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Why do Oxford and Cambridge have colleges?

On the surface of it, one of the main things separating Oxford and Cambridge from most other UK (and global) universities is the collegiate system. Despite being a relatively conspicuous element of the Oxbridge system (thank you, University Challenge!), not a lot of applicants really understand what it actually means to be part of a college before making the big step and applying. This article gives a brief overview of what the college system means, both from a technical perspective and from the personal experience of our tutors.



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What are Colleges?

This is the big question! The college system effectively separates the university into smaller units (44 at Oxford and 31 at Cambridge) that are interdisciplinary (i.e. host students from a number, if not all, subjects and disciplines) and cross-year. Each college has both pastoral and academic staff and, in most cases, is where students live for some or all of their university life. Most colleges have a library, dining hall and kitchen, common rooms, accommodation, sports teams and clubs, a student council, and various other provisions intended to aid the academic and enrich the social lives of its students.

Although colleges have a huge amount in common, each college is unique and tends to suit a different kind of student. Colleges are different sizes (ranging from a handful of students to four- or five-hundred students strong!), offer different kinds or amounts of accommodation, have different meal schedules, host different resources in their libraries, offer different clubs and societies… the list goes on! However, despite these differences, every student always has access to the central university societies and libraries, so this isn’t the be all and end all for your daily university life. It’s perhaps best to think of colleges like where you live, whilst the department or faculty is where you study (with exceptions, since some colleges put on tutorials for their students on more popular courses). In short, colleges are generally where you live, eat, and socialise when you first come to the university, providing a community of students and staff from departments across the university.

What are the Benefits of Colleges?

There are a few key benefits of the college system at Oxford and Cambridge, largely stemming from the fact that they offer a community smaller than the enormous student body of the university as a whole.

Firstly, the college offers a community in which you can find new friends from across the university. Through living in shared accommodation, eating in the dining hall, and spending time in the common rooms of the college, this is where most students make solid, supportive friendship groups to see them through some or all of their university career. Much like halls of residence at other universities, the College gives students a ready pool from which to make friends quickly and easily.

Secondly, the college has its own facilities which students can use which can be much more convenient and less busy than university-wide facilities. Aside from the obvious ones like a dining hall and library, colleges may also have music rooms, lecture theatres, and sports facilities like tennis courts or a gym that students can book out or use at their leisure.

Lastly, the college offers support, both academic and pastoral, to students. Students naturally can find help or support from lecturers or administrative staff in their department, but some may find college an easier first port of call since, firstly, they might not want to talk to lecturers in charge of their course about personal problems or, secondly, it may be easier to get help in college since there are fewer students in college and staff may know each student better.

How important is choosing a college?

Choosing a college for you is a very personal decision and, although college can really shape your university life, in our experience we have found that, wherever they end up, students tend to love their college regardless.

That being said, there are a few aspects that we recommend considering when it comes to selecting the right college for you. Firstly, consider how big a community you want to be living in - do you want a wider pool of students from which to pick friends, or would you rather a smaller, cohesive college community?

Secondly, are you interested in certain sports, societies, or activities that a college might have the facilities or groups relating to? Certain colleges have more or fever facilities as well as specialism in certain activities, so if you’re very keen on rowing or particularly want to play saxophone in a college jazz band, do see if there are any colleges that can make this easier for you.

Thirdly, it’s important to check whether the college offers the course you’re applying to, and in what quantities. Some colleges may offer no spaces, or only limited spaces, for your chosen subject, so do take this into consideration when applying. Lastly, think about the college location and architecture. Although we would say that the spirit and community of the college is more important to your experience, if your department is in a particular location or you want to be in an old, picturesque college, have a look at details such as this before picking your preference!

In short, colleges offer a great opportunity to jump into a practically ready-made community of friends and colleagues for you upon arriving at the university, as well as facilities and official support networks from which you can draw! Although you do get a preference of colleges when you apply and it’s worth taking some time to consider which college(s) you’re most interested in, most students love their colleges (whether they were their first choice option or not) in the end, so it’s definitely something to look forward to rather than be stressed about!


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