Founded in 1117 (or thereabouts, records are patchy and there is a degree of historical controversy), Oxford University is the oldest educational institution still in operation in the English speaking world. It is also one of (if not the) most prestigious, with many times more people applying each year than there are places available (applicant per place ratio varies widely according to subject, but it rarely falls below 2:1, and is sometimes as high as 30:1 or higher). Located in, and composing most of, the city of the dreaming spires, the University is huge and sprawling, but also extremely quaint and beautiful. This review will document my experiences of Oxford, the admissions system, and life at the University. There are a number of hilarious and fascinating eccentricities of Oxford life, so I shall try, where possible, to provide an insight into some of the fun (and some not so fun) traditions that make us who we are!
OK, so the first thing to say about the University, is that it doesn't exist! No really, I'm not lying, there is no such place as Oxford University. What there is, is a number of subject faculties and libraries, and around 40 Colleges and Permanent Private Halls, dotted around the city, in amongst the shops, pubs, houses and restaurants. There is no 'Central Office' (although there are buildings for admissions, examinations, funding, computing etc, but again these are littered throughout the city rather than collected in one place). This has the rather bizarre effect of totally distorting the scale of the university. Either it seems much smaller than it really is because you only focus on the parts you regularly use, or you fall into the mistaken assumption that the whole city is a campus and get a bit of a shock when you meet someone who isn't a student! Also I think it gets incredibly confusing for tourists - I get asked several times in the average week if I can direct someone to 'the University', and usually get a very blank look when I ask 'which part?' There are some areas which are used by everyone (or almost everyone) however, and these tend to be the instantly recognisable landmarks that make their way onto posters. The Sheldonian Theatre, for example, where everyone undertakes their matriculation and their graduation. The Bodleian Library (although beware - there are 'satellite Bodleian's' like the law bod and the Radcliffe Science Library, which are in different places) - the Bod is a publishing library, which means that it has in its collection at least one copy of every book available in the English Language in the whole world. Every time anything is published, the Bodleian acquires a copy of it (even, I am reliably informed, magazines of a more risqué nature). Then there's the dreaded Examination Schools, where almost every formally assessed exam in the whole university has been sat for several hundred years.
**Fun Fact No.1 - OK, so everyone knows what a graduation ceremony looks like, but what exactly is a matriculation? Well, it comes from the Latin word matricula, which means 'little list'. It happens at the start of your first term in Oxford (it also happens at Cambridge, Durham and Bristol, but not with quite as much pomp), and consists of wearing subfusc (more on which below) with a 'commoner's gown', which is really nothing more than a long waistcoat with two dangly ribbons. You then all parade by college into the Sheldonian Theatre, listen to Latin being spoken at you for 5 minutes, and then walk out, slightly bewildered. That, you are told, is what has made you a member of the University.**
**Fun Fact No.2 - subfusc is the name given to the traditional clothes which must be worn underneath gowns for formal events. For men this consists of a black suit, white shirt, and white bow tie, for women a black skirt or suit trousers, white shirt and black ribbon. Undergraduates wear commoner's gowns (unless they are scholars, who get gowns with sleeves) and carry their mortar boards, whereas graduates, doctors, professors and fellows wear full gowns with hoods, and either wear or do not carry their mortarboards, depending on the occasion. Subfusc is rarely worn (which is lucky because it looks ridiculous), although Oxford have maintained the slightly odd and VERY annoying practice of insisting that all examinations be sat in full academic dress. We are the last institution in the country to still insist upon this, and it is very unpopular with students.**
So, given that we've established that there is no University in existence, where should you apply? Well, my recommendation is that you try applying to a College. As mentioned above, Oxford has a large number of colleges, all of which are slightly different. It is often said of the colleges that they have more in common than there is different about them, but whilst this is true it is worth choosing carefully, as three years is a long time to spend at an institution that's not quite the right fit. Colleges are quite insular places, most of your teaching (except for lectures) will be organised through your college (for this reason some of the smaller colleges wont offer every subject), you will live either in or very close to your college, you will eat at your college, and for the vast majority of people, most of their time is spent in college, with friends made there. Welfare is also dealt with through the college, and although obviously provision is made further afield should the need arise, it is worth looking at what is available. Each college has a JCR (Junior Common Room) which is an acronym used both to represent a physical space where undergraduates can meet and relax, and also the student elected body for each college, which will have a president and several other officers, chosen to represent the students of that college. There is a University wide Student's Union (OUSU), but it is on a relatively small scale compared to other universities, and this is attributable to the fact that the vast majority of welfare provision is catered for at a college level.
How do you go about choosing? The absolute first thing to think about when choosing an Oxford college (in my opinion), is whether there is anything which would put you off. For me, there were one very important issue that I needed to feel confident about. I come from a fairly modest educational background - I have been state educated, and my secondary school had special measures imposed (government sanctions laid down when a school drops below a minimum acceptable standard). Neither of my parents went to Oxbridge, and no one from my school had been accepted in the past five years. There is a feeling prevalent among many who do not have experience of the Oxford system, that it remains an elitist institution. I was advised by several of my school teachers that an application to Oxford would be a waste of time, and that even if I got in I would be in such a minority that I would find life difficult. Whilst I had a good idea that this was untrue, and that the admissions process was run on meritocratic grounds alone, it did (naturally) make me somewhat uneasy. I was invited to an open day event run by a charity called the 'Oxford Access Initiative', who informed me that there was a drive to get more people from the state sector to apply to Oxford. It is their belief that the reason there is such a small percentage of state educated students at Oxford compared to other universities is not because they're not good enough, but because too few are applying. There would be two ways to fix this - one would be positive discrimination, and having a quota to fill of people from the state sector, which would obviously unfairly prejudice those candidates who come from the private sector who might have been awarded a place on the grounds of their ability, but fell foul of the quotas, or to encourage more state pupils to apply. Admirably, in my opinion, Oxford is attempting the latter. Access is a great programme, to which around 10 colleges subscribe (which if you ask me is pitifully small, but a good start), which, through events such as open days, summer schools, and presentations, hope to encourage gifted state sector pupils to apply, not just to Oxford, but to the best universities country-wide. So my first criteria was that I knew I wanted an access college.
For this and a variety of reasons (most of which come down to simply 'I had a good feeling about the place') I decided to apply to St John's College, and so it is for this reason that most of my experience centres in and around St John's (or SJC as it is often referred to). St John's is a very large, very wealthy college on the outskirts of the city centre. It is set in large grounds and has 6 main quadrangles (with one more under construction), providing all undergraduate and many graduate students with term time residence. This is a huge help, because renting privately in Oxford is not only very expensive, but you would also have to pay for the holidays, whereas living in college you only pay for the time you are actually resident. St John's provides a number of facilities for all students, including a gym, several computer rooms, 2 squash courts, a large (and very ornate) chapel, a dining hall, the buttery (where some dry goods, wine, bread and milk can be purchased), a small auditorium/theatre, a bar, and a games room (pool, darts, table football etc.). Off site there is also a large sports ground colloquially referred to as 'the fortress' with a rugby/cricket pitch (season dependent), and several grass and asphalt tennis courts. Most colleges (size dependent) will have most of these facilities, some will have additional, and others (mostly the smaller ones) will have less. All colleges will have at the very least a bar, computer room and some social areas, and there is central provision for sports and other activities (although sports provision within the university is known to be pitifully lacking).
Oxford (both at a collegiate level and more centrally) has a HUGE array of extra curricular activities going on - if you can think of the activity, there's a club for it. Some of the clubs I or my friends have made use of include; Anime soc, Korea soc, International Relations Society, Ultimate Frisbie, Dr Who Society, Tennis Society, Quiz Society. In the unlikely event there isn't a club, make one and the university will usually throw some cash at you.
**Fun fact number 3: sports are big in Oxford, but perhaps the biggest is rowing, with most colleges fielding at least one boat in all major University competitions. The stretch of the river Thames which runs through Oxford is (for reasons unknown to most) called the Isis, and is often very full of rowing students. Torpids, one of the most popular competitions, involves races where the boats behind, rather than overtaking their competitors, attempt to 'bump' them (this, perhaps unsurprisingly, consists of ramming your boat into the boat in front). A successful bump will result in the boat behind beginning the next leg of the competition ahead.**
**Fun fact number 4: most sports and competitive games engage in competitions in the 2nd term of each year known as 'cuppers' - knock out contests designed to identify the best team at...well...anything, in the University (strangest is perhaps 'drama cuppers' - competitive theatre anyone?**
Interviews for Oxford is something I'm just going to gloss over really, but needless to say it's the sort of thing that you stress out about before but usually (at least for the people with a serious chance of a place) it's a very enjoyable experience. You stay in Oxford for around 3 nights, during which time you can expect 2 or 3 interviews with college tutors in your subject (each for about 20 minutes). For most subjects in the arts, no prior knowledge is required, and they will just want to see you thinking through problems. For sciences, often prior knowledge is assumed (especially as some A levels are compulsory for some courses) and the interviews are often (for sciences and languages) accompanied by a written exam to be taken over the course of the 3 days. Waiting time after interview varies between colleges, but I got my letter within 2 weeks (and just in time for Christmas)!
So, having got a place, what is it like to come here to study? Well, there are some ways in which it is like every other institution, and some ways in which it is very, very different. There's the usual freshers week, which is full of fun and gives everyone a chance to get to know one another. Then you're rather thrown into the thick of it. Terms in Oxford are only 8 weeks long, with no half term in the middle, so you cram A LOT into each term. As a law student, I am most familiar with the timetable of art students (there is a clear divide between the style of teaching to arts and science students). For myself, I have around 10/15 hours of lectures a week, 3 tutorials a fortnight (between an hour and an hour and a half each), and 3 reading lists and essays to write a fortnight, all of which require around 30 hours private study. Which equates to about 15 hours structured work and 45 hours private study in each individual week. That's a pretty harsh timetable, and I should point out that some weeks reading lists don't get finished, and that you often don't manage to fit in the 60 hours work required. For science students, the workload is much the same, but much more structured work (more lectures, and also more tutorials and lab work to do), and quite a bit less private study (but still a fair amount). Tutorials, often heralded as the cornerstone of an Oxford education, consist of small groups (usually 1 to 3 for an arts subject, or 3-5 for a science subject), meeting with their tutor, who has set the reading list and the written work. He or she will provide feedback on the written work, and engage in academic discussion about the reading set. It's a fantastic opportunity to sort out any problems you had with the material, and also to hear the views of someone who is invariably a world leading academic (who will often have written a fair amount on the reading list). It requires a huge amount of preparation (it is of course blindingly obvious if you don't understand the material), but it is an absolutely amazing experience which you just don't get in many other places, at least at undergraduate level. Tutors are generally very kind and encouraging, and very modest about their own massive intellect (obviously this does vary between tutors).
In your first year (or second year for students of Medicine or Classics), you will have to sit exams known as 'mods' or 'prelims' (short for moderations or preliminaries). They count for nothing towards your final degree - but if you don't pass them, you have to leave. Sounds harsh? It is. For law, it consists of three, three hour exams sat at the end of your second term, and they are set on everything you have learnt so far. The Oxford exam system itself is known as being one of the most harsh in the world - there is almost no system of appeals, and in the case of final exams, there is no opportunity to retake failed papers (if you fail a mods exam you have one chance to resit). Almost all exams last for 3 hours, and often 2 will be set in a day (9:30-12:30, 2:30-5:30). For law and a great deal of other subjects, after mods there is no examination or marked assessment until finals 2 and a half years later. So 100% of your degree rests on the outcome of nine 3 hour exams taken in June of your final year. Intense huh? This is in fact the only real criticism I can level against the Oxford educational system per se, as a matter of personal choice I would rather be examined annually, or have a dissertation to give in which would replace a couple of papers (some subjects do this).
