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

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:

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.

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
(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.)


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.

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

58 thoughts on “Oxford vs US: An Undergrad Degree Comparison Chart (& Glossary)

  1. Neil, you sound like a strong candidate for senior status (although you might want to explore going directly into a postgraduate program, or doing a one-year postgraduate conversion diploma if such is available in your field). I’m not sure what you mean about a Bachelors degree from another institution working as an entry requirement in itself. Obviously you are not guaranteed entry into an Oxford second BA program just because you already have a college degree. Most applicants are not accepted, and already having a Bachelors is a necessary pre-condition for entering with senior status. If you’re asking whether already having a Bachelors guarantees you senior status if you are accepted for a second BA, the answer is no – you may be accepted for the BA, but without senior status. Based on your GPA, I think you should apply directly for the postgraduate degrees (e.g., MSt), without doing a second undergraduate degree.

  2. Hi Cole, I’m Neil Banerji and I’m a student at Knox College in the U.S. I’m interested in a second bachelors at Harris Manchester College in History and Politics. I have been published, and I have a 4.0 in my major with a cum 3.82 (hopefully, it’ll be a 3.87) by the time that I’m done. Do you think I’m a strong candidate with the potential for senior status? My other question is does a bachelors degree from another institution work as an entry requirement in itself for Oxford?

  3. I just wanted to leave an update, for anyone seeing this blog and my question. My daughter did end up getting accepted to Magdalen to read law, and has just flown back to start her second year. Having seen how much work she did in her first year, I am very happy with her choice. My experience with undergraduates at Yale and Columbia is that they do nowhere near the amount of work that she does. It’s worth noting that Oxford lawyers aren’t even allowed to have employment during term time, because their reading and tutorial load is so heavy. The tutorial system really is all it’s cracked up to be — she was already good at presenting arguments or she wouldn’t have gotten in in the first place, but going two-on-one with her tutors twice a week has absolutely sharpened her mind, and it undoubtedly is a much greater incentive to get your work done than any homework the American system assigns.

    The exchange rate has been favorable so when she got accepted and we ran the numbers, three years at Oxford turned out to be only slightly more than four years at Berkeley, and far less than any Ivy League schools.

    We also discovered, in our research, that she will have three options once she finishes her degree at Oxford. She can stay in the UK and do the relatively quick (one year or so) course that will qualify her to actually practice law there; she can return to the US and go to regular 3-year law school here and get a JD; or, most economically, she can do a 1-year Masters in law (LLM). Either a JD or an LLM qualifies her to take the bar exam and practice, and some of the best law schools (Harvard, Yale, Boalt, etc.) offer it. So in the long run, she could save herself a huge pile of money by doing that, although at this point she’s not sure which option to follow, or, indeed, if she will follow any of them.

    There is the possibility she’ll end up not practicing law at all (although she’s still leaning in that direction, she’s not sure), but that’s fine — better she figure that out now than after attending law school! Either way, she’ll come out of this with Oxford on her resume and greatly enhanced thinking and reasoning skills, which is

  4. Cole:

    Valid points. The GREs (also SATs and GMATs) are administered by an American testing monopoly known as the Educational Testing Service (ETS) out of Princeton, NJ,. Their goal is naturally self-preservation, thus they have conned or manipulated the majority of US colleges and universities to accept the majority of their standardized testsas being the ‘Gold Standard’ for codifying American high scholl and college/university students. I am glad that many of the UKs finest higher education institutions have not fallen prey to the ETS. They make hundreds of millions of dollars each year and they are startng to advocate their testing into other fields of testing as well.

  5. Cole:

    A great summary- US graduate schools are so ‘full of themselves’ concerning their rigid course structure concerning the prescribed courses to study and the languages that need to be mastered, they ignore the more importnt rigors of research and independent thought; the US Universities have become ‘money-generating’ machines, awarding Ph.Ds in disciplines that never warranted a research degree in the past. I have friends who have obtained US Ph.Ds in subjects such as accounting, nursing and physical therapy, whereas decades ago only a master’s degree was granted and if one wanted a Ph.D one needed to get it in education or another related field. The US colleges and universities have sold their academic souls for matriculating as many students as possible to as many courses and disciplines as can be so imagined.

  6. Cole:

    I think Christina will be well served by a ‘reading’ for a law degree, as it will provide her with (as opposed to hat of her normal law school peers), the historical and intellectual basis and understanding of modern law based upon the history of laws development throughout history and in many other countrries too. American law students merely know the socratic arguments of case law without really knowing or having to know the basis historical and political that went into making the law- the law. Of course, ‘reading’ for the law at Oxbridge/Cambridge/etc will not automatically provide one with the license necessary to practice the law, so Christina must ask herself te question, ‘to what end or aims is my reading of the law to be at Oxford? Curiosity, practice, intellectual, or a basis for a future career in anothher field?’.

  7. Cole:

    Many thanks sir for the reply, I’ll give it my best short, my laser focus aim is a research topic under the D.Phil program and then having the research published as a book, then go on to teach or consulting work. At my age, the aspects and allure of money, prestiage and ego are long behind me, instead Oxford presents a D.Phil (lala Ph.D in the USA) with a lot more independence and research possibilities, instead of the typical matriculated course and perhaps a language requirements. Wish me luck, if Oxford does not pan out, I have other educational options as well.

  8. I wouldn’t say you’re too old. My friend Karen Harrison (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karen_Harrison) was an Oxford Law undergraduate at age 51 after a career as a trade union officer and Britain’s first woman train driver. And she was one of several students at my college who were her age or older.

    As for the GPA, you’ll be competing against people with higher GPAs, but Oxford doesn’t only take numbers into consideration when making admissions decisions. I say it’s worth a shot.

    (I also recommend my college, Harris Manchester, which is the college for mature students. We had a wide variety of ages, and a very tight-knit community.)

  9. Robert,

    That’s a good question. I went directly into a PhD program after Oxford, and did have to submit an on-course transcript (as opposed to final transcript) as part of the application process. I never saw the on-course transcript, which went directly to each school to which I applied.

    The University website states: “If you haven’t yet completed your course, you can request copies of your on-course transcript. This will show your academic achievement to date but will not include a final classification.”

    The on-course transcript will show the results of your Preliminary Exams, which you take either during or at the end of your first year. However, as I understand it, it does not show your marks on Collections, which are informal practice exams you take at the beginning of each term. I also do not believe it shows your tutor evaluations, which include the tutor’s assessment of your work in general as First-Class, II.1, II.2, Third, etc. So, I expect an on-course transcript would show your Prelim Exam results, plus the names of the papers for which you have received instruction (i.e., the individual course modules you’ve signed up for).

