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I’ve received quite a lot of questions about Sherlock (and Mycroft’s) respective universities. Lots of fans want to write stories of Sherlock’s university days at either Oxford or Cambridge. This is a short resource for fanfiction writers who would like to describe a realistic account of Sherlock at Oxbridge.


Timing is All Important

Just to clarify for people unfamiliar with the British education system: students usually go to University at 18, directly after finishing A-levels.

Students can start university later. There is a long tradition of taking a “Gap Year” and travelling the world getting drunk, lost, sick, moved by other people’s plight etc. If you start university after the age of 21 you are designated a “mature student” (more on this later).

It is quite difficult to start university earlier. Most universities have a minimum age requirement of 18, simply because before 18 people are still legally classed as minors and that brings a whole host of legal issues that the universities don’t want to deal with. Cambridge requires all students to be 17 years and 6 months on matriculation (which usually happens in the first week of October).

There are cases of teenagers starting Cambridge younger, but these are exceptions and not the rule. Case are decided on an individual basis and special arrangements may have to be made so that the teenager can still live with their parents instead of at university. Recently these exceptions have become rarer, probably because the staff have been more attune to the psychological impact of university on children. Child prodigies are now encouraged to take an extended version of the “Gap Year” – and come back when they are the same age as everyone else.

Oxbridge – Camford?

“Oxbridge” does not exist; it is a literary amalgamation of Oxford and Cambridge, used to describe the two of the oldest universities in the world (Norwoodbuilder helpfully pointed out the University of Bologna is the oldest!). They are also the most prestigious universities in the UK (and some might say the world). Just to clarify, I had never heard “Camford” being used until I went on tumblr but I definitely like the sound of it.

Oxbridge usually conjured up connotations of tradition, excellence and for some elitist attitudes and outdated prejudices.

Side note - I would like to voice my personal view: that Oxbridge today is not intentionally elitist. These institutions have had to fight very hard to stay at the top of the University league tables. They are both public, state sponsored universities (as are nearly all universities in the UK). Unlike Harvard, they do not have the option of charging higher tuitions fees than other institutions to give themselves a competitive edge. They have to rely on government funding.

To maintain the quality of their graduates, they obviously look for students who have already excelled through the education system. The courses at Cambridge and Oxford are incredibly demanding – please do not believe the myth that you can get a degree just by living in college for 9 terms. If you do not have the necessary foundational knowledge, you cannot hit the ground running. The pace of teaching is incredibly fast, if you fall behind it is very difficult to catch up. This is why they need students to get top grades at A-level, if you do not know enough to ace the A-level exams you don’t much chance of passing the tripos (Cambridge exams). The sad thing is private school pupils nearly always have higher marks than state school pupils and this is completely unfair but it would be even more unfair to admit pupils who don’t have that foundational knowledge and watch them suffer.

Back to Sherlock: basically the long winded side note is to say that his “family connections” should he have any are not going to cut ice with the admission tutors. They are looking for grades and a good performance at interview. You need to have knowledge but during the interview they looked for that extra amount of critical and lateral thinking, that spark of genius if you will. think Sherlock must have blown them away at the interview rather than gained particularly stunning grades.

Cambridge or Oxford?

(The Cam and the Backs)

I personally think that Sherlock went to Cambridge:

  • Cambridge allows Sherlock to take a range of different science subjects. This type of course is incredibly rare in UK universities where most people are confined to choosing one of chemistry, biology or physics. Sherlock could have taken biology and chemistry courses, or chemistry and physics courses. The combinations can be similar or entirely different (though everyone does eventually choose to focus their energies). If he went to Oxford he could do this type of thing.

  • Everyone has to do some chemistry in their first year (correct me if I’m wrong) – which will be incredibly helpful for any forensic science Sherlock undertakes in his home-baked lab. He might have continued chemistry in later years too.

  • Cambridge is traditionally the place to be for scientists. There are many famous nobel prize winning labs and innovative leaders in every field. I think Sherlock might have had an idol he wanted to meet at Cambridge, or perhaps he just wanted to find like-minded scientists.


At Cambridge: Natural Scientists are called NatScis, mathematicians are call mathmos and medics are called crazy.