**Fun fact number 5: I mentioned above that all formal exams are sat in exam schools and wearing subfusc, but there is also a strange tradition of wearing carnations on the lapels of your gown for exams. They are considered lucky, and must be bought by someone else (don't worry - if you have no friends your subject society will buy them!). A white carnation is worn on the day of the first exam, pink on all of the middle exams, and a red carnation on the last day. If you see anyone in subfusc in Oxford with a red flower on, congratulate him!**
**Fun fact number 6: there is a tradition known as trashing, for all students who finish exams. It used to consist of all of your friends coming to exam schools on the day of your last exam, and covering you in champagne (and often various foodstuffs - not all pleasant). However, due to health and safety regulations they don't let you do that any more. Instead you meet your friends at exam schools, they let off streamers, silly string etc, present you with balloons and gifts, and take you back to college (where they promptly pelt you with champagne and foodstuffs). Trashings is a very messy, very sticky, and very alcohol fuelled way of celebrating the end of exams. It's a great deal of fun, after a great deal of stress**
It may be thought that with all this work, it's no fun to study at Oxford. I have found quite the opposite to be true. It would admittedly be no fun if I didn't love my subject, and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who wasn't serious about working very hard (the workload at Oxbridge is probably at least double what you can expect anywhere else), but the holiday's are long and there's plenty to do when you aren't studying. The city is very vibrant and full of bars, restaurants, pubs and clubs (like any other university town). It is no more expensive than any other university, so if you're dedicated, talented, and up for a challenge, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it. It's weird, it's quirky, but it's wonderful. I honestly believe that there's no place in the world like it, and I will be so sad to leave at the end of this year.
It's not all dreaming spires, spending lazy days punting along the Isis, and sipping port at black tie dinners. While public opinion of Oxford does tend to be dominated by these rare and elusive delights, the practicalities of a life in Oxford are much less attractive; they don't tell you you'll be judged as an elitist before speaking, that you'll be subject to the monopolistic dominance of Sainsbury's, that you'll have your bike stolen at least once a term, that you'll be out numbered and guilt-tripped out of your last pound by an army of homeless, that you are expected to spend more time working than sleeping - they don't put that in the manifesto.
But for all its negatives, few who go to Oxford wouldn't trade it in for anything; the Collegiate environment is lauded as giving a great sense of community, and although it can seem restrictive at times, this is certainly the case. The downside is that it can feel a bit like school at times, with Proctors & Deans the new headmasters/mistresses. There is genuine pleasure to be taken in surrounding yourself in the history of the oldest University in the English speaking world, and knowing that you're surrounded by world famous academics whilst intimidating, is also invigorating.
At heart, though, Oxford is like any other University; you turn up, pay your tuition fees, do some work, and get a degree. The benefits on the side more than balance out the negatives (surrendering my last pound so someone can get a bed for the night is somewhat inconsequential when punting is free), and nobody, regardless of their educational background, should be put off applying.
So what can you expect?
From an academic perspective, Oxford is seen from markedly different perspectives depending on whether you're an arts or a sciences student. Artists will typically find themselves with 6/7 lectures per week, and 1-2 tutorials; they are expected to supplement this with 30+ hours of reading each week, but it's very flexible. Scientists, on the other hand, will find themselves in lectures and labs from 9 til 5. In the end it balances out quite well, and the main differences are in flexibility and the nature of work, rather than the volume.
There's lots to do in Oxford, but most will either focus on 'mainstream' sports or 'alternative' arts. Sports provision is, to be frank, not great. The ageing Iffley Road sports complex is due for a renovation, but it still offers 4 badminton courts, a rowing tank, a gym, a pool, a full size track, hockey pitches, and a rugby pitch. I'm somewhat less well versed on the arts side of things, but I'm told there's something to satisfy everyone.
Oxford is a great University, and fully deserves its reputation, but you have to be prepared for annoyances, and for the tireless task of constantly putting 100% into everything.
Oxford seems to have generated so many myths around itself and these get perpetuated year on year. You should know you don't have to be cleverer than Einstein, discoverer of the cure for cancer and Mother Teresa all in one before you even think of applying!
The University of Oxford, or to give its Latin name Universitas Oxoniensis, is a UK university that is all things considered rather good. It is the oldest university in England and was founded at the end of the 12th century. Some cowardly academics fled Oxford in 1209 to found "The Other Place". (Cambridge is also a pretty good university so consider them too...). It is always in the top ten of worldwide universities and there are about 12,000 undergraduates at a time. Oxford is in the south of England and there is easy to access to many of the UK's major cities: there are direct rail links to Manchester and London as well as direct bus services to London such as the "Oxford Tube".
There are a wide range of courses on offer from Music to Medicine and English to Engineering although courses tend to be of a more traditional nature so if you are thinking of studying a more modern course such as Media Studies then it would be worth looking at other universities although there are degrees that may incorporate these subjects as options.
Oxford has a quite unique teaching system. As well as the usual lectures and practicals, you will also have tutorials where individually or in small groups you will discuss a subject with a leading academic in your field. This usually also involves writing an essay to be handed beforehand as well. It can seem quite intimidating at first however it provides the perfect opportunity to not only discuss the interesting areas but also gain (and often remember!) a deeper understanding.
Oxford is a collegiate university and so every student will belong to a college, these are much more than just halls of residence. As everyone belongs to a year group of about a hundred, the atmosphere is much more welcoming and friendly. As well as the usual university-wide initiatives, the college will also provide welfare, social and academic support through your JCR (Junior Common Room).
There is so much more to Oxford than a few paragraphs can convey so all I can recommend if you are thinking of applying is to go down on an open day and have a look around.
Arriving onto the cobbles of Merton Street in the dark and cold of December, never having been to Oxford before, and being expected to justify my claim to being vaguely clever under the sharp gaze of some of the world's brightest minds in the fields of Politics, Philosophy and Economics, was a tad daunting I must admit. Corpus Christi is one of the smallest colleges in Oxford, and yet the huge wooden gates manage to look pretty imposing. The people though, you are quick to realise, are lovely.
You might think that three days of interviews would be a pretty traumatic experience - but actually I only had three interviews, each of twenty minutes, and after each I felt that despite only managing to hold my own in the discussions by the skin of my teeth, I wanted more. I didn't feel I had time to justify myself. Couple this with the incredibly beautiful architecture, the comfortable room I was given, the good food and most of all the great people I was with, and you can understand perhaps why I left "the bubble" and returned to the real world sincerely hoping I had got a place. 21 applicants for 7 places - apparently those are good odds.
Two weeks later I was (crazily enough) offered a place, conditional on gaining 3 As in my A levels. As you can imagine I was fairly pleased! It came as a bit of a shock though, almost a year on when looking at my exam results, that I had in fact got two As and a B and therefore they wouldn't take me. However, one week and one priority remark of an English Lit paper later, 14 extra marks scraped me into an A by 4 marks. As a result I am writing this review in my bedroom in Fellow's Building, Corpus Christi College, Oxford. I do my best not to take my place for granted.
So where shall I begin? Oxford University is a big place, with a lot going on. The Undergraduate Prospectus 2009 takes no less than 168 pages to describe what life is like here, so there is plenty to talk about. I will do my best to be a bit more concise.
Oxford is one of the few universities in Britain, indeed in the world, to run on a collegiate system. Put simply this involves being affiliated to a single college, where you will live for at least some of your time at the uni, and probably be taught at least some of your lessons. Allegiance to your college is normally very intense - an intensity made all the more intense by the non-stop inter-college sporting events, most prominently perhaps the rowing, but also just about any other sport you care to name. Not to mention the incredible, crowd drawing, crowd pleasing, yearly Corpus Christi Tortoise Race.
Oxford is itself an incredibly beautiful city - much of its beauty coming from the college buildings and other famous architecture (the Radcliffe Camera, the Ashmolean Museum, the Bodleian Library, the Sheldonian Theatre...) but also containing a good deal of green space - the botanic garden, Christ Church meadow, the river Isis (known to everyone else as the Thames), Port meadow... There are, if you ask me, plenty of shops, but the city is not too big and most places can be reached comfortably on foot, although the city is very cyclist friendly. The cyclists themselves are not very cyclist friendly, many not wearing helmets, jumping red lights, acting as if they are completely blind etc. but there are cycle ways almost everywhere, and in general cycling will be considerably faster than trying to fight your way through the incomprehensible one-way system in a car.
The learning side of things is admittedly the main reason why you go to uni in Oxford. People who somehow made it in and then decide they don't want to learn don't last very long here. Nevertheless, for those eager to learn, this is undoubtedly one of the best places in the world for it - in some ways perhaps too good, hence the old joke; Oxford University: where your best isn't good enough, since 1117. (Although the exact date of the University's foundation is actually quite unclear.)
It depends to a certain degree on the subject, but the teaching is generally very intense. Currently I have nine hours of lectures to go to each week, 3 hours for each respective part of my course, plus four tutorials every fortnight: three one week and then one the next, these ranging from one to two hours. It is in preparation for tutorials that I spend most of my waking life - although the work is slackening off as we near the end of term, at full flow I will tend to be working every day of the week - however, as an arts student my hours are very flexible. Scientists will be spending many hours in labs at set times of day, and having to attend more-or-less compulsory lectures, but they will in general by reading less and not writing essays.
It is the tutorial system that Oxford and Cambridge are famous for, and which sets them so starkly apart from other universities. Tutorials (tutes) are intense sessions with between one and about three students and the tutor in which you discuss your work and go over any problems. You'd think, after completing an assignment more or less successfully that there might not be all that much to talk about - but tutorials really show you the full extent of what you don't know. They are painfully revealing - especially if you haven't done the work, or have botched it. At the best of times your tutor will generally push you well out of your comfort zone, and you go away reeling from the sheer wall of information that has hit you - but feeling very good for it. Being able to think twice as fast as is normally necessary whilst simultaneously scribbling notes furiously is a skill which I am still having to work on.
In some subjects you get to choose which modules to study in your first year, but for PPE (at least at Corpus) you have to wait until your second year to specialise. At this point you will find yourself getting taught by the best and brightest tutors from across the university, depending on who specialises in your chosen area, rather than "just" those of your individual college.
Another thing that sets Oxford apart are the libraries. There are a lot of libraries, over a hundred in fact - individual faculty libraries, college libraries, maybe even the odd public library and...The Bodleian. The Bod is one of six "Legal Deposit Libraries" in the UK, meaning that it holds a copy of every book published in the UK since the 1600s. As you might imagine, this is something of a formidable resource, especially for a student like myself who spends most of his time reading. The combined might of so many libraries means that, whilst potentially forcing you to come out of your little college bubble for a while, you will rarely be unable to get a copy of a book, and even if you can't, there are normally numerous books that are good substitutes. An average reading list for one essay normally contains about seven or eight books/journal articles to read, although thankfully you only have to get through a few chapters of each. Often your tutors will set you going with the basics, and expect you to find the rest out yourself. "But I read everything on the reading list..." is not an advisable excuse.