    Can anyone correct me or provide more information?

  10. I am a very ‘mature’ student (late 50s), semi-retired and a liflong career with government, industry and the military. I have an American BS at the 3.0 GPA and a few naster degrees at the 3.3 and 3.4 GPA. I have also written several publications and books. Am I too old and is my GPA too low to ‘read’ for a D.Phil even as a probate student?

  11. A good summary of ‘reading’ for a law degree, yet this Oxford Law degree does not necessarily lead one to be able to be immediatlely employyed in the ‘practice of law’, it is rather a ‘study of the law’; this ‘study’ of the law at Oxford or Cambridge is aprt of the US ‘Socratic dialectic discord method’ of case study law as so practiced at US law schools. Please correct me if I am in error.

  12. Hello,

    Quick question about the UK… How do employers look at marks prior to graduation if grades are awarded after a program is complete?

  13. Christopher,

    I think you’re in a great place for admission to one or more of the UK programs you mentioned. And I think your 1 year each of Latin and Greek will be perfectly sufficient. You might need more for a PhD, depending on your plans, but you’ve got time to beef them up in an MLitt/MPhil program if needed.

    I know that at St Andrews we have an MLitt in Historical & Scriptural Theology (I think that’s the title) that might be a good fit. We have some good patristics and practical/spiritual theology guys, like Mark Elliott and Mario Aguilar. There’s also really good folks at Oxford. My Christian Spirituality tutor was Sr. Benedicta Ward, the editor of The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. I don’t know if she’s still supervising students, but you couldn’t get anyone better. Anyone at Blackfriars would be good, as would multiple other people in the department, especially my Patristics tutor, Julia Konstantinovsky (who was excellent). I don’t really know the relevant faculty at the other institutions, but I don’t think you can go wrong.

    If you haven’t read Benedicta Ward’s The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, I suggest starting there. There’s also An Introduction to Christian Spirituality ed. by Ward & Ralph Waller (the head of my College, who’s an expert on the Wesleys and also tutors and lectures for the Christian Spirituality paper at Oxford). In terms of an introduction to the sacramental worldview of the Cappadocians and others that early, I don’t know any relevant introductions well enough to recommend them, other than reading early primary sources like the Didache and Justin Martyr (as well as the Cappadocians, of course). I’ll see if I can track down my reading lists for Patristics and Christian Spirituality and send them to you.

    I think you’re doing well. Let me know if I can be of any further help.


  14. Dear Cole,

    thank you for being so generous in speaking about your educational experiences both in Oxford and St. Andrews. I was wondering if you could help me especially since i’m looking to apply to both these schools along with others in the UK (Exeter, King’s College, Cambrdige, and Durham). I am currently a fourth year student at Trinity Western University and expect to be graduating with 3.79-3.81 depending on this semester’s results. I’ve also decided to stay in the Vancouver area and study as a “special student” at Regent College because my girlfriend is finishing her MBA at Trinity. However, i visited the UK last summer while also speaking with several postgraduate directors.

    I’m wondering if you have any tips beyond what the admission pages offer. my degree is in biblical studies but i’m interested in patristics, especially spiritual theology. I realize that you have interests in the Eucharist and similarly i would like to understand the sacramental worldview of the cappadocians and others in the first few centuries. I’m not very familiar with historical or spiritual theology apart from looking into the allegorical interpretations of the alexandrian/antiochene schools. do you have any suggestions for both admission and also readable introductions to these topics?

    i’m planning on beefing up my theology by taking courses at Regent College to upgrade my greek to an intermediate level and taking courses from well known names such as J.I. Packer, Richard Bauckham, Mark Noll, Hans Boersma and James Houston. I’ve already taken one year of latin and one year of greek but i’m insecure if that is sufficient

    Warm Regards,

  15. Sofie,

    Greetings to a fellow Texan! (I’m originally from Houston.)

    What you’ve been told is nonsense. There are plenty of Americans who get into Oxford straight from high school. It’s going to be competitive, and it would be best to show that you’ve already done some study in Classics-related subjects (such as taking Latin or Greek), and done well in your English courses. But you have a chance at getting in without starting a U.S. degree first. Where your informants are likely correct is that an undergraduate degree at Oxford is more like your junior/senior years at college, in that there’s no liberal arts core that you have to take first before getting to your major. You dive right into your major subject (or subjects, in the case of a joint honours school like Philosophy & Theology, or a subject like PPE [Philosophy, Politics & Economics]), and only take courses in that area.

    I’d apply to Oxford as well as some U.S. colleges, and then see what happens. You might want to look at colleges that offer study-abroad programs in Oxford. If you don’t get into Oxford, you can always re-apply, or study abroad, or do a Master’s or postgraduate conversion diploma later.

    Good luck!


  16. Cole:

    I am a high school student in America (Texas), and from what I have been told by others, it is very unlikely that I will be accepted coming straight out of high school. My GPA is very high, but I have been told the rigor of Oxford and Cambridge requires (in a sense) that one complete a few years at a college or university in the US to have any chance.

    That said, am I better off getting a degree elsewhere before considering applying to Oxford? The tutorial system and concentration solely in your area of study appeals to me greatly, and I plan on applying to Classics and English.

    Thank you very much for running such an informative blog! It has helped me a great deal in learning more about the relation between US and UK universities.

  17. Thanks, Cole. I asked because I wondered if applying to all the scholarships whose deadline I missed this year..would increase my chances, so I might skip applying this year all together and do it the next year then. Thanks for the calculations! 15% is not that great so I better do it with full preparation later. (I was a little late in planning ahead this time)

    Btw such a cool blog! Kudos to such detailed info and answers to each query 🙂

    On Tuesday, 30 December 2014, The Unicorn Triumphant wrote: > Cole Matson commented: “Shaif Ali, At the Masters level, you do not apply to a college directly. You apply to the Faculty (in your case, the English Faculty), and, if accepted, they will assign you to a college. I understand that you are able to list a college preference, whi” >

  18. Shaif Ali,

    At the Masters level, you do not apply to a college directly. You apply to the Faculty (in your case, the English Faculty), and, if accepted, they will assign you to a college. I understand that you are able to list a college preference, which they will take into account, but you are not guaranteed placement into that college if accepted. However, if accepted by the Faculty, you will be placed with a college, regardless of whether or not you put a preferred college on your application. So you don’t have to worry about college choice at the postgraduate level.

