How To Choose An Oxford College

Oxford Colleges are where you’ll meet friends, have tutorials and even sleep. With your university life revolving around your college. picking the right one for you is not an easy decision. Read our essential tips on how to choose an Oxford college.

Author: Rob Needleman

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Choosing an Oxford College to apply to can seem like an agonising process.

Over your time at Oxford, you will spend a lot of your days in your college, having tutorials, writing essays late into the night or just hanging out with your friends. A lot of people get stressed about which college to choose, wondering if there is a ‘right’ college, or whether there is one they are more likely to get into than the others.

Although it’s important to not get carried away with the minutiae of every single college (considering there are more than 30 in Oxford) it is nevertheless essential that you pick one that is right for you!

Here are some tips and considerations to help you choose the right Oxford college before you make the final decision.

What Do You Want From Your College?

Whilst all colleges offer excellent facilities (well-stocked libraries, a catered hall, scenic landscapes) there are ways in which they differ. Try thinking about the following questions to see what is important to you:

These are just some of the ways that colleges differ from each other. If you have a strong preference for one of these aspects, that might help inform your decision. You can find out answers to all of these questions on the individual colleges’ websites.

Let’s break down these questions and explore them further.

The college system at Oxford is similar to that at Cambridge. If you’re applying to Cambridge, read our ultimate guide on choosing a Cambridge college. 

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1. Practical considerations To Help Choose An Oxford College

Location

In your Oxford application, make sure you think about the practical sides of university life such as location. Although Oxford is a very small town, the colleges are sprinkled all over. Choosing a college that is further out from the centre might not be a problem if you are a keen cyclist, however, if you would like to be able to wake up and cross the road to get to lectures etc. it is worth choosing one of the central colleges like Jesus College.

Quote from Sammy an Oxbridge PBS student

Furthermore, with location, libraries are a huge part of Oxford life and, therefore, you should make sure that the college you are applying for is near to the library you would need.

Oxford Colleges from the City Centre

Accommodation

Accommodation Across Your Years At Oxford

Accommodation does differ somewhat between colleges. A lot of colleges will offer college-run accommodation for all three years of a standard undergraduate course, but in many cases, second years at least will be in an annexe outside the main college and in some cases, a mile or more away. If you’ve picked your college based on its fab city centre location, then this might be rather disappointing.

Price

As you consider how to choose an Oxford college, you might also want to consider the price of accommodation (some Oxford colleges are more expensive than others and you don’t usually get much choice as a fresher) and whether you’d be able to stay over the holidays, particularly if you’re coming from a long way away. Many colleges let their rooms to conference guests or to interviewees during the holidays.

Facilities

Finally, consider kitchen facilities and the reputation of the college food. A lot of colleges don’t provide ovens in their student kitchens and this can be tricky if you’re trying to self-cater, particularly for specific dietary requirements.

UniAdmissions Tip

Utilise open days! To properly develop an idea of what living at an Oxford college is like, make sure you utilise open days and get on the accommodation tours. You’ll be able to ask lots of questions to current students about what student life is like.

Accessibility

As Oxford suggest on their website, it is important to consider accessibility. Most colleges have facilities and accommodation for disabled students. However, with the age of the buildings in the city, some areas of some colleges aren’t accessible for students with mobility issues. If you feel this will affect you, please contact Oxford’s Student Welfare Team for advice.

College Size

When thinking of how to choose an Oxford college, college size is another consideration as there is quite a disparity between colleges so it is important to decide whether a large environment suits the extrovert in you, or if you would favour a close-knit community.

Largest Oxford Colleges By Student Numbers

College NameNumber of Students
Kellogg1,137
St Catherine’s 950
Keble918
St Hugh’s892
St Anne’s 830

Some colleges have a small and homely feel which often means that everyone knows everyone. Others are quite large, often meaning that it is easier to get lost in a large group. Either one has its advantages or disadvantages depending on what you prefer. Before you make your Oxford application, make sure to have a look at the number of students per year in the Oxford prospectus or on the Oxford website.

College Food

Oxford University colleges are a hub for eating and sleeping, so you might want to think about what sort of arrangements will suit you best. Fortunately, students have recently told us how much the eating options have improved over the last few years meaning that whether you are vegan, vegetarian or have other dietary requirements, there will always be options for you at each college.  

As we mentioned earlier, utilise the open days to ask questions about food. Some suggestions to consider are:

Prices of food and accommodation. How much is the average meal? What are the kitchen facilities like at the college accommodation if you would rather be self-catered? How frequently is food served? Is it self-service or a sit-down meal each time? This might be particularly useful to think about for those who are keen to get involved in extra-curricular activities which may take place over mealtimes. Or perhaps you may just have a preference for one or the other!