You will not be allowed to fall behind here - if you are not working consistently at a 2.1 level you will start being forced to attend "penal collections" (basically regular progress tests) which, if failed, will lead to you being thrown out. It doesn't happen often - most tutors regard this as a failure almost as much on their part as on their students' and they are generally pretty nice anyway, so they will do everything they can to avoid it. Nevertheless, it does happen occasionally.
Life and all that
When you are not working, there are normally plenty of other happenings to keep you busy, which is part of the reason why I am writing this review at half past midnight. In terms of clubs and societies there is almost everything imaginable, from my beloved kayaking club (OUCKC) to martial arts, football, hockey (underwater, ice, and on solid ground!), rugby, swimming, Ultimate Frisbee, mountaineering, a million charitable causes, drama, music of all kinds, comedy if you're feeling really brave, the assassins guild (ever felt the need to hunt down people you've never met and attack them with a water pistol? Well, here's your chance!), wine tasting, Tolkien society, all sorts of drawing and other art, writing, dressing up as a Viking warrior and hitting people with pretend swords... An awful lot in other words. I am only a member of the kayaking club as well as doing some drama now and then, and I have no time left to spare.
This is probably because I spend pretty much all of the rest of my time doing social sorts of things with people from the college. There is plenty to do - a million pubs and bars from the dark, oak beamy sort to the vibrant shiny modern sort, and numerous clubs plus the usual cafes and restaurants, not that I can afford to go to them much. In the college bar you'll pay about £1.80 a pint - outside I've paid as much as £3.15.
Meals in college too are incredibly reasonable - £1.70 will buy you a hefty main meal, and about 80p will buy you a hefty pudding to go with it. All meals come with some sort of delicious but deadly potato derivative (normally chips) and vegetables, plus as much salad as you can pile on your plate, all included in the price. Friday is formal hall night, (if you managed to sign up - the competition for those 80 places is fierce) which, for £5, gives you a three-course meal that in most restaurants would set you back more like £25, and easily rivals them in terms of quality. In fact, at Corpus the food is excellent almost without fail, but I have heard mixed reviews about other colleges!
The accommodation too varies a lot from college to college and room to room. Some have en suites, most do not. Some are modern and beautiful...some are not. The organ scholar gets an entire suite of rooms to herself, and the JCR President also gets a special room. Better rooms do cost more though - currently I pay about £950 a term for my B (middle) grade room. It's comfortable enough, with three chairs, the bed, a desk, a coffee table, a little sink area bit, lots of shelves and cupboards and things... although unfortunately I have to sit on the floor rather than at my desk if I want Internet access.
The JCR is also a fairly integral part of college life - the JCR being the Junior Common Room and referring to the literal room (full of newspapers and comfy armchairs), as well as the all the undergraduates themselves and the JCR committee which runs all things undergraduate. Every day (except, alas, Saturday) there is JCR tea at 4pm, often but not always with added scones. 4pm tends to be the point whereby if you have to work for a minute longer you're going to lose the will to live (assuming, that is, that you were working in the first place), so all in all JCR tea is very well positioned. I'm not sure whether other colleges have a similar ritual, but I suspect they do.
A special mention I feel should be made at this point of the Corpus Christi Tortoise Race/Fair. Despite being a first year and therefore not having actually been to this legendary event, I have heard a fair few tales. Only a few colleges actually have a tortoise (Corpus reserves the right to enter two) and therefore the race is somewhat limited, but for added excitement Magdalen are allowed to enter a bloke dressed as a tortoise. Obviously his legs are considerably longer than those of the tortoises, so he is handicapped by having to eat two lettuces before he crosses the start line. Normally this is sufficient to incapacitate him completely/at least long enough for a tortoise to win.
There are events like the Tortoise Race going on constantly throughout the year - endless concerts, plays and speakers visiting, just in case you were bored. The Oxford Union plays host to an incredible range of speakers - Delia Smith most recently I believe, and Gok Wan in the near future, but previous speakers range from Yasser Arafat to Peter O'Toole and Stephen Fry. At £200 for 3 years membership this is a little steep if you're not going to go to many speakers, but you can simply pay on the door, and some talks/debates would be very much worth going to. Sadly this is something I have missed out on so far.
Oxford, perhaps more so than other universities, caters for all tastes and preferences - indeed the combination of Scrabble and clubbing in the same night must be fairly unique I imagine.
Choosing a college
This is a very difficult area to give advice on - all the colleges have their own feel, some being huge like Christ Church or St. Johns, some being titchy like Corpus and Mansfield. Magdalen (pronounced 'maudlin' by the way) has its own deer park, Worcester has a lake. Some, like Corpus, are situated fairly centrally, some, like Lady Margaret Hall, are further out of town. Some colleges have been around a very long time (University College, founded in 1249 is the oldest, Corpus is comparatively recent being founded in 1517) whilst others are very modern (in fact Green Templeton College was founded in 2008 after a merger of Green and Templeton Colleges).
You are most likely to choose well if you have been and visited colleges, although it will be difficult to tell if you really like a college until you've lived there for at least a few days - the three days of my interview were enough for me to fall in love with Corpus. Best is to come on an open day because all colleges will be open to visitors and students will be ready to show you round with great enthusiasm. However, if you were to just turn up randomly, the porters are lovely people and will probably show you around if you ask nicely.
It's worth checking as well if your chosen college offers your subject.
Without wanting to blow my own trumpet too much, the applications process is extremely rigorous when compared to most other universities, and, given the pace of the work, it kind of has to be. Strangely this doesn't lead to a culture of workaholic weirdos - unsurprisingly there are a few, plus a few of the obligatory stuck up public school boys, but in general people are surprisingly normal at Oxford.
It varies from subject to subject, but most will involve the usual submission of your personal statement, plus two pieces of marked written work, and often a test to be taken before/during the interview period (just in case you weren't under enough pressure already). It is generally recommended that you have mostly As and A*s at GCSE and targets of all As at A level if you intend to apply, but really it shouldn't stop you if you feel your grades are slightly inferior to everyone else. At interview it will not be your academic abilities that will be tested so much as your ability to learn, discuss, argue etc. The tutors are looking for people they want to teach, not just those who will get brilliant grades for the university. That said, if they offer you a place on the back of three As, that's what you have to get and there will be no quarter given should you fail. I tried begging for mercy when I messed up. I didn't get very far.
I think about 80% of applicants get invited for interview, although the figure may well be less for hotly contested subjects like medicine. Every interview will be different, but all will be very difficult. Every year people come out of interviews, many of them in tears, thinking they have failed miserably and then a week later get offered a place. Then again many people come out in tears and don't get offered a place - as the student helpers will tell you a million times, don't read anything into anything.
In terms of preparation for interviews, incredibly wide reading in your subject area will be your only real defence, and this only so far as you will be less likely to panic when hammered by the inevitably superior knowledge of the tutors. If you say you've read something on your personal statement, for goodness sake read it and understand it, because that will be the first port of call for questions by tutors, especially if they are trying to help you.
In the interview itself looking relaxed (pretend if need be!) will help, as will smiling if you can manage it and being as enthusiastic as possible. There's not much more I can say than that - just don't panic if everything goes pear shaped. Tea in the JCR afterwards solves pretty much all problems, especially when there are plenty of other scared interviewees to tell your terrifying tales to.
Writing a decent personal statement is another important area to consider, but once again it is very difficult to say what this entails. To avoid cringe-worthy descriptions of how brilliant I am I tried to focus on the subject and why I like it and talk about books I have read about it and why they are interesting or not so interesting. The importance of the role of extra-curricular activities is debateable - to a certain extent interesting activities suggest an interesting person, but ultimately it will be the academic side of things that the tutors will be looking for. Get lots of people's opinions is your best bet - painful it may be, but it is also necessary. Try to go for people who won't mince their words - politeness is not what you need.
All in all
Oxford is without a doubt an incredible place to go to university. The facilities are second to none (ok, maybe Cambridge, but we don't talk about them), the city is beautiful and, to reluctantly use that favourite word of prospectuses, "vibrant," the people are brilliant, the food is brilliant, the accommodation is brilliant. There's really not much I can criticise about going to university here. It's just a case of getting in.
If you're wondering whether to apply or not, definitely go for it! The stakes are high...but it's worth the risk.
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You can find the 2009 prospectus here:
Also be sure to check out the alternative prospectus (i.e. the one written by students):
Feel free to ask me anything I've missed out, and if you're passing by Merton St. any time, feel free to look me up, I'd be happy to show people round...as long as there's not too many of you...
I have experience of Merton College in Oxford because I was invited for interview after applying for a place to read Mathematics. Unfortunately after the interview process I did not receive an offer for a place but I have experience of the college.
Merton like other colleges is an old college with old quaint buildings and lots of character. The great hall where dining takes place is a magnificent room, with 3 long tables fitted with lights and funky water jugs. Paintings line the walls. The food at Merton is some of the best in the university. Merton College has a lawn which is allowed to be walked on (a rarity) and a nice chapel. The Junior Common Room is small, featuring a pool table and an out-of-tune piano along with sofas which are great for relaxing on. Accommodation is good with rooms en suite and well equipped for working on. Rooms now come with internet connections. The college bar is small and located underground. The library is well stocked.
It has an important role in the university - a university renowned for having a high academic standard.
I had my Oxford interview in December 2004 as well, for Law. After alighting from the train, it took me a while to find my college (at night) - but that's probably more due to my lack of direction! Keble is actually very easy to find if you have a map (try the one at back of prospectus). If all else fails, a taxi single way is around £5 - especially good value if you can find someone to share it with!
The college itself is legendary. Aside from its 'spaceship' shaped bar (it was closed when I went), most would agree that the architecture and design are amongst the prettiest and most original in Oxford (the bar's 'unique' too I guess!).
I stayed in the Hayward/DeBreye quad. The 1970s refurbished rooms meant there is a built-in fridge in every 'superior' standard room (a definite bonus!), as well as a shared bathroom on each floor (only between 2 people) and a (pitifully small) washbasin in each room. There's everything you need incl: a single bed, desk, huuge windows, a lamp, wardrobes and shelves not forgetting a coffee table and a very long, comfy orange sofa! All the quads are really nice and the price difference between room standards aren't that wide, unlike at other Universities (e.g. Warwick).
Keble has a very strict time schedule and rota for dining. Breakfast is served at a ridiculous hour (for me anyway), whilst dinner is waiter-service. That was a pretty cool experience, sitting in the magnificent Keble Hall, having food brought to your seat! Not to be missed.
In terms of interviews the Law tutors are very friendly and normal people, especially Ed, the main tutor there. The main thing is just to be yourself and answer the questions according to what you think, not what you think they want to hear 'cos trust me, there is no way of telling if you've answered rightly or wrong! They are challenging and gruelling, but I would say the only really hard thing about them is finding the rooms! Knowledge of Law is also not compulsory - it is probably even better to be a complete novice.
The JCR is impressive, although I found it a little small and it tended to get very crowded towards evening. The 2nd years showed some DVDs each night (we had a vote: Zoolander somehow won!) and were even arranging a 'tour of Oxford by night' - go at your own peril! The people there were all normal individuals like me (ha) though some were quite eccentric! We had great fun trying out all the game machines and were addicted to the Pepsi/Who Wants to be a Millionaire one! Think I spent a small fortune on it lol. There's also a pool table and some boardgames if you have lots of time to spare (which you will). The only thing I'd advise against is going out and coming back too late. The last thing you need is not getting enough sleep or attending interviews with a hangover. Think what kind of impression that will leave!