    (At the undergraduate level, you don’t have to put a college on your application, either. You can choose to do an open application, which means that any of the colleges which offer your subject – not the permanent private halls [PPHs] – could potentially review your application, and accept you. In addition, if you do list a college, if that college does not accept you, they could “pool” you to a different college, which might then accept you. That’s what happened to me. Your chances of acceptance are not affected by whether you make an open application or choose a college, and, as I understand, are also not affected by which college you choose. The colleges endeavour to make sure that worthy students are considered for a space at Oxford, no matter how they apply. However, students will not be placed with a PPH unless they indicate in the appropriate place on their application that they would be willing to be considered by a PPH, which I believe includes naming a PPH as either your first or second choice. This is because PPHs are Christian religious institutions, and are different in character than the colleges. They don’t want to place students in a PPH who wouldn’t be happy there.)

    I unfortunately can’t give you an estimate on your chances of getting a scholarship, since I don’t know how many scholarships for postgraduate study in English are available, and how many students were accepted last year. If you can find those two numbers, you can probably work out a rough estimate of your chances of getting one of the scholarships. If I had to *guess*, based on the number of my friends who have received scholarships of one form or another (both undergraduate and postgraduate), I’d say your chances are less than 50%, but better than nothing. A quick Google search turns up a statement on the Oxford website saying that there are over 900 full-ride scholarships for postgrads in 2015, and a 2013 Guardian article says that about 1,000 students, or about 15% of successful applicants, were “too poor” to take up their Oxford place. If 1,000 is 15%, then total successful applicants numbered about 6,667. 900 scholarships for 6,667 students = about a 15% success rate for a full-ride scholarship among all postgrads.

    Hope that helps, and best of luck!


  19. Hi Cole, really informative post.

    I completed my B.A honours (a 3 year course here in India) in English Literature last year. I am planning to apply for Masters in English at Oxford. Can you pls suggest if I should be giving the college preferences (of which I have no idea about. Would have to search) in my application or not? Does giving a particular college mean you are not eligible for other colleges in the university?

    Also, I was planning to apply for scholarships, but almost none of them have a different form or exam for them. You get considered for them just by applying to the university. So my question is, what are the chances of getting through such a scholarship, unlike the ones like Rhodes (whose deadline I missed this year, sadly) which have a unique selection procedure, and hence far less students apply for it, and hence chances of getting through increases.

  20. Btw, if you’re on the borderline, but they tell you you can’t be considered for the BA if you apply for the MSt, then it’s your judgement call: Apply for the BA if it’s more important to you to go to Oxford (and you can afford it, both time-wise and financially – be sure to apply for senior status, so it’s only 2 years instead of 3), and apply for the MSt if it’s more important for you to go straight to graduate study (or if you’re pressed for time/cash).

  21. Alexandra,

    Thanks for your comment. Acceptance into any Oxford Masters program is already very competitive, and without a complementary BA your chances will be reduced. However, if you have an honors minor in English (as I assume), as well as a good deal of undergraduate coursework in English in which you do well, your chances are better than someone like myself, who had no coursework in theology at all (which is why I applied for a second BA instead of for an MSt).

    The English Faculty’s selection criteria for the M.St. include the following statement:

    “Applicants to the M.St. and M.Phil. programmes are normally expected to be predicted or to have achieved a first-class degree (or equivalent international qualifications) in English Literature and/or English Language, or exceptionally a related subject.”

    Therefore, I would expect that you have at least a 3.7 GPA (at the very least in your English coursework, but preferably both in English and overall), and that your overall major lends itself well to English study (e.g., History, Communications, Classics). I would also secure excellent recommendations testifying to your capability and interest in English, and your aptitude for intense graduate-level study in English, including the ability to come up with interesting research questions in the field. Your writing samples should also be superb. Go hear for more about the selection criteria: http://www.english.ox.ac.uk/prospective-graduates/admission/selection-criteria

    If you don’t fit the above criteria, I’d apply for the second BA. If, however, you’re on the border, I’d contact the member of the English Faculty in charge of the degree for which you’re applying (called the course convenor), give them a precis of your background and interests, and ask their advice. You could also ask if, should you not be accepted into the M.St., you could be considered for the second BA in English (if you included a note in your application to that effect). I don’t know whether that would work, since the two application processes are separate – the Faculty consider applicants for postgraduate degrees, where undergraduate candidates are selected by the colleges. If you find out the answer to this question, please let us know!

    Good luck, and let me know if you have any further questions!


  22. Cole –

    I am looking into Masters of English programs in both the US and at Oxford and am very excited by the glimpse of Oxford academics you’ve given here. I would like to pursue a Masters of English, but have a totally unrelated BA. I do have an honors minor from my alma mater, and am currently taking undergrad classes in English to make up my knowledge gap. I’m hoping you can give insight into a couple questions:
    What is the likelihood of my being accepted to an Oxford MS program without a complimentary BA? Would it be more feasible to instead apply to Oxford for a second BA?

    Much thanks!


  23. John,

    Thanks for your comment, and sorry about the delay – I’ve started seeing legitimate comments go to spam for some reason.

    1) I would say awards and accomplishments do matter, insofar as they show you’re an achiever – not so much when it’s just “I’m captain of the ping-pong team and bowling club and French cuisine society, AND I volunteer at the old folks’ home – see how well-rounded I am!”

    2) Hmmm… I don’t know enough about the different universities in the UK to be able to point you to a specific program. I will say it sounds more “Cambridge-y” to me… But then, of course, you do have friars at Blackfriars in Oxford. Although, I think they stick pretty strictly to philosophy, theology, PPE, and maybe English, and spiritual philosophy mixed with literature mixed with “science-y stuff” wouldn’t be their schtick. (There are friars in Cambridge, as well – that’s where they have their novitiate.)

    What do you want to do with this interest, exactly? Read a bunch of books and think for a few years? Do research? Do another BA, or a Master’s?


  24. May,

    Apologies for the delay in answering. I would say no need to do A-levels – once you finish your BA, you should be able to apply straight for a second BA in PPE at Oxford. You can apply for senior status, but they might not grant it if you don’t have the sufficient background (which would probably be a good thing – PPE is so intense that I think it would be better to do the full 3 years). I would suggest contact the Senior Tutor at the college you’re considering and asking how your qualifications would fit with the requirements, and what you can do to strengthen your application.

    Good luck!


  25. Hi Cole,

    It seems you’ve left this post behind, but here’s to hoping!

    I’ve recently graduated from a US University with BAs in Creative non-fiction and English Literature and have been investigating the proverbial “next step”. My GPA was a 3.82 and [here, I would list the awards and accomplishments, but, extra curriculars don’t matter much in the eyes of UK schools, so why?].

