Studying English Language And Literature At Oxford | A Students Experience

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The University of Oxford has consistently ranked as one of, if not the best university in the world to study English at. For prospective students, this can definitely make the university feel quite intimidating – I know I definitely felt that way when I applied! I didn’t have anyone I could ask for advice, so there was always one question on my mind: what is it actually like to study English Language and Literature at the University of Oxford?

In this article, I’ll be breaking down what it’s like to study English at Oxford, so keep reading to find out all about it!

Course structure and specification

The course specification for English Language and Literature is quite broad, which is why I’m here to offer a breakdown!

In first year, you will study for 4 different papers. These can be seen in the list below:

  • Introduction to English language and literature: this paper is split into two – language theory and literary theory. You will study key literary theorists like Barthes and Foucault.
  • Early medieval literature 650-1350: this is the Old English paper, featuring texts such as Beowulf.
  • Literature in English 1830-1910: this is the Victorian paper, studying authors such as Robert Browning, Christina Rossetti, and Oscar Wilde, to name a few!
  • Literature in English 1910-present: this is the modernism paper, on writers like Virginia Woolf and T.S. Eliot.

After first year, the course splits into two: Course I covers literature from 1350-1830 (broken up into modules), and Course II covers Old English and Middle English (650-1550). You will choose your course during the last term of first year!

For a more detailed breakdown of the English Language and Literature course after first year, check out this page on the University of Oxford website.

How does studying English at Oxford change between colleges?

Oxford is not one centralised campus: it’s made up of over 30 different colleges all across the city, that essentially function as mini-university-campuses.

Although colleges will all follow the same guidelines in what to teach for the English course, the way that the course is taught can vary between colleges.

For example, at my college I was only given a general reading list and I was allowed to choose the author/topic I wrote on each week. However, my friends at another college were given a specific week-by-week reading list and couldn’t choose their topics.

As well as this, which papers the colleges teach each term can vary. For example, you might study Shakespeare in the second term of second year, but someone at another college might not study it until third term.

English at Oxford: timetable and contact hours

English Language and Literature has one of the lowest contact hours out of all the undergraduate degrees at Oxford.

In a typical day, I’ll probably attend a couple of lectures, or maybe a lecture and then a class, or maybe a class and a tutorial. On average, I have around 10 contact hours a week.

Below is an example of a week for an English student at Oxford:

  • Monday: Two lectures (2 hours)
  • Tuesday: One lecture, one class (2-3 hours)
  • Wednesday: One lecture (1 hour)
  • Thursday: One lecture, one tutorial (2 hours)
  • Friday: Two lectures, one class (3-4 hours).
  • Total contact hours: 10-12 hours.

Of course, this is just an example, and your timetable might look quite different. As well as this, ‘contact hours’ only refer to the hours you’re spending in contact with tutors or academic staff (like lecturers).

Contact hours are different to the hours you might spend studying or writing an essay. In between or after my lectures/classes, I normally spend a few hours in the library or studying in my room!

Studying English at Oxford is very independent, and it’s completely up to you to organise your day, so you can have more or less contact hours than this.

How many lectures do you get a week studying English at Oxford?

Unlike other degrees at Oxford, most lectures for the English Language and Literature course are not mandatory. Some lectures will still be mandatory, but it’ll be made clear which ones are and which aren’t.

You will be given a lecture timetable for the whole term at the start of term. Having a timetable is great because it means you can plan in advance which lectures you’d like to attend!

My tutors recommended attending around 3-5 lectures a week, but your tutors may recommend more or less.

You definitely don’t need to go to every single lecture. I’d recommend only picking the ones that interest you (and work with your schedule).

I personally try to attend at least one lecture every day, sometimes two if there’s a lecture on a topic I like or will find helpful. Lectures are always 1 hour, and there are no lectures on weekends!

Lectures are also recorded and kept online for two weeks. Therefore, if you miss a lecture for whatever reason, or it clashes with a class, you can catch up online!

For English students, lectures are always held in the English Faculty. Occasionally, a lecture series might be held in the Examination Schools, but this is rare.

How many seminars do you have per week studying English at Oxford University?

As I’ve mentioned earlier, colleges at Oxford teach the course differently, so the number of seminars you have will depend on your tutors and college.

Typically, you will study 2 or 3 papers at the same time per term at Oxford. This means you will normally have around 3 seminars a week.

However, it may be less on some weeks and more on others. For example, you might have seminars for one paper every week, and seminars for another paper every 2 weeks. This means that some weeks you’ll have 3 seminars, and other weeks only 2, or 1.

You will definitely have 1 seminar a week as an absolute minimum. Seminars are around 1-2 hours long and are in-college.

As mentioned earlier in the article, contact hours for English are quite low compared to other subjects. Seminars don’t take up much of your timetable at all.

What are the English Language and Literature class sizes at Oxford University?

The size of your cohort will vary by year and by college. For example, looking at data provided by the University of Oxford, there are currently 688 undergraduate students studying English Language and Literature at Oxford.

Split across the different undergraduate colleges, this works out at approximately 22 people per college. You can find this data and more on the ‘Student numbers’ section of the University of Oxford’s website, linked here.

However, it may be more or less than this. For me personally, my cohort was around 10 people in my first year.

The size of your class will also vary by module. After all, some students who take Joint Honours degrees such as Classics and English will share papers.

Class sizes will also vary by year, when the course splits. Generally, Course I is a lot more popular than Course II, so class sizes will be bigger for students on Course I.

