of the classroom.

Here are some of the major differences to consider when thinking of applying to either Oxbridge and Ivy League:

  1. Course focus:

  • Ivy League: For some, the advantage of applying Ivy League is the flexibility the US system grants you. Higher Education in the States starts with the ‘General Curriculum’, a liberal arts programme where you study an array of subjects to find what you love. Generally, you have up until the end of second year to decide on your specialism. At Princeton, a huge 70% of students end up changing their ‘Major’.

    • These do vary a little – for instance, if you’re more into the arts, Columbia is ideal, with philosophy uniquely included in the core curriculum while maths is optional.

    • Dartmouth is particularly good for its flexible academic system, the D-Plan, which allows you to choose which 16 terms to enrol so that you can work, study abroad, or conduct field research instead of being tied down to campus.

    • At Harvard, alongside your ‘Concentration’ (Major), you take eight Gen Ed courses, 1 class in each of 8 different fields, and Electives (Minors).

  • Oxbridge: Most courses at Oxford and Cambridge focus on one subject. Some courses are dual honours (combining two subjects) and there are the occasional courses which cover three (e.g. PPE: Philosophy, Politics & Economics), but the majority of courses are very singularly subject-specific. This can be a draw for some as the micro-detail you get with an Oxbridge degree is unrivalled.

Finn:

When I was at this juncture, I felt certain that I would major in English. I was interested in history, philosophy, linguistics, perhaps theatre studies, but there was the nagging feeling that I really wanted to devote myself to reading English Literature, and that only Oxbridge’s system would satisfy me.

So think about what you want. Is liberating education for you flexibility of choice? If this is the case, Ivy League is perfect. Or would you prefer to really specialise in one subject, free to pursue niche topics within it? Then Oxbridge.

2. Extra-Curricular:

Whilst extra-curricular interests unrelated to your subject should be relegated to 1-2 lines at the end of the UK’s UCAS application, Ivy Leagues place a large emphasis on achievements in sports, music, drama, art etc, they have a far more holistic take on education. This can be a key consideration when considering applications. Considerations:

  • Ivy League sport: All of the Ivy League schools hold NCAA Division I status, which essentially means that for most major sports you live the life of a semi-professional sportsperson. Teams are competitive and you have to get your name down early, often months before you have even applied, so make sure to send an email to the head coach (and with a little sports CV to impress). But this effort is worth it – the Ivy League schools’ facilities far exceed Oxbridge, perhaps with the exception of rowing and rugby, and there’s far more funding available (this varies vastly at Oxbridge depending on your college, some don’t offer anything at all).

  • Many Ivy League institutions have a generous pot for summer pursuits – whether that be internships or cultural experiences (Princeton’s Office of International Summer Experience is worth taking a look at). You also have a tight-knit alumni community for networking, with alumni in the UK often carrying out your interviews.

  • Oxbridge: Whilst the universities place little emphasis on sports etc., extra-curricular interests around your subject are KEY to application. Demonstrating passion for your subject through subject-specific work experience, extra reading, visiting lectures etc. is crucial to your application.

On one of u2’s Oxbridge programs or through the Extra-Curricular Concierge, we organise students both extra-curricular subject-specific and non-subject-specific opportunities through our strong network of Oxbridge current undergraduates and alumni. This can include shadowing current undergraduates at Oxford or Cambridge for the day, accompanied theatre visits, work experience in tech etc.

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3. Standard of education: Tutorial structure

  • Oxbridge is renowned for its incredible tutorial system. Alongside seminars and lectures, students have regular tutorials with college professors, with 1-3 students per tutorial. This allows for in-depth discussion of material and close contact with subject experts. Students develop an ability to critique and discuss in a way that only small tutorial sessions can allow.

  • Harvard and Yale match Oxbridge with the tutorial system (Yale has a staggering 6:1 undergrad to tutor ratio, 3:1 in the sciences and 1:1 in engineering) and at Columbia you can take up to four graduate classes as an undergraduate. Other Ivy League universities do not compare in terms of the micro-detail of an Oxbridge degree the tutorial system allows.

4. Conditional vs. Unconditional places

  • Once accepted into an Ivy League, your place is virtually unconditional (unless you have a massively dramatic drop off in your academic performance).

  • For Oxbridge, your place is dependent on your A-Level or equivalent grades. At Cambridge, 2 A* offers are becoming very common for even humanities subjects, when previously this was mostly seen in competitive science-based courses (although Oxford tend to give out less demanding offers). Some people are put off by this due to the stress of having your future dependent on sometimes just one exam.

5. Workload

One of the main considerations when deciding to apply to both Ivy League and Oxbridge should be the workload.

You will need to dedicate many hours if you are serious about applying to both, due to their different criteria:

  • Extra-curriculars form an important part of Ivy League applications, as well as the time spent on preparing for the SAT/ACT, Subject Tests, personal statement and essays. Alongside this, you will likely be preparing for general examinations at school.

  • If you are also submitting an Oxbridge application, this will add additional pressure on your time. The personal statement needs perfecting, you will need to prepare for the pre-interview tests which are standard for virtually all Oxbridge courses now. As well as this, it is important you continue to read around your subject, in preparation for interview (and in some cases the pre-interview test).

