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Oxford University in general
Member Name: bekihandcock
Oxford University in general
Date: 24/03/10, updated on 29/03/10 (1357 review reads)
Advantages: Academic Heaven, wildly eccentric
Disadvantages: Expect to be pushed harder than ever before
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.
Summary: Nowhere in the world like it.
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