Both Oxford and Cambridge University are organised into colleges. This means that your home (at least in the first year) and study takes place in a relatively small community, like a mini campus. The collegiate system is one of the many factors that make these two universities such special and unique institutions. The college community is a ready-made social group with its own traditions, events and clubs. And, since most colleges offer most subjects, the student body is academically diverse, which nurtures the intellectually stimulating environment of a college.
Navigating the many colleges to pick from at Oxford and Cambridge can be confusing at first. Especially since so many of them seem to have esoteric or similar names! And, if you get the chance to visit the university on an open day, you would be forgiven for suggesting that the various quads, chapels and dining halls are actually much of a muchness. To add to that, rumours abound as to which college will give you the best possible chance of getting in, which has the best food and which the best college talking points. In reality, choosing a college is the fun bit of the application process. You can look around all the beautiful buildings and picture yourself lounging around on the grass – if you’re allowed to tread on it… But to point you in the right direction, read our helpful guide to choosing your Oxbridge college
Establish what factors are most important for you in the first instance. These won’t be the same for everyone; for me, I was interested in the location and architecture of the college. I was after that “Harry Potter feeling”. For others, I know they will be looking at facilities (e.g. 24 hour library, onsite gym), extracurricular clubs and societies, proximity to the relevant faculty, academic reputation and size/makeup of the student body.
Once you’ve narrowed down your choice of colleges a little, try to visit them on one of the upcoming open days. It is useful, but not essential to book onto an Open Day at a particular college: you can usually get pretty cheap accommodation there if you’re travelling a long way. You may also have the chance to attend a ‘subject tea’ where you’ll be able to ask tutors about the course you’re applying for and what it entails at that college, which can be really insightful. On the other hand, all colleges are open to prospective students at the main Open Days and there are usually lots of people on hand to whom you can direct your questions. Try to speak to members of your faculty, current students, tutors and members of the colleges you are interested in to build up a picture of what life at that particular college is like and whether you would fit in well. You may find that you fall head-over-heels in love with the first college you go into, and you can spend the rest of the day wandering around one of Oxford or Cambridge’s many fantastic museums and galleries. If you aren’t able to visit in person then take advantage of virtual open days or simply have a look online at photos.
If all this seems a little too much and you’re just keen to get down to learning about your subject, rather than picking the college with the prettiest stained-glassed windows, you could think about putting in an Open Application. You’ll be allocated automatically to a college based on the number of applications it has received. It won’t necessarily increase your chances, and you certainly won’t be able to call up Oxbridge and ask for another choice, but it will let you get on with the other, arguably more important, parts of the application.
At Oxbridge Applications, we rely on application statistics to draw insights about the level of competition at each college for the various courses. This is about comparing direct success rates but also considering whether colleges utilise the pooling system to top up or allocate their candidates. We are very happy to advise on the statistical side of your choice as this can get a bit confusing.
The last thing to say is that almost everyone at Oxford and Cambridge loves their college and wouldn’t swap their time there for the world. Belonging to a college – living there, learning there and relaxing there – is a fantastic experience, and one that will really define your time at Oxford or Cambridge, so enjoy the process, but don’t get too hung up about it. Best of luck!