Colleges at Oxbridge come in all shapes and sizes in appearance, but the factor with major impacts on your college life is the number of students in each year group – these are the people you’re most likely to live and work alongside for three years, and might even contain some friends for life! Oxbridge college cohorts vary greatly in number – from those averaging 600-700 undergraduates across all three years, to colleges of around 200, and this variation brings about important social implications, including ones you might not always expect before applying!
It’s a fact: size matters. Both ‘small’ and ‘large’ Oxbridge colleges have their relative merits – by putting some thought into what you’d like to get out of your college environment, you can ensure that the benefits associated with each size meet your wishes best.
I study at one of the smallest colleges in Cambridge, with an annual intake of just 85 first-years. Small colleges are regularly dubbed as “Small but Friendly” in prospectuses, and in my experience, this has often been proven correct! With such a small first-year cohort, you quickly get to know everyone in your year – with fewer embarrassing blunders about forgetting people’s names in fresher’s week – and I’ve never seen a larger college with such friendly and regular interactions between all three year groups as my tiny community. Older years almost become your more experienced ‘siblings’ – there are no qualms about age differences in our college’s many inter-year friendships, and this is really lovely to see.
However, there are drawbacks too: for instance, only one other student in my year studies my subject in college. Particularly if you’re studying humanities or the arts, do take a look at the annual college intake for your subject: the answer might surprise you! Whilst my subject buddy in college is the best comrade I could ask for, I have college friends in small subjects who aren’t friendly with their sole subject companions – making for an isolated experience during stressful revision periods. However, this can be surmounted by making lots of friends on your course – though, if you’re shy like me, this could be daunting in a lecture hall full of strangers, and you might feel more comfortable being eased more gently into their companionship by joining a college with a larger subject cohort!
Finally, a common-sense misconception, if you are very shy, is that the best course of action is to join a “Small but Friendly” college. However, this isn’t as intuitive as it sounds. Whilst the atmosphere of these colleges might be more open and friendly in general, your goal is likely to be to find people who are on your page – who you’ll ‘click’ with. Going to a larger college will maximise your chances of meeting your ideal friends – ultimately, in a very small group, there’s no guarantee you’ll get along with everyone, and casting the net as wide as possible might be no bad thing on your quest to meet your “friend soulmates” in college.
The stereotype is true: almost everyone thinks that the college they end up attending is the best, and they wouldn’t trade it for the world. However, keep size at the back of your mind when applying: it may well comprise a factor when you inevitably declare your unflinching college loyalty!