As a Natsci, you have a lot of timetabled hours of lectures and practicals. Usually about three full days and three half days - yes, there are lectures on Saturday mornings - and one or more supervisions per week for each subject they take. Supervisions are small group tutorials (nor more than 5 people) were your supervisor is supposed to give you additional teaching. In reality it sometimes turns into an interrogation. All supervisors hand out homework: usually a long essay a week for each subject or a worksheet of questions for maths and physics. If you are doing four subjects you will be writing four essay every week for the eight week term

In first year Natscis take four subjects: three experimental and one mathematics from the list below:

Experimental Subjects

  • Biology of Cells

  • Chemistry

  • Computer Science

  • Earth Sciences

  • Evolution and Behaviour

  • Materials Science

  • Physics

  • Physiology of Organisms


  • Elementary Mathematics for Biologists

  • Mathematics

  • Mathematical Biology

In second year they take three subjects and there are some restrictions on the combination but that is more due to timetabling issues than the establishment forcing you to conform to one science. You can take medically related subjects including: physiology of the human variety, pharmacology, neurobiology, pathology and psychology.

In the third year they study one subject in great depth. In fourth year you usually do a research project in one of the departments as well as taking lectures in your chosen field.

At the end of this students get a BA (not a BSc). All degrees apart from Masters of Engineering are BA.

I personally think Sherlock did these subjects over three years (but not all at once):

  • chemistry (able to identify trace elements TRF),

  • physiology (able to understand how a normal human body functions helps you understand how you can kill people),

  • pharmacology (drugs, toxins, poisons etc)

  • pathology (able to recognised Clostridium TTG)

  • psychology (understanding human behaviour, addiction, obsession and emotion is very useful for a detective).

Biological Sciences at Oxford

If you, as a writer find the idea of Sherlock going to Cambridge unconvincing or distasteful, you might want to have Sherlock doing biological sciences at Oxford. I say biological sciences rather than chemistry because this course would give Sherlock all the experimental skills he has but allow him to have the fundamental understanding of human biology that he needs as detective (and to have fun with cadavers) and allows him to identify various geni of clostridia (TTG).

This is a three year single honours degree that gives students a good grounding in animal and plant biology. You have no options in first year and have to do Cells&Genes, evolution, organisms, and quantitative methods. Second year you have two compulsory subjects: evolution and quantitative methods again and get to choose from a long list from other topics including:

  • Adaptations to the Environment

  • Animal Biology

  • Cell & Developmental Biology

  • Plants and People

  • Ecology

  • Infectious Disease

In third year the there are around 20 specialist options. Students are free to select any combination from the options, but most choose to select 6 related options. You also take active part in research in the lab.

Student Life

Oxford and Cambridge are made up of constituent colleges. Like houses in Hogwarts, your college is where you live, eat, make friends and have your social life. Cambridge has 31 colleges, a handful of which only accept graduates or mature students. In general the vast majority have undergraduates, graduates and faculty members called Fellows (the equivalent of the Oxford Don). Colleges vary in size from Peterhouse who only take 80 new undergrad a year to St. John’s who take about 400.

Each college has its own bar, most are student run and quite cheap. It’s a good place to relax, play some pool and unwind with your friends. As such, I doubt Sherlock ever set foot in his college bar and if he did it was probably to purchase alcohol for his experiments.

Living in college is like being at boarding school. There are bedders who empty bins, clean personal rooms, kitchens and bathrooms. Bear in mind that some of the colleges were built in the medieval times and aren't allowed to alter their architecture. Some times you have to share a bathroom with the whole floor or climb three flights of stairs after a shower

Students don’t have to cook and some colleges don’t provide hobs for cooking anyway. Each college has a “great hall” some of which looked even more majestic than Hogwarts. Usually you can get two meals: lunch and dinner in hall, served cafeteria style. There’s also formal hall, usually three times a week where for a price you can sit down for a waiter served three course candle lit meal.


(Trinity college dining hall)

If you’re having formal in your own college you also have to wear your gown – it basically looks like Severus Snape’s outer robes. Guys look rather handsome in their gowns but it doesn’t flatter women.


(See the third person in the procession - he's wearing a student gown)

In terms of Sherlock’s university experience – many people have written about how lonely he must have been because of his terrible social skills. The truth is university can be difficult and lonely for many people with perfectly normal social skills.

I think Sherlock would not have found university any harder than school, in fact I am quite sure he must have enjoyed Cambridge very much compared to what he had endured at secondary school. There is less pressure to conform – just a lot of pressure to do well in exams. If you want to be a loner, no one is going to pick on you because there are plenty of solitary geniuses dotting the college grounds.

