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Oxford University is one of the most prestigious in the world. It may be second to Cambridge in the Times league table, but really this is relatively insignificant. The truth is that there are many top quality universities, and I shall not pretend that Oxbridge is automatically superior, when in reality places like York, Durham, etc can all offer at least as good facilities in certain subjects. As a current student of Oxford University (just finished first year PPE at Jesus), however, I feel qualified to write a guide for those that may be thinking of applying, and anyone who’s just interested. I shan’t write everything here – there are separate categories on Dooyoo concerning the interview, courses, etc so I shall just try to give a broad overview here (and probably write in more detail on the other aspects later). This is quite a long op however (3,400 words), so I’ve broken it down into sections – feel free to skip parts on applications, what the various colleges are like, or whatever doesn’t interest you, but please rate it as a whole on the basis of what you’ve read.
Applications The first thing you must ask yourself is ‘is Oxford right for you?’ Don’t be put off by allegations of elitism or any preconceptions you may have of Oxford. On the other hand, there are many things you must consider. Oxford has a lot of heritage, there are plenty of old buildings and ancient traditions still continued; coming from an old Grammar school, I felt at home in this environment, but others may consider it stuffy. More important is the teaching system. Courses at Oxford are often different from most other universities, and the main focus of teaching is the tutorial system, which generally means weekly meetings between a tutor and a pair of students. As I said, many other universities are, in reality, just as good, so it’s up to you to choose where you feel at home.
If you choose to apply to Oxford (or Cambridge) you have to make a normal UCAS application (which may include up to five other universities) but it has to be submitted about two months before other applications – around October 15th. You will also have to fill out a further application, specifically for Oxford. This isn’t as daunting as it seems, as it really asks for very little. You have to choose a college (see later) but where it asks if you have anything to add to your UCAS form, you shouldn’t be afraid to leave it blank.
Obviously, don’t apply if the chances of being accepted are slim – you will need reasonably good GCSEs (I’ve heard 3A*s and 6As recommended as a minimum) and A-level predictions of at least AAB. Also consider what you will do if rejected – all applicants will be of these high standards, and there are often around four applicants per place. It’s always worth having a good reserve (although some other top universities like Durham and Nottingham can be reluctant to give offers to Oxbridge applicants). If you think you’ll take rejection harshly, it may be best not to apply – you have to consider application an experience in itself, try to enjoy the interview, and just hope for the best.
Interview As I said, there’s a whole category on this. Most applicants are invited to one or more interviews. When you apply, you normally have to pay about £10-12, which at first I thought was unfair, but this is what you’re paying for. It’s actually very reasonable – I stayed for three days (accommodation and food included); when I went to Durham they offered overnight accommodation with breakfast at around £9! I’ll just say here that interviews aren’t the stuff of nightmare you may have been led to believe. You may, however, be invited to several interviews; normally if your college doesn’t want you, but believes you are a good candidate, they will send you on to another college (one of your reserves) to see if there is a place for you there. As I said, just make sure you enjoy your time (as much as you can) and try to make some friends – people are surprisingly friendly, even when competing for the same places, and it’s always nice to recognise a few faces in freshers’ week.
The Colleges Oxford is rare in having a full collegiate system – although examinations are organised through the university, most of your day to day experiences revolve around the college, which organises teaching, accommodation, sports, meals and so on. When you apply, you must select a college (although you can leave this open). You won’t be expected to offer any ‘deep’ reason for this, so just pick a college you like the look of – remember to consider size, location, the accommodation they offer, etc. Your other ‘choices’ will then be randomly allocated according to demand, meaning you will often be assigned less popular colleges (such as St Peter'’ or St Hilda's) as your reserve. Don’t place too much importance on hearsay about the colleges though – I know of one student who applied to Brasenose because he was told Jesus had too high standards, needless to say, he made it to Jesus as reserve! Also although some colleges have more students from state schools than others, this shouldn’t really be important in influencing your choice; as our head of Sixth Form told us, places like Christ Church may be actively looking to increase their numbers of state schools students (hence two of my old school friends being accepted there). Each college has its own history, enough for a whole op really, but I’ll give a very brief overview of each here. If you’re considering applying, you can get a prospectus not only for the university, but also each college.
Balliol. Situated on Broad Street this is one of the central colleges. It was founded in the 13th century, and has a reputation for a left-wing JCR.
Brasenose. A sporty college, situated off the High Street in the pleasant Radcliffe Square, but beware of tourists!
