This page is part of The Student Room's community written information and advice about the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge (known collectively as Oxbridge). Whilst the two universities have have much in common, they also have many differences. The information on Applying to Oxbridge and Oxbridge Interviews applies to both.
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Different people have many different reasons for choosing the college they eventually settle on. We'd like to be able to say they're all equally valid, but alas that couldn't be further from the truth. You'd be surprised how many people chose their college because they liked its name or because their teacher went there thirty years ago! Here we take a look at what you should - and shouldn't - take into account when choosing a college.
Open Application or not?
First you should know about open applications. An open application is where you do not choose a college and you are assigned to one by a computer. The college that you are randomly allocated to does not know that you made an open application. Allocation is often to "less popular" colleges. This does not make them bad colleges, they are simply colleges which has fewer applicants that year than others (application numbers fluctuate a lot each year).
You make an open application if you really don't mind about what your college life is like. However, college life is such a great and unique aspect of Oxford that it's well worth utilising the choice given to you. If there are any colleges you know you really don't want to be at, don't push your luck with an open application... just randomly pick one of the ones you don't mind going to!
Making an open application does not disadvantage your chance of getting into Oxford (remember the people considering your application don't know that you made an open application) so don't be afraid about making one if that's how you feel. Some people think that their chances of getting in will be improved if they make an open application, because they are allocated to colleges with less applicants for that subject. There's no particular evidence for this either way, but the University would strongly deny that it makes a difference.
If you decide right now to make an open application, it will save yourself some time looking at colleges.
But if you decided not to make an Open Application, it's time to write out a list of ALL the colleges. Now we start crossing off colleges...
Eliminate by College Type
All Oxford colleges both admit male and female students. For most people, a few colleges will simply not be applicable to you. Cross off the ones that won't consider your application!
Harris Manchester is the mature college, exclusively for people aged 21+ when they start at Oxford. (Note: if you're 21+ you're free to apply to any other Oxford college.)
There are a few postgraduate colleges that only take people who have already studied their subject for three years at University. If you don't know if you're a postgraduate, then 99.9% of the time you won't be and you can cross off Green Templeton College, Kellogg College, Linacre College, Nuffield College, St Antony's College, St Cross College and Wolfson College. (Note: if you are a postgraduate, you can apply to other colleges if you want, not just these few.)
Everyone can cross off All Souls College because they bizarrely don't actually have any students.
Eliminate by Course Availability
Some colleges do not provide all courses offered by the university. Consult the prospectus for details of courses not offered by certain colleges, and cross those colleges off which do not offer your course. At list of potential colleges for each subject is usually available on Oxford department's websites. For big subjects, e,g. PPE or Maths, most colleges offer the degree. A smaller subject, Archaeology and Anthropology, is offered by only six colleges!
You'd be surprised with how you react when you walk into each college. With some colleges I knew instantly I didn't like it. So I can't stress this enough, if you can, visit the colleges. It may help reduce your list substantially.
You do not need to book an open day to visit a college, most are open to prospective students everyday. However, an open day is useful to get a tour in of a college, since you often won't get to go inside many of the buildings at other times. It also provides an extremely valuable question and answer session.
Eliminate by Location
You'd be surprised by how lazy (or energetic) you become when you become a student. So college location may or may not be a problem for you, at least when it comes to determining how far you must walk to lectures. (Although a lot of people cycle in Oxford.) Some people like to be in the centre of the town, others prefer to be out of the way. Either way, if you managed to visit the universities as advised above, you will have got a feel as to where some of the colleges are, including walking distances! But here is a map to help you eliminate colleges you feel are just a little too out of your way. Nothing in Oxford is too far away.
Location is also a good indicator of how old/pretty the buildings look. Colleges in the city centres are usually the old looking colleges, whereas more modern colleges are usually a short walk out of town. Often the colleges on the edges have significantly larger grounds. Just because you can't see the Bodleian from the college grounds doesn't mean it lacks other advantages, such as being near a supermarket — this can end up being a huge bonus! Also remember that nowhere in Oxford is very far away, even the furthest away colleges might be closer than the accommodation at other city universities!