Finally, I would definitely recommend venturing into Oxford town given the chance, it is truly magical at Christmas time. There's a huge white tree in the Town Centre, and the imposing structure of the Bod(leian) is a sight to behold. We went out a few times, trying the coffee shops in the daytime (the vanilla coffee is lush) and some random pubs/bars on the nights. I can't remember any of the names, all I know is there was a very nice dress in one of the shops! ;)
Do apply to Keble, no matter how impossible it may seem (my chance of acceptance was 1 in 5), miracles do happen. Just look at me!
applied for Archaeology & Anthropology at Keble Collge, Oxford for entry in 2005. I had my interview in December 2004, and so I shall recount my experiences of Keble, and of Oxford as a whole.
Keble is a very beautiful college. You can see pictures of it on the Oxford website, but this really is nothing compared to your first glance at it 'in the flesh' so to speak. There are two main courtyarded areas, with big grassy lawns in the middle of both. The buildings are very grand, big, and Victorian style (Keble is a 'new' college, compared to most of the others!).
I was staying in the new building, which was lovely! My room was spacious and airy, and even had an ensuite. It was sheer luxury! In case you couldn't be bothered with the stairs, there's even an elevator!
After I'd settled in and got my bits together, I headed down to the JCR, which I was alos fairly impressed with. Keble has it's own bar, right below the JCR, and it's alot cheaper than some of the other colleges. In the JCR itself, there's Sky TV, a DVD player (we watched iRobot - ROCK ON!), a pool table and some game machines. And seats of course... It was a little crowded though.
Dinner was certainly an experience! They have waiters bring food to you, very unlike the majority of other collges where you serve yourself. As a vegetarian, I found it a little awkward having to ask for the Vegetarian option when some overstressed wiater was trying to thrust a plate in my face though! Food was ok, though pudding was certainly a treat! It was lovely! (Apparently Keble is famed for its puddings!)
Generally, I found everyone there to be really friendly, though I was shocked at the number of 'toffs', as I had thought this was merely an untrue stereotype of the Oxford demographic! The students who were there to help with all the interviewees were really lovely, they didn't even com[plain about showing everyone around all day, and where actually really friendly to everyone.
Libraries were good, both the Keble one itself, and the copyright library (which I've temporarily forgoten the name of...)
Oxford immediately struck me as a wonderful place, it has a really enchanting air to it. When I visited it was Christmas time, and so the whole place was decorated with lovely lights - it was by far the classiest Christmas time town I've ever seen. Throughout my 3 days there, I spent quite alot of time wandering around Oxford, and thus got a good idea of the city centre. The selection of shops is fairly good, it has most igh street chains, plus a few other shops, both cheap and not so cheap! There are plenty of bars and clubs around, which is only to be expected in a city with not one, but two universities I guess...
Oh and I got rejected from Oxford, which is a shame, but it does mean I'm off to Durham this September! Wooo!
The English Language and Literature course at Oxford covers everything from Old English to the present day - and almost everything else in between! Obviously there isn't time to read every book ever written in three years even if you don't do anything else, but every period is covered. Anglo Saxon is now optional, much to the relief of anyone who doesn't fancy learning a new language, but this course will bring you into contact with Middle English, Renaissance literature, Restoration, Romantics, Victorians and the Twentieth century - as well as an entire paper on Shakespeare! The breadth of this course is both an advantage and a drawback, depending on what you want to get out of it. After the close reading involved in A-level English, when two entire terms are sometimes devoted to a single text, it is a shock to be expected to find out everything about Dickens and write a 2,500 word essay in one week! On the other hand, you do end up with a fantastic overview of English Literature as an entirety, as well as a deadly work ethic and the ability to read books very, very quickly. The first year concludes in a week of exams (known as 'Mods') which you need to pass to stay at the university but which do not count towards the final degree. The second and third years are spent working towards Finals, which are usually in May. As well as the compulsory papers leading to exams, there are various options provided for the two coursework papers. In the third year one term is spent studying a special author from a reasonably long list and one term is spent on a special topic which could be anything from Linguistics to Film Studies. In both cases, five weeks are spent working intensively on the topic in question. Three weeks are then taken up with writing an Extended Essay which counts towards your final degree. Don't expect to sleep every night, and do expect to write ten times as many essays as your friends studying Eng
lish anywhere else. Be prepared to use the phrase 'Essay Crisis' on a weekly basis, as you will often be asked to write two (sometimes three) 2-3,000 word essays in a week towards the end of the course. Despite the stereotypical view of English as an easy option, this degree is a lot of hard work. But if you genuinely love English Literature and want to immerse yourself in the subject for three years, there's nowhere better to study it.
I am now in my last year in Oxford university at Exeter college and I have enjoyed every minute here so far. I still remember back to the days of my interviews thought. They were some of the most boring days of my life. No over universities are cheeky enough to make you travel hundreds and possibly thousands of mile just so that they can test your ability. I was one of the lucky people who only had to travel just over 250 miles from north wales to get there. compared to people that I met who had traveled half way around the world. Also, why was I needed for 4 days? possibly more from what I saw of the medical student who were there when I arived and still there when I left. I was there for 96 hours and in this time I sat a 2 hour exam on arival and then sat through less than 40 min of interviews. If you do the maths, that leaves 93 hours and 20 mins of doing nothing. Also, rather than reaserching the differences between the welsh and the english or other sylabuses I was asked questions on a range of topics about work that I had not seen. Half of my time in interviews was spent trying to explain to the professors that I had never heard of the stuff that they were talking about.I felt that it was a total waste of time. The most disterssing thing of all came when I finnished my last interview on the morning of the second day, from then onwards was spent going back to check the interview times table board followed by more hours of sitting in the JCR not daring to leave incase an interview came up at short notice. I wasted almost 3 full days doing this before I was told that I was alowed to leave and travel another 250 miles home. I didnt think about telling people about this until I decided to stay behind to guide next years students in their interviews where they were put in the same place as I was
Well, here I am, a mere Secondary Modern 6th Form Student, applying to Oxford 'Just to see if I have what it takes'. On the morning of the first day of the interviews, Dad drove me to the Park and Ride, and from there I was on my own, having to fend for myself at Corpus Christi College for 2 or 3 days. Having not often gone out alone, knowing nobody at all, I was naturally uneasy of having to take an interview to read Chemistry at Oxford. I didn't really feel like going at that time. I had my heart set on Exeter University, and was determined to turn Oxford down IF I was accepted. When I got there an hour early (mother feared the traffic was going to be atrocious), I was greeted by one of the third years, was shown my room, then went down to the JCR (Junior Common Room) to wait for the first meeting. Being almost the only 'newbie' there, I got quite a bit of attention, and found out quite a bit about the university. As the rest (all 4 of them) of the Chemistry applicants arrived, I was introduced, and we seemed to get on well. Then came the time. Will, our Chemistry guide, escorted us all to the Reynolds Room to have a brief meet with 2 Chemistry Tutors, then back to the JCR, when we were taken to our interviews when necessary. During the interviews, I was put at ease, talking a little about myself and my school. Mostly stuff shown on the Personal Statement (part of the UCAS application form we all have to fill out). In one interview, I was asked what I would like to be questioned about. The tutor wanted to ask me a question in an area I was familiar with, so that I would have at least some idea about what he was saying. I was asked about some spectroscopic techniques, and managed to answer the question correctly eventually, after a few hints and clues. Coming out I thought 'I knew most of that already, I can't BELIEVE I forgot some of the simple bits!' By then, I was sure I had 'fai
led' my interview. My second interviewer started in the same way, starting by talking about my possible future career. He then threw a few flash cards in my direction, and asked me about what was on them. The first question I answered well. The second I answered incorrectly. He gave me a clue, and I said back to him "No, that's not right. I wouldn't do that." He gave me the clue again. I started to think 'is he trying to trick me?' It turned out he was right, I was wrong (always the way). I was sure of failure by now. The next question was on reaction kinetics and yields. I managed to break the second law of thermodynamics, but was corrected, and then proceeded to attain the correct answer. Leaving this interview I was sure that this was a waste of time. I had lunch then, and spent the rest of the day with other Chemistry candidates (all 4 of us [one had gone home]). I got an early night (well, 2300). The next day was a pretty casual one. We had to wait until 1400 the next day to see if we could go home, or if we needed second interviews. We attended a lecture, and watched TV for the rest of the day. Just before lunch I was told I could go home (must have been bad then, I thought), and I decided to, missing lunch, as I could get the bus to my Nan's, and have a much better lunch there. (It turned out the college's lunch was sausages, which I don't particularly like, so it was a good call). Later that week I received a letter. I had been ACCEPTED at Corpus Christi College! Time to turn them down. But suddenly, I realised how much I had enjoyed myself at college, and couldn't turn them down. So, as long as I achieve the correct grades, I am off to Oxford. What I learned whilst I was there was that the interviews are not too much to get worried about. They take into consideration that you are nervous, and look past that. They don't mind what backgro
und you come from. As far as they are concerned, if you can achieve at Oxford, they want you, wherever you come from. It just so happens that many of those who go to grammar schools have what it takes. Those who go to state schools may not have what it takes, may not WANT to use their intelligence at uni or may want to do a subject that other universities are better at. Grammar school kids are often EXPECTED to go to a place like Oxford. That is why more are pushed to go in. The uni doesn't discriminate towards state school kids. If they were to discriminate, I certainly wouldn't have been accepted, they had plenty of excuses to say no. When it comes down to it, they just pick who they think can make it (even though I still question if I can or not - I hope I live up to expectations!) If a majority of those are grammar kids, then who cares? If they forced it so that it was 50/50 grammar/state, then it would be reversed discrimination, and that certainly isn't good. In the end, I think we should be less judgemental about big places like these. We should complain about practices if they are defiantly there, but nowhere else. If you came here looking for tips, then I say this: Be yourself. Have a good time (don't drink too much), and relax! NB: Where I refer to 'Grammar schools', I do mean grammar and private ('public') schools. The county I come from still has the 11+ system, so I am used to comparisons between 'us and them' being made.
