Oxford University Starter Guide | From A Current Student

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You’ve got your offer to study at Oxford University, and you’ve made the grades – congratulations! As the time comes to start thinking about actual starting university, likely moving away from home, there are lots of questions you may find yourself asking. The first few weeks as a new student are always a busy time, and often a completely different experience to anything you have done before. What do you need to pack? Does Oxford have a freshers’ week? What do the timetable and workload normally look like for an Oxford student? How different is it from other universities?

As a current Oxford student, I have had all these questions about starting. Hopefully, this article will guide you through some of the most common questions about the first few weeks, and my own experience of them.

What do you need to take to Oxford University?

Of course, the first step starts before you even arrive at university: packing. It can be really overwhelming to work out what you need, and what you will have space for.

The good thing to know is that, for the most part, the packing list for Oxford is not too different from any other university. There are plenty of examples online, for example, this comprehensive list from the UCAS website.

There are a couple of things I would advise for new students that I found out in my first couple of weeks. Firstly, make sure to check if your accommodation is fully catered.

This is different from college to college, but often, first years at Oxford will have limited access to kitchens. There’s no point bringing pots and pans from home if you won’t have a hob!

Additionally, it’s useful to have a set of formal clothes. Oxford is known for its formal dinners and occasions. While you don’t have to go to these if you don’t want to, there will normally be at least one formal dinner early in the first term for you to meet your tutors.

Don’t start worrying that you need a three-piece suit or a ball gown! It’s just worth having a pair of trousers rather than having nothing but joggers in your wardrobe when it comes to a formal occasion.

The final thing to note is that, in almost every case, you can buy anything you have forgotten. Oxford will have plenty of shops within walking distance from your college, and there is a large shopping centre. It can be easy to stress about remembering every single thing, but it’s quick and easy to buy anything from a mug to a spare charger if you find you need it.

When is the start of term at Oxford University?

Oxford (and Cambridge) University has unusually short terms compared to many other universities, typically 8 weeks in length. This means term starts a little later.

Your first term – traditionally called ‘Michaelmas term’ – will normally begin in the first couple of weeks of October. For example, the official start date for 2023 was the 8th of October. Check out this page of the Oxford website for official term dates.

However, if you are a first-year student, you will move in a week earlier than this for freshers’ week. Keep reading for more!

Is there a freshers’ week at Oxford University?

Sometimes, people think that more traditional universities like Oxford and Cambridge don’t run a freshers’ week. However, Oxford do indeed have freshers’ week, and it works in much the same way as at other universities.

As a first year, you arrive a week earlier than other students. You won’t have any formal teaching this week. Instead, there will be various activities to get you to settle into university life and meet new people. To learn more about freshers week in general check out this Think Student article.

At Oxford, you will be a member of not just the university itself, but also a particular college. For a guide to how colleges work if you are new to this system, have a look at this page from the University of Oxford website.

In freshers’ week, most of the events will be within your college. There are all sorts of things to do to keep you busy during the day and night. Often, there will be talks about welfare support and housekeeping rules from official college sources, and tours of the college and local area.

You will likely have some administration work to do as well, such as registering for a university card. Don’t forget unpacking all your luggage, too!

There will also be plenty of social events on in freshers’ week, from club nights to film nights to tea breaks in the afternoon. Whatever you enjoy, there is likely to be something for you.

Finally, at some point during the week, you will be able to go to the freshers’ fair. This is a great opportunity to join some societies and get student discounts – there’s always a popular Domino’s stall!

What is matriculation at Oxford University?

We can’t talk about starting at Oxford University without mentioning matriculation, a ceremony unique to Oxford and Cambridge. This takes place within the first couple of weeks of term, and officially marks you as a student of the university.

I certainly had no idea what to expect from the day before I did it myself. The ceremony itself is quite short, and you don’t need to do anything special yourself – you go to the central theatre and listen to a short speech.

However, students usually celebrate throughout the day, traditionally going punting in boats around the river – a key Oxford experience! Your college will usually take a formal picture before the ceremony and may also run events like a special brunch.

One thing to note is that, for the ceremony, you have to wear traditional academic dress, known as sub fusc. This involves special gowns and can become something of a tourist attraction!

Overall, matriculation is a great day to spend with new friends, and is a uniquely memorable experience, even amidst all the other changes in those first few weeks.

What does the timetable look like at Oxford University?

Normally, you’ll get your specific timetable at some point during freshers’ week. But it can be helpful to have a sense of what your average day or week will look like before you arrive.

One key aspect of the Oxford experience is tutorial teaching. These are groups of just 2 to 3 students with one tutor and are a great individual way of teaching and learning, even if they can be quite intense! Normally, you will have one or two tutorials per week, each lasting an hour.

Lectures and seminars work slightly differently depending on the subject. For humanities subjects, you are likely to have fewer formal lectures, but more reading and essay writing set to do in your own time.

In contrast, STEM subjects are more likely to have lots of lectures, as there is more set, factual content. Every day will look slightly different, but you can expect around 3 lectures per day as a rough guide. For science subjects, you will also have practicals each week.

One thing that is different about university is that you have to organise a lot of your own work. Besides taught time, you could have reading to do, essays to write, problem sheets to complete and more.

Generally, some of your day will be spent in lectures, practicals, seminars or tutorials, and some of it will be spent independently working in the library. However, there is still time in the evenings and weekends for societies and social activities, and I would encourage you to make the most of these. It’s good to find a balance between your workload and your time to relax.

How do you settle in at Oxford University?

Lots of new students worry about fitting in and making new friends at university. Particularly at Oxford, there’s sometimes a stereotype of unfriendliness, or a worry that all the students there will be in a certain clique.

However, this is certainly not what I have found. The atmosphere is friendly and welcoming, and people are really willing to talk to everyone and make friends. Remember that everyone is in the same boat, starting university, and likely going through similar experiences as you.

My best advice would be to put yourself out there. Attend lots of fresher events and talk to the people in your flat or corridor – you’ll see them around a lot!

Joining new societies is another great way to meet new friends. There are hundreds of societies to try at Oxford, whether it’s something you’ve never tried before, or something you’ve been doing for years.

Equally, the first few weeks of university can be overwhelming, so don’t feel bad to take some time to yourself. You will be at university for several years – you don’t need to experience absolutely everything in the first couple of weeks.

Additionally, a lot of new students at Oxford struggle with imposter syndrome. It’s a very academic environment, with a workload that can get intense, so it’s easy to feel like you are falling behind.

Remember you have earned your place at Oxford and deserve to be there. Struggling to adapt straight away certainly doesn’t mean you don’t belong, and you can always ask your tutors or welfare contacts for help if you need it. You can also check out this Think Student article about managing stress at university.

The first few weeks are always going to be a chaotic time, but hopefully, this article has given you some idea of what to expect. I hope you thoroughly enjoy starting university, and the years there to come!

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