Oxford College General Advice: Basic Guidance

Picking your top Oxford college can feel overwhelming, so we’re here to help!

Balliol College lawn, June 2013

It’s useful to bear in mind several key factors when considering which Oxford college you should pick (photo by Andrei Nekrassov/ Shutterstock.com)

Oxford College General Advice: A Great Place to Start!

So, you have read the other two articles that have delved in-depth into what Oxford Colleges offer to prospective students. If you haven’t yet, check out these pieces on the Studying in the UK section of our website. 

You might be happy about all of the information that has been provided in these articles,  but now you are stressed because it seems like there are a billion things you need to think about when choosing which college is the best option for you.

I spent a lot of time detailing what colleges do, without giving too much specific advice for picking colleges. 

So, in the next two articles, I will detail some things you should think about when picking colleges. I will run through each of the things that a college offers students and then tell you if it’s worth your time, as well as the sort of questions you should be asking yourself.  

This Oxford College General Advice is a great launch point, but for more in-depth advice, I would look at my other article on this topic.

Oxford Colleges: The General Advice

Here is the general advice that I would give to students who don’t know where to start;

  • See if you can visit the college (or colleges) in question during a university open day. You should get a vibe for the space and this will make your final decision far better informed!
  • It’s important to keep in mind that just because you put down a choice, it doesn’t mean that you will end up going there! When people go for interviews, they are sometimes “pooled” to other colleges. This means they are invited to interview at other colleges. 
  • Sometimes those colleges will accept them. So don’t get too attached to one college!
  • Don’t spend hours and hours figuring out which college you want to go to. Some students become very obsessive about researching which colleges they would like to study at. 
  • Spending a few hours here or there looking at the college options is advisable, but if this is hour number thirty of looking and you still aren’t any closer, then perhaps take a step back for a while. 
  • You should check to see which colleges actually offer your course or degree.  The more niche the course, the fewer choices you will have. Bigger courses like PPE are offered at more than thirty colleges.
  • Doing this as your first step will help reduce the number of colleges by a large amount, hopefully making your choice simpler.

At the end of the day, you will tend to adapt to living in whichever college you end up in at Oxford. There is no such thing as a perfect college for someone: they all will enable you to have a fulfilling time at university. Therefore, try not to stress about this decision-making process too much.

A VERY Important Note

Try to get a sense of the politics of the college in question. I think this piece of advice is very important.  

People with similar political views aggregate around each other. One of my biggest regrets was not checking out the politics of the college I ended up applying to: this led to me having to have some fights with the college about issues such as racism. My college was behind the times, which certainly didn’t help.

Some colleges also have a reputation for mostly taking on rich, privileged entitled students who are known to belittle those who are worse off than them. Perhaps contact the various bodies in the student union such as the Campaign for Racial Awareness and Equality for recommendations about which colleges are better for those from marginalised groups.  

If you attend an open day, you should ask some students. However, take what they say with a grain of salt: remember they are there to represent their college. Marginalised groups, in particular, should certainly do extensive research into which colleges are the most inclusive and diverse.

A Note on Entrance Statistics and Open Offers

A lot of students try to be clever in terms of picking their college choice. They look at entrance statistics to see if they can find the college that is most likely to give them an offer for their course.

This isn’t the best way to try to get into Oxford. 

The Percentages are Misleading

There are quite a few reasons for this. The first is that a lot of the time the percentages don’t mean much because the college is working with small numbers. If one college accepts 2 out of 4 people for PPE, then you have a 50% chance. Meanwhile, another college might accept 3 out of 7 people for PPE giving you a 42% chance of getting in. 

The percentage difference seems significant, but if you look at the actual numbers, you will notice the difference is actually tiny, and the second college has more overall places up for grabs.

The Pooling Factor

On top of this, and most importantly, colleges pool applicants. There are many reasons for this, but sometimes a college will send a candidate to be interviewed at another college because they think the student would be a good fit for the other place. Due to this, a lot of the time entrance statistics don’t make much of a difference. 

Put simply, if the interviewer thinks you’re good enough for Oxford, but doesn’t have a place for you at their particular college, it’s likely that you’ll get in at another college. It’s unlikely that sub-par applicants will ever get into Oxford because they chose tactically with their college choice. Instead, the interviewer of these applicants won’t accept them, and will leave a space at their college for a high-quality pooled applicant from another college instead. 

Lowering the Entrance Rate

The next reason is the practical issues. If everyone ends up applying for the college with the highest entrance rate, it will lower the entrance rate. Other people will have the same idea as you. The net consequence would be more of you competing for the same number of spaces. This might actually lower your chances.

Interview Performance

Also, in your interview, they might ask you why you chose the college. If you just chose them for the entrance stats, then they wouldn’t be happy with that as an answer. You might try to put together a preprepared answer, but there it could sound rehearsed or non-genuine. 

You would make it far easier on yourself if you picked a place you would genuinely enjoy going to because then your enthusiasm would shine through in the interview, instead of you having to practice your best impression of an Oscar-worthy performance.

Some students are also under the impression that applying with an open offer gives you an advantage. For context, an open offer is when you don’t apply to any college specifically, you apply in general and then the University picks a college for you to interview at. 

They might send you somewhere because that college on average has fewer people applying for the same course. Some might see this as a clear way to game the system, but this is not true. The university allocates open offers to make acceptance rates as fair as possible. The only reason that you should decide to pick an open offer is if you genuinely don’t care what college you go to.  So don’t pick an open offer if you think it will increase your chances!

Oxford College General Advice Wrap Up

When doing a detailed look into colleges, please remember to keep these things in mind: 

  • Don’t become obsessive about the decision-making process: it’s likely that you’ll enjoy wherever it is that you end up.
  • Get a feel for the politics and culture of the place you’re applying to, particularly if you’re from a marginalised group. 
  • Don’t try to game the system: you won’t be able to get around the Oxford application process that way. 

Provided that you stick to this general advice, it should make your college-picking experience less headache-inducing. 

One thing that I haven’t touched on here is how the different aspects of college should factor into your decision-making. I will do so in the fourth (and final!) article in this series. 

As always, if you would like to boost your chances of getting into the University of Oxford, please contact us whenever!

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