However, from a general standpoint, the size of English classes at Oxford are quite small. They will definitely be smaller than the average secondary school class at GCSE level. Classes might be around the same size or slightly bigger than sixth form classes.

How hard is it to study English at Oxford?

Of course, how hard it is to study a degree is subjective and down to your own personal strengths and weaknesses. However, in my personal opinion, English is a relatively academically challenging degree.

I would personally argue that there are harder degrees to study at Oxford (such as Medicine, or Maths, for example). However, that is just my opinion, and you may feel differently!

English at Oxford can be quite demanding at times. You are constantly having to read and analyse texts, and when you aren’t doing that, you’re writing essays on them! You certainly can’t put in the minimum effort for English.

However, you do also get quite a lot of free time, compared to degrees where lectures are mandatory, for example.

English is definitely an academically challenging course, but it is also quite flexible. This is why I think it’s quite middle-of-the-road when it comes to difficulty.

How many exams do you have for English at Oxford?

The English course at Oxford is structured quite differently to other courses: everybody does the same exam papers for first year, and then the course splits into two courses.

Earlier in this article I went through the specification for studying English Language and Literature, so for all the details, check out that section. This will just be a breakdown of the exams.

For your first year, you will have to sit four exams, shown in the table below:

Exam Title Duration
Paper 1 Introduction to English Language (Paper 1A) and Literature (Paper 1B). Coursework paper, two essays to be written over 2 working weeks.
Paper 2 Early medieval literature 650-1350 In-person exam, 3 essays in 3 hours.
Paper 3 Literature in English 1830-1910 In-person exam, 3 essays in 3 hours.
Paper 4 Literature in English 1910-present In-person exam, 3 essays in 3 hours.

Then the course splits into two different courses, Course I and Course II. The table below shows the exam papers for Courses I and II:

Exam Course
Literature in English 1350-1550 Course I and Course II
Literature in English 1550-1660 Course I
Literature in English 1660-1760 Course I
Literature in English 1760-1830 Course I
Shakespeare Course I or Course II (choice of option)
Literature in English 650-1100 Course II
Medieval English and related literatures 1066-1550 Course II
The history of the English language to c.1800 Course II
The material text Course II (other choice of option)

Both courses also have to sit a ‘special options paper’, which is one extended essay on a particular theme, and write a dissertation.

For the exam overview, check out this page of the University of Oxford website.

How is English at Oxford different to English at sixth form?

Studying English at Oxford is very different to sixth form.

For example, the sheer volume of literature you will have to read increases massively from sixth form to Oxford. This jump is manageable, so don’t let it intimidate you! However, you’ll definitely be pushed a lot more.

Assessments are also a lot more regular: you will probably have weekly or fortnightly essays all on different topics at Oxford. In comparison, sixth form is much more about learning the content.

Oxford is also a lot more independent: you will have to research and read most of your texts yourself, instead of going through them as a ‘class’ like in sixth form.

That doesn’t mean the skills you learned at A-Level are useless, though – you will just be building on them, instead of maintaining them at the same level. If you are currently studying English at A-Level check out this article and this article from Think Student to discover how to revise for English Literature and English Language respectively.

Whereas in sixth form you produce work to fit a mark scheme, Oxford doesn’t encourage that at all, and essays are more about finding your personal style and interests. They won’t be graded.

The first year of the Oxford English course is quite relaxed. Although it definitely seems stressful from the outside, once you really get into it you learn what to do quite quickly!

What are the resources available for a student studying English at Oxford?

There are plenty of resources available for students studying English at Oxford. For starters, there are so many libraries at your disposal!

Your college will have at least one library, but there are also several others in the city (as stated earlier, Oxford is not one centralised campus, so there are university buildings all over Oxford!).

For example, there is the Radcliffe Camera (known to students as the RadCam), the Bodleian Libraries, the English Faculty Library, and many others.

Oxford has an online book database called SOLO: if you search for a text that you need, it will tell you which libraries in Oxford have that book, and you can collect it in person! However, note that you need an Oxford University email address for this.

Outside of libraries, there are also plenty of other resources.

You can contact your tutors by email if you ever need help, and they can recommend things to you. All the English tutors are incredibly knowledgeable, so definitely ask them for help if you need it!

Oxford’s Faculty of English also has a ‘Resources’ section on their website, which I’ve linked here. They have a wide variety of interesting topics, such as all the translations of Jane Eyre!

How do you prepare for studying English at Oxford?

The best way to prepare for studying English Language and Literature at Oxford is to just read as widely as possible.

Usually, your college will send you a reading list once your place has been confirmed after Results Day, or sometimes even before that.

While you don’t have to read everything on the list (and tutors will often recommend that you don’t), it’s definitely a good idea to aim to get about halfway through it before term starts.

If you don’t have a reading list, then as I mentioned earlier, read as much and as broadly as you can. Pick up the classics, some literary theory, and some medieval literature!

Of course, you shouldn’t neglect your preparation for university in general either, but to get a head start on English, reading is the most important. You don’t really have to do much else!

The English course at Oxford, especially in the first year, will have you reading from several time periods and in lots of different genres/forms. Try to have a few texts under your belt from several different authors and literary genres!

If you’re really stuck on which texts to start with, check out this reading list from Balliol College, Oxford. Furthermore, this article from Think Student can be a useful read to prepare for studying at Oxford University!

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