Oxford University is one of the most prestigious in the world. It may be second to Cambridge in the Times league table, but really this is relatively insignificant. The truth is that there are many top quality universities, and I shall not pretend that Oxbridge is automatically superior, when in reality places like York, Durham, etc can all offer at least as good facilities in certain subjects. As a current student of Oxford University (just finished first year PPE at Jesus), however, I feel qualified to write a guide for those that may be thinking of applying, and anyone who’s just interested. I shan’t write everything here – there are separate categories on Dooyoo concerning the interview, courses, etc so I shall just try to give a broad overview here (and probably write in more detail on the other aspects later). This is quite a long op however (3,400 words), so I’ve broken it down into sections – feel free to skip parts on applications, what the various colleges are like, or whatever doesn’t interest you, but please rate it as a whole on the basis of what you’ve read. Applications The first thing you must ask yourself is ‘is Oxford right for you?’ Don’t be put off by allegations of elitism or any preconceptions you may have of Oxford. On the other hand, there are many things you must consider. Oxford has a lot of heritage, there are plenty of old buildings and ancient traditions still continued; coming from an old Grammar school, I felt at home in this environment, but others may consider it stuffy. More important is the teaching system. Courses at Oxford are often different from most other universities, and the main focus of teaching is the tutorial system, which generally means weekly meetings between a tutor and a pair of students. As I said, many other universities are, in reality, just as good, so it’s up to you to choose where you feel at home. If you choose to apply to
Oxford (or Cambridge) you have to make a normal UCAS application (which may include up to five other universities) but it has to be submitted about two months before other applications – around October 15th. You will also have to fill out a further application, specifically for Oxford. This isn’t as daunting as it seems, as it really asks for very little. You have to choose a college (see later) but where it asks if you have anything to add to your UCAS form, you shouldn’t be afraid to leave it blank. Obviously, don’t apply if the chances of being accepted are slim – you will need reasonably good GCSEs (I’ve heard 3A*s and 6As recommended as a minimum) and A-level predictions of at least AAB. Also consider what you will do if rejected – all applicants will be of these high standards, and there are often around four applicants per place. It’s always worth having a good reserve (although some other top universities like Durham and Nottingham can be reluctant to give offers to Oxbridge applicants). If you think you’ll take rejection harshly, it may be best not to apply – you have to consider application an experience in itself, try to enjoy the interview, and just hope for the best. Interview As I said, there’s a whole category on this. Most applicants are invited to one or more interviews. When you apply, you normally have to pay about £10-12, which at first I thought was unfair, but this is what you’re paying for. It’s actually very reasonable – I stayed for three days (accommodation and food included); when I went to Durham they offered overnight accommodation with breakfast at around £9! I’ll just say here that interviews aren’t the stuff of nightmare you may have been led to believe. You may, however, be invited to several interviews; normally if your college doesn’t want you, but believes you are a good candidate, they will send you on to
another college (one of your reserves) to see if there is a place for you there. As I said, just make sure you enjoy your time (as much as you can) and try to make some friends – people are surprisingly friendly, even when competing for the same places, and it’s always nice to recognise a few faces in freshers’ week. The Colleges Oxford is rare in having a full collegiate system – although examinations are organised through the university, most of your day to day experiences revolve around the college, which organises teaching, accommodation, sports, meals and so on. When you apply, you must select a college (although you can leave this open). You won’t be expected to offer any ‘deep’ reason for this, so just pick a college you like the look of – remember to consider size, location, the accommodation they offer, etc. Your other ‘choices’ will then be randomly allocated according to demand, meaning you will often be assigned less popular colleges (such as St Peter'’ or St Hilda's) as your reserve. Don’t place too much importance on hearsay about the colleges though – I know of one student who applied to Brasenose because he was told Jesus had too high standards, needless to say, he made it to Jesus as reserve! Also although some colleges have more students from state schools than others, this shouldn’t really be important in influencing your choice; as our head of Sixth Form told us, places like Christ Church may be actively looking to increase their numbers of state schools students (hence two of my old school friends being accepted there). Each college has its own history, enough for a whole op really, but I’ll give a very brief overview of each here. If you’re considering applying, you can get a prospectus not only for the university, but also each college. Balliol. Situated on Broad Street this is one of the central colleges. It was founde
d in the 13th century, and has a reputation for a left-wing JCR. Brasenose. A sporty college, situated off the High Street in the pleasant Radcliffe Square, but beware of tourists! Christ Church. One of the largest and richest, Christ Church hosts 422 undergraduates and (as the name suggests) a church. It was founded by Cardinal Wolsey and home of Alice (of ‘in wonderland’ fame, daughter of a former dean). It is situated on St Aldate’s, also near the city centre. Corpus Christi. Found on Merton Street, this is the smallest college, both in size and numbers (just 300 students, undergraduates and graduates). Exeter. One of three intensely rivalrous colleges on Turl Street (the Turl Street Riots of 1979 being only a recent example of this feuding) so I’m compelled to tell you how bad they are (even if what is said amongst Jesus students is unprintable). In honesty, their bar was quite nice the one time I did visit, and it is where J.R.R.Tolkein spent some of his time in Oxford, so it can’t be that bad. Harris Manchester, on Mansfield Road, is exclusively for mature students – UK applicants must be at least 25 – but is otherwise very open; founded originally to take Presbyterians, who were previously excluded from Oxbridge, and only recently made a ‘full’ college. Hertford. This is situated on both sides of Catte Street, and joined by a bridge, apparently built because all the baths were in the north! Jesus. Another Turl Street college, and my home in Oxford. A medium sized college, with considerable academic and sporting success. Has strong links with Wales and definite sense of college identity, both due to rivalry with Exeter and the ‘patriotic’ (or whatever the collegiate equivalent is) atmosphere in the bar and college magazine (Sheepshagger). Also prone to a number of obvious jokes. Keble. One of the largest colleges. An unmista
kable red and white brick building on Parks Road, to the north of Oxford, near the University Parks and science labs. Lady Margaret Hall (LMH). A heavily fortified building on Norham Gardens, as befitting its status as the first women’s college. Is now mixed, but still has a bit of a reputation for being posh. Lincoln. Smallest of the ‘Turl Street three’, but rumoured to have the finest food in Oxford. Magdalen (pronounced ‘maudlin’). Situated by the bridge on the High Street. Becomes the focus of attention on May Day when the choir greet dawn (and crowds below) with song and prayer from the top of the tower. Mansfield. A ver open college, both through the access scheme to encourage applicants from state schools, and the open three-sided quad that reveals goings-on to passers by in Mansfield Road! Merton. One of several colleges claiming to be the oldest. Specialises in classical music, a medieval library and bizarre traditions, such as the ‘Time Ceremony’. New College. No longer new really, but home to a number of eccentrics. Situated on Holywell Street, fairly close to the centre of Oxford and the Bodelian. Oriel. The last college to accept women (1985) and most notable for opting out of OUSU last term (see later). Pembroke. As the saying goes, Pem-Broke. Despite being one of the larger colleges, Pembroke is poor (for an Oxford college at least) – a fact aggravated by being opposite Christ Church on St Aldate’s. The Queen’s. On the High Street, opposite Univ. Named, by the way, after Queen Phillippa, wife of Edward III. St Anne’s. One of the largest colleges (480 undergraduates) situated on Woodstock Road and, although quite new, trying hard to acquire some pointless traditions to rival the older colleges. St Catherine’s (St Catz). A new college, out on Manor Road. Quite pleasant layout, parti
cularly in summer, although has a slight 1960s-concrete-meets-Ikea feel to it! St Edmund Hall (Teddy Hall). A surviving medieval hall, that only became a college in 1957. A rather sporty college situated on Queen’s Lane. St Hilda’s, down Cowley Place, is the only single sex college remaining (all girls), but very involved in university life. St Hugh’s. Oddly enough, on St Margaret’s Road, a fair way to the north, and hence quite insular, but it does have 427 undergraduates and a 14-acre site, making it fairly large. St John’s. Again oddly placed (this time on St Giles’). Typical Oxford of myth – seemingly good at everything, from work to sport. Includes Tony Blair amongst its alumni. St Peter’s. Not the typical architecture, and almost unnoticeable from outside. Not very popular either, most students seem to arrive here by way of reserve colleges. Its bar apparently lacks atmosphere, but it is handily close to the Union (and Sainsbury’s). Somerville. On Woodstock Road (to the north). Has very attractive grounds; with beautiful gardens, old buildings and a new block that looks like a car park! Has only accepted men since 1994, but is now generally relaxed and opening. Trinity. Next door to Balliol (another long-running feud) and distinguished mainly by their nice lawns. University (Univ). Claim to date back to 872, but more reliably only about 1249, which leads to arguments about which college is the oldest. Wadham. By the King’s Arms and Bodelian, although the former probably gets more use! Another left wing and very active student body. Also very keen on arts, hosting the annual ‘Wadstock’. Worcester. Hidden away by the train station. Most notable for sports, and attractive gardens. For graduates, there are also a number of exclusive colleges/halls; All Soul’s (most academically notable, alm
ost impossible to get in), Green, Kellogg, Linacre, Nuffield, St Antony’s, St Cross, Templeton and Wolfson. There are also Permanent Private Halls run by religious orders and offering Oxford degree courses – Blackfriars, Campion Hall, Greyfriars, Regent’s Park, St Benet’s Hall and Wycliffe Hall. Plus, of course, there’s Oxford Brookes; a former polytechnic now one of the top ‘new universities’ in the country, separate of course from Oxford University, but also involved in student life at the Union, etc. As you can see, there should be a college to suit all types. Older ones offer ‘the full Oxford experience’ – complete with absurd traditions. Newer ones may be a bit less stuffy, but aren’t generally as rich, so may be worse off for accommodation, libraries, hardship funds, etc. most of the above is based on generalisation and my varying knowledge of colleges (supplemented by the Oxford Handbook). So, if you see a college you like, go for it, don't be put off by anything I've said. I would advice caution about the tourist guides though – I’ve heard them spouting complete lies to groups looking around Jesus (even getting the location of the bar wrong). Courses Education at Oxford is an almost unique experience. There are many courses that are hard to find elsewhere – such as PPE (Politics, Philosophy and Economics) and a classics course that covers languages, history and philosophy! As you can see, the education tends to be broad and focussed to traditional academic disciplines. There can, however, be many advantages to this – it’s quite rare, for example, in offering a history course that runs by period rather than theme. There’s a lot of work to do though – in my case 12 essays per term, plus lectures and tutorials. It’s a real benefit though to be taught by famous names in your field (sometimes) and work doesn’t tota
lly rule life, except in the approach to exams! The year is divided into three terms, Michaelmas, Hilary and Trinity. Each of these last eight weeks (which are numbered, so dates in Oxford tend to be given as ‘Tuesday of 5th’ rather than by the more conventional calendar). Normally you’re required to be present in 0th week, however, for tests and expected to do a lot of work over holidays too. There are university exams at the end of the first year (‘Prelims’ or ‘Mods’, depending on subject) that have to be passed (although this is fairly easy). Degrees awarded, however, depend entirely upon ‘finals’ (and sometimes a thesis or other project) – so my grade will depend on eight three-hour papers at the end of my third year, which is quite a scary thought. The other disadvantage is you have to wear ‘sub-fusc’ (i.e. dark suit with gown and mortarboard) for your exams – just like the stereotypical view of Oxford students. Facilities for your courses are always of the highest standards though. As well as top tutors and lecturers, there are modern science and computing facilities (the benefits of most colleges being rich). Most college rooms offer free internet access to those with computers. On the university network, you have access to a wide variety of information – syllabuses, past papers, lecture lists, examiners’ reports, etc. Needless to say, there is also plentiful provision of libraries. The famous Bodelian apparently stocks every book published in Britain, although I haven’t looked for Asterix! It’s non-lending, and some books have to be ordered from the vaults (or ‘stack’) in advance, but there’s a large PPE reading room dedicated to my needs. Most subjects have their own specialist faculty libraries too, and you can normally access most of these regardless of what you study – useful if you want to find constitutional te
xts in the law library, for example. Finally, most colleges have their own libraries, which are often a last resort, but are available 24/7 and often easy-going with loans and fines. Student Life Now, obviously, student life revolves around a certain amount of drinking, clubbing, etc (or, as some prefer to justify to their parents, ‘networking’). I’ll come on to that, first I’ll start with the serious bits. Accommodation varies according to college. Almost everyone gets college owned accommodation for their first year (usually in college) and many offer college-owned accommodation for all three (or more) years of a degree. Renting in Oxford is generally expensive and best avoided, so it’s worth looking in the college prospectus to see what’s on offer. At Jesus, all first years are guaranteed a room in college, and finalists can come back subject to availability. All finalists are guaranteed rooms somewhere, and most second years also live in flats to the north or east (although it isn’t guaranteed, but everyone who wants a place usually gets one). Obviously, not all is modern – in college you may not have easy access to ‘basics’ like a fridge, sink or shower – but some rooms are very attractive and good value considering house prices in central Oxford. Food is provided by most colleges, although it varies tremendously. Normally there is breakfast, lunch and a first sitting of dinner, followed by formal hall (some colleges require you to wear sub-fusc and gowns for formal, others don’t). This may vary at weekends and outside of the eight weeks that constitute ‘full term’. The food is generally alright – I was very impressed by Jesus at first, but it often tends to be somewhat same-y and loses its appeal over the course of a term. The real pull is that it’s normally very cheap, being subsidised by the college – an average lunch at Jesus