    I have an immense interest in spiritual philosophy [Schelling, Neitchze, etc..] as synthesized and applied in Literature and demonstrated in physical theoretics–science-y stuff. I’m a non-traditional US student, a “mature” student by UK standards, at 30, and wonder if you have any recommendations as far as who, what, where, why and/or when I should look, if my goal is to find myself as a UK student?

    Also, having Friars as instructors sounds pretty ideal.



  26. Hi cole, you have a great website, I just found it today.

    I have some questions that I’m hoping you can answer for me. Well I am an international student doing a BA in Environmental science and Organization management, in an African country. The degree takes four years to complete and so far I’m doing well, though my GPA is not spectacularly high, although I do hope I can rise it up by the time I finish my degree. I am becoming more and more interested in Oxford’s PPE degree, but I’m afraid I don’t have the qualifications needed, I was considering doing A levels but I was told it wouldn’t be a good idea because doing A levels at the age of 21 wouldn’t give me more advantage over other students who are younger than me and are applying to the same course. So, what are your thoughts on this, how can I increase my chances of being accepted and is my ambition realistic or is it out-of-reach?

    Thank you in advance.

  27. Christina,

    Based on the information you’ve provided about the specifics of the law school track, I think your instinct that the risks may outweigh the benefits is probably correct in this instance. If she attends a good liberal arts college, there is still a possibility that they may have a study abroad exchange with Oxford, or would support her spending a semester or year there. There are also summer programs, such as http://www.oxford-summer-lawschool.com/, as well as independent study abroad organisations which place students at Oxford, such as http://osap.studioabroad.com/. She could still have the experience of studying law at Oxford and participating in the Oxford Union without paying Oxford tuition for the entire degree.

    However, it seems the best course is to see where she gets in at this point, and then compare/contrast the options. Magdalen is one of the most renowned (and wealthiest) colleges at Oxford. There’s also the possibility of finding external funding (though she would have to be applying for scholarships now).

    Feel free to get back in touch should you have more questions, and best wishes to her at her interviews! I hope she’s enjoying Oxford!

  28. Hi –
    Thank you for your reply; no problem that it was delayed. I thought I would check back in and am glad I did. She was granted an interview at Magdelen and is off next week for that. We’ve decided to wait and see whether she gets accepted there and then have the arguments about the pros and cons. My husband and I are both academics as well, but having gone to state schools ourselves for our undergraduate work and then Ivy Leagues for grad school, we’re still just not convinced that it makes sense to pay the premium that a foreigner has to pay to attend Oxford (as compared to a UK or EU citizen), when students from the rest of the world clamor to come to US universities. We were told that there are basically no scholarships for US undergraduate students, and don’t want her to take out loans for undergraduate education when she’ll be racking up debt in law school. We were also told, from several people on law school faculties here, that studying law as an undergraduate (especially US pre-law programs, which are not rigorous, but even at a high level such as Oxford’s) is not seen as an advantage by law school admissions committees. Since her eventual goal is to go to a top law school in the US, that was a big caveat. There are others, such as the idea that she’d basically be going to law school twice, first at Oxford and then at a US law school, and therefore missing out on the variety of coursework that is the plus side of a US education; the small percentage of Oxford law students that get firsts (law schools place a lot of emphasis on UG GPAs, we were told, because of the US News rankings, and they would translate her Oxford first or second into a GPA-equivalent); and the fact that her entire grade will be based on her exams at the end of her third year — it seems a very risky route to follow. So although I agree with you that the experience would be amazing, there also seem to be a number of cons other than the cost. At this point, we’ll wait and see what kinds of acceptances and offers she gets. But I do appreciate the time you took to answer as well as the clear discussion of the advantages of the tutorial system. That is her strongest selling point, and since she’s already good at debating, she may yet win the day. Thanks again for taking the time to answer at such length.

  29. Christina,

    Apologies for this long-delayed response to your question!

    I would say that the tutorial system is worth it, very much so. She would be receiving largely one-on-one instruction from some of the world’s top experts in law. Even the small classes in a good U.S. humanities program can’t match the level of attention students receive at Oxford. In addition, having “Oxford” on one’s CV signals a level of impressiveness which even Harvard and Yale find it hard to rival. My parents are academics – either current or former heads of departments – and they were extremely impressed with the level of attention I received from my tutors just as part of the normal course of study. Having one or two hours of private instruction and debate each week with one of Oxford University’s professors involves a level of rigour which even a small seminar can’t beat. Especially since you’re also writing 3 papers every 2 weeks, so your writing and critical thinking skills get quite a workout, especially when you have to defend your arguments to the professor.

    In addition, the intellectual atmosphere of Oxford helps students gain a certain amount of confidence, knowing that they are among the best in the world – and with the educational resources to match that level. I had access to three extensive libraries – my own college’s library, my department’s library, and the Bodleian Library, which contains every book published in the U.K.

    Most U.S. universities only allow students to focus primarily on their major during the last two years of study, reserving the first two years for liberal arts courses. Oxford students spend all three years on their major, and that material is the matter that is used to teach them critical thinking and communication skills. So, she would be getting actually more experience in law at Oxford than she would at a U.S. university, 3 years instead of 2, despite the 3-year degree.

    She can also apply for financial aid or scholarships, so it’s possible she might be able to reduce the cost. But, as you say, saving the fourth year saves 25% of the cost vs. a U.S. 4-year school.

    There are also ancillary benefits such as the Oxford Union, the world’s foremost student debating society, in which multiple prime ministers, members of parliament and other national governing bodies, and lawyers and other professionals have forged their public speaking skills.

    I would highly recommend considering Oxford. You have to be prudent in terms of cost, of course, but I believe you get more education for your money compared to similarly priced schools, and also compared to less expensive schools whose 4-year programs cost the same as a 3-year degree at Oxford. In addition, I suspect an Oxford degree will have a long-term financial benefit in terms of giving her an edge in the job search post-graduation, as well as giving her an edge in law school applications, should she choose to go that route.

    Best of luck to your daughter in her college applications!


  30. Hi Cole-
    Really appreciated this post. My daughter is really pushing to go read law at Oxford (first undergraduate degree). She has qualifications that make this a definite possibility, but we are concerned about the cost and the quality of the experience. Overseas student fees, with the current exchange rate, mean she’ll be paying about $50K/year. This is considerably more than she would pay at an excellent state school in the US or even a number of private Ivy Leagues, with some financial aid. It’s true that it’s 3 years versus 4, which affects the cost, but on the other hand she’s “getting” only 3 years of instruction instead of 4. If she stayed in the US, she’d most likely be able to skip a number of GE courses anyway because of her AP results, so she’d probably end up in fairly small classes for a humanities major. Her main “selling point” is the tutorial system, so my question for you is, is the tutorial system really as wonderful an experience as it appears to be, versus small humanities classes in the US? Do you have any other insights that could convince some doubtful parents that sending her to Oxford is a valid choice?

