Oxford vs US: An Undergrad Degree Comparison Chart (& Glossary)

by Cole Matson

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Radcliffe Camera (Oxford)

A young student, who I believe is an American, recently asked a question on one of my Facebook groups:

Anyone from Oxford University- what is it like? I have heard that there are no general education classes, and that you work strictly on your major. Is that true?

When I responded saying that I could give him some comparisons between Oxford and a US liberal arts degree, since I have been an undergraduate at both Oxford (BA in Theology) and in the US (BFA in Drama/Psychology at NYU), he wrote back, saying:

Thanks, I would like the comparison chart. I would also imagine your knowledge is much-more in-depth with a BA from Oxford than with one from America.

So, for Ian, and for any readers and seekers on the Internet who come across this page, here is my comparison chart between reading for a BA at Oxford versus studying for a liberal arts degree in the US. (For “reading” vs. “studying”, and other Oxford vs. U.S. terminology, see the glossary at the end of the post.) All opinions are my own, based on my own experience doing a humanities degree, and I’m happy to incorporate comments/suggestions/corrections into this post, especially from students who can comment on science degrees.

I can’t compare the experiences within the same subject, since my US degree was in a completely different field than my UK degree, but I would say a BA from Oxford, in Theology at least, is more equivalent to a US MA in Theology than to a US BA. The primary difference is Oxford is focused more on teaching you how to think and how to communicate, using the subject as the battlefield upon which you’re learning intellectual sword-work. A US liberal arts degree might have this same ideal, but in practice the large lectures and frequent examinations mean you really spend your time cramming for exams and being constantly evaluated by multiple-choice, computer-scored questions, rather than by soaking in the subject, doing extensive reading, and being evaluated through the more demanding essay format. However, you may have more facts drilled into you in an American program, and you will also have more freedom to explore different subjects as part of your degree. While I think the Oxford tutorial should be (re-?)introduced into American higher education, the choice of overall program really depends on each individual student’s needs, capabilities, and desires.

Here’s a short piece on my experience that I wrote for my senior subject tutor at my Oxford college (with bonus contribution from my good friend and fellow C.S. Lewis expert Ryan Pemberton):

American Theology Students at Harris Manchester

Structure-wise, here’s a brief comparison chart between the typical US undergrad degree and an Oxford one:

US:
Years 1-2: Completion of liberal arts core requirements in the humanities and sciences (often with a required general essay-writing/composition course); choice of major and beginning on introductory classes within that major by end of 2nd year

Year 3-4: Completion of major requirements, w/ some electives related and/or unrelated to the major (often adding a second major or a minor)

Instruction is primarily in large (~200 person) lectures at beginning of degree, with some seminars/recitations. Later in degree, instruction is primarily in seminars/smaller classes (~20-30 people or fewer).

Evaluation is generally through regular quizzes and exams (midterm and final), which are often multiple-choice with some essay questions. Many classes also assign 1-2 term papers a semester, along with regular weekly problem sets/reading responses (1-2 pages each). GPA is calculated every semester, and the final outcome of your degree (GPA) is the average of all semester GPAs.

Oxford:
Year 1: Completion of required preliminary papers in your course. These examinations (“prelims” or “honour mods” [for "honour moderations"]) must be passed in order to move on to the “Final Honours School” (FHS), i.e., the last two years of the degree. Written examination on these papers at the end of the second or third term. (Oxbridge has three 8-week terms in an academic year.) 

(There are no “general education” requirements at Oxford. When you apply to Oxford, you apply both for a specific course and to a specific college. Your application may be “pooled”, or transferred, to another college, depending on fit and the number of openings, but you will generally be accepted – or not – for that course. You may also be accepted onto a Single Honours School [like a single major] instead of a Joint Honours School [like a double major] if you have applied to a Joint School but the college believes you will be a better fit for the Single School. For example, I applied for Philosophy and Theology, but was accepted only for Theology, which ended up being a good decision. See this post for more about my experience applying to Oxford and choosing a college. Applying for a certain course at a certain college means that there is no way to apply “to Oxford”, and then decide what to major in later. You know your major going in, and apply to colleges which offer that subject [or make an "open application", in which you apply for a certain subject, but let an algorithm place you with a college, which does not affect your overall chances of admission]. See here for a list of which Oxford colleges offer which undergraduate subjects.) 

