August 28, 2023
Mathematics: Oxford or Cambridge?Oxbridge
There are many factors to consider in choosing which university courses to apply for. Students can only apply to either Oxford or Cambridge, so this can be a particularly difficult part of the decision. Several factors in your decision will be unrelated to the course: for example, location, distance and transport connections from home, the city, cost of living, accommodation, societies of particular interest to you, college choice, sibling or family connections, etc.
Nevertheless, the content of the degree should be one of the most important things to think about because there are considerable differences between the Oxford and Cambridge Mathematics degrees. If you already have a particular interest you wish to pursue at undergraduate level, then you may wish to consider which department is better suited.
Areas of Specialism
The Oxford Mathematics Institute generally offers more modules in areas such as:
- Computation theory
- Deep learning/AI
- Mathematical finance
The first year consists of compulsory courses taken by all students. In addition, it is compulsory for first-year students to take a computing course called ‘Computational Mathematics’. This course allows students to become acquainted with the use of computers in learning about mathematics, and useful mathematics software. After the first year, students have some choice in the courses they take, allowing them to specialise. To learn about the specific second and third year courses available, it is advisable to read the course information on the Mathematical Institute’s website.
Style of Examination
Oxford exams place more emphasis on demonstrating mastery of lectured material, including reproducing tricky bookwork, than an emphasis on solving difficult and unfamiliar problems. Students who are prepared to work hard at learning lectured material thoroughly can be confident in achieving a good result.
There are four courses offered by Oxford’s Mathematical Institute:
- Mathematics and Statistics
- Mathematics and Philosophy
- Mathematics and Computer Science
The availability of joint honours courses may be particularly appealing to some candidates, as such variety is not offered at Cambridge. However, it is important to know that these courses are extremely competitive: for example, Mathematics and Computer Science has an average yearly intake of only 43 students (7% success rate). For context, single honours Mathematics has an average applicant success rate of 9%.
Oxford offers each of these courses in three-year (BA) and four-year (MMath) degrees. The fourth (MMath) year is applied for during the third year of study, and is dependent on satisfactory exam results.
Applicants must take the MAT (Mathematics Admissions Test) in order to be considered for an interview at Oxford. The MAT is taken in October, and only those with a high enough score will receive an interview invitation. This means that, while a lower proportion of applicants are invited to interview than at Cambridge, a higher proportion will receive an offer post-interview. This may be a consideration for applicants who really don't want to take a pre-interview admissions test in the Autumn term of Y13. To learn more about the MAT, see our MAT Handbook.
Areas of Specialism
The Centre for Mathematical Sciences at Cambridge offers a greater variety of theoretical and mathematical physics courses than Oxford, because the theoretical physicists are housed in the department.
In first year, students take compulsory courses depending on their chosen pathway (Pure and Applied Mathematics or Mathematics with Physics). In second and third year, students can choose the topics they would like to study. Applicants should read the course summary information on the university website to get an idea for the courses offered. For more detail, the formal description of the undergraduate degree is available to read in the Schedules booklets.
Style of Examination
For historical reasons, Cambridge exams are heavily focused on solving challenging and unfamiliar problems which may have little to do with lectured content. Students will need to be willing to spend a substantial amount of time cultivating an instinct for problem solving in order to achieve high results.
There are no joint honours degrees with Mathematics at Cambridge. Students at Cambridge may take Mathematics with Physics as a pathway in first year (rather than Pure and Applied Mathematics, which is by far the most popular option). It is important to note that this is not a theoretical physics course, or a joint honours degree. After the first year, students have to choose whether they wish to continue with Mathematics or move to Natural Sciences for the remainder of the degree. Mathematics with Physics students take a combination of Mathematics courses with Physics courses from Natural Sciences, often with a focus on experimental physics.
Third-year students at Cambridge can apply to extend their degree by a year to complete the MMath, usually referred to as Part III. Part III of the Mathematics course at Cambridge carries a certain reputation in the finance and tech industries, where it is not uncommon for job descriptions for technical roles to state ‘must have PhD or Part III’. While the Oxford MMath is a highly regarded degree, the Cambridge Part III might be particularly attractive for those intending to go into fields in quantitative finance or tech.
Cambridge applicants are not required to undertake formal admissions testing before attending an interview (though students with low predicted grades are wise to take the TMUA - see our TMUA Handbook for more details). Applicants who are successful at interview will have STEP (Sixth Term Examination Papers) included in their offer conditions. STEP is taken in June of Year 13, concurrently with A level/IB exams. Cambridge invites most students to interview if they meet the minimum predicted grade requirements of A*A*A and give a fairly high proportion of offers. STEP is a very difficult exam requiring thorough preparation and fewer than half will achieve a high enough grade to meet their offer conditions.
We hope this article has been helpful in making your university course choices! If you would like personalised advice, we are happy to discuss this matter in a free consultation meeting.