  31. Oh, and I just saw you have a Harding e-mail address. If you’re considering doing a second BA, I highly recommend either Blackfriars or Harris Manchester. (As a matter of fact, I think Blackfriars, like Harris Manchester, only accepts students over 21.) Both are for mature students only (21+), and specialise in students doing second BAs. I’m particularly partial to HMC, since it’s my college, and it’s one of the smallest, and the friendliest, of the Oxford colleges. It is also a residential college with dining hall, unlike Blackfriars, and is also non-sectarian in its tutors. More info here: http://www.hmc.ox.ac.uk. If you’ll be over 21 when you start your degree, you’ll probably be pooled to HMC for at least one of your interviews anyway. For your best chances at getting in (as well as getting an extraordinary education from a small college/hall with more room to focus on each student), I recommend putting down Harris Manchester as your preferred college, and adding Blackfriars as your hall.

  32. Shauna,

    A bachelor’s at Oxford would be highly valuable in the eyes of American graduate schools and employers. It’s like getting a bachelor’s at Harvard or Yale. So yes, it’s very much a readily-accepted degree.

    You cannot put two colleges on your application. However, you can put both a college and a permanent private hall (PPH), which are like colleges, but generally smaller, and all are religiously-affiliated (3 Catholic, 2 Anglican, 1 Baptist). By putting a PPH on your application, you are agreeing to the possibility of being “pooled” to a PPH. (You may be “pooled” to any college regardless of what you put on your application.) Students interviewing in person often receive interviews at two colleges, or a college and a PPH. The two colleges may or may not include the college listed on one’s application. If you put a college down (and you don’t have to – you can make an “open” application, without naming a preferred college), it will be considered by that college, though they may pool you to another college for interviews (which is what happened to me – I put down Keble, but was pooled to Harris Manchester for interviews). Regardless of whatever college you put down, or if you make an open application, your chances of gaining admission to the University will not be affected. If your preferred college doesn’t take you, but thinks you’re a good candidate, they’ll pass you on to another college they think might have more room for you.

    However, I would familiarize yourself with Oxford courses. One doesn’t “double major” at Oxford. You can apply for a course that’s joint honours (e.g., Philosophy & Theology), and there are some other limited ways to combine related courses. But, for example, Oxford doesn’t offer Journalism. Your best best would be Philosophy, Politics & Economics (PPE – you pick 2 or 3 of these to specialise in during the latter part of your course), or History & Politics. PPE is one of the most competitive courses at Oxford in terms of admissions, so be warned. History & Politics is about as competitive (15.1% vs. 15.2% acceptance rate last year, respectively).

    Click here to see which Oxford colleges and halls offer either of those courses. (Balliol is the hot college for PPE, but it’s also the most competitive; I think your best shot at getting in would be to go for PPE at Blackfriars Hall, which has relatively few PPE students, if you’re fine with a) being taught by [extremely knowledgeable and friendly] Catholic Dominican friars, and b) not having the normal residential Oxford college experience [Blackfriars has no housing or dining hall for students, though they do help students find housing together]).

    Click here to see the latest admissions statistics (including, in the sidebar to the page’s left, statistics for each course).

  33. Simon,
    I am currently considering a bachelor’s at Oxford and was wondering, is it a readily accepted degree like one in America would be? Also, is it hard to apply to two separate college? I am interested in a bachelor’s in Political Science and Journalism. Thanks for all your help.

  34. Simon,

    In terms of universities, I don’t know which are the top in your area, but I’d aim for those, the Ivy Leagues, and other “name” universities. An Oxford degree will only help you. (In the US, the names “Oxford” and “Cambridge” carry an added mystique, even on top of the Ivys.) Good universities will probably be aware of the differences between US and UK grading and classifications, and if they aren’t, it’s easy enough for you to add a note to your application explaining how yours compares to a US classification. (I’m sure that either your department or the Admissions Office at Oxford can help you with this conversion, if needed.)

    I’d make a list of the programmes you’d like to attend, take a look at their requirements, and if they do not address international students or degrees, contact their admissions staff to see how your degree compares. (I would probably also check with Oxford first, before contacting US admissions staff, as they will probably be more fluent with US/UK degree conversion than many American universities.)

    Note that Oxford BAs are closer to American MAs in many ways, most importantly the degree of focus. American BA students will generally spend the first two years of their degree doing general education courses in the humanities and sciences (history, English, science, maths, foreign language) and starting the introductory courses in their major focus. Most of their classes in their primary subject will be taken only in the last two years. Some MA programs will be more general, and will include introductory courses in Middle Eastern studies that you may have already taken as papers at Oxford, whereas others (e.g., the program at Harvard, from what I see on the website) will be stepping stones to PhD-level work, and will build on your History degree rather than repeat parts of it.

  35. Dear Cole,

    I’m curious about the reverse side of the story. I just finished my BA in History in Oxford and I am thinking about applying for a master’s in the US with entry from 2013. I’m planning to do a master’s in Middle Eastern studies and I am basically wondering what sort of universities I should be aiming for given the different grading system between the US and UK, as well as whether an Oxford classification would be viewed differently from a non-Oxbridge degree?


  36. Isabella,

    Nice to e-meet you! I am doing the PhD in Theology, Imagination & the Arts at St Andrews, and am loving it. It was my first choice (above Oxford), because it’s the perfect place for the work I am doing. I now mainly blog at my programme’s academic theology and the arts blog, Transpositions, if you want to check it out. It’s a mix of theologians interested in artistic metaphors and imagination in theology, and artists interested in the theological questions attendant on art-making, so it’s right where I want to be, especially since I consider myself in the latter category.

    Who are you planning to work with in Oxford, and what are you planning to do in Theology & Literature? Did you just do the 1-year MSt in Modern Christian Doctrine with the Theology & Literature focus?

  37. Cole – apparently we did Theology together at Oxford (I was also ’11, BA Oriel). Found this via the magic of google. Are you doing the PhD in Theology/Imagination/Arts at St. Andrew’s? If so, how is it?

    I found out about its existence long past the deadline for applications – but it looks phenomenal! (I do Theology and literature, so…). Looks like I’ll be staying on to do my DPhil here in Ox, though…

  38. John,

    Oxford does do earlier interviews in NYC and possibly 1 or 2 other cities, for Americans who aren’t able to travel to Oxford for interview. I think you have to sign up ahead of time (i.e., when you are told you will be given an interview, I think you are asked whether you will be coming to Oxford, which they recommend, or will be attending a U.S.-based interview [for which they give you the dates], or will be interviewing by phone [during the normal Oxford interview period]). I was not able to travel to Oxford, because I was performing in a play during the interview week, and I had a similar commitment during the NYC interview dates, so I did a phone interview (in my pajamas, no less – I wanted to be comfortable, and it helped me relax).