Sherlock’s slightly Asperger’s like behaviour isn’t going to be seen as anything unusual. One very nice mathematics supervisor said that just about all his students have some Asperger’s traits; some of them have been formally diagnosed. I have personally met many people who would make Sherlock look like the paragon of social eloquence. On the spectrum of Cambridge students Sherlock’s social skills are not quite as extreme as people might think.

Sent Down

For everyone who wants to write Sherlock as a university drop out. Here are some of my thoughts of how to make it realistic.

Firstly I think Sherlock has this strong streak independence – wants to do his thing at his pace. This is not a good way of approaching the Natsci course. The essays that are set have to be written, the lecture materials have to be memorised that practicals have to be attended. If you stop doing any of these things your supervisors will notice and so will your director of studies (DOS). There are quite serious repercussions for not completely the work set or consistently failing to get acceptable grades.

Tripos exams do not test how intelligent you are, they are a test of how much material you’ve managed to cram into your head over the last year. If Sherlock hasn’t bothered to revise very hard he’s not going to pass any exams.

When you fail tripos, whether you can continue to the next year of study is at the discretion of the master of your college and your DOS. Ultimately they may decide to “persuade” you to leave and not come back.

The other way in which Sherlock can get kick out of university is for bad behaviour. Each college has a strict set of rules and regulation including no walking on the designated patches of grass unless you are a fellow

Breaking these rules incurs punishment, the most severe of which is being sent down or kicked out. There's also a joke at Jesus that if you try to ride the horse statue you will be sent down from the horse and the college. Stealing equipment from labs and performing risky experiments is a sure fire way of getting yourself kick out.

If Sherlock was kick out of Cambridge or Oxford for bad behaviour, it’s unlikely he’d be wanted anywhere else

Other Parts in the Series:

Mycroft the Enigma Part 1 - James Bond was a Civil Servant too….

Irene’s Royal Flush

Checkmate, End Game

Mycroft the Enigma Part 2 - Holmes Family Fortune

Mycroft the Enigma Part 3 - A Good Old Fashioned Education


( 41 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 4th, 2013 11:45 pm (UTC)
Oh my god this is brilliant!
There is a fic called "Witches Heart" by Magicbunni (I think that's how it's spelled)
And it's about Sherlock in college at Cambridge. It's case fic, but it's brilliant. I loved it so much and that's when I decided that if I ever wroter College fic for Sherlock, he'd totally go to Cambridge.

On another note. I though Oxford was one of those universities in the states. I guess I'm mixing the British Universities with the American ones.
Jan. 5th, 2013 04:04 pm (UTC)

I think I should read this fanfic, thanks for sharing. Oxford, the most famous Oxford at least is in England, but I'm sure that there are other universities called Oxford out there.
(no subject) - johnnypenn - Jan. 6th, 2013 04:32 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bugeyedmonster - Jan. 5th, 2013 05:00 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - wellingtongoose - Jan. 5th, 2013 05:27 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 5th, 2013 12:22 am (UTC)
This is really timely! I've just started writing a Sherlock/Victor piece and had placed Sherlock at Cambridge in St John's, so it's awesome to be able to double check my assumptions. Thanks!
Jan. 5th, 2013 04:03 pm (UTC)
Hey that's great to hear. If you want to know any more information please feel free to contact me. I'm not at John's and I'm not a Natsci but I can provide details on students life, bars, clubs, geography etc for Cambridge.
(no subject) - mildred_bobbin - Jan. 9th, 2013 12:59 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - wellingtongoose - Jan. 9th, 2013 07:43 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mildred_bobbin - Jan. 10th, 2013 10:49 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - wellingtongoose - Jan. 10th, 2013 02:43 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mildred_bobbin - Jan. 10th, 2013 08:52 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 5th, 2013 04:26 pm (UTC)
Once again, great post in a great, helpful series especially for those of us in fandom who do not have firsthand knowledge of the UK and its institutions. Thanks.
Jan. 5th, 2013 05:30 pm (UTC)
Thanks! Lovely to know that it's been useful
Jan. 5th, 2013 04:35 pm (UTC)
Great post! I did my postgrad work at Cambridge (Wolfson College) if you want any detail on that, or on Cambridge through the eyes of a non-Commonwealth student. :-)
Jan. 5th, 2013 05:30 pm (UTC)
Thanks! Do you think the atmosphere at grad colleges is different from the other colleges you've visited? Where do you come from, if you don't mind me asking? and how did you find Cambridge?
(no subject) - crimedoc1 - Jan. 5th, 2013 10:18 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 5th, 2013 05:16 pm (UTC)
A very accurate summary of Cambridge, and I agree with you on all accounts. I also prefer the 'Sherlock at Cambridge' idea because it means that I get to say "I live where Sherlock Holmes went to uni!" Great boast.