Christ Church. One of the largest and richest, Christ Church hosts 422 undergraduates and (as the name suggests) a church. It was founded by Cardinal Wolsey and home of Alice (of ‘in wonderland’ fame, daughter of a former dean). It is situated on St Aldate’s, also near the city centre.
Corpus Christi. Found on Merton Street, this is the smallest college, both in size and numbers (just 300 students, undergraduates and graduates).
Exeter. One of three intensely rivalrous colleges on Turl Street (the Turl Street Riots of 1979 being only a recent example of this feuding) so I’m compelled to tell you how bad they are (even if what is said amongst Jesus students is unprintable). In honesty, their bar was quite nice the one time I did visit, and it is where J.R.R.Tolkein spent some of his time in Oxford, so it can’t be that bad.
Harris Manchester, on Mansfield Road, is exclusively for mature students – UK applicants must be at least 25 – but is otherwise very open; founded originally to take Presbyterians, who were previously excluded from Oxbridge, and only recently made a ‘full’ college.
Hertford. This is situated on both sides of Catte Street, and joined by a bridge, apparently built because all the baths were in the north!
Jesus. Another Turl Street college, and my home in Oxford. A medium sized college, with considerable academic and sporting success. Has strong links with Wales and definite sense of college identity, both due to rivalry with Exeter and the ‘patriotic’ (or whatever the collegiate equivalent is) atmosphere in the bar and college magazine (Sheepshagger). Also prone to a number of obvious jokes.
Keble. One of the largest colleges. An unmistakable red and white brick building on Parks Road, to the north of Oxford, near the University Parks and science labs.
Lady Margaret Hall (LMH). A heavily fortified building on Norham Gardens, as befitting its status as the first women’s college. Is now mixed, but still has a bit of a reputation for being posh.
Lincoln. Smallest of the ‘Turl Street three’, but rumoured to have the finest food in Oxford.
Magdalen (pronounced ‘maudlin’). Situated by the bridge on the High Street. Becomes the focus of attention on May Day when the choir greet dawn (and crowds below) with song and prayer from the top of the tower.
Mansfield. A ver open college, both through the access scheme to encourage applicants from state schools, and the open three-sided quad that reveals goings-on to passers by in Mansfield Road!
Merton. One of several colleges claiming to be the oldest. Specialises in classical music, a medieval library and bizarre traditions, such as the ‘Time Ceremony’.
New College. No longer new really, but home to a number of eccentrics. Situated on Holywell Street, fairly close to the centre of Oxford and the Bodelian.
Oriel. The last college to accept women (1985) and most notable for opting out of OUSU last term (see later).
Pembroke. As the saying goes, Pem-Broke. Despite being one of the larger colleges, Pembroke is poor (for an Oxford college at least) – a fact aggravated by being opposite Christ Church on St Aldate’s.
The Queen’s. On the High Street, opposite Univ. Named, by the way, after Queen Phillippa, wife of Edward III.
St Anne’s. One of the largest colleges (480 undergraduates) situated on Woodstock Road and, although quite new, trying hard to acquire some pointless traditions to rival the older colleges.
St Catherine’s (St Catz). A new college, out on Manor Road. Quite pleasant layout, particularly in summer, although has a slight 1960s-concrete-meets-Ikea feel to it!
St Edmund Hall (Teddy Hall). A surviving medieval hall, that only became a college in 1957. A rather sporty college situated on Queen’s Lane.
St Hilda’s, down Cowley Place, is the only single sex college remaining (all girls), but very involved in university life.
St Hugh’s. Oddly enough, on St Margaret’s Road, a fair way to the north, and hence quite insular, but it does have 427 undergraduates and a 14-acre site, making it fairly large.
St John’s. Again oddly placed (this time on St Giles’). Typical Oxford of myth – seemingly good at everything, from work to sport. Includes Tony Blair amongst its alumni.
St Peter’s. Not the typical architecture, and almost unnoticeable from outside. Not very popular either, most students seem to arrive here by way of reserve colleges. Its bar apparently lacks atmosphere, but it is handily close to the Union (and Sainsbury’s).
Somerville. On Woodstock Road (to the north). Has very attractive grounds; with beautiful gardens, old buildings and a new block that looks like a car park! Has only accepted men since 1994, but is now generally relaxed and opening.
Trinity. Next door to Balliol (another long-running feud) and distinguished mainly by their nice lawns.