    If you’re not able to travel to Oxford, or to the U.S. interview location, I don’t think it will lower your chances significantly if you do a phone interview. There may be a slight advantage to interviewing in person (and, of course, you’ll be able to see the colleges again, or new ones if you receive interviews at different colleges), so I’d say it’s worth checking to see if you can take your finals early. But if you can’t, Oxford won’t think any less of you for interviewing in the U.S. (if you can make it) or by phone – they know that their interview period conflicts with many American students’ finals, so they’re used to that as a legitimate reason for a phone interview.


  39. That clears up a lot for me, thanks Cole!

    One last question… the Oxford interview period coincides with finals at my university. I have no idea if I would be able to take my finals late or early, or if I will need to have a telephone or Skype interview (of course, assuming that I would be lucky enough to be summoned for interview). Do you have any thoughts as to what I could do in this situation, should it arise? Instinctively, I am not too keen to have my interview over Skype or over the phone. I think it’s a fairly well accepted fact that interviews in person often better allow the persons involved to get to know one another. Do you have any tips about these types of interviews?

    Best regards,

  40. John,

    You could just mail the college reference directly, along with any other items you might have to mail (like a transcript). Include a cover letter saying that you could only update one reference onto UCAS, and that you included your high school reference because you’ve just started university and your high school teacher, having known you longer, is better able to speak to your abilities. However, you wanted to have a reference speaking to your ability to do university-level work, so you decided to send this second reference. (I did something similar with my doctoral applications. I also sent in an application update after the application deadline, when I had my first conference paper accepted and was invited to give a paid lecture. I sent in an updated C.V. with these new items on it. I don’t know if it helped, but I got in, so it didn’t hurt.)

    I agree, mentioning the coursework is good. I would mention the acceptances, though, as well, something along the lines of: “I am re-applying to read Experimental Psychology at Oxford. During my first round of applications to universities last year, I received interviews at Pembroke College and Ye Olde Oxford College. I was also accepted at the Universities of St Andrews and Durham, University College London, and Royal Holloway, the University of London, as well as Prestigious U.S. University, where I am currently reading for a B.S. in Psychology. However, Oxford is still my top choice for study for X, Y and Z reasons, and therefore I am re-applying this year.” Then go on to list the qualifications (APs, etc) you have gained since your last application to Oxford, why you want to go to Oxford, something about your experience in your university psychology courses and how it fits with/prepares you for Oxford, etc.


  41. Cole,

    I wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment! I hope I can be one more Texan to the mix.

    I’d love to be able to include references from my high school teacher and my college professor, but the UCAS allows only one reference per application. Would it be wise to contact the university to ask which reference they would prefer, or whether it is possible to send them an additional reference outside of UCAS?

    I’d also like to mention the other acceptances from the previous admissions cycle, but I’d hate to come across as arrogant or full of myself. Should I just try to mention them, maybe as an indication that I am indeed passionate about psychology? And I imagine it would be helpful to mention coursework at my American school, as this would be something that would help me stand out as an applicant.


  42. John,

    I’m not sure about the Rhodes details myself – just wanted to make sure you had considered it. (I wasn’t eligible due to, if I remember correctly, age and doing a second BA.)

    I don’t think it would hurt to re-apply to a college at which you previously interviewed, if it’s a college you like. If they don’t see you as a fit before interview, they’ll just pool you to another college – your overall chances of gaining a place won’t be affected. I wouldn’t mention the specific college in your personal statement, since you might get pooled to another college. I would, however, mention that you obtained an interview at two colleges during your last application to Oxford, which shows that you made it through the first cut. I don’t think it would hurt to mention at which colleges you received interviews, since if you’re interviewed at the same colleges it will jog their memory, and if you’re interviewed at different they can contact those other colleges for feedback if they’re on the fence. However, if you have any doubts about your performance at the previous interviews, I probably wouldn’t mention the colleges. I would, in any case, mention all the acceptances you received at other universities, since they’re top-flight.

    I see nothing wrong with having your high school teacher provide you with a reference again. However, I would supplement it with a reference from one of your college professors. You’re right, the professor is not going to know you as well, but having a reference from a professor will show that you are doing well at university, even if all the professor can say is that you’re doing well in his class, are keen to learn and a pleasure to teach, and show potential. It would be good to have both. (There’s nothing wrong with including an extra reference in applications, in my experience.)

    Here’s to more Texans at Oxford!


  43. Cole,

    I have thought about applying for a Rhodes scholarship, and I’m sure I will if I remain in the US. I’m a little unfamiliar with the process, but I think that I would have to apply as I finish my undergraduate years at an American institution, correct?

    If you think that the tutors would look favorably on a re-applicant, might it not be wise to apply to a college I interviewed at? Or would the university as a whole remember me through some sort of filing system? Or would it be advantageous to mention it in my personal statement?

    I also have a question about my referee that I hope you can shed some light on. The person that provided my recommendation last time was a teacher at my high school, and I feel she is the person who could best write my recommendation this time as well. I don’t think that a college professor who has known me for a month is able to write me a proper recommendation letter – a month is not much time. Do you think it would be acceptable to have my high school teacher be my referee again, even though she wouldn’t be my current teacher?

    Very cool about Houston – I have a few friends going to Rice University next year. I myself am from Dallas.

    Thanks so much!

  44. John,

    I would apply open application again. I took a look at the list of colleges that offer Experimental Psychology, and I don’t think you’ll have a significantly better or worse chance of being accepted if you apply to a specific one. I should think that your application will only be strengthened by having more AP credits and a year of psychology coursework under your belt, plus your acceptances to the other UK schools and your current US school. I think they will look favourably on a re-applicant. Many students who do not get in at their first attempt re-apply and are accepted.

    Have you thought about applying for a Rhodes Scholarship?

    Btw, I’m from Texas, too! (Houston.)

    Good luck,

  45. I would not mind at all if you used our conversation in a separate post.

    My passion is psychology, and I’d love to read Experimental Psychology at Oxford. I’m uncertain as to which college I would apply to… I actually have a question regarding that:

    I applied to Oxford in the last admissions cycle with an open application, and I was invited to interview at Pembroke College. I also interviewed at a second college, though ultimately I was not offered a place at any college. Will my chances of earning a place be impacted in any way, positively or negatively, by my having applied, interviewed, and been rejected before? Would it be wise of me to apply to a different college this time around? And are there colleges where competition may not be as rigorous, or which might be more accepting of American students?

