What’s Better for Me: Ivy League or Oxbridge?

Posted on 6th July 2018


Are you trying to decide between top universities in the US and UK? UES explains how different those systems are, how to think about what suits you best, and busts some myths about the Ivy League.

When you’re aiming high, it’s natural to wonder what the best you could achieve is. If you were a top sportsperson checking out teams to play for, you’d look at all the best teams (perhaps worldwide) and work out which one suits you the most and offers you the closest to what you want out of your time there.

The same goes for choosing a university: if you’re on track for doing well at school, why not look at a wide range of top universities that might offer you an incredible education?

However, equally highly rated universities can be completely different in lots of ways.

What is the Ivy League?

When students in the UK think of the world’s ‘top’ universities, they’ll often first think of Oxbridge, and then the Ivy League universities in America. But dig a little further and you’ll find that the Ivy League isn’t what you might have thought: it’s not a collection of the best-ranked universities in America, but a sporting league of eight universities in New England that traditionally played sport against each other! This isn’t to say they’re not great institutions (they’re all roughly in the top 50 US university in most rankings), but immediately you can see that there must be lots of other good universities to choose from in America.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that it’s all about the Ivy League: some 40 of the world’s 100 best universities are American.

berry college

How do I choose a US university?

With so many good US universities to choose from, how do you go about deciding which ones to consider? It’s all about something we call ‘fit’. You shouldn’t just look at what grades a university requires or how they’re ranked on some arbitrary scale; you should investigate how they teach students, what their ethos is, and what kinds of students normally go there. (You should also look at more obvious things like location, weather, and size!)

For example, at MIT (not in the Ivy League!) students in their freshman year must complete a core requirement that is equally divided between science and mathematics, and the humanities, arts, and social sciences.

At Brown (in the Ivy League), students have lots of freedom to choose almost any subjects, to shape their own education, and to make their time at college a reflection of their own interests and ambitions.

And at St John’s (not in the Ivy League), students read the texts of renowned scientists and mathematicians such as Archimedes and Galileo, and then recreate the same laboratory experiments and techniques that these masters discovered!

What about Oxbridge?

While there can be quite a difference between US universities, the difference between Oxbridge and the American universities is even greater. At Oxford and Cambridge you will choose a specialist field of study, and you’ll be studying that for the whole time you’re there. At US universities, however, you generally get a lot of freedom to choose and change your ‘major’ as you go, encouraging you to try lots of different subjects and to keep studying several things you really enjoy.

There are also big differences in what they’re looking for in a student. Oxbridge are seeking very academic students who achieve high grades in their subjects. US colleges, although highly academic at many places, are looking for students who have something else to show other than just ability in the classroom. They will likely want to know what you do outside of school, what you do for your community, and how you see the world around you. They’ll then form an opinion of what kind of a person you are and whether you’re right for that university.

What’s better: UK or US?

It’s not that one system is ‘better’ than another; it’s just that they have different ideas of what makes a good student. What they’re looking for in students, and what they’re trying to achieve, is often very different. The UK focuses more on training students in becoming experts in their field; American universities have a broader approach, and have more of a focus on other skills such as critical thinking and developing your aptitude for the world of work.

Perhaps that resonates with you. Either way, make sure that you look at all the possibilities with an open mind, and choose a place that’s right for you.
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