How to choose an Oxbridge college

If the process of applying to Oxford and Cambridge wasn't intimidating enough, you might simply be overwhelmed by how to choose an Oxbridge college.

Firstly, there are so many of them. Secondly, the all look so pretty. And, thirdly, aren't they all pretty much the same?

It's very tempting to opt-out of making a choice and submit an open application.

In this article I'll take you through:

  • What an Oxbridge college is
  • The social aspects of a college you should be considering
  • The academic aspects of college life
  • The environmental aspects of choosing a college
  • The ‘brand' of the college
  • Why you shouldn't submit an open application

How to choose an Oxbridge college

What is an Oxbridge college

It's tempting to think of an Oxbridge college as the posh equivalent of halls at any other university. But, that's missing the point.

Oxford and Cambridge Universities basically don't exist without the colleges. All members of academic staff and all students ‘belong' to a college – you can't go to one of these universities without being a member of a college.

Yes, they provide a place for you to eat and sleep and usually form the foundation of your social life when you're an undergraduate. However, they also perform an important academic role in your life. I like to think of the colleges as your academic home or family – that's certainly how Newnham felt to me when I was studying there.

What is the academic role of an Oxbridge college?

When you apply to Oxbridge, you will be interviewed by members of the academic staff at the college you have applied to, or been assigned to if you've submitted an open application. At Oxford, you will often also be asked to interview at a second college, assigned by the university, as a kind of back-up plan, if things don't work out at the first college you've applied to.

You have academic interviews in your college because it will be your academic home for the duration of your studies. You will be interviewed by one or more Directors of Studies (if you're applying to Cambridge) or Tutors (if you're applying to Oxford) in your subject at your college. They will decide whether:

  • You meet the standard necessary to study at the university
  • Whether you're in the top group of students they've seen and therefore wish to offer you a place

Once you're studying at Oxbridge your tutor or director of studies will be in charge of your academic programme – a little bit like your form tutor at secondary school. They will:

  • Organise tutorials (Oxford) or supervisions (Cambridge) for you in subject areas they don't specialise in at other colleges
  • Help you to choose which topics and papers you're going to study
  • Help you with your dissertation
  • Keep an overview of your academic progress and have meetings with you to discuss it (a bit like parents' evenings, but without the parents)

Therefore, the college is a really important place for you academically as well as socially.

How to choose an Oxbridge college: the social aspects

When you're choosing your academic home and the base of your social life for the next three years it's important that you feel that you'll fit in and feel comfortable socially. Think about these factors as you're looking around:

  • How big is the college community – college sizes vary from a few hundred to 800-1000. What size of community do you think you'll thrive in?
  • What is the gender balance of the college community – will you be happy in these circumstances? There are still three all-female colleges at Cambridge (Newnham, Murray Edwards and Lucy Cavendish) and there are also colleges that are known to have a much higher proportion of men than women.
  • What are the popular extra-curriculars at the college? This is not the be-all and end-all of your decision as you can either start something up or find a university society doing the thing you want to do – but it's worth knowing what's there.
  • Do you like the vibe? If you possibly can, try and talk to people who are already studying at the college, not just in your subject but across a range of subjects, and see if you feel like you would fit in socially. Also, try and talk to the other candidates in the same way. If you feel like you can be yourself and fit in this is a good sign you'll be happy and thrive in your three or four years studying there.
  • Do you have a special need or disability and will this be catered for, without any hassle, by the college?

How to choose an Oxbridge college: the academic aspects

When you're looking at the academic side of Oxbridge colleges, the most important thing to consider is whether there is a Director of Studies or Tutor in your subject based at the college. If there isn't this could be a big problem.

Most of the really big subjects, like sciences, maths and English will have Directors of Studies and Tutors at every college. However, when you're looking at smaller subjects there might not be one of these crucial people at every college.

Why is it important to have a Director of Studies / Tutor in your subject at your college?

Three reasons:

  • The college will need to organise a Director of Studies for you at another college. This is basically hugely inconvenient.
  • There is unlikely to be a community of students studying your subject at your college – which means it might be a bit lonely for you and harder to make social connections amongst people studying your subject.
  • The college is likely to be less resourced for your subject e.g. there will be less books in the college library for your subject meaning you'll have to go to other libraries within the university to get physical learning resources.

In essence, having a Director of Studies or Tutor in your subject at the college you apply to ensures that there's an academic community to support your learning which makes your whole life easier.

How to choose an Oxbridge college: the environmental aspects

You'll probably also want to consider the environment of the college. Think about:

  • Whether the college is in a touristy bit of the city where there's lots of noise and bustle, or further out where it's more private and quiet
  • Whether you like the idea of one of the old ‘pretty' colleges, or if you like more modern buildings (more modern buildings are often warmer and have better facilities than the old ones)
  • The facilities within the college e.g. have they got sports pitches, a gym, a bar, beautiful gardens, a performing arts space etc. etc.
  • Do you like the rooms, one of which will be your home?

How to choose an Oxbridge college: the college ‘brand'

Finally, each Oxbridge college has it's own history and identity which has lead to it's modern-day ‘brand'. For example, my college, Newnham, has always been a bastion of feminism having been the academic home to people from Virginia Woolf to Germaine Greer and Miriam Margoyles. Other colleges have very different reputations e.g. Churchill has a strong reputation for computer science and geeky common sense, Trinity is known for maths and robust science.

A lot of these brands are based on stereotype and history and don't necessarily reflect the truth of the community there now – so try to dig beneath the surface to discovered if the brand of the college is something that you gel with.

Why you shouldn't submit an open application

With all of the above to consider, alongside the personal statement, admissions tests and interviews (let alone your A-Levels) it can be very tempting to just submit an open application.

However, I would strongly advise against this.

For Cambridge in particular, there is an opportunity (in the Supplementary Application Questionnaire) to give some specific detail about why you want to study at Cambridge. In this section, you should make specific comments about what attracts you to the Cambridge course as well as why you have selected a specific college.

A student who I worked with last year made some very astute comments about the college brand/culture to which she was applying that really showed she'd understood the community she was applying to be a part of – I'm sure this was part of why she was offered a place.

Neither Oxford nor Cambridge will openly admit that you'll be disadvantaged by submitting an open application. However, all Directors of Studies, Tutors and Admissions Tutors are deeply invested in their own college communities and you can directly appeal to them by letting them know that you've made a positive choice about wanting to study with them.

Over to you

I hope this article has helped you to make a positive choice about which Oxbridge college you're going to apply to. It really isn't a waste of your time to do this research. And, if you need help with your Oxbridge personal statement check out my Personal Statement Masterclass – these materials have helped students across a wide range of subjects make successful Oxbridge applications.

Good luck!

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