University (Univ). Claim to date back to 872, but more reliably only about 1249, which leads to arguments about which college is the oldest.
Wadham. By the King’s Arms and Bodelian, although the former probably gets more use! Another left wing and very active student body. Also very keen on arts, hosting the annual ‘Wadstock’.
Worcester. Hidden away by the train station. Most notable for sports, and attractive gardens.
For graduates, there are also a number of exclusive colleges/halls; All Soul’s (most academically notable, almost impossible to get in), Green, Kellogg, Linacre, Nuffield, St Antony’s, St Cross, Templeton and Wolfson. There are also Permanent Private Halls run by religious orders and offering Oxford degree courses – Blackfriars, Campion Hall, Greyfriars, Regent’s Park, St Benet’s Hall and Wycliffe Hall. Plus, of course, there’s Oxford Brookes; a former polytechnic now one of the top ‘new universities’ in the country, separate of course from Oxford University, but also involved in student life at the Union, etc.
As you can see, there should be a college to suit all types. Older ones offer ‘the full Oxford experience’ – complete with absurd traditions. Newer ones may be a bit less stuffy, but aren’t generally as rich, so may be worse off for accommodation, libraries, hardship funds, etc. most of the above is based on generalisation and my varying knowledge of colleges (supplemented by the Oxford Handbook). So, if you see a college you like, go for it, don't be put off by anything I've said. I would advice caution about the tourist guides though – I’ve heard them spouting complete lies to groups looking around Jesus (even getting the location of the bar wrong).
Courses Education at Oxford is an almost unique experience. There are many courses that are hard to find elsewhere – such as PPE (Politics, Philosophy and Economics) and a classics course that covers languages, history and philosophy! As you can see, the education tends to be broad and focussed to traditional academic disciplines. There can, however, be many advantages to this – it’s quite rare, for example, in offering a history course that runs by period rather than theme. There’s a lot of work to do though – in my case 12 essays per term, plus lectures and tutorials. It’s a real benefit though to be taught by famous names in your field (sometimes) and work doesn’t totally rule life, except in the approach to exams!
The year is divided into three terms, Michaelmas, Hilary and Trinity. Each of these last eight weeks (which are numbered, so dates in Oxford tend to be given as ‘Tuesday of 5th’ rather than by the more conventional calendar). Normally you’re required to be present in 0th week, however, for tests and expected to do a lot of work over holidays too. There are university exams at the end of the first year (‘Prelims’ or ‘Mods’, depending on subject) that have to be passed (although this is fairly easy). Degrees awarded, however, depend entirely upon ‘finals’ (and sometimes a thesis or other project) – so my grade will depend on eight three-hour papers at the end of my third year, which is quite a scary thought. The other disadvantage is you have to wear ‘sub-fusc’ (i.e. dark suit with gown and mortarboard) for your exams – just like the stereotypical view of Oxford students.
Facilities for your courses are always of the highest standards though. As well as top tutors and lecturers, there are modern science and computing facilities (the benefits of most colleges being rich). Most college rooms offer free internet access to those with computers. On the university network, you have access to a wide variety of information – syllabuses, past papers, lecture lists, examiners’ reports, etc. Needless to say, there is also plentiful provision of libraries. The famous Bodelian apparently stocks every book published in Britain, although I haven’t looked for Asterix! It’s non-lending, and some books have to be ordered from the vaults (or ‘stack’) in advance, but there’s a large PPE reading room dedicated to my needs. Most subjects have their own specialist faculty libraries too, and you can normally access most of these regardless of what you study – useful if you want to find constitutional texts in the law library, for example. Finally, most colleges have their own libraries, which are often a last resort, but are available 24/7 and often easy-going with loans and fines.
Student Life Now, obviously, student life revolves around a certain amount of drinking, clubbing, etc (or, as some prefer to justify to their parents, ‘networking’). I’ll come on to that, first I’ll start with the serious bits.
Accommodation varies according to college. Almost everyone gets college owned accommodation for their first year (usually in college) and many offer college-owned accommodation for all three (or more) years of a degree. Renting in Oxford is generally expensive and best avoided, so it’s worth looking in the college prospectus to see what’s on offer. At Jesus, all first years are guaranteed a room in college, and finalists can come back subject to availability. All finalists are guaranteed rooms somewhere, and most second years also live in flats to the north or east (although it isn’t guaranteed, but everyone who wants a place usually gets one). Obviously, not all is modern – in college you may not have easy access to ‘basics’ like a fridge, sink or shower – but some rooms are very attractive and good value considering house prices in central Oxford.
