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An Introduction to College Life

Written by Eleanor Sanger, posted on Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Working in the Master's GardenOne of the (many) things that make universities like Oxford and Cambridge unique is their collegiate structure. When you arrive here, you’ll be part of the university, as well as a specific department that teaches your subject, but also part of a college. This may be the college you picked when you submitted your UCAS form, it may be one you were pooled to after interview, or you may be allocated to one after having made an open application, where you don’t state a preference for which college you would like to be in. But whichever college you end up in and however you end up there, your college will be your home for the duration of your course, and it’s one of the things that helps to make Oxford so great.

Although there will be some similarities between colleges (you’ll be taught the same things regardless of which college you go to, and no college has a specialism in a specific area) they’re all slightly different, so it’s worth doing some research to work out if there’s a particular one that you’d like to apply to. They’ll all have social spaces such as a dining room, common room, bar and games room for you to hang out in with friends, but even these may have some differences, so do some research if this is something that’s important to you.

Colleges are friendly, homely environments. There’s likely to be no more than around 130 in your year if you’re an undergraduate, with far fewer in PPHs and some of the smaller colleges, so it’s really easy to get to know people and make friends, and you have a ready-made community of people going through exactly the same things as you who’ll have your back if things get tough. But it’s worth considering the size of colleges, both in terms of their physical size and the number of students they have, when deciding on which one to apply to.

Students in Tom QuadEvery college also has lots of support available for if you run into difficulties, whether that’s emotional, financial, or medical. Each college will have its own welfare provision in the form of a welfare team of staff and other students, who you can easily get in touch with if you need to, and there are also college doctors, nurses and chaplains who are there for you if you need other kinds of help. Colleges will also be able to provide support for if you have financial difficulties, so there are lots of forms of help available from your college.

There are plenty of different aspects to college life that you can enjoy as part of your time here, from eating together to joining a college sports team. On the social side, your college is where you’re likely to make a lot of your friends, and do most of your socialising. A few times a term your college will hold a ‘BOP’, a fancy dress party held in college, in some cases going on til the early hours, with cheap drinks and cheesy music. It’s a great way for everyone in college to get together and enjoy themselves. But if you prefer a quieter kind of entertainment, there’s plenty to cater for that too. Colleges will have a bar where you can buy drinks to take to Formal Hall, or just sit with your mates having a chat over a pint. There’s also likely to be a TV room, often with Sky and games consoles, and a common room (called the Junior Common Room or JCR for undergraduates) where you can chill out or go to events. Games rooms are often stocked with pool tables, table football, and table tennis tables, which is a great way of unwinding with friends.

Your college, or buildings owned by it, is also where you’ll live for all or the majority of your course (almost certainly your first and final year). Rooms will range from ‘sets’ (bedrooms with sitting rooms) in the oldest parts of college, and study bedrooms in quads, to newly-built accommodation further out of the centre, where you’re likely to have an en-suite and easier access to kitchens, which there are often few of on main college sites. In some cases in your second year you can live out, either in college-owned houses accommodation shared by a few friends, with a kitchen and several bathrooms, or in private rentals. These will be more expensive than college accommodation (which is often very subsidised and therefore also very cheap), and you may have some of the well-documented difficulties associated with private renting, but if you’d like a taste of independence that it can be hard to fully get when living in college, this may be the option for you. But make sure you’ve checked exactly what the colleges you’re considering offer in terms of accommodation so you know what to expect when you get here!

The HallAs mentioned previously, there are often few kitchens on main college sites, although again, this varies between colleges. Meals are therefore often taken in college Halls, where you can usually get up to 3 meals a day for extremely cheap prices (around £3 a meal at Christ Church!). In the evening you will often have a choice between an informal sitting, where you collect your food and take it to a table, and a formal one, where you may be required to wear gowns and your 3-course meal is served to your table. It’s a very ‘Oxford’ experience, and although it can be very traditional, it’s a great way of socialising with other members of your college community.

Aside from all of this good stuff, colleges are also where you’ll receive at least some of your teaching, especially if you’re an arts student. As you start to specialise a few years down the line you may have more teaching with specialists in other colleges, but from the start you’ll be taught in small subject groups in your college. This is also where you’ll have your 1 or 2 person tutorials with your tutors, to really develop your knowledge of a particular subject. You benefit from the expertise and knowledge of one of the experts in your field, giving up their time to teach you almost one to one every week, whilst also getting to know the other people studying your subject and bonding over your shared hatred of a particular author (or maybe that was just me). You also get to go to events like subject dinners every year, where you meet people from every year of your course and find out that even more people hate that particular author. It’s all good fun.

So there we are, a brief introduction to some of the many reasons why colleges are great places to be. For more info check out college websites and feel free to get in touch if you have any particular questions that you want to get answered!