    Since I last applied, I will have considerably more AP credentials (10 in all, including those relevant to psychology) and a year at a top US institution (preferably with top marks in my classes, including psychology). And of course, in no way do I mean any disrespect towards my American school; I love my university, and would be honored and privileged to spend my whole undergraduate education there.

    Oxford, however, offers a lot of great things that no other school can, and I am determined to apply again and make the cut. Oxford’s a long way from home (Texas), but I’d love to have my education there.

    Thanks for your great insight, Cole! I hope I am not overwhelming you with questions.

  46. Oh, and do you mind if I include your comment and my response in a separate post?

  47. Of course not, go for it. Thanks again. Very helpful. *round of applause for Cole*

  48. John,

    Thanks for your comment. It has not been my experience that most American undergraduates at Oxford have been in your situation of starting a degree at an American institution, and then coming to do a degree at Oxford. In my experience, most American Oxford undergraduates are either doing their first degree at Oxford without having been enrolled in a previous American programme, or are completing a second undergraduate degree after completing an American undergraduate degree (my experience and that of a few of my friends). There are also many JYA (Junior Year Abroad) students. However, my selection sample is largely drawn from my experience at Harris Manchester College, the undergraduate (and postgraduate) college for mature students (i.e., students 21 and over), where we were known for having American (and other) students doing second BAs. I don’t know the average experience of American undergraduates of normal undergraduate age (18-21) at the other colleges. It may very well be as you were told.

    I should think you would have a very good chance of being accepted, especially since you already have qualifications in the range of successful applicants, and have already received several acceptances to top UK universities (including my own current university, St Andrews!). I do not think that completing a year at an American university would itself improve your chances at earning a place at Oxford. However, completing a year with top grades should help. In addition, you should aim to take as many courses as you can in the field which you intend to study at Oxford. Oxford undergraduates study their major subject only – there is no liberal arts core curriculum. So, for example, if you intend to study history, I would take as many history-specific courses as your university’s first-year liberal arts core curriculum allows you, and aim to do as well as possible in these courses. You should also plan to use work in these courses as your writing sample(s), and ask these professors for letters of recommendation. If there is any extra academic work you can do in this subject, such as the ability to write a term paper in place of a final exam, or the opportunity to serve as an assistant on a research project in your field, I would take advantage of it. Also, ask your professors in the subject for reading recommendations, as you may be asked your opinion of arguments in the field as part of your admissions interview (though these will be basic, as they know you haven’t yet begun the in-depth study your undergraduate degree will provide – however, this is your opportunity to impress the interviewers).

    Good luck, and let me know if you have any other questions. Do you know which subject/college you would be looking to apply to?


  49. Katherine,

    Thanks for the questions.

    1) I wouldn’t conclude from the shorter laundry list of requirements that UK PhD programmes are less selective. They do appear to me to be more “casual” in their application procedures, and rolling admission (which in the US is associated with less selective degree programmes) is more common. However, I understand that LSE is a top programme, and I would expect it to be more selective than most. Oxbridge (Oxford and Cambridge) basically requires a First-Class degree (roughly equivalent to a 3.8-4.0 American GPA) to be accepted into PhD-level study. They will base their admission decisions more on your research proposal, writing sample, letters of recommendation, and previous degree qualifications, and less on standardized tests like the GRE (since you won’t be taking tests). The key will be writing a really strong research proposal (tailored to the faculty at your programme), and have a strong writing sample and letters of recommendation, as well as getting top-level grades in your current MS programme.

    2) “Research student” and “PhD student” are not synonymous. There are both taught and research Masters degrees. Taught degrees included classes of formal instruction. Research degrees do not, and just involve the writing of a thesis. A taught postgraduate would not be a research student. A research postgraduate would. Therefore, the term “research student’ can include some Masters students, as well as all PhD students. (In addition, at least in Scotland, a PhD student is admitted initially under a “general research ordinance”, as a research student. Admission to full PhD status is made after the successful completion of a hurdle such as, in my programme, the GRO (for “graduate research ordinance”) project, the draft chapter/proposal/bibliography submitted during the first year. So technically, since I have not yet received formal approval of my submitted GRO, I am still a research student, not yet a full PhD student (though the distinction makes no difference in the day-to-day).

    3) Your research-intensive MS may count as an MPhil. (And in any case, an MPhil is more important in some programmes – such as Oxbridge – than others.) I would check with the individual programmes you’re considering whether your MS work would satisfy their admission requirements.

    4) Yes, at least based on my experience at my programme. People are forever giving papers and attending conferences. My supervisor requested that I submit papers and attend two conferences in the coming months with which he is involved (both of which are good fits for my work). Presence at conferences and publications may actually be more important for future academic positions over here, because teaching experience is less of a requirement.

    Do you mind if I re-post these questions/answers as a separate blog post?

  50. Hi Cole,

    What an interesting article! Does a gret job of illuminating the Oxford world for those unfamilliar with it. I was wondering if I could ask a question about being an Oxford undergraduate.

    I am currently preparing to enter an esteemed American university as a freshman, and while I love the school I will be attending, I have an interest in applying to Oxford as an undergrauate. I understand that I would have to begin the course from the begnning, should I be accepted. I heard a while ago that most American undergraduates at Oxford have completed coursework at an American school before coming to Oxford to start another degree there. Is this true? And do you have any advice for a student in my sitution? Would I have a significantly greater chance of being accepted to study at Oxford if I have already completed one year at a top American school? I also have numerous America qualifications all in the range of successful Oxford applicants – many, many APs, top SATs and SAT IIs, and ACT. I am familiar with the UCAS application process… When I applied to colleges last year I applied to and was accepted to St Andrews, UCL, Durham, and Royal Holloway. I am more interested in applying to Oxford as an undergrad after a year at American uni.

    Any advice would be much appreciated!

  51. Cole, thank you so much for taking the time to write up that comment. It was very informative and helpful. Here are a few more questions:

    – how selective are UK PhD programs? In the US, GRE scores are golden as well as strong letters of recommendation. I haven’t seen anything like that on the university websites I have visited. In fact, the London School of Economics doesn’t even have a deadline. It almost sounds like as long as you can demonstrate research skills and a solid writing sample, you’re good to go.

    -Is the term “research student” synonymous to “PhD student”?

    -I am earning my MS within a research-intensive department with the required completion of a thesis at the end. Would that “count” as a MPhil?

