A Student’s Guide To The Oxbridge Collegiate System

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You may or may not already know that the Oxbridge universities – the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge – do not have a centralised campus. Instead, the universities use the collegiate system! Many prospective Oxbridge students are unsure about how colleges work and how important they are when applying, which is totally normal! As an Oxford student myself, I didn’t know how big of a role the collegiate system would play in my university life until I had already started, but that’s why I’ll be covering them in this article.

Oxford and Cambridge university each include over 30 individual colleges. These are sort of like mini universities. Your college is where your accommodation and meals are, as well as small-group teaching – but larger-scale teaching like lectures is done across the whole university. College is also where you make a lot of your closest friends, with lots of college-centred social events, and a bar and common room in each college. You are a member of one college, as well as a member of the university as a whole.

This article will help you through what the collegiate system is at Oxbridge, how important it is, and how it affects your time as a student at these universities!

What are Oxbridge colleges?

The University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge, known collectively as ‘Oxbridge’, are not central campus universities. They use the collegiate system, which means that the universities are broken down into individual colleges, spread out across the cities.

The University of Oxford has 43 colleges; 8 are exclusively postgraduate colleges, and the remaining 35 are undergraduate colleges. You can check out the list of colleges on the University of Oxford website, linked here.

The University of Cambridge has 31 colleges; 2 are exclusively postgraduate colleges, and the remaining 29 are undergraduate colleges. You can check out the list of colleges on the University of Cambridge website, linked here.

Oxbridge do still have some centralised buildings, such as Faculty or Department buildings, and central libraries, like the Bodleian Libraries as an example. However, most university life happens in and around the Oxbridge colleges.

What do the Oxbridge colleges do?

Colleges at Oxbridge don’t play a specific role within the structure of the university, i.e. they have no governing power and ultimately answer to the university as a whole. Despite this, the colleges essentially function as mini–university campuses.

If you’d like to read an example of what studying at Oxbridge is like, check out this Think Student article about studying English Language and Literature at Oxford!

How do the Oxbridge colleges affect academic life?

In terms of academic life, colleges operate the same as campus universities, but on a smaller scale. Tutors are employed by their overall department, e.g. the Faculty of English at the University of Oxford, but they work at individual colleges. Some colleges may not offer courses that other colleges do because a tutor in that department doesn’t work in their college.

You may have heard of matriculation, which is unique to the Oxbridge universities. When you matriculate, you become an official member of the university. However, you are also a member of your college.

Seminars and tutorials are always held within college – this is usually your own college, but you may have classes and tutorials at other colleges! Oxbridge colleges may also have their own lecture theatres. Academic life is evenly balanced between the colleges and the university as a whole.

How do the Oxbridge colleges affect student life?

In terms of student life at Oxbridge, colleges are where it all happens. Colleges have their own dining halls, libraries, JCR (Junior Common Room) for undergraduates, MCR (Middle Common Room) for postgraduates, and SCR (Senior Common Room) for academics. Your accommodation is also in college.

The common rooms have their own committees, which are made up of elected ‘representative’ roles for different parts of student life. Each committee has a President, Vice President, Treasurer, and other roles such as ‘Accessibility Rep’, ‘Welfare Rep’ or ‘Events Rep’.

The common room committees oversee the running of the college (though still answer to the college staff and principal, obviously). College life at Oxbridge is mostly student-led!

Colleges have their own bars. Most colleges also have chapels, but some don’t due to financial strain. Colleges host their own events (usually planned by the JCR/MCR), offer welfare support, and more.

Essentially, everything you need for university life at Oxbridge is located within their colleges! However, there are differences between them that I’ll be getting to later in this article, so keep reading for more.

Do you have to choose a college before you apply for Oxbridge?

A lot of prospective Oxbridge students might feel nervous about applying if they don’t know much about the different colleges, but don’t worry! You don’t have to choose a college before you apply if you don’t want to.

Firstly, it’s important to know that you can’t apply to both Oxford and Cambridge at the same time on UCAS. To find out more about why, I’d recommend reading this Think Student article.