Your very first picture with the students going along King's Parade to the Senate House for graduation- the students are Trinity Hall undergrads.

Also, what's your opinion of Sherlock's williingness to go to the same uni as Mycroft, who am I pretty sure went to Oxford? I think that was also one of his reasons for going to Cambridge. Didn't want his brother's perfect reputation infront of him.

Oh, and the description of colleges as Hogwarts Houses, genius! Best one I've ever heard. I may use that from now on.

Brilliant as always ~SRM
Jan. 5th, 2013 05:26 pm (UTC)
Re: Perfect!
Hi! Thanks for the comment.

I think Sherlock went to Cambridge because he decided it offered him the best chance to broaden his scientific horizons and meet like minded-people. It was just a great bonus that Mycroft went to the other place and Sherlock gets to finally step out of his brother's shadow. I think the boys probably went to the same public school.
Re: Perfect! - order_of_angels - Jan. 5th, 2013 05:33 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 5th, 2013 05:37 pm (UTC)
This looks spot on to me. Loyal as I am to Oxford (I really liked it there), I think Sherlock would have gone to Cambridge because it's known to be *the* place for the sciences (as opposed to the humanities), and Sherlock's family/school would have been informed enough to know that.
Jan. 5th, 2013 05:43 pm (UTC)
Back to Sherlock: basically the long winded side note is to say that his “family connections” should he have any are not going to cut ice with the admission tutors. They are looking for grades and a good performance at interview.

I suppose that if Sherlock goes for Cambridge, he might get an EE offer (explanation for the uninitiated: Oxbridge colleges usually make offers conditional on straight A grades, so if they ask for two E grades they basically want the applicant no matter what grades they get). I'm not sure if Oxford do EE offers any more? Maybe they do but don't advertise it!

I would have thought, personally, that family connections would play a part if he had them. But looking at the big picture, if Sherlock came from a family that had strong Oxbridge connections, it's likely he'd be wealthy and well-educated to start with... so he'd likely perform well at interview and get good grades anyway. (Anecdata is anecdata, but a friend of mine with a father who'd worked in one of the universities applied to the other, to try and get away from the family name. The first thing the interviewer did was mention her father. She was a bit peeved, haha.)

Anyway: interesting read!
(Deleted comment)
(no subject) - crimedoc1 - Jan. 5th, 2013 09:21 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - wellingtongoose - Jan. 5th, 2013 10:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - crimedoc1 - Jan. 6th, 2013 12:00 am (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 5th, 2013 05:47 pm (UTC)
Is the phrase "Northern Chemist" understood in Cambridge?
Jan. 5th, 2013 06:05 pm (UTC)
Another incredibly useful meta for all us fanfic writers who live in isolation and ignorance on the continent. Thank you ever so much.
Jan. 5th, 2013 07:31 pm (UTC)
Thanks! I'm glad it was helpful and interesting.
Jan. 5th, 2013 06:05 pm (UTC)
I'm sorry T-T This is such a great article, and an excellent resource for FF writers, and yet all I can think of, when seeing the pics is: it's like Hogwarts! How can anyone in RL go to a uni like that??? *facepalm*
Jan. 5th, 2013 07:30 pm (UTC)
Errr...if it makes you feel better unlike Hogwarts: the workload is immense, the competition is ruthless and a lot of the time it feels like you are the most stupid person on the planet.

Thanks for comment!
(no subject) - neverminetohold - Jan. 6th, 2013 06:26 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - wellingtongoose - Jan. 6th, 2013 06:40 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 9th, 2013 12:20 am (UTC)
Not so relevant to the meta per se, but I think an extra dimension to why it's more likely for public school students to get into these two universities is preparation.

It may be hearsay, but when putting in university applications at my comprehensive the students in my year interested in Oxbridge were initially told there would be some teachers forming a support group to help prepare us for application essays and practice interviews, as the applications for Oxbridge were more demanding than most UK universities.

That support never materialised sadly but the strong implication from this was some knowledge that public school attendees would get a lot of support (possibly higher percentage of teachers there would have been through that themselves to share their experiences?) and thereby be at a distinct advantage.

