From Balliol to Worcester and everything in between, here's how to make the right decision...
Relax, your choice of college is nothing to worry about
For starters, you don't even have to choose one. About 80% of applicants do select a college, but you can also make an open application, where you don't specify a college.
Bear in mind that the Oxford colleges are more similar than they are different. Every college is rather cool for its own reasond and wherever students end up, they are usually very loyal to their college. Ultimately your college choice is not something to worry about.
As Oxford graduate The_Lonely_Goatherd said: "I think it is important to emphasise that the 'Oxford experience' (whatever that means) will be had, whichever college you end up at. Almost everyone ends up loving their college, even if it wasn't the one they applied to, or is more 'modern' than they were hoping for (if they did an open application)."
So just relax, take a methodical approach and choose a college for the right reasons. Or don't choose one at all, and go for an open application – more on this at the end of this article.
Before you start, you probably want to write out (or print) a list of ALL the colleges. Looks like a long list? Don't worry, this guide will help you whittle them down.
Eliminate colleges that won't consider you
There are a few postgraduate colleges that only take people who have already studied their subject for three years at university and graduated. If you don't know if you're a postgraduate, 99.9% of the time you won't be – so you can cross off Green Templeton, Kellogg, Linacre, Nuffield, St Antony's, St Cross and Wolfson colleges. (Note: if you are a postgraduate, you don't have to apply to one of these colleges.)
Everyone can cross off All Souls because they're crazy and don't actually have any students of any kind. Also, if you're not aged 21 or over, you can cross off Harris Manchester because they are a "mature" college. There's no age restrictions for the other colleges.
Next up: not every college offers every course. It's vital that you read Which Oxford colleges offer my course? on the university's website. For subjects with lots of students (e.g. PPE or Maths) most colleges offer the degree.
On the other hand, for smaller courses, your choice is made easier (e.g. Materials Science applicants have only got seven colleges to look at). Note that colleges don't usually specialise in certain subject areas; if a college isn't good for a subject, they simply don't take applicants for it.
Unlike Cambridge, all Oxford's colleges admit students of all genders, so there aren't any women's only colleges, for example.
Go and have a look around
The next step is to visit Oxford and see a few of the colleges for yourself.
TSR member vipergeez said: "I think an important thing to know is that for all the differences talked about between colleges (and of course, there are differences) is that they are more similar than different.
"This can be quite comforting to those really unsure of which college to apply to, or how one in four offers are given by colleges other than the one a candidate initially applied or was allocated to.
"That being said, a great way to see what college suits a candidate is to have a look around! There are far too many to see in a single day, but narrowing them down by which ones offer the candidate's desired course and some careful planning and attending more than one open day if possible can really help.
"The one thing I really wish I did was look around more colleges than I did, and consider the biggest differences first (i.e size of college both physically and by student numbers, involvement with sport and clubs, location, how much accommodation is provided, single charge or banded rooms, catering or other hidden charges, number of people on your course at said college, etc)."
So, make sure you do some digging and find out about the specifics of your college shortlist so you can compare them.
What are the other factors students use to make their decision? Here's the good, the bad and the ugly ones:
The good reasons
"It's really conveniently located" or "It's right next to my department"
Oxford is a small city with the university dominating the city centre. This means you can walk almost everywhere. Even the furthest away colleges are closer than the accommodation at many other city universities! (Cycling is popular in Oxford if you fancy saving time, but for most people it's not entirely necessary.)
But there's no denying that some colleges are more central than others. Take a look at a map of the colleges: consider where your lectures will be, where the city centre shops are, where the nearest supermarkets are and so on.
As a very broad generalisation, location is a good indicator of how old and pretty the buildings look. Colleges in the city centre are usually the nice-looking colleges, whereas more modern colleges are usually a short walk out of town. But often the colleges on the edges have significantly larger grounds.
If you manage to visit the colleges, you will get a feel as to where some of the colleges are, including walking distances! But here is a map of Oxford colleges to help you eliminate those you feel are just a little too out of your way, or even too central for your liking.
"It has good access for people with mobility issues"
If you have mobility issues or anything else that affects your day-to-day life, this should impact your decision of which college to apply to.
OxFossil said they wanted to emphasise "the importance of good research if you are disabled.
"For instance, some colleges are OK, and others are diabolical (e.g. Hertford) if you have mobility issues.