When you apply through UCAS, you will have the option to either pick a college if you know which one you’d like to study at, or you can choose to do an open application! An open application is when you apply to Oxbridge without choosing a college and are randomly allocated one by the university. According to this page from the Oxford University website, 16% of applications were open in 2023.

I actually submitted an open application! I didn’t know anything about the different colleges before I applied. An open application removes all the stress of picking a college, so if you don’t have your heart set on a particular Oxbridge college, I’d recommend an open application!

How do you choose which college to apply to?

The first thing to know is that the colleges at Oxbridge are much more similar than different. As mentioned, they’ll all have accommodation, catered food available, a bar and common room, and expert subject tutors. However, there are a few things to consider that might help you decide.

The most important thing is that the college offers your course. While most colleges offer most courses, any given college might not offer one or two. You can check this on course-specific pages on Cambridge University’s website, or as a summary for Oxford on their website here.

Other than this, there are a few personal preferences you might want to take into account. Some colleges are bigger while others are smaller, both of which have their pros and cons. Do you prefer a busier atmosphere or a more close-knit community?

Location is another thing to take into account. You might want to look up where your course-specific buildings are, as this is likely where your lectures will be. You might really like the idea of being a 5-minute walk away and being able to wake up as late as possible for a 9am lecture!

You can also look at other things specific colleges offer, like whether you get accommodation provided for all 3 years, or only 1 or 2. Some colleges also offer things like kitchens for all first-years, free gym membership, or music practice rooms, any of which might be important to you.

When I was applying, I found this tool from the Oxford Student Union Alternative Prospectus really helpful. It lets you put in things that matter to you and suggests a few colleges that might match. Cambridge Student Union has a similar tool, linked here.

Are some colleges easier to get into than others?

One common question people have is whether they are more likely to get into Oxbridge if they apply to a certain college. The short answer is no, but the reason why is a little complicated.

This article from The Profs includes a breakdown of acceptance rate by college for Oxford, as well as lots of other admissions statistics. For instance, Trinity College accepts 10.9% of applicants, while St Hugh’s College accepts 18.3%.

This might make it seem like one college is easier to get into. However, no matter which college you apply to, your chance of getting into the university should stay the same.

This is because some colleges naturally have more applicants than others – for example, Christ Church College is often popular due to Harry Potter scenes filmed there! They might have only 6 places for a subject, but think 8 of their applicants deserve a place.

In this case, the extra 2 applicants go into a ‘pool’. Other colleges might have been less popular for applicants, and only want to give out 4 offers for their 6 spaces. In this case, they will look at the pool, and decide whether to offer students from there a place in the college.

This system should mean that the best students get places, even if they applied to a really oversubscribed college. You can have a look at this page from Inside Uni for more explanation about the pooling system – it’s talking about Cambridge, but essentially the same system is used at Oxford.

Every year, plenty of students who have been pooled get an offer from Oxford or Cambridge, just not from the college they originally applied to. However, this isn’t a bad thing – in my experience, everyone really loves the college they end up at!

Do you only get interviews from the Oxbridge college you applied/were allocated to?

Depending on the course you apply for, you will most likely have 2 or 3 interviews for your Oxbridge application. The interviews that you’re invited to might not just be at your college!

Whether you chose to apply to a specific college, or submitted an open application and were assigned one, you may be interviewed by other colleges. For example, I was interviewed by the college I was assigned, but I was also interviewed by another college.

For more information on the application process for the University of Oxford, check out this Think Student article!

Can you receive offers from Oxbridge colleges you didn’t apply to?

Yes, it is actually possible to receive an offer from an Oxbridge college you didn’t apply to. The college will have to have interviewed you to give you an offer, but it doesn’t have to be the college you applied to or were assigned.

For example, I completed an open application for the University of Oxford and was assigned a college, but I had two interviews, and one was with a different college. It was actually this college that gave me my offer, and not the college I was originally assigned!

There are multiple reasons why a college you didn’t apply to or weren’t assigned might give you an offer. A common reason is that the original college doesn’t have enough places, but the university still wants to give you an offer, so you get moved to another college. This was the case for me.

Of course, this may be disheartening, particularly if you had your heart set on a specific college. Even though I completed an open application, I was quite excited to go to the college I was assigned.