Of course then there's the added expectations - I'd been to both a grant maintained grammar school, where it was natural to expect to go to a good uni, and the comprehensive, where it was rare to dare to apply to Oxbridge and in some ways considered a bit of a pipe dream. I kind of hope it's less that way in state schools by now though.

Also, adding that the meta was interesting as yours always are - taught me a few things about Cambridge uni I'd not realised (never went there but know so many grads what with living in Cambridgeshire.

Edited at 2013-01-09 12:25 am (UTC)
Jan. 12th, 2013 08:34 pm (UTC)
Thanks for your comment.

I actually have to agree with you but in a slightly roundabout fashion. I help out with interviews in the Christmas holidays and one thing I found out was that interviews were given more weight than all of the stuff on paper.

The logic was that it made the process more fair. Some students have connections that get them great work experience to put on their personal statements or go to schools where teachers have the resources to make sure students get good grades.

The other thing I discovered which basically broke my idealised view of interviews is: confidence.

There is a great dearth of confidence between the private school pupils and the state school pupils. The interview is the most intimidating thing I have ever experienced and I freaked out. No one had ever put me under such intense scrutiny before. However if a school has the resources to make sure its pupils get good grades, write a winning CV and understand the application process - they can also afford to coach students for the interview.

Maybe coach is a bad description but certainly build confidence - the confidence to stare and academic in the eye and say: no I disagree: this is how I think.

Jan. 24th, 2013 10:53 pm (UTC)
Oh, I think this shows that the University of the West Indies is modeled on Oxbridge ^^

I agree with you that the student robes are no at all flattering to women! At all! No matter which uni you attend. *sigh*

I would like to think that Sherlock went to Cambridge since they have the best facilities and he is a genius...he had to have had some social life for Sebastian to remember him so well.

What about Mycroft which uni has the best Political Science/Economics courses?
Jan. 26th, 2013 02:36 pm (UTC)
I would like to visit the University of the West Indies some day :)

Oxford would have the best course for Mycroft, it's called PPE and basically all the politicians take this course - very competitive to get in.
(no subject) - bootoye - Jan. 27th, 2013 04:54 pm (UTC) - Expand
May. 28th, 2013 10:20 pm (UTC)
On early entry, I'd heard that while universities can disencourage parents from enrolling their children early, because it's bad for their social and emotional development, that they can't actually refuse on grounds of age! Refusal has to be based on academic reasons, their voice having barely broken isn't good enough. Have you ever listened to a truly pushy parent of an intelligent child? Scary and totally beyond reason!

I was fascinated by the details of everyday living here, as well as what it would take to get kicked out!
May. 29th, 2013 11:58 am (UTC)
I know that in the statutes of the University of Cambridge, pupils "must" be 17 years and 6 months in order to matriculate. You also "must" spend nine terms living within 3 miles of Great St Mary's church or you won't be allowed to graduate. In reality exceptions can be made by senior members of the University based on common sense. However it is perfectly legal to refuse applications based on the fact that the student would not meet the age entrance requirements. Mostly students who are too young to enter the University are provisionally accepted but get forced to take an extended gap year.
(no subject) - hajimebassaidai - May. 29th, 2013 08:43 pm (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 1st, 2015 02:57 pm (UTC)
Hi there! This is an old entry, and you don't know me from Eve, but I just had to stop by and tell you how much I loved reading it. I'd always been fairly sure that Sherlock had gone to either Oxford or Cambridge, and I had a fairly basic idea of what that might have meant, from the wildly foreign perspective of the U.S., and I proceeded with my everyday fannish life.

And then . . . I ended up at Cambridge.

I've been here for a few months now, and I feel like I've fallen completely down the rabbit hole. I love it, and I was inspired to come back and look through your metas, because I thought I remembered that you had written something about Cambridge, and I found this again. I've just finished reading it with completely new eyes, and I love it. It speaks so well to the sort of experiences that might be lurking behind Sherlock's eyes, and it also speaks to me. Helps me make more sense of my life as well as Sherlock's. (I must go to Jesus and find the horse statue, I think.)

I'm not NatSci at all, but a lot of the people I meet seem to be, and this does explain a lot about the place, and possibly even about my friends. And the existence of formal meals in the dining hall will never not be wacky and amusing and wonderful. Some schools have Taco Night or Pizza Night; I've found myself at a place that does Pheasant Night.

Thank you for writing this!
( 41 comments — Leave a comment )



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