"College websites are inadequate and even speaking with the college access officer might not be enough to work out how truly accessible a particular college is. A site visit is recommended."
The_Lonely_Goatherd concurred, saying: "Although it didn't apply to me when I started, I think it's important that students with any disability visit Oxford colleges themselves, speak to staff, speak to the disability office, and find out as much as they can about what support and exam arrangements/concessions (if any) can be made."
"The accommodation there is superb!"
The most obvious question with accommodation is how many years the college provides it for. All colleges guarantee undergraduates accommodation for the first year.
After that, it varies depending on the college. Some give you accommodation every year (sometimes on the main site, sometimes in annexes), but others have limited rooms so you'll have to hit the private housing market (sometimes having to decide who to live with after knowing people only a few months, although students at other universities often have to do this too).
The location of college-provided accommodation (see above) will probably be an important factor for you to consider – some colleges, or their annexes, can be slightly distant (i.e. most people will cycle rather than walk). You might care about kitchen facilities (sometimes rooms have no access to kitchens), number of people to a bathroom (rarely an issue, although en suites are fairly rare) and room size (although Oxford rooms tend to be larger than at other unis).
"It has cheap accommodation and food" or "It's ridiculously rich"
The cost of rooms varies a lot between colleges. The cheaper your rent, the more money you'll have available to spend on other things. Typically, a richer college is able to make things cheaper for its students. Be careful when you compare prices online though, as colleges often have fixed/facilities/catering charges that you have to pay on top of your rent. Also be aware that a small number of colleges require their students to pay for dinner every night. Or lack of kitchen facilities might force you to.)
Also, the richer colleges may have better stocked libraries, better sports facilities, can afford to give you more contact hours, etc. You might want to investigate grants for people who do well in exams, for travel in the holidays, for buying books, for sporting success, for musical achievement, etc.
"It has a particular sports/music/etc facility that I'd use"
At this stage it becomes useful to point out the Alternative Prospectus, which was written by students. You'll find students' takes on each of their own colleges (good and sometimes bad points). This tool allows you to find colleges which have a particular facility (such as sports facility, music facility, 24/7 library).
It can be hard to find out exactly what each college has – if you're not sure, you can ask current students on the TSR Oxford Colleges forum. Obviously don't expect every college to have everything, and only cross off colleges that don't have a facility that is absolutely essential.
No matter how much of a workaholic you are, everyone has time to get involved with some other activities. There are always university clubs, and you can get involved in activities at other colleges, but having a way of getting involving in college is fun. 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.
"I fancy being part of a small/large college, or at least one with a few other people studying my course"
A couple of 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 often doesn't match the number of students. This also affects how many years you can live on the main site.
"I walked in and it just felt right" or "I like the look of the place"
You want to be happy with the choice you've made. Sometimes people walk into a college and find they instantly love or hate it. If you've got a long list of possible colleges then visiting might be a good way to quickly whittle your list down.
QHF said: "I usually recommend trying to see one of the older colleges and one of the newer colleges (more of either if time permits, but it might not). Applicants sometimes come with preconceptions about the ugliness of newer colleges, or the stuffiness of older colleges, and it's worth testing those against the places themselves."
An inspiring environment might help you work and enjoy yourself, and is always good for showing to friends and family, but ultimately the look of the buildings aren't going to make that much of a difference to your experience.
Having said that, it could be the visual memories that stay with you the longest after you leave. It's always nice to have memories of a place you loved to be, whether it's because the architecture is to your taste, or because you thought the gardens were pretty.
You don't need to book an open day to visit a college: most are open to prospective students every day. Open days are useful though to get a tour of a college and meet current students (although TSR lets you do the latter from your very own home). Open days also tend to include question and answer sessions and sometimes chances to meet tutors.
The bad reasons (you can use these, but don't place too much emphasis on them)
"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 such a close environment, you cannot help but get to know the people around you. It's pretty much guaranteed that you'll make friends wherever you go.
It's worth thinking about the size of the college (see above). And if you're a graduate, think about whether you'd rather be in a graduate-only college or a mixed college.
"The food's meant to be good"
It's true that 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. However, if the college doesn't provide self-catering facilities, you might want to be a little careful.
"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 with them. Knowing nobody can encourage you to make new friends.
If you go to a different college, you'll have your own friends, and a new circle of friends at your friend's college! All Oxford colleges are pretty close, so being able to see each other won't be problematic.