However, now studying at the college that gave me the offer, I feel like it was the best thing to happen to me! Try not to get too disheartened if the college you wanted doesn’t give you an offer. Receiving an Oxbridge offer is a huge achievement regardless!

How important is the collegiate system at Oxbridge?

As you’ve now read about, the collegiate system at Oxbridge plays quite a large role in academic and student life, but particularly student life. Colleges are where you study, where you live, where you eat, where you have your classes, and where you party!

It can be quite a unique experience studying at a collegiate university instead of a campus university, especially at Oxbridge where there are so many different traditions. Colleges even have their own ‘merch’ that you may see students wearing around the city!

The collegiate system is definitely very important to life at Oxbridge. However, these are mostly all in positive ways, so try and really enjoy the experience of the collegiate system!

Are there differences between the colleges at Oxbridge?

Of course, so far, we’ve mostly discussed the differences between the collegiate system and the campus universities. However, did you know that there are actually differences between the Oxbridge colleges? In this section of the article, I’ll give you a couple of examples.

I mentioned earlier in this article that some colleges may not offer particular degree courses because they don’t have any faculty members at that college. Well, how degrees are taught can actually vary by college too!

There are of course standardised teaching and examination rules followed by the colleges at Oxford and Cambridge respectively, but tutors are given somewhat independence on how the course is taught. For example, at my college, my tutors gave me free reign over my essay topics, but my friend studying the same course at a different college wasn’t allowed to choose their essay topics!

Similarly, access to resources can vary by college. For example, the University of Oxford uses a e-catalogue called SOLO to show the availability and locations of library books.

Some books are only available at particular colleges, and you have to request them! Some colleges may also have two libraries, whereas other colleges only have one.

If these are features that matter to you, you might want to think about applying to a specific college! As an example, check out this page on the University of Oxford website for a list of college facilities.

What are the advantages of the collegiate system at Oxbridge?

A big advantage of colleges is having access to what is normally university-wide facilities (like libraries and seminar rooms) right next to your accommodation! It also means that these facilities don’t get too crowded, because only members of college can use them.

This also helps for creating a sense of community. Living in a college means everybody is close-by and you often see people from your classes around college, and you can make friends in shared spaces like the JCR/MCR.

Another big advantage of colleges is their locations. The Oxbridge colleges are spread out all across the cities of Oxford and Cambridge respectively. Whether you want a college right in the centre of the city, or if you’d prefer somewhere a little further out and quieter, you have several options!

There’s also lots of college-based extracurriculars, particularly college sports teams. These then participate in matches with other colleges.

This makes sports really accessible, with most college teams open to beginners, while more competitive sports players can play for the university as a whole. I’ve been able to start football and play for my college, despite not having played properly before starting university.

The system also has academic benefits, as the small number studying your subject at your college will have a number of expert tutors. You’ll have small group teaching in your college, called tutorials at Oxford and supervisions at Cambridge, which really stretch you academically.

What are the disadvantages of the collegiate system at Oxbridge?

While colleges are great for fostering community, a disadvantage of this is that sometimes it can be quite difficult to make friends outside of your college. However, attending parties or dinners hosted by other colleges, society events, and going to lectures, are good ways of meeting new people.

Another disadvantage of the collegiate system is that not all colleges offer every degree subject, so your options for colleges that you can apply to might be limited. If you can, going on a tour of colleges that offer your degree subject can help you find one that’s right for you.

As well as this, the universities of Oxford and Cambridge are very popular nationally and internationally. Some of the more famous colleges like Pembroke College, Cambridge or Balliol College, Oxford, gets lots of tourists. If you don’t want tourists constantly walking around your college, you might consider applying to one of the lesser-known colleges.

Does it matter which Oxbridge college you go to?

In some ways it does matter which Oxbridge course you go to, and in other ways it doesn’t. Obviously, you’ll want to go to a college that actually offers your course, so in that sense it does matter!

If you’re interested in the history of your college, the academics that currently teach there, and the facilities available, then the college you study at is probably important to you. In terms of the ‘university experience’, colleges are quite similar, so it doesn’t matter that much for student life.

Some colleges even have friendly rivalries between them. Whichever Oxbridge college you end up at, as long as you enjoy your time there, it doesn’t really matter!

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