2. Academia

Academic considerations can be good motivations for choosing one college over another. Some of the main differences might be as follows:

Have you perhaps read a book or article by an academic and are keen to be taught by them? Do you know that the fellow at your chosen college specialises in an area that you are interested in? Or, perhaps you are even just keen to be part of a larger intake for your subject, and you know that one college takes a bigger cohort each year.

If you are making an Oxford University application for joint honours, this might be particularly applicable as it can help to apply to a college which has often taken students for particular combinations. This is for both organisation and support reasons. It will be easier to coordinate your chosen subjects if there is someone who has studied the combination ahead of you that you can ask for advice!

St Hugh's College, Oxford

3. Aesthetic Differences Between Oxford Colleges

Naturally, there are quite a few differences in the way the colleges look. This can depend on the age of the college (there is a difference of over 600 years between the oldest and youngest) so if you would prefer a more venerable institution, this should be considered.

Some colleges are traditionally seen to be more attractive (for example Christ Church for the grandeur) however this does all come down to personal preference, and it is important to visit the colleges to see which you like the look of. Although this might seem like a more superficial consideration, it is nevertheless an important factor!

Open Applications

Remember, you can always make an ‘open application’. This means applying to Oxford with no preference for a college. You will be allocated a college at random to interview at, leaving the choice of college up to chance. This does not give you an advantage or disadvantage in the application process.

4. College Teaching and Tutors

It is possible to have tutorials at other colleges if your own does not have a tutor to suit your specific interests, so this is not the most important factor. However, it will help your application if the tutor who interviews you has interests in alignment with your own, and it is worth checking this before you decide.

5. Extracurricular interests at Oxford

Make sure you look on individual college websites to see what the general co-curriculum scene looks like, such as sport, talks, drama, music, and art. This will give you a good idea of what a college is like before starting your Oxford application.

Oxford University Sports

College sport is a key part of college life, and different colleges have different levels of sporting prowess. If you are interested in rowing or rugby, for example, it might be worth choosing a college with particular enthusiasm and history for these sports.

oxford-university-australian-rules-club
Oxford University Australian Rules Football Club (AstacopsisGouldi, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons)

Oxford University Societies

Societies play a large part in students’ lives at Oxford. For example, drama is an interest that varies between colleges, with some colleges having their own theatres for their students to use. Therefore, if you have a particular passion, choosing a college with a reputation for that passion would be a good thing!

What To Avoid When Choosing An Oxford College

Here are some of the things you must avoid when considering how to choose an Oxford college.

Applying To The Same College As School Friends

At UniAdmissions, this is something we always suggest that you avoid. Not only are you making it more competitive for each other, but Oxford generally does not accept two students from the same school onto a course in the same college. They do this for a number of reasons such as avoiding cliques from forming instantly and to try to accept students with more varied backgrounds.

Oxford Stereotypes

Don’t buy into the Oxford stereotypes and let them put you off applying to a college. Sometimes, the very brightest minds, who may never even have realised they could fall under this bracket, lack the confidence, the self-belief, or sometimes, the desire to apply to these prestigious, albeit highly traditional, institutions.

They’ll see the Daily Mail’s photographic features of students enjoying extravagant May Ball events, raucous drinking society gatherings, or dressed in flamboyant academic gowns, and think “that’s not me”.

Here’s a secret: those who see these things and think “that is me” are incredibly rare – and these activities may either be entirely optional or occur very infrequently. They don’t reflect the daily reality of life at individual colleges, so don’t be put off by these quirks alone.

Applying Strategically

The college you apply to rarely makes a difference to your chances of getting into Oxford. If you are a good candidate, but the college you apply to is already full for your subject, you will be sent to interview at another college. This makes the system fair, meaning you don’t have to apply tactically.

Follow The Norrington Table

The Norrington Table is used to judge all of Oxford colleges’ academic standing. However, this should be taken with a pinch of salt as there have been problems with measurement and its variability. Don’t let the table be your deciding factor, particularly if you only look at the last couple of years as it will vary significantly across the space of a few years.

Final Considerations And Words

In truth, you will likely be happy at whichever college you end up in.

The hours the college library is open, how good the bar is, and whether or not you have to wear gowns to dinner may all seem like trivial issues or big deciding factors, but ultimately, it’s all about what you personally want from a college. You might even be offered a place at a college different from the one you applied to. 

Take your time now to research the colleges, check out the college pages and visit the colleges during open days to see if they suit you and your interests. It is well worth the time and can guarantee a more positive experience at Oxford.

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