"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 if the JCR has nothing but chairs and some old magazines, your social life may suffer for it.
The ugly reasons (definitely don't use these)
"It's undersubscribed" or "I'm more likely to get in"
Your choice of college does not affect your chances of getting a place somewhere at the university. If you are good enough you'll be offered a place somewhere, even if it's not at the college you originally chose. About 25% of current students did not apply to the college they are now at. Choose the college you like most!
"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 mean a thing these days when it comes to getting a job afterwards.
"I've heard it's good for state schoolers"
If you've heard this, someone has misled you. It's not like some colleges make it really easy for state school pupils to get in, and others only admit people with double-barrelled surnames.
And once you're a student, it really doesn't matter. You'll 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, it's probably only as a curiosity.
"It's high on the Norrington table this year"
The Norrington table is a rough way of judging a college's academic standing. 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.
By the end of this process, you'll probably have around four colleges left. Now it's just a case of picking the one you like most. If you sit there saying, "I like them all equally," you're probably kidding yourself. But if you have that feeling about a college, go for it. Remember that practically everyone ends up loving their college (and that's despite over 25% of students ending up at a college which they didn't choose).
If you've got questions, you can contact students from the different colleges in the forums where we have a thread for each college. If you've got more general questions, or want to chat to other people who are choosing, check out the Oxford 2020 applicants official thread.
What happens if you don't choose a college, or make an open application? You will be assigned a college by the central university computer. The college that you are randomly allocated to will not know that you made an open application.
Allocation is often to colleges with fewer applicants that year for your subject (this doesn't make them bad colleges, application numbers fluctuate a lot each year). 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 mistakenly believe that their chances of getting in will be improved if they make an open application. But you should only make an open application if you really don't mind about what your college life is like.
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 pick one of the ones you don't mind going to.
Oxford students on why they chose their college
What's your college?
St John's College
What do you love about it?
The friendly student body, dedicated tutors and extra help seminars, the old quads but also the architectural variety, its large size and financial help. Three years' accommodation on site.
Is there anything interesting about it that you only found out after you got there?
Few people are denied the travel grant. Tutors were very chill, contrary to John's reputation.
How important is choosing the right college?
I think it makes a very significant difference. You'll have a great experience at them all though.
What's your college?
What do you love about it?
There's so much green space! there's even a path all the way from the college grounds to university parks, which is only accessible to Magdalen students.
Why did you choose it?
Accommodation for all years, access to kitchens in all years, green spaces.
How important is choosing the right college?
I'd say not as important as some people make it out to be – you obviously want to be at a college you like, but Oxford is Oxford in any case and there's really not that much difference between any colleges (unless, as others have pointed out, you need accessible rooms and spaces).
Is there anything you wish you knew before you went?
Not really college related, but I wish I'd got a lot more involved during freshers week, instead of spending it in my room and feeling homesick.
And anything you'd tell applicants about your college that would be useful to know?
It's sometimes said to be one of the more expensive colleges to live in (especially regarding rent), but there are actually a lot of different financial help schemes for students who are struggling with bills or need to stay in Oxford over the vacations (on top of the ones offered by the university as a whole).
What's your college?
Why did you choose it?
Primarily for its small size, central location and aesthetic. It's also great that there's accommodation for all years of study.
What do you love about it?
Gosh, where to begin! Its architecture is absolutely stunning, for me it's the most beautiful college in the university and that's a big part of why I applied there. I really did want the "whole Oxford experience" in which I got to live in a medieval college, and so I didn't even consider any of the modern ones. However, despite it being medieval, Brasenose is also small and has a cosy cottage-like atmosphere to it, which I preferred to a much bigger, grander college such as Christ Church for instance.
How important is choosing the right college?
For me it was quite important. As I mentioned, I wanted the experience of living in an old college, and I also wanted mine to be super central. I didn't want to be in the position of LMHers and St Hugh's undergrads where they have to really trek every time they want to go into town and back. I love the city of Oxford itself so it's great that I'll have all the main sites and amenities within a couple of minutes walking distance.
More useful links
What GCSE and A-level grades do I need for Oxbridge?
Oxford or Cambridge? How to choose where to apply
Everything you need to know about Oxford colleges
University of Oxford forum
University of Oxford's guide to Oxford colleges