Years 2-3 (+ 3rd term of Year 1 for courses that give prelims at the end of the 2nd term of Year 1): Completion of required FHS papers, plus completion of elective papers within subject. (For example, in Theology I had four required core FHS papers, and then my choice of a history paper, a theologian paper, an elective paper, and either a second elective or an extended essay, for four total papers beyond the core papers.) Examination on these FHS papers at the end of the third year. During final exams, students will sit 1-2 exams a day, each of which is 2-3 hours long, over a 1-2 week period, for a total of about 6-10 exams (depending on their course). (We also take exams in full academic dress – dark suit, white bow tie, and academic gown, often with a carnation in the lapel indicating progress: white for first exam, pink for middle exams, and red for final exam.)

That means there are NO examinations during the second year. However, students generally take “collections” at the beginning of every term. Collections are practice exams – usually copies of past exam papers – that are given under exam conditions to test you on the material you learned last term. They are scored, but the scores don’t “count” (i.e., they don’t apply to your degree) – they’re just to give you an idea of how you would have scored if this was your final exam, and to help you with revision.

Instruction is primarily in 1-2 person tutorials with a tutor. The tutor assigns you a reading list for each week (with about a dozen books and articles on it), along with a related essay question. You do the reading, and then write an essay to answer the question (usually about 2,000-3,000 words, or about 6-10 pages). Next week, you bring in the essay to your hour-long tutorial (or you send it to your tutor the day before). Then, you read the essay aloud (or skip this, if your tutor has already received and read it), and spend the rest of the time discussing the ideas in your essay. Your tutor will generally present objections to your argument, which you will have to answer, or ask you questions to encourage you to think more deeply. At the end, he’ll give you a new reading list and essay question, and the process begins again.

There are also departmental lectures every week, and at the beginning of term your tutor will generally recommend a few which you should attend. These are not technically required, and there is no attendance taken. However, since the faculty members who write the exams are aware of the content of these lectures, they may write exam questions based on them, so it’s in your best interest to attend at least the listed core lectures. There may be some instruction given in seminars/classes (especially language instruction) – your senior tutor will let you know if you need to take these, and how to sign up for them.

Examination is by written examination at or near the end of the first year (prelims/mods), and at the end of the third year (finals). Exams are in the form of essay questions, with some gobbets (i.e., written commentary on a written passage), translations, and/or problem sets included, depending on the course and the paper. There is also the option of a thesis for some subjects (and a few papers are examined by written coursework [i.e., a lengthy essay like a term paper], as well as exam). If there are questions about your written exam, or if the examiners feel they need more information in order to assess your ability, you may be asked to undergo a viva voce, or oral exam. (These exams are standard for postgraduate degrees.)

The result of your final degree is not cumulative. Your final result depends entirely on your final examinations at the end of your degree (including a written thesis/coursework if applicable). Exams are marked on a scale of 0-100, and results are roughly equivalent to the following marks (which may differ depending on the degree course):

70-100: First-Class
60-69: Upper Second (2:1)
50-59: Lower Second (2:2)
40-49: Third
30-39: Pass (w/o Honours)
Below 30: Fail

Your final result is based on the average of your marks on your final papers, with a couple qualifying criteria: You will generally have to have an average of a certain mark or above, plus at least 2-3 marks over a certain number, as well as no mark below a certain number. So, for example, in Theology, in order to get a 2:1 as your final result, you need to have:

An average of 59 or above
At least two marks of 60 or above
No mark below 40

Whereas to get a First, you need to have:

(i) Average of 68.5 or above
At least two marks of 70 or above
No mark below 50
OR
(ii) Average of 65 or above
At least three marks of 75 or above
No mark below 50

In Theology at least, and I think in the humanities generally, about 10% of students receive a First, roughly 65-75% receive a 2:1, and about 15-25% receive a 2:2. It is uncommon for a person to receive a Third or below, though it happens. You need a high 2:1 (avg 66+) or above to be accepted into graduate study generally, and some employers will also require a 2:1 or above. (Though for graduate study at Oxbridge – Oxford or Cambridge – you should aim for a First.)