Food is provided by most colleges, although it varies tremendously. Normally there is breakfast, lunch and a first sitting of dinner, followed by formal hall (some colleges require you to wear sub-fusc and gowns for formal, others don’t). This may vary at weekends and outside of the eight weeks that constitute ‘full term’. The food is generally alright – I was very impressed by Jesus at first, but it often tends to be somewhat same-y and loses its appeal over the course of a term. The real pull is that it’s normally very cheap, being subsidised by the college – an average lunch at Jesus (main course plus two veg) costing only £1.14 (2000-01 prices).
Bars are present in all colleges, although some are more attractive than others. Most are in cellars, and can get quite sweaty, particularly during ‘bops’ (parties generally held every other Friday, sometimes involving fancy dress). Again though, drinks are cheap (£1.80/pint in Jesus, which is more than most) and it’s a great place to meet people you know from college. There’s normally a jukebox, but there may be DJs for bops. Either way, you’ll probably get a non-stop stream of cheesy pop, which I find about as much fun as banging my head against a brick wall!
If you find the college bar too much, there’s always the Union bar. The Union is a prominent debating society, run primarily by students for students. It’s the famous one, that over the last year has had Michael Jackson and Jon Bon Jovi; following in the footsteps of O.J.Simpson, Malcolm X and numerous presidents and other celebrities. It’s not restricted to the University (being open to students from Brookes too) and nor is it free – life membership currently costs £140 (although there’s normally a membership drive and £20 discount at the start of Michaelmas term). This seems a lot, but includes the speakers, debates, bar, library and a night-club (the ‘Purple Turtle’, started by Michael Heseltine when he was Union President). Certainly worth considering, although consider how much you will use the facilities, particularly if you live far away (although I have been told by those who do that it’s a useful toilet in central Oxford!)
The ‘other union’ is OUSU (Oxford University Student Union, pronounced ow-zoo). This is more like a traditional union, but seems to offer little in the way of facilities – just a stationery shop on Little Clarendon Street (near Somerville). In reality, it does a lot more – campaigning on behalf of students, encouraging access schemes and organising the freshers’ fair. Successes over the last year have included organising a ‘night bus’ for students and changing the constitution to recognise transgendered women. OUSU shouldn’t be confused with the Union, and really has little day to day impact on student life. Anyone is free to opt out of OUSU if they wish, but it is paid for by subscriptions from the college JCRs. Last term (Trinity 2001), Oriel controversially opted out, raising questions about what facilities OUSU are still required to provide their students, the answers to which may encourage others to follow suit.
Balls are the main events in the social life of Oxford. Every term, there is a Union ball (about £30-40, members only) and colleges generally hold balls every other year in Trinity, the main ones this year being Keble 2001 and Revolution (an OUSU sponsored event). These are normally far more expensive (£48-95), but easy to be roped in to to celebrate the end of year (and exams). All balls give students the chance to get dressed up and spend all night partying (free food and drink included, cue more cheesy music too). Balls aside, there’s still plenty to do. Oxford is a city of about 100,000 and with plenty of students reasonably well serviced for clubs like Park End and the Zodiac. Although, obviously, it’s not like London, there is a regular 24-hour bus service to the capital (Oxford tube, £6.50 return, about every 12 minutes depending on the time of day).
The more serious side to student life comes in the form of numerous societies (everything you care to mention – sports clubs, music societies, political ones, comedy, even the infamous ‘assassins’) and two student newspapers, OxStu and Cherwell. Plus, of course, studying!
Amazing review, thank you :) I dropped out of Nottingham recently (my review of it was somewhat more flattering...) and am considering trying to get into Oxford when I reapply to university this autumn.
Angel-19 16.09.2005 23:29
Fantastic review - thanks. I have just finished a Masters degree at Oxford after having done my undergraduate at Southampton Uni. It was a shock at first, but a truly wonderful experience that I will never forget. You are lucky you get three years there rather than only one. Becky
Disillusioned 11.09.2005 00:21
Useful review. I'm applying for History for 2006 entry, so have till October to sort out my application. I think it'll be between St. Edmund's Hall and Somerville. I don't have a great chance though as even despite AAA predictions I don't have great GCSE's - 1A*,3A's, 3B's, 2C's,1D! But hey is worth a shot. Thanks.