For some students, choosing a college is perhaps the most frustrating part of the application process. Trying to decide where you would like to study, socialise, eat, sleep, and live for the next 3 or more years of your life is no trivial matter. Your college will almost certainly shape your university experience which is why it is important to ensure that you have done your research in order to have the most enjoyable, rewarding and memorable time at university. Below, we have outlined a non-exhaustive set of key factors you should take into consideration when deciding on your college.
Important Factors to Consider:
1. Does the college offer your course?
This is obviously the most important factor to take into account. The vast majority of colleges will offer the most popular courses (e.g. PPE, Economics, Medicine and Engineering). However, in some instances, colleges only offer a smaller selection of courses. If you find that your desired college does not offer your course, then you will have to re-think about where you intend to apply. For more information on whether certain colleges offer your course, please check out our snapshots of each college.
Some people say that size really does matter, but for other students, size is irrelevant. When making a decision, take into account the fact that the college you apply to will have a smaller or larger number of students. For example, one of the largest colleges in Cambridge, St John’s, has over 560 students, whereas one of the smallest colleges in Cambridge, Corpus Christi, has around 290 students. The number of students can really make a difference to your overall experience. If you are someone that thrives in close-knit, communal and convivial environments, then maybe consider applying to a smaller college. However, if you are someone that enjoys being part of a broad and diverse community of lots of undergraduates, then maybe a bigger college is best for you. It’s often the case that in the smaller colleges, all students know each other by name, whereas in the large college that may prove more difficult. However, it’s important to take into account that in both instances, you will feel part of a talented and welcoming community of diverse undergraduates.
3. Old Vs Modern
Walking through the grounds of Christchurch College in Oxford is really quite an experience. Observing the historic architecture, stone-washed buildings, spiralling towers and sense of grandeur is overwhelming and inspiring to any prospective applicant. Yet, walking through the grounds of Churchill College in Cambridge is a completely different experience. The modern and fresh feel of the architecture, coupled with a contemporary student bar, cafe, library and dining hall is perhaps the diametric opposite of the experience you would get in an older college. It ultimately depends on your personal preference. Are you someone that takes pleasure in immersing yourself in the history and architectural beauty of a college, or are you someone that likes things new, clean and modern? Asking yourself this question will help inform your choice of college.
The one thing that every Oxbridge student learns whilst being at university is that students can be incredibly lazy. Unlike most universities, Oxford and Cambridge are practically cities built around a university: the university campus is more or less everywhere you go. This means that regardless of which college you attend you will never have to get a bus or hail an uber (except in the case of Girton College, Cambridge), and instead you will be walking and cycling everywhere. The reality is that everything - subject departments, shops, clubs, bars, sporting facilities, and Nando's - is within walking distance for most colleges. To some degree, location can really be a life-changer. For example, if you attend Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge, then you only have to walk 5 metres to the nearest Sainsbury’s and 15 metres to the nearest club! Ultimately, owing to the above reason, location shouldn’t constitute a huge part of your decision making process. The question you have to ask yourself is: ‘How lazy am I?”. For more information on the location of the various colleges, see our college snapshots.
Without a doubt, Oxford and Cambridge are institutions packed full of diverse individuals from a range of different backgrounds. One factor which may influence your decision, however, is the number of students who have attended private schools versus the number of students who have attended state schools at your college. For some people, being around students who come from similar backgrounds and share similar life experiences can make your experience more welcoming and comfortable. Yet, for some students, immersing yourself in a college with students who come from a different background to you can be a mutually beneficial exercise. We must mention, however, that the vast majority of colleges have a very large state-school student body (over 65-70%). For more information on the ratios for State School: Private School Students in each college, see our college snapshots.
6. Financial support
Some colleges are richer than others: like most things in life, it’s just the way it goes. The level of financial support a student receives during their time at university can completely change their experience. It’s often the case that the richer colleges offer more generous financial support, scholarships, bursaries and grants. However, every college at Oxford and Cambridge will ensure that you do not suffer financially and will try to help you where you can, should you need it. We have outlined the various colleges’ endowments in our college snapshots.
7. Personal instinct
Sometimes, regardless of how many articles or YouTube videos you have watched, determining your choice of college may ultimately come down to visiting the college for yourself. Using your intuition has inevitably been made more difficult owing to the cancellation of university open days, which has taken away the chance to gain an embodied experience. However, most colleges now offer a ‘virtual tour’ which is a decent substitute for the real life experience.
Things we would advise against!
1. Avoid application statistics
We’ve all done it. Going onto the admissions statistics page on the Oxford/Cambridge websites and looking favorably at the colleges which have the highest acceptance rate, and being intimidated by the colleges which have the lowest acceptance rate. ‘Playing the game’ by strategically applying to the college which you think you stand the best chance of getting into is the wrong mindset to adopt. Our advice is that generally speaking, if students are good enough, then they will get into the university - either directly through your chosen college, or by being placed into the pool system where you will be picked up by another college. Just apply with confidence to whichever college you want to go to and hopefully, if you have the ability, you will obtain the place you deserve.
Links for more advice on college choices
1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EKMIdkf99aI - A video by Viola Helen and Ibz Mo, former Oxbridge undergraduates, on how to choose a college
2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q-To5YsNJHc - Molly on how to choose an Oxford College