(main course plus two veg) costing only £1.14 (2000-01 prices). Bars are present in all colleges, although some are more attractive than others. Most are in cellars, and can get quite sweaty, particularly during ‘bops’ (parties generally held every other Friday, sometimes involving fancy dress). Again though, drinks are cheap (£1.80/pint in Jesus, which is more than most) and it’s a great place to meet people you know from college. There’s normally a jukebox, but there may be DJs for bops. Either way, you’ll probably get a non-stop stream of cheesy pop, which I find about as much fun as banging my head against a brick wall! If you find the college bar too much, there’s always the Union bar. The Union is a prominent debating society, run primarily by students for students. It’s the famous one, that over the last year has had Michael Jackson and Jon Bon Jovi; following in the footsteps of O.J.Simpson, Malcolm X and numerous presidents and other celebrities. It’s not restricted to the University (being open to students from Brookes too) and nor is it free – life membership currently costs £140 (although there’s normally a membership drive and £20 discount at the start of Michaelmas term). This seems a lot, but includes the speakers, debates, bar, library and a night-club (the ‘Purple Turtle’, started by Michael Heseltine when he was Union President). Certainly worth considering, although consider how much you will use the facilities, particularly if you live far away (although I have been told by those who do that it’s a useful toilet in central Oxford!) The ‘other union’ is OUSU (Oxford University Student Union, pronounced ow-zoo). This is more like a traditional union, but seems to offer little in the way of facilities – just a stationery shop on Little Clarendon Street (near Somerville). In reality, it does a lot more – campaigning on beha
lf of students, encouraging access schemes and organising the freshers’ fair. Successes over the last year have included organising a ‘night bus’ for students and changing the constitution to recognise transgendered women. OUSU shouldn’t be confused with the Union, and really has little day to day impact on student life. Anyone is free to opt out of OUSU if they wish, but it is paid for by subscriptions from the college JCRs. Last term (Trinity 2001), Oriel controversially opted out, raising questions about what facilities OUSU are still required to provide their students, the answers to which may encourage others to follow suit. Balls are the main events in the social life of Oxford. Every term, there is a Union ball (about £30-40, members only) and colleges generally hold balls every other year in Trinity, the main ones this year being Keble 2001 and Revolution (an OUSU sponsored event). These are normally far more expensive (£48-95), but easy to be roped in to to celebrate the end of year (and exams). All balls give students the chance to get dressed up and spend all night partying (free food and drink included, cue more cheesy music too). Balls aside, there’s still plenty to do. Oxford is a city of about 100,000 and with plenty of students reasonably well serviced for clubs like Park End and the Zodiac. Although, obviously, it’s not like London, there is a regular 24-hour bus service to the capital (Oxford tube, £6.50 return, about every 12 minutes depending on the time of day). The more serious side to student life comes in the form of numerous societies (everything you care to mention – sports clubs, music societies, political ones, comedy, even the infamous ‘assassins’) and two student newspapers, OxStu and Cherwell. Plus, of course, studying!
...assuming I can think of ten that is. Still shouldn't be too difficult given what a great place it is. So here we go in no particular order... Buildings: As in historical and beautiful. My review of the City ('Could You Direct me to the University please') goes into more detail but some of the colleges are very pretty: Magdalen, Christ Church, The Chapel at Balliol. Plus outside of the colleges is The Sheldonian and the Church of St Mary The Virgin - the most visited church in Britain. Oxford Union: 'The Last Bastion of Free Speech', run by elected students and famous for its speakers from the world of Politics, Sport and Entertainment. Visitors in recent years include Michael Jackson, Rolf Harris, The Dalai Lama, OJ Simpson and Kermit the Frog. David Trimble & John Hume spoke in a debate on Northern Ireland there last Tuesday. The Union also runs social events and has a Bar offering Pound a Pint as well as offering ample student debating opportunities. Societies: 100s of different societies ranging through Journalism (two student newspapers) to Sport (from Tiddlywinks to Rowing) and Politics (all the major parties and pressure / campaigning groups) to regional societies (many different countries represented). It's impossible to find nothing that caters to your particular taste. Colleges also run some societies of their own - whilst I've been here I've tried Bridge, Baseball and Debating, none of which I'd really done before. Accommodation: Pretty good relatively. The rooms are huge or really modern or anything but they're not too bad on the whole and virtually all colleges let you live in for either 2 or 3 years - a big money saver on places where you have to live out twice. And when you do live out there's plenty of financial help if you need it. Libraries: Not the most exciting thing possibly but damn useful when you've got essays to do. As well as the Bodlean, which ha
s every book ever, published in Britain every college and faculty has its own library as well making it a lot easier to get hold of what you need. Kebab Vans: Opinion varies wildly on this particular subject but I'm all in favour of Kebab Vans. OK so Doner Meat looks suspiciously like it came from the college Cat but provided you pick your Van well the Kebabs are actually pretty tasty. I recommend Hassan's in Broad St outside Balliol. Teaching: In most Unis you read what the famous authors wrote, in Oxford you get lectured and taught by them. Whilst I've been here I've had French Politics, Political Theory & Philosophy tutes from published authors in those areas as well as Macroeconomics tutes from the guy who wrote one half of 'Two Sides of the Coin' a highly selling book giving both sets of the argument on the Euro. And the Oxbridge Tutorial system means that most of your teaching is done in pairs giving you much more of an opportunity to talk to the experts teaching you. Many people also find Lectures very useful tho' personally I don't. College Bars: I only really know mine very well so I'll tell you about that. Over 100 different varieties of alcohol - 3 types of Martini, 4 Malt Whiskies, 5 Flavours of Bacardi Breezer, Guest Beers every week and a cocktail menu with over 20 different types on - something for everyone here. And its cheap - 1:30 a pint or less early in the evening with 69p shots (or £1.35 doubles) on Tuesdays. No better place to get mildly drunk after your tutorials! Facilities: As in Sports and Computer. Because it has a lot of money relative to other Unis the facilities in this regard are pretty good. My college (Balliol) has a computer room with about 15 reasonably decent computers and its own sports field with Squash and Tennis Courts attached. It also like most colleges lets you get internet access in your room if you bring a computer. And as well as college spor
ts facilities the University of course has lots of facilities as well including a huge sports centre. People: So I'm one of the people here, which makes me biased. So sue me! I've found the vast majority of the people here really friendly - no one seems to have any hang-ups about where people come from or their personal preferences or anything like that. Obviously there are one or two exceptions but they really are just that - exceptions. Of course the place isn't perfect by a long stretch - it can be tricky to get into (see 'Don't be intimidated, be argumentative') and there's a fair bit of work but if I had the choice again there's no way I'd ever pick a different Uni.
I studied Biological Sciences at Oxford University between 1994 and 1997, attending Brasenose College, in the centre of the city of Oxford. Personally, I found it an extremely rewarding experience, and think that I got a superb education there. I'm prepared to accept that other universities might offer equally good biology courses, and that many universities might be better for some courses, however, these aren't issues that I'm going to address here. In this opinion, I want to write about my own experiences of studying at Oxford University, and why I enjoyed my time there, as well as offering some information about how the University experience there differs from that at other institutions. I also want to offer some advice about how to apply to the University, to someone who is considering applying to Oxford University, but doesn't know anything about how the collegiate system works. COLLEGES / ACCOMMODATION Oxford University is spread throughout the city of Oxford, with twenty-eight college buildings, admitting undergraduates (and a further six, which don't), and numerous libraries and departmental buildings. Everyone at Oxford University, whether an undergraduate, a postgraduate, a lecturer or a fellow, is assigned to one of the University's colleges. Each college has its own bar, dining hall, set of common rooms, and set of administrative staff. When you apply as an undergraduate to Oxford University, you are asked to specify your top three colleges by order of preference, which is inevitably going to be a very difficult choice to make. The first thing you should bear in mind is which colleges actually offer positions to students in the subject you want to study. Some colleges don't have staff for certain subjects, and therefore don't admit students studying that subject. Another way to whittle down your choices might be to consult the web-site of the department you seek to join. If the
re's a particular member of staff whose work you are familiar with, or whose research speciality interests you, then you might do well to apply to their college, since that member of staff could well be your subject tutor, when you arrive there. A further consideration might be the availability of accommodation in the college you apply to. Many Oxford colleges are now able to offer accommodation for all three (or four) years of your undergraduate degree. When I attended Brasenose, it only offered accommodation for the first and third year of my degree, so I had to live out in the second year. This is the case with several of the colleges still, though I know that Brasenose now offers college accommodation to students for all three years. Renting houses in Oxford is relatively expensive compared to other University towns, and certainly a lot more expensive than college accommodation, but does allow you to stay in the city beyond term time. However, probably the best way to decide on your college is to pay it a visit in person. I appreciate that this might be difficult, or involve a lot of travelling, but it's worth doing. All of the colleges have at least a couple of open days during the academic year, and most will allow visiting prospective students to stay overnight in a college room, to get a feel of what the place is like. Visiting the college in person also has the advantage that you can walk around the college freely, and find the concrete monstrosities hidden behind the "dreaming spires" - these invariably form the majority of the undergraduate accommodation! ETHOS The Oxford academic year consists of three terms (archaically termed Michaelmas, Hilary and Trinity) of eight weeks. That's right - you spend less than half the year actually working at the University. That's not to say that that's all the work you're expected to do (unless you're studying PPE, of course), in fact it's li
kely that you'll be doing some reading during the extended holidays. You're also expected to be in attendance at the University for the week before term starts, in the week referred to as noughth week or 0th week. You generally don't have any work to do in this week, unless of course, you've not bothered to do the work you were assigned over the holiday. At the end of the term, most students stay on in the city for 9th week. This is treated by most as a chance to wind down following the intensity of the eight week term, and consequently, spectacularly little work actually gets done in this week. By the start of the tenth week, virtually all students have left the city, though. This is because most colleges are reticent to let students stay in college accommodation beyond 9th week - since they can get far more money renting the rooms out to visiting dignitaries, or companies holding meetings in the colleges. They're pretty cynical about this, and convincing them that you have a legitimate reason to stay on can be quite tricky. Often, even if you are granted permission to stay on in college accommodation, you have to move to another room - generally in an annexe of the college, requiring you to traipse your possessions across town on a Saturday afternoon! None of the courses at Oxford are continually assessed, and so your final degree grade goes on your results in the Final examinations. This is a pretty scary thought - for example, my degree result depended almost entirely on seven three-hour exams spread over six days! (To be fair, the remaining two ninths of my degree, were awarded on a project that had to be completed before Finals, and a practical examination which took place in the week after Finals). There is, however, a Preliminary examination (generally termed 'prelims') at the end of the first year, in most courses, which is essentially a test to make sure you're coping with life at the University. T
hese are pretty easy to pass, as the pass mark is set relatively low, and even if you do fail, you are allowed to do retakes. To make sure you stay in practice at taking examinations, most tutors will ensure that you take regular practice examinations at the start of each term, in 0th week, to ensure that you're still getting on with your work. If you do well enough in Prelims, and get good reports from your tutors, most subject tutors won't force you to take these practice examinations... mine didn't! The education system at Oxford is primarily driven by tutorials. In addition to the usual series of lectures, and (in the case of science subjects) experiments, you have one-on-one tutorials with members of staff (postgraduates, lecturers or fellows). For these tutorials, you're expected to produce an essay, to be handed in a few days before the tutorial, which is generally expected to be a few thousand words long. Most tutorials are generally taken either alongside lecturers in a specific course, or in the term after the lecture course is completed. Most students also organise revision tutorials for the weeks leading up to Finals. So, when you first arrive at Oxford, you meet with the subject tutor in your subject at your college. This will be one of the lecturers or fellows at your college in the subject that you are studying. Actually, when I went to Brasenose, there wasn't a subject tutor in Biological Sciences at the college, but we shared one with students at St. Hilda's College. This meant that I also had a subject tutor in Brasenose, who was the so-called "Out-of-College Subject Tutor". At the beginning of each term, you report to your subject tutor to discuss which course options you are planning to take, and to organise tutorials. If you don't suggest preferred members of staff to give your tutorials, your subject tutor will suggest some for you in the subjects that you want to do tutorials in.