Glossary

Oxford “paper” = US “course”/”class”
(Oxford “paper” also means an examination, so “sitting a paper” means taking an exam. “Classes”, meaning instruction on a certain topic being given to a small group of students who attend weekly and receive regular homework, are rare at Oxford, since most instruction is delivered in other formats. Instead of saying, for example, that you’re taking a class on the Old Testament, you’d say that you’re doing the Old Testament paper, or, if you’re taking the exam, that you’re sitting the Old Testament paper. However, some papers at Oxford are given through a class, such as the special theologian papers within the Theology degree – although my class was 3 people, so it’s not the same thing as an American 20-30 student class. It’s more like a large tutorial.)

Oxford “course” = US “degree program”
(e.g., my course, i.e., my course of studies, was the Theology BA)

Oxford “subject” = US “major”
(e.g., “My subject is Theology” = “My major is Theology”)

Oxford “to read” = US “to major in” or “to study”)
(e.g., “I’m reading Theology” = “I’m majoring in Theology” or “I’m studying Theology”. A person who is reading Theology is a theologian, just as a person who is reading for a science degree is a scientist – no need to wait for the PhD to apply the appellation relevant to your field! One benefit of Oxford is that you’re treated as a colleague-in-training.)

Oxford “essay” = US “paper”
(instead of saying “I’m writing a paper on irony in the Gospel of John”, you’d say, “My essay this week is on irony in the Gospel of John”)

Oxford “revision” = US “studying”
(i.e., “I’m revising for my exams” instead of “I’m studying for my exams”)

Oxford “tutor” = US “professor”
(In the US, we generally tend to call all our faculty instructors “professors”, e.g., “my Intro Psych professor” to refer to the newly-minted PhD who’s working as an adjunct. At Oxford, a professor is a specific title for someone who has been awarded a chair in a faculty – so, for example, the Chair of Old Testament can be called Prof Bloggs, whereas another faculty member, who may have lectured and taught for 20 years as a member of the faculty but who is not a chair, is only Dr Bloggs. It is a faux pas to called a professor “Dr”, or a non-professor faculty member “Prof”. Oxford faculty members have other titles, such as “Lecturer” – which means that the person gives lectures in the department – or “Tutor” – which means that the person teaches tutorials, *not* that the person gives extra help to struggling students [though they may do that, too, out of the kindness of their hearts - Oxford tutors generally care a lot about the progress of their students]. However, you wouldn’t address someone as Lecturer Bloggs or Tutor Bloggs.)

Oxford “finalist” = US “senior”
(A finalist is a student who is about to sit finals, i.e., a student in the last year of his course. [During your last term, you no longer attend tutorials or receive essay assignments, as you are expected to spend all your time revising and attending revision classes.] Therefore, “finalist” is roughly equivalent to the U.S. term “senior”. English universities do not use the terms freshman/sophomore/junior/senior, not least because undergraduate degrees are often three years, not four. They do, however, use the term “fresher” for a new first-year student.)

Oxford “postgraduate” = US “graduate”
(Postgrad:undergrad as graduate student:undergraduate student)

And there you are! Feel free to write me if you have any questions about Oxford or study in the UK (or study in the US, if you are not American). Feel free also to share this document with others – I ask only that you don’t modify it without permission, and do credit me and link back to this blog.

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Radcliffe Quadrangle (Harvard)

Dominus Illuminatio Mea!

Cole Matson

BA (Hons) – Theology – University of Oxford, 2011

BFA (w/ Honors) – Drama/Psychology – New York University, 2006

PhD candidate – Divinity – University of St Andrews, 2011-present

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