Eliminate by Facilities
At this stage it becomes useful to point out the Alternative Prospectus provided by students are each university. Just go to the university websites and search for "Alternative Prospectus" and you'll find students takes on each of their own colleges (good and bad points).
This allows you to eliminate colleges which don't have a particular facility (such as sports facility, music facility, 24/7 library). If you're still unsure, email the college, they'll answer any question you have. Obviously don't expect every college to have every facility, only cross off colleges that don't have a facility that is absolutely essential to you.
Obviously don't expect every college to have every facility, only cross off colleges that don't have a facility that is absolutely essential.
Pick the One You Like Most
At this stage most people should have a shortlist of no more than 5 colleges. I can not stress enough how important it is to now just pick the one you like most. If you sit there saying "I like them all equally" you're probably kidding yourself, there will be one which you like more than the others, so just pick it.
Stop thinking about any other factors such as reputation for courses, what other students think of that college, just pick the college you like most, if you have that feeling about a college it means you're almost certain to fit in there.
I can not stress that last point enough, please stop fussing over little details such as stereotypes, they're only there for fun.
REMEMBER: It doesn't matter what your college reputation is for a particular subject, in the end you're lectured by the university, not your college. It's far more important to enjoy the company in your college, and your surroundings, than to worry about being at "the best college for...."
Reasons for choosing a college
"The accommodation there is superb!"
You'll be spending many years at Oxford. That's a significant proportion of your life - and by far the largest part of that will be spent in your room. Which college you choose will partly determine whether this time is spent in something akin to a mansion or a closet in which you couldn't swing a textbook, let alone a cat. What's more, some colleges offer accommodation for the whole of your course (sometimes on the main site, sometimes in annexes), whereas at others you may find yourself competing against everyone else in the private housing market after your first year. All undergraduate colleges, however, guarantee accommodation for your first year.
"I like the look of the place."
When you leave, it will be the visual memories that stay with you the longest. Make sure they're memories of a place you loved to be, whether it's because the architecture is to your taste or you thought the gardens were pretty.
"It's right next to my department."
What better incentive to go to lectures, or go and study, than if you need only crawl across the road into the lecture theatre or departmental library? When exams approach you'll appreciate how much more productive your revision was because you didn't have to haul yourself across the city to do some work. Equally important is the college's location generally - consider what facilities are nearby, and whether you'd rather be right in the middle of it all or somewhere with more space to yourself.
"They've got a good reputation for my favourite sport/hobby."
No matter how workaholic you are, everyone's got to have some hobbies - and while there are university clubs for a lot of them, it's always preferable to have the option of playing your sport or following your hobby in college. Consider also the facilities available. Table tennis tables and badminton courts are rare, for example, and having your own sports grounds right next to college is a real plus for sporty types.
"It's got a great reputation for my course, or just a good academic ethos."
Of course, it's all about your own study - but colleges with well-stocked, 24-hour libraries or enthusiastic and committed fellow students will help you through that study. Internet access will help (although you must balance that against the time you'll inevitably waste randomly surfing), and if you don't have your own computer then college computing facilities become particularly important. There's nothing like peer pressure for making you buckle down and achieve something. But remember, this works both ways. If you're the kind of person that would rather come out with a 2:1 and have captained a sports team or run student societies than strive for a first class degree, then you may want to pick somewhere that's a little more relaxed.
"I fancy being part of a small/large college, or at least one with a few other people studying my course."
Several colleges have around 300 or less undergraduates, but the biggest (St Catherine's) has 500. This may not sound like a huge difference, but it has some effect on whether it is possible to know everyone in your year. Perhaps more importantly, you probably want there to be a few others studying your subject - being the only student at your college studying Music in your year will be quite a different experience to having five others. Note that the physical size of college sites varies quite a lot, and doesn't always match the number of students.