One of the best things about the tutorial system is that if there's a lecturer, or member of staff, that you find particularly easy to understand, or whose subject you find particularly interesting, you can approach them directly, to ask about the possibility of doing tutorials with them. While I was studying at Oxford, I arranged for myself to have tutorials with Dr Mark Ridley, author of the most popular textbook on Evolution in the world, by approaching him and asking him about the possibility after one lecture. In addition to your subject tutor, you also get assigned a personal tutor in the college. Your personal tutor should be your first port of call, if you should have any personal problems while staying at the University. All of the personal tutors had been trained in counselling, and were sympathetic to a broad range of problems that could arise. Oxford makes a real effort regarding students' social welfare, and this is mainly because when a student at the University commits suicide, it makes newspaper headlines. I'm sorry if that sounds cynical, but I'm certain that's how the University looks at it. Generally, I was surprised that the atmosphere at Oxford wasn't more stressful than it was. Certainly, I expected my time there to be a lot more panicked and frenetic, than I actually experienced. I suspect that this partly comes down to the fact that unless you're doing badly, subject tutors will not encourage you to perform better. I got the impression from mine that she was encouraging me to do just enough "and no more". I think the reason for this is that generally, the atmosphere of the place is enough to make you want to keep working, and the vast majority of students are conscientious enough to work hard anyway. There was vastly less competitiveness than I expected too. I was far from being the best student in my year, but never felt any compulsion to compete. Don't get me wrong, thoug
h, I'm not saying that my time at the University was easy, or that I was a lazy student. Most days, I was in the Biology department for a 9 o'clock lecture, and then was stuck in the library or laboratory until 5 or 6 o'clock. I would get up at 10 o'clock on Sunday mornings to write my essays for tutorials, so that I could have the rest of the day off to relax. In the six weeks leading up to my exams, I spent at least seven hours in the library, five days a week, revising from my lecture notes, and reading papers and textbooks. However, I found that I had a lot more free time during my time at Oxford than I'd expected. DEPARTMENTS While other Universities may be better places to study specific subjects in the United Kingdom, Oxford does still boast the highest number of academics working in departments rated 5* or 5 in the national Research Assessment Exercise of any University in the United Kingdom. In my experience, the Biology departments were certainly first rate, with some of the best known names in the fields of evolutionary biology, genetics, and animal behaviour working there. The Epidemiology department at Oxford is also particularly good, housed in an impressive new building next to the Zoology department. Epidemiologists at Oxford are frequently called upon by the Government to model the spread of infectious diseases, and were involved in modelling the spread of BSE. The Biology undergraduate course has changed substantially since I took it, however, the basic structure remains the same. Evolution is now a compulsory course, for example. Friends of mine when I studied there had little but praise for their departments. Several of my friends took Chemistry, and found the laboratories to be generally well equipped, and the lecturers to be of a very high standard. Apart, that is, from the impenetrable lectures given by Peter Atkins (of the intimidatingly large 'Physical Chemistry' textbook fame!)
. The libraries at Oxford were absolutely superb. In the course of my degree, I had cause to use no less than five different libraries. Two were departmental libraries in the Zoology and Plant Sciences departments, one was a science lending library (the Hooke), one was the science non-lending library (the Radcliffe Science Library), and my college library. Of these, my college library was probably the least useful, as, as I mentioned earlier, my college didn't take many students studying Biology each year. However, they did offer to order any books Biology students requested for the library, and did make good on this offer. ADMISSION POLICY The University has come under severe fire recently for its decision not to admit a state school student, who applied to Magdalen College to study medicine. Now, I don't pretend to be an expert on the admission system at Oxford, but what I am aware of is that the University does actively encourage applications from students of all educational backgrounds, be it public school, state school, or from overseas. The admission system is a complicated one. Upon application, all students are asked to select the top three colleges which they would like to attend, and as I mention earlier in this opinion, it's worth investigating a little before deciding which colleges to pick. If you only select one college, the University will "randomly" assign you a second and third choice. My guess would be that these are selected on the basis of how many applications each college receives, since this would explain why so many female undergraduate applicants are offered the all-female St. Hilda's College. [Not to say that there's anything wrong with St. Hilda's - it's a nice college, which attracts some very good students! It's just that it receives relatively few applications, because female applicants tend to associate the college with a "jolly hockey sticks" menta
lity]. If you are successful in the first stage of the admission, i.e. if the University likes your predicted grades, and the text written about you by your school, you are invited for an interview at your first-choice college. In another opinion on dooyoo, I offer my advice on how to do well at interview at Oxford. The main thing to bear in mind is that the tutors are looking for students that they feel would be interesting and challenging to tutor. This doesn't mean that they necessarily want a student who is the most academically qualified, though invariably, this goes hand-in-hand with the criteria that they are looking for. What they are looking for, is someone who can reason logically, and discuss their theories openly. It's not possible to revise for an interview at Oxford, however, if you can get hold of Examination papers for the old University entrance exam, the questions asked in those will give you an idea of what sort of things to expect in your interview. Most colleges will give you two interviews. One will ask you questions more closely related to your academic subject, and one will be a more general interview. If you pass the interview, you will receive an offer from a college at Oxford. This need not be from the college, or indeed, any of the colleges that you applied to. Generally, the grades required to attend Oxford will be very high - my offer was AAA, for example - however, different colleges and different subjects can give different offers. Also, if the tutor is particularly keen to have you study with them, they might make a more lenient offer. A few notes on the subject of whether or not state school students are biased against. Most colleges at Oxford actively encourage applications from state schools, and many run programmes in which students receive funds to visit schools in the area from which they came to talk about their experiences at Oxford. Over the last few years, the proportion of succes
sful applicants to Oxford from state schools has risen, and in the year 2000, 53.6% of offers went to state school applicants. The proportion of state school students varies massively from college to college, however. Some colleges take vastly fewer - most notably St. Edmund Hall and Oriel Colleges (40 % and 42% respectively for 2000), and some take vastly more - St. John's (70%) and Mansfield (74%). Nonetheless, despite these figures, the University actually received fewer applications from state school students in 2000, than it did on the previous year. This is, no doubt, directly attributable to the furore following the rejected application of Laura Spence in the previous year. After these figures became available, the head of Oxford University, Colin Lucas, commented that "the biggest single obstacle is the attitude of pupils from state schools, and the schools themselves, who believe that Oxford isn't right for their pupils". I would strongly advise all students who think that they would be capable of studying at Oxford to do so. There is no advantage to application from public school, and the University welcomes applications from all educational background. The primary criterion used for selecting students is academic ability, however, there are a lot of other criteria used to select students - and there is no advantage to applying from a public or private school. You are assessed on your own abilities. It is worth mentioning, however, that the style of teaching at Oxford really isn't for everyone - and some people might not enjoy the lack of direct motivation, or feel intimidated by the austere surroundings. STUDENT LIFE / UNION For the majority of students, social life at Oxford doesn't extend far beyond their college. Each college has its own common room, usually with adjoining television room, and its own bar. These are, for many students, entertainment enough. However, for the
more adventurous student, there's the fun of visiting other college bars, and Oxford's superb collection of pubs. At this point, it's worth noting that the relationship between students and townspeople in Oxford, is probably the worst of any city in the UK. Several pubs are well worth avoiding altogether, if you're a student, for fear of being severely beaten. If you like clubs, then you're exceptionally poorly served by Oxford. The two main student nightclubs are the cramped and repellent 'Downtown Manhattan', and the meat market 'Fifth Avenue'. However, reports are slightly more positive about the 'Zodiac' out to the east on Cowley Road, or the 'Coven II' to the west on Oxpens Road. I wouldn't know though... hate the places. Unlike many Universities, Oxford doesn't have a Student Union. Instead, each college has its own representative on the National Union of Students. However, in place of a Student Union, there is the Oxford Union. Now, if any part of Oxford harks back to an elitist past, it's the Oxford Union. Every undergraduate gets a shiny brochure upon arrival at the University, detailing the first term's events at the Union, and (as I recall) admission to the events in the first two weeks of term is free. The Oxford Union attracts some excellent speakers - when I was there, it paid host to a talk by wife-beater and non-murderer O.J. Simpson, for example. In the past, it has received visits from Malcolm X, Richard Nixon, Gerry Adams, and, of course, recently, it received a visit from Michael Jackson. If you want to get involved in the Oxford Union beyond being a simple member, you'd best be prepared for a whole lot of petty bickering. It's a good introduction for those thinking of pursuing a career in politics - previous presidents of the Oxford Union include Prime Ministers Salisbury, Gladstone, Asquith, Macmillan and Heath. Nonetheless, membersh
ip of the Oxford Union is unbelievably expensive. In your first year, you can join the Union as a life member for £140 (£120 if you join in the first two weeks), dropping to £100 in the second year, and £70 in the third year. For this, you get admission to all the events at the Union that occur during your time there. Of my friends from University, about half joined the Union. I joined, and made the most of my membership while I was there, going to five or six events per term. Many students at Oxford take up rowing. I couldn't be doing with that sort of nonsense - getting up before dawn, and rowing up and down the river before a 9am lecture? No thanks. However, twice a year, rowing teams from the Oxford colleges take part in two sets of competitions - "Torpids" and "Summer Eights". These are well worth attending, while you're a student at the University, especially if you go to your college boat house, and take advantage of the cheap Pimms cocktails - usually about £1 a pint. After a few pints you won't care about the rowing. There's a few dull facts about rowing, that I might as well throw into this opinion - they'll be damn little use to me anywhere else, so I might as well drop them in here. When one boat overtakes another, which merely means that the front of the chasing boat has caught up with the back of the boat in front, this is referred to as 'bumping', even if the boats haven't touched. In Eights, when a boat bumps another, both boats go out of the race, however, in Torpids, when a boat bumps another, the bumped boat goes out of the race, and the bumper can continue to try to bump the next. In other words, in Torpids, a boat can move several places up the table. In the Summer, if you fancy getting on the water, but can't be doing with the competitiveness of that rowing nonsense, punting is well worth a try. The Cherwell is the main river students punt on, and it convenientl