Still thinking of applying to both? Let’s talk logistics:

Applying to Oxbridge

Key elements:

The Oxbridge application process

The Oxbridge application process

Many students with exceptional academic records and intellectual ability are turned down by Oxbridge each year. Why? The application process to Oxford and Cambridge is extremely challenging, not only requiring candidates to have the highest exam grades, but also to excel in admissions tests, submit written work and have multiple interviews with leading professors.

Candidates struggle most with personal statement submission and the interview process, because it can’t be taught at school. The student is expected to demonstrate a high level of performance capability and creative thinking in their specific academic field that goes beyond what they can learn from school lectures and basic A-Levels. This requires months, if not years, of vital preparation, exploring material outside the school curriculum.

So how to juggle this alongside a US College application?

Applying to Ivy League

Early Decision or Regular Decision?: Key Consideration

You can send off your US application at two stages – Early Decision by November 1 (mid-December acceptance letter), and Regular Decision by January 1. When it comes to the competitive Ivy League schools, you greatly increase your chances of acceptance by applying ED. One, you can apply for only one school in the early round (sometimes you can apply for a ‘public school’ too – but it’s up to 10 in the second wave), so it’s a statement of real interest - ‘I want you and no one else’. Two, there are fewer competitors, and the admissions rates are generally much higher.

  • At Brown for example, the regular decision acceptance rate was 7.4% however the early decision acceptance rate was 18.9%.

  • Harvard, Princeton and Yale operate a slightly different system of Early Action, which is essentially the same idea except crucially you do not have to commit to going to that university if you are accepted. These universities have the lowest acceptance rates.

Often the major issue with applying ED is that if you are accepted, you enter into a contractual obligation that you cannot accept an offer from any other institution. So, if you get that letter in the post from Oxbridge come January, you can lose freedom of choice.

  • The majority of people who apply to both Oxbridge and the Ivy Leagues will go for one of Yale, Princeton or Harvard due to the fact that they don’t have to commit.

So you have two options if you are thinking of applying for both Ivy League and Oxbridge.

1) Apply to Ivy League Early Decision:

  • Strongly recommended due to the increased chances of being accepted

  • You will have to have your application in order by mid-November at the latest, so you will have to be working on it at the same time as your Oxbridge applications.

  • Applying in the regular round gives you a few weeks in December in between your Oxbridge interviews and the January 1st deadline for US applications to solely focus on writing your essays for your various applications, although it is not recommended to leave it all this late.

2) Apply to Ivy League Regular Decision:

  • This can also be a good option to avoid the contractual obligation of Early Decision.

  • Here’s an overview of the RD pathway, including considerations when applying to Oxbridge at the same time:

The Common Application (there are the Universal College App and the Coalition App, too, but the Common is the easiest to use):

  • Questions about your background

  • A personal statement (a bit like the UK’s UCAS one, but divided into questions & with a larger word count) - Questions will ask about:

    • Extra-curricular activities: 150 words to talk about your interests

    • Career aspirations

    • Academic interests

  • Two supplementary essays (300-500 words): Designed to gauge interest in the college. E.g. Columbia: “What attracts you to Columbia and why?”

  • References: You will need several referees to fill out designated areas of the Common Application to support your application

    • With the January 1st deadline, the Christmas holidays make this difficult, so it is best to secure these in late November

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  • Filled out alongside the Common Application. Universities may ask for other financial aid forms too

    • For UK students: There is no UK student loan for study Stateside, but many US private universities are generous with funding for international students - look into need-based, merit-based & sport scholarships

    • This can take a lot of time due to the amount of paperwork (P60’s, bank statements etc.) It will need to be done in November after the profile goes live on October 1 on the College Board website.

    • This could clash with an Oxbridge interview, but the more nuanced assessment of your household’s finances means a better, fairer package financially than the UK system often grants you

Tests

  • You are generally required to sit both an ACT or SAT (Finn recommends the ACT, though it is long, 4+ hours) & 2 SAT Subject Tests (not compulsory, but a good way to boost your application)

    • Princeton don’t ask for Subject Tests, so could be a good choice if your workload is too large

    • The ACT should be taken during the summer to allow time for a re-sit if necessary

    • The SAT Subject Tests are taken in early November. This may clash with Oxbridge admissions tests. Check you don’t have any clashes if applying to both

Interviews

  • Most Ivy League universities have interviews (though check with your college of choice)

  • Most of these are mid-January, so you’ll need to be incredibly organised if you have mock exams for A-Levels etc.

This may all seem quite daunting, and simply too much for some people. However, that is not to say it is an impossible task; it just requires hard work and dedication. There are people every year who manage to balance the two applications. At the same time, there are some talented people who try to do both applications to Ivy League and Oxbridge, but due to the huge demands of this, both applications end up suffering and are of worse quality than if they had just put their time and energy into perfecting one. This is not intending to put people off applying to both, it is just an important thing to consider. Essentially it comes down to whether or not you’re fully committed and dedicated to putting in the work to ensure that both applications are as good as they possibly can be.

u2 mentors are well-positioned to advise on juggling an Ivy League and Oxbridge application. We’ll match you with a mentor who has experience of both applications, who is best-suited to advise on your schools of choice and can guide you through the application process.