How do you choose your college when you’re applying to Oxford or Cambridge?
If you’re applying to Oxbridge, you’ll have to choose a college (unless you do an open application, which is a bad idea for reasons I explain here). Just to summarise, the college you study at will be where you’ll be living throughout your degree but it is independent from your course. If you’d like to know more about how the college system works and how your college choice matters see here.
Note that I’ve made a very handy flowchart that helps you choose a college at Cambridge.
Now, here’s how I suggest you choose a college.
Your age and gender
First of all, find out which colleges you are eligible to study at. For example, some colleges only let women in, and some colleges are only for mature students. If you will be over 21 years old at the start of your degree, then you count as a mature student, and you’ll be allowed to study at a mature college. However, you can apply to any college as a mature student, so you don’t have to apply to a mature college if you don’t want to. If you do an open application to Cambridge as a mature student, you’ll be allocated a mature college.
Make sure to also check which colleges don’t offer your course, because some colleges don’t offer some courses. My college flowchart for Cambridge tells you which courses each college doesn’t offer.
The size of your college in terms of people is something you’ll also want to take into account because it could affect your college experience. Some colleges might have only about 70 people per year group, whilst some might have around 200. If you go to a smaller college, you’ll probably know a greater proportion of people in your year and your college as a whole, which might make you feel very much as part of a community. But being in a small college also means that everyone will quickly hear about everything, so chances if you get drunk and throw up in the bar, everyone will know the next day. Being in a big college means that there will be many people you won’t know or even recognise, even if you spend three years in the same college.
What a college looks like
The size of a college also affects the physical size of the college, because colleges with more people tend to have bigger grounds, and this bring me to my next point, which is what a college looks like. There are many beautiful colleges at Oxford and Cambridge, but each college is unique and some people might not like the looks of some colleges. Some of the new colleges might have some very brutalist architecture which you might not like, and some of the old colleges might be a bit too grand and proud for your liking. So have a look at the colleges and see which ones you like best. Check my YouTube channel for college tours (this might still be a work in progress).
If you have a disability or if you have specific requirements for religious reasons for example, make sure that the college you apply to is suitable for you. For example, you can check whether your college cafeteria serves halal or kosher food, or if there are wheelchair accessible rooms. If you are disabled, you might also want to take into account location, which is my next point.
The location of your college can make a big difference. Although Oxford and Cambridge are small and pretty much everything is a 5 minute cycle away, sometimes you’ll want to be closer to some things than others. A few things you’d maybe like to consider is the location of your college relative to:
- Town centre
- Your lectures
- Your labs (if you have them)
- Sports centre/gym
So if you’re thinking about choosing a college, look and see where it is on a map.
The next thing you should look at is college facilities. There’s many facilities you might be interested in, such as:
- A gym
- A nice bar
- A good library
- Sports grounds
- Music rooms
- A chapel
- Boat club
- Punts (the boaty things)
Some colleges that are by the river have access to punts that you can hire for free or for a small amount.
So depending on what you’d like to have access to, the facilities that a college has can help you decide which college to study at.
Reputation of a college is something you could consider. Some colleges have a reputation for being very academic while others have a reputation for being more sporty. A college with an academic reputation might feel like a more high pressure environment for example, though maybe you’d like to go to a college that. Some colleges are also much more prestigious than others, so if that’s something you care about then you can apply to a more prestigious college. Every year, colleges at Oxford and Cambridge are ranked based on how well finalists score in exams, and at Cambridge this league table is called the Tompkins table, while at Oxford it’s called the Norrington table.
Some colleges might have additional entry criteria, for example you might have to do be doing specific A-levels or exams. Additional entry criteria isn’t very common, but its best to make sure. You can check the website of the college to see if they have extra criteria, and if you want to be extra sure you can email the college admissions tutor.
When it comes to studying there’s no shame in being a gold digger, because richer colleges can provide you with more support. The richer colleges are often more generous with giving out bursaries and scholarships, in addition to cheaper living costs. So have a look at how rich a college is, and also have a look at the grants and scholarships that they offer because maybe you’re eligible to receive them.
Accommodation is also something that is important, because you’ll be spending a few years in your college. Most colleges offer accommodation for most years, but the quality and the location of the accommodation will vary in different years and different colleges. Research the accommodation of the colleges you’re interested in to see what the rooms are like and where they are. Some central colleges might make you live in accommodation that is quite far out because they don’t have much space in college itself. Most people live in college for the first few years, though some people choose to move out in their final years.
How not to choose a college
The most important thing to not use when deciding a college is application statistics. What I mean is that you shouldn’t look at the number of applicants for each college, because the numbers are misleading. All that the numbers say is how many students applied to a specific college, and not the quality of the applicants, which is what really matters. Even if some colleges are oversubscribed with high quality applicants, the pooling system evens out the distribution of applications and helps make the system fair. My advice is apply to the college you want to go to because it shouldn’t affect your chances of getting in, but applying to an oversubscribed could increase your chances of being pooled.
Another thing you should be careful about is choosing a college because of specific academics at the college. You might be interested in being taught by a specific academic, but the issue is that you won’t necessarily be taught by people at your college. For me for example, most of my supervisors in my 3 years at Cambridge were not people based at my college. However, you are more likely to interact with academics from your college than other colleges, so if you really want to get to know a specific academic, then applying to their college could facilitate that. Note that if the person you’re interested in is a Director of Studies (DoS) for your course at your college, you’ll definitely be interacting with them at some point in your degree.
Many schools have a policy of discouraging students from the same school applying to the same college, because they argue that colleges don’t want too many people from one school. Whether this is true I cant say because I haven’t seen any statistics for it, but what I can say is that off the top of my head I can think of 8 pairs of people who are at the same college and went to the same school. It’s possible that you’re less likely to get into a college if lots of people from you school apply to the same college, but even if that does happen I doubt that the effect is very significant. I’d say don’t let other people deter you from going to your dream college.
Finally, there’s a few things I recommend you do when it comes to choosing a college. I’ve made a detailed flowchart to help you decide which college to pick at Cambridge. Once you’ve found a college you might like to apply to, I’d recommend visiting their website and visiting the college in person if you are able to do so. I’m planning on doing a tour of each Cambridge college, so check my channel to see if this has happened yet.
Resources for choosing a college at Cambridge:
Resources for choosing a college at Oxford: