It’s that time of year. Sixth form students all over the country are writing their university applications, hoping to gain a place at one of their five choices.
For many, Oxford and Cambridge seem like something completely foreign and many bright students are put off applying.
The Oxford experience may seem daunting but I’m hoping to shed some light on how you should go about applying.
A common misconception is that all Oxford students do is work, work, work, work, work. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy and Oxford is not full of dull boys (or girls).
Once you’ve decided to apply to Oxford, the next big decision is choosing an Oxford college. The question on every prospective student’s tongue is: which Oxford college should I apply to?
With 39 to choose from this can seem like an impossible task and I’m sure many wonder how they could possibly pick the one for them.
Let me help you on how to choose an Oxford college and find the best Oxford college for you. Here are 8 do’s and don’ts when choosing an Oxford college…
Do your research
Does your college offer accommodation on-site for all three years of your degree? What bursaries, grants and scholarships are available? What extra-curricular activities are there? Do they have a college tortoise?
These are the sorts of questions you should be asking yourself before choosing an Oxford college.
When you look at the finer details, the colleges offer their students very different things and it is worth finding out what sort of perks each one has.
For example, Christ Church students are treated to one free cake a term, and who doesn’t love free cake? Other colleges will have their own advantages.
Find out where your college is based and how far that is from your subject’s faculty too.
Oxford is very small and most colleges are based in the city centre, but there are a few that scattered a little further afield and if you want to be down at the river for 6am, maybe don’t pick the college that is a 20-minute cycle away.
Don’t forget to research the basics like whether it’s a big college or a small one too. When you’ve decided what features and facilities matter the most to you, I’d suggest trying this Oxford College quiz, which really helped me whittle it down to just a few colleges.
This Oxford college chooser will ask you about your academic and college environment aims with some fun things thrown in for good measures.
Personally, I wouldn’t bother looking at the Oxford Norrington table (which shows all the Oxford colleges ranked) because few people are going to judge your academic ability on the college you went to.
Going to any Oxford college is quite an achievement and, in any case, the Norrington table rankings change year on year.
Don’t believe all the stories
Oxford college reputations all start somewhere but that doesn’t mean that all the Oxford stereotypes are wholly true.
Supposedly, Christ Church is the poshest Oxford college, Merton is where fun goes to die and everyone at Wadham is left-wing.
There is a small element of truth to each of these stereotypes but for each person that conforms to their Oxford college stereotypes, there will be another who doesn’t.
Don’t heed too much attention to the rumours about Oxford colleges’ reputations because they are often perpetuated by current and old students who just like to poke fun at other colleges.
Do talk to current students
Knowing how to pick an Oxford college can seem impossible but the best way to find out about what life is like at each college, or at Oxford University in general, is to speak to current students.
There are numerous open days throughout the year, the dates of which can be found on the Oxford website.
They will be able to give you the best insight into what sort of atmosphere there is at that college and what sort of activities you can expect to take part in whilst there.
You can find out more about Oxford open days here.
Don’t try to beat the system
Don’t spend too long studying statistics and definitely don’t try guess which college will be ‘easier’ to get in this year based on how many applied and were accepted last year.
I don’t really believe there is such a thing as the “most competitive Oxford colleges”.
Remember there is also a pooling system whereby students who are ‘Oxford material’ can be interviewed by colleges other than the one they applied to.
Teachers often try to persuade students to apply to certain colleges because they have, for example, a high state school acceptance there or there are fewer applicants for history but I personally think this is bad advice.
Just apply to the college you want to apply to, don’t worry about about the rest. You should be thinking which Oxford college should I go to and which Oxford college is right for me, rather than anything else.
Do visit your college before applying
If you’re stumped on how to choose a college at Oxford University then actually visiting in person is going to be very helpful.
I knew from the second I walked into Christ Church that I was going to apply there and nobody was going to get in my way.
Some of my friends told me I was stupid for picking a college based on such a flimsy reason but with so many great colleges to choose from it often just comes down to gut instinct.
Simply being in the college and having a nose around can often help you decide whether you want to go there.
Making sure your college has a well-stocked library or a gym is important to some people and you can find out all of this with a guided tour.
Don’t apply to the same college as your classmates
It is generally seen as bad idea for lots of people from the same school to apply to the same college, especially if you’re applying for the same subject.
There’s enough competition as it is, do you really want to make life harder for yourself by going up against your own classmates?
Given that you’ve been educated at the same school it is fairly likely that you have similar backgrounds but you need to be doing everything you can to stand out from the other applicants.
To give you an example, two girls from my school both applied to the same college for Classics, deferred entry. Only one was accepted.
The one that was rejected applied to Cambridge the following year and was accepted so she was obviously bright enough to have been accepted by Oxford the first time.
However, with two very similar students from the same school for the same subject, only one could be offered a place.
Do find out who the tutors are
If you’re applying to English at Merton and the English tutor there specialises in D H Lawrence but you hate early 20th century literature, then perhaps you would be better suited to another college.
Not all of your tutorials will be with your college’s own tutor, particularly as you progress, but I find it is nice to have common interests with you tutors and it can be useful for interviews.
If you and the tutors interviewing you are genuinely interested in the same topics then it is likely the interview will be a lot more natural and you will get on a lot better.
Lastly and most importantly, please please don’t stress about this decision. Yes, the college you end up at shapes a lot of your university experience and it is a very important choice.
However you are likely to be very happy wherever you end up so you shouldn’t worry too much.
During your interviews, you may well be called to another college as well and in the end you may not get your first choice.
If you applied for maths you automatically get interviewed at two colleges, for example. You can make a spreadsheet with all the different qualities of each college (don’t) or you can simply go with your gut and choose the one with all the Harry Potter filming locations 😉 (Christ Church!).
So there you have it, eight do’s and don’ts when choosing an Oxford college! I hope this has helped you decide which Oxford college to choose and you feel more confident making a choice now.
Good luck to all applicants! Please don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have any questions or want any more Oxford application tips.
Did you consider applying to Oxford? Has this post been helpful for you? Let me know in the comments below!
For more posts about my time at Oxford, check out these Oxford University blog posts:
What Happened at my Oxford Interview for Modern Languages?
What is it like to study French at Oxford University?
How Many Books Did I Read For My French Degree At Oxford University?
10 Reasons to Apply to Christ Church
10 Most Beautiful Oxford Colleges
Inside 8 of Oxford University’s Most Beautiful Libraries
[This post was first written in 2016 and was updated in 2021]