y flows next to Magdalen, St. Catherine's, Lady Margaret Hall, and St. Hilda's Colleges, all of which have their own punt houses. Other colleges rent punts at boathouses along the river. Punting is a lot of fun - especially when you find a pub next to the river upstream. Alternatively, take a whole load of Pimms with you, and have a picnic on the boat. Either way, punting back home is generally rendered a lot more difficult by being inebriated. Oxford also has an unbelievably large number of clubs and societies, all of which are eager to garner undergraduate membership at the annual Freshers' Fair. The only society I regularly attended was the Douglas Adams Society, Dougsoc, which proudly boasted that the man himself had never attended. Each year, Dougsoc would have a Vogon Poetry evening, in which everyone read out dreadful poetry that they, or others, had written. It was the sort of thing I found funny then. Sorry. TRADITIONS Right, so Oxford University is really old, and inevitably, over its 750-year history, it's picked up some odd traditions. When you first arrive at the University, for example, you have to be matriculated. This is more insane than it is at other Universities - you have to dress up in sub fusc, for a start. "Sub fusc, what's that?" I hear you cry. Well, sub fusc, is the very formal attire you always see students at Oxford wearing on television. Basically, for guys, it consists of a dark suit (or dark jacket and trousers), gown, white shirt, white bow tie, black socks, and black shoes, along with a mortarboard, which can be worn or carried. For girls, it's a white blouse, black skirt, black stockings, black shoes, gown, and of course, the mortarboard. Anyway, back to the matriculation. So, you're decked out in that ridiculous get-up. Then you have to parade through the streets of Oxford to the Sheldonian Theatre (this could be a long way, if your college is a goo
d distance away), all the time on display to scores of American tourists. When you do get there, you have to sit through some latin, that you probably won't understand, and then read out a promise not to "kindle any fire or flame" in the University's libraries. Sub fusc goes away in the cupboard after this, not to come out again until examinations. Yes, that's right, every time you have a formal examination at Oxford, you have to deck yourself out in full sub fusc - talk about making you feel at your ease! Imagine wearing all this stuff in the middle of Summer. Course, once you're in the exam hall, you can take the gown and jacket off. Also, you'll notice that a lot of students wear carnations in their buttonholes on their way to their Final examinations. The tradition is that students wear white carnations for their first Final exam, pink for subsequent ones, and a red carnation for their final Final. A word about gowns. The first gown that you wear at Oxford is the "commoner's gown". This is short, ending at about the small of your back, with a couple of peculiar tassles running along your back. If you do particularly well in your Prelims, your college might allow you wear the "scholar's gown", which is still pretty plain-looking, but extends to your knees. Upon graduation, you finally get a decent "graduate's gown". If you choose to dine in your colleges' hall, you usually get a choice of sitting, one of which will be what's called "formal hall". This is attended by the principal, several tutors and fellows of the college, and all students have to wear their gown for it. (Some colleges are even stricter about dress for formal hall, insisting on sub fusc!) The food at formal hall is usually identical with that at the less formal sitting, however, so the only advantage to going to one over the other is timing. College food at Brasenose was
pretty good (we had venison once a fortnight!), and very good value. Another Oxford tradition is the fact that parties thrown by the junior common room (JCR) of an Oxford college, is usually called a "bop". While this generally throws up images of some dreadful Fifties thing, the college bops are generally as sweaty, drunken, heaving and unbearable as a student party is pretty much inevitably going to be. Great! Many of the college buildings at Oxford are listed, which means that getting planning permission for amendments to them has proved very difficult for the college authorities. The outcome of this is that in older colleges, you might have to walk quite some way to get to a shower. In my first year at Brasenose, I had to walk to the bottom of the staircase my room was on, and walk across the main quad of the college to get to the nearest shower. Although you'd imagine this was probably worst in Winter, it wasn't much better in the Summer, when your towelled dash to the shower was usually witnessed by crowds of over-eager American tourists. Yeah, that's another thing you had to get used to. Being a fricking tourist attraction. If your room is on the ground floor of a main quad in an old, central or historic college, you can expect to have tourists gawp in on you. College authorities tend to look down on putting signs in your window saying "Please do not feed the students" too. As if this weren't enough, the colleges are frequently used as sets for films and television programmes. I was at Brasenose for two episodes of Inspector Morse (I touched the car!) and the making of 'The Saint'. Access to colleges can be limited when filming's in progress, and directors don't take kindly to ignorant students wandering through their shots. But back to tradition... Each college has its own set of traditions and rivalries. For example, Brasenose College has had a major rivalry wit
h neighbouring Lincoln College for hundreds of years. This dated back to when a Brasenose student was running from an angry mob of townspeople, and knocked on the door of Lincoln College for admission. When the gatekeeper at Lincoln refused him, he was killed by the townspeople on the door of the college. Ever since then, Brasenose students have been entitled to go into the neighbouring college on Ascension Day every year, and drink as much beer as they can from the Lincoln cellar. But that's not all... that whole Ascension Day was a surreal experience, and not just because I'd drunk loads of Lincoln College beer. Basically, Ascension Day in the Christian calendar is when parishioners go around the boundary of their church's parish, and beat "special stones" marking the boundary with sticks. They call it "beating the bounds". I call it one of the oddest things I've ever seen. However, that wasn't enough. After that, the staff of Lincoln College threw hot pennies from the roof of the college building onto the main quad, for small children to burn their hands collecting. You get the idea. I daresay every college at Oxford has ridiculous traditions like this. I know that Queen's College can close Oxford High Street for archery practice if they should take it into their minds to do so. Oh, and on top of this kind of thing, there are the apocrypha - the dubious and unverifiable stories. The best known of these is the tale of a law student sitting his Final examinations, who put up his hand to ask for a pint of beer, having previously found an obscure rule permitting this in the University regulations. The examiners relented, and delivered the student his pint. However, when the student left the examination hall, feeling smug, he was promptly fined two shillings, for failing to wear his regulation sword. CONCLUSIONS Oxford University is a great place to study. I made some enduring fri
ends during my time there, and had an absolutely first rate education in Biology. I don't doubt that there are better Universities for some courses, but I had a great experience studying there. OK, there were some tough times, and sometimes I felt the University's approach to some issues was primarily financially driven, but I doubt that the situation would have been much different elsewhere. Oh, and "Lord is my light" is a translation of the Latin phrase on the University crest, "Dominus Illuminatio Mea". You want more information on the University? Jeez... I work my guts out, and you people still want more! OK, check out their website at http://www.ox.ac.uk
silly spelling mistakes corrected 01/01/01 (oooh, what an exciting date!) Okay, you've decided to apply to Oxford. But there are just sooooo many colleges- how do you choose? Well, I'm not exactly writing from a balanced perspective, since obviously I only attend one college- but I think it's such a fantastic place that I've just got to sell it to you (um... metaphorically)! Wadham is one of the lesser-known Oxford colleges, and also one of the less ancient ones (1620-ish, I think). But I think that being less famous than, say, Magdalen, St John's or Christchurch may have its advantages, for some people at least. I imagine there's less competition to get in, and once you're in, there's a much more laid-back atmosphere. Wadham only requires you to ponce about in gowns when it's absolutely necessary (matriculation and exams, where the university insists on it). None of this dressing up as batman just to eat dinner for us Wadhamites! There may be disadvantages, in the sense that our college has less money than the larger, older, more famous ones- they tell us we're a relatively poor college, but I can't say I've ever noticed evidence of that. 'Less stinking rich' might be a better way to put it. They pour free wine down our throats at every opportunity, give us £350 each towards renting accomodation in the second year, provide a 24 hour library and computer room with free internet access, and provide a rocking if somewhat cheesy party (ahem, 'bop') every fortnight. Wadham 'Queer Bop', I might add, is one of the most fantastic nights you could have in Oxford, despite its intense weirdness. All first years and finalists get accomodation on the college campus. The rooms vary widely in style but not in standard- they're all really nice and all cost exactly the same (at present it's about £75 a week including dinner and cleaning). Many fresh
ers, like myself, get put in a so-called 'shared set', even if they wanted a single room. But I absolutely promise you, sharing is great. You have your own bedroom, the only difference from single rooms being that you get a slightly smaller bedroom but a shared living room instead. This gives you the opportunity to have loads of people in your room at once (but don't call it a party or you'll get thousands of people descending on your peaceful gathering!). Almost everyone I know who ended up sharing loves it. Wadham is the only Oxford college with an SU rather than just the JCR. I'm not particularly involved in student politics so I'm not sure how much of a difference this makes, but be assured that if you want a politically active student body, Wadham is the place for it! ('Free Nelson Mandela' is sung after every party to celebrate the role Wadham played in opposing Apartheid and the subsequent visit from the man himself, and Amnesty letter-writing takes place in Wadham every week). In addition, Wadham was this year the only college to have an entire week of organised Freshers' activities. Yet more free booze! We also have a college 'family' system, i.e. you're allocated second year 'parents' to look after you in the first few weeks. It meant that by the time some of my friends going to other colleges arrived in Oxford, I had already settled in and made some really good friends. The Freshers' week is a bit of a whirl and a bit scary, but it's so much fun and so brilliant in making the Wadham community so cohesive. As an overall summary, Wadham is where you should apply if you want to work hard but also have a really friendly, fun, supportive network of people around you. Everyone of every year socialises with everyone else, and there is a great deal of openness and tolerance (hence our healthy mix of people of all nationalities, social backgrounds and sexualitie
s). If you don't want to wallow in tradition and be surrounded by people showing off about their wealth or the school they went to (even if you're incredibly rich and went to a great school), apply to Wadham. Wadham rocks.
As the government calls for an extra 7000 doctors to be trained in the next few years, increasing pressures are being laid on the existing medical schools to stretch their already full teaching schedules with even more students. The pressure is perhaps being felt particularly strongly at Oxford, the smallest medical school year in Europe and the proud proponent of excellent teaching in smal intimate tutor groups, often individually. This tutorial system, whereby you receive approximately one hour of academic discussion from a tutor is being undermined to some extent by the increasing numbers of medical students at oxford. I am a third year medic and entered in a year of 104, since now increased to 150 or so. What's all the fuss about many people have been reported to say, but in a environment where there are only three or four other medics in your college year, and extra one or two at some colleges is depriving the students of the same quality of teaching as i was priveleged enough to have in the first few years. I am not trying to say that oxford must remain an elite establishment, and as an ethnic minority applicant from a state grammar, I understand the social prejudices against oxford students, all of which i found to be true to an extent upon my open day visit here, but obviously the majority of people are 'normal' young people here to study and have fun. The tutorial system at oxford is possibly it's most valuable asset, providing the main reason for my application here. It's benefits are enormous, and having spoken to toher medics at different universities, it does go a long way to oxford's reputation as an academically elite institute, which is slowly being broken down anyway!! The main point of ths tutorial is to provide an insight into the chosen topic whereby you are given the opportutnity of discussing any problems you may have in this topic with an expert, and the possibility of digressing down one particular path of in
vestigation if so pleased is an option few other environments engender as well. The tutorial setting does vary somewhat and i am talking from my personal experience at having often done very little preparation for a tutorial, in which case it does turn out to be mostly pointless, whereas if you are prepared to go and do the reading in advance, it could provide you with a level of understanding and interest that is unobtainable from books alone, or more impersonal teaching environments. All in all, i am trying to say that i think that medicine at oxford is a very worthwhile experience, with the firm basis being on the provisionof adequate opportunites to learn rigourous scientific disciplines, but also the option of just being another medical school where you become a doctor. It is the range of opportunities that an environment like the oxford system provides that i find most appealing about it, whatever the league tables may say!!