... the bad...
"It's got an excellent tutor for one of the options I want to take."
Chances are, a considerable amount of your teaching over the course of your degree will be by a tutor in another college. This is especially the case with optional courses, where tutors specialise and only one or two tutors in the university may teach a given option. What's more, you can ask to be taught by a specific tutor if you so wish. So the college you choose will not necessarily determine who teaches you. That said, some colleges are better than others at helping you get the tutor you want.
"I've heard it's a friendly place, and I'm worried about making friends."
They're all friendly places, trust us. When this many people are thrown together into so close an environment, you cannot help but find people with similar interests. It's pretty much guaranteed that you'll make friends wherever you go. However, it's worth thinking about things like whether you'd prefer a big or a small college, and if you're a graduate, whether you'd rather be in a graduate-only or mixed college.
"The food's meant to be good."
True - the average standard of food varies quite considerably between colleges. But the standard of food varies quite considerably between different days at any given college, too! It's not going to kill you at any of the colleges, and if you don't like it, you don't have to eat it. This may be a good criterion, however, if the college doesn't provide self-catering facilities.
"My best friend's decided to apply there."
It's great to stay in touch with your old friends - but you'll definitely be making new ones too, so don't feel you have to be in the same college as your best mate to keep in touch them them. What's more, applying to the same college from the same school may actually put you at a disadvantage when it comes to selection, especially if you're applying for the same course. If being near to your friend is your number one priority, apply to the college next door.
"It organises fantastic entertainment!"
Okay, so your college will probably be the centre of your social life. But note the "probably". If your college isn't known for its bops and balls, go to someone else's. However, the quality of the facilities does matter. After a hard day's work everyone needs to chill out, and if the bar's so dull nobody ever goes there, or of the JCR has nothing but chairs and a copy of last Wednesday's Times Education Supplement, social life will suffer for it.
... and the ugly.
"I've heard it's good for state schoolers."
Once you're in, it doesn't matter. Really, it doesn't. You'll probably go through your whole course without finding out whether some of your friends are from a state or independent school - and if it does come up, only as a curiosity.
"My role model/teacher/careers adviser went there in the Sixties..."
David Cameron isn't Prime Minister because he went to Brasenose. Your achievements in life will be your own, and you won't emulate someone else's by following them physically. Be wary of taking advice from old Oxonians - not only has Oxford changed a lot since they were here, but they'll have a biased view anyway.
"It's much more famous."
Great, so when you tell your aunt you're going to Oxford, she might have heard of your college. But once you actually get to Oxford, fame means only one thing: tourists. After the tenth camera-toting American has knocked on your door asking if they can look round your bedroom, you'll wish you were somewhere a little more obscure. What's more, the death of the old boys' network means your college doesn't really mean a thing these days when it comes to getting a job afterwards - except insofar as it affects your degree.
"It's high on the Norrington table this year."
The Norrington table is acceptable for use as one of a number of ways of judging a college's academic standing. In conjunction with the academic facilities, standard of tutors and general attitude to work, it can be worth looking at the Norrington table over a number of years to see whether a college is generally high or low. Given its problems of measurement and its variability, however, it would be folly to use the table as the sole measure, or to look only at a single year. If in doubt, stay well away.
"It's undersubscribed / I'm more likely to get in"
Your choice of colleg simply e does not significantly affect your chances of getting a place somewhere at the university. If you are good enough, a space will be found for you somewhere, even if it's not at the college you originally chose. 20% of current students did not apply to the college they are now at. Choose the college you like most!
Many people have more specific criteria - scholarships, for example - so this is far from an exhaustive list. If you're still stuck after using the resources in this guide, try contacting students from the colleges you're most interested in - JCR/MCR Presidents, for example, are often happy to help. But of course, there is no real substitute for a visit. So if it's feasible, do try to go to the college physically and get a feel for what it's like there. Happy hunting!