    -US PhD students are expected to be very active within their field of study, participating in conferences, presentations, workshops, etc. Anything less comes across as a lack of motivation. Is it similar in the UK?

  52. Katherine,

    Thanks for your comment. I obviously chose to do a PhD in the UK over the US, and I’ll give you some of my reasons below. First of all, to address your questions, I understand that PhD advisers in the US are more “hands-on” than PhD advisers in the UK. That’s probably at least partially due to the biggest difference between US & UK PhD programmes: length. In the US, PhD programmes are 5-7 or so years, with the first 2-4 years spent on coursework before becoming ABD (All But Dissertation). In the UK, the ENTIRE PhD is ABD. There is no coursework, only dissertation (and perhaps a project to turn in the first year to show that you know what you’re doing – I had to submit a 10,000-12,000 word draft chapter, 2-3 pg dissertation proposal, and 10-12 pg bibliography 6 months into my first year). American PhD programmes often allow you to earn a Masters en route. In the UK, you are already expected to have a Masters (and some students may have two – a taught Masters like an MSt/MLitt and a research Masters like an MPhil, which requires a thesis that can often be upgraded into a PhD dissertation). The UK PhD is roughly equivalent to the ABD portion of a US PhD, so expect to go through the coursework through an advanced Masters before entering a UK PhD programme.

    (Though there are exceptions – I entered directly into a UK PhD programme with a BFA in Drama/Psychology [NYU], a BA in Theology [Oxford], and a little less than half the completed coursework for a Masters in Clinical Psychology [completed as part of the first year of a PsyD programme I was in at Loyola Maryland – I had a good GPA, but decided the field wasn’t a good fit]. I probably would have benefitted by doing the 1-year MLitt at my Institute and using that as an entrance into the PhD. As it is, I do not have a Masters. However, I completed an optional thesis at Oxford as part of my BA in my subject area of theology & the arts, which was about the same length as the MLitt thesis, and submitted that as my writing sample, so I guess they figured that meant I didn’t need to do the MLitt. One of my friends just completed the MLitt, applied to the PhD programme, and was accepted directly into the second year of the PhD, with his MLitt thesis counting as his 1st-year PhD project.)

    All this is to say that you should not expect to enter a UK PhD straight out of undergrad – you’ll need to get a good Masters degree first, or apply to a UK MPhil that may allow you to upgrade your thesis into a PhD. However, that’s not your situation, as you will have an MS.

    So, to return to the question of supervisors: I expect that UK supervisors are known for being more “hands-off” because UK PhD students already enter with research experience, and are expected to know how to do research on their own. The guidance of your supervisor is to suggest books/articles you might not know about, provide feedback on your written work, and basically help you make connections in your field and get done. They are not there to teach you how to do research, or provide direction for your work. They’ll expect you to enter with a clear direction. Students who would prefer to have a more directive supervisor, who will act as a teacher-mentor, will probably fit better with an American supervisor. On the other hand, students who just want to be left alone to do their own work, and want to be as independent as possible, will probably fit better with a UK supervisor. I’m in the latter camp, and have nothing but good things to say about my academic supervisor. He’s very encouraging, makes suggestions of references I might want to look at and conferences I might want to get involved in, and believes whole-heartedly in the mission of our field, in which he is a leader. He’s also a good guy, and very laid-back, so he’s easy to talk to. He doesn’t feel the need to give me a lot of unnecessary assignments, but gives good feedback on the work I give him when I have something ready to hand in. He has a positive approach which is helpful to me in building my confidence and actually becoming more independent with my work. (On the other hand, of course, not all UK PhD supervisors are the same. There’s another member of the department who, I understand from friends, is very sparing with praise, rips apart work with a red pen, and requires his students to submit work monthly. The good side of that is, his students will really know their stuff by the time they’re done, if they didn’t before. My risk with my supervisor is to allow myself to become lazy, since he takes a light hand. However, I do think my supervisor’s approach is the better fit for me, although both are good men and good academics – they’re just helpful in different ways.)

    As for retention rate, I can’t really comment, since I don’t know how the rates compare, or what any explanation might be. (There are so many factors.) There are much fewer funding opportunities in the UK, that’s true. Partially that’s because US PhD programmes generally require students to teach, and their funding is partly compensation for their teaching. In the UK, it’s only the minority of students that teach, and there aren’t enough positions for all the students that would like to teach. (Students who want to work in the US are especially keen to teach, because the US universities will require teaching experience.) The focus is on research, not teaching. That can be both a blessing and a curse, depending on your goals and priorities. Another reason for the discrepancy, at least for international students, is because UK students have their tuition heavily subsidised by the government. One of the ways universities help close the gap between what UK students pay, and how much it actually costs to teach them, is by charging overseas students fees that can be 5 times what home students pay. Universities aren’t going to be too keen to give out too many scholarships to international students, though they do give out some. (I have one of these scholarships, which would have provided me with free tuition plus a living expenses stipend, if I were a home student. Since I am an international student, I have to pay the difference between home tuition and overseas tuition. I receive the same amount of money, but instead of covering my tuition plus a surplus, it instead covers just about half my tuition. It also requires me to work 20 hours/week in a teaching or research assistantship during the second and third years of my PhD [which actually helps in terms of teaching experience, as I have a leg up on other applicants of my department wants me to teach instead of assisting in research].)

    I think, actually, that I’ve covered the major differences between US & UK PhD programmes in the above paragraphs. I’ll sum up with giving you the reasons I chose a UK PhD programme instead of an American:

    1) The best programme in my field was in the UK. So that’s where I applied.
    2) 3-4 years vs. 5-7 years. ‘Nuff said.
    3) More independence, and fewer teaching obligations. I could theoretically spend 3 years holed up in my office if I wanted to. (I don’t particularly want to.)…
    4)…but it is nice to have an office. My programme provides an excellent private office building for our PhD students in a medieval stone castle-y looking building, right by the sea, overlooking the majestic ruins of the medieval cathedral and monastery. Where could I find that in the US?
    5) No coursework, no comprehensive exams, no required languages. These are great if your work requires it. I don’t think mine does, and therefore I didn’t want to spend a few extra years going through these hurdles. (I’m also not trying to land a tenure-track full-time academic position, so I have more freedom to avoid hurdles than do folks whose primary career goal is to become a professor.)

    I hope this comment was helpful, and let me know if you have any further questions.


  53. Hi Cole, thank you for this informative blog post! How would you differentiate the US and UK PhD programs? I am currently working on a MS in the US, and have been considering a PhD in the UK. Most of what I have found on the Internet demonizes PhD advisers in the UK, criticizes the low retention rate of PhD students, and calls out universities on the few funding opportunities available. Would you concur?

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