Oxford College Guide – What They Do (Part One)

When it comes to the Oxford admissions process, it’s useful to know more about the collegiate system.

Keble College was founded in 1870, Oxford University

Oxford is home to over thirty residential colleges, where students eat, sleep, and have tutorials every week (photo by Alexey Arkhipov/ Shutterstock.com)

Why an Oxford College Guide is so Important

One of the most frequent points of confusion and frustration when it comes to applying for Oxford is a lack of understanding of the collegiate system. As someone who had no clue how the collegiate system worked before I got into the university, I wish I had had a guide explaining what the system was and how it works. 

The advice that was out there was contradictory and at times very annoying (some Oxford college guides even implied that picking a college has no bearing on your life whatsoever!). 

I thought I would use this space to take an opportunity to explain to you exactly how the system works! Hopefully, this particular Oxford college guide will help you to make a more informed choice about which college you might pick as part of the admissions process!

Full disclosure from future Jamie here: as I was writing this article, I realised that the number of things I needed to discuss about college life was growing, not shrinking. As I didn’t want to make you poor souls read an article as long as War and Peace, I decided to split the article into two parts. 

The first will cover the more fundamental aspects of what colleges do. The second part will focus on the more fun but non-essential parts of college life. I am biased here, but I would definitely recommend reading the second part as well as the first.

I have also written two articles providing some more in-depth advice about how to pick the right college.  Please take a look at these when you have a moment: they might help make the selection process a lot easier for you.

Right, that’s enough preamble! Let’s dive straight in!

The Oxford College Guide: The Basics

The best way to think about Oxford is that there are two(ish) levels to the place in terms of the culture and overall student experience.

Simply put, you have university-wide stuff and college-based stuff.  The university is in charge of organising your lectures, sorting out your exams, officially accepting you into the university and also organising your graduation.  

On the other hand, your college organises where you live and the tutors you have for your weekly tutorials. They also sort out your food and some social events, as well as look after your welfare and provide financial support. 

To me, this list should already dispel one myth: that the college you pick doesn’t matter. It very much does. In the following paragraphs, I will break down the functions of college a bit more. If you want to see a definitive list of all the colleges, check out this article.

The Oxford College Guide: Where You Live

In first year, you will live inside the college you picked. This determines quite a few things. 

The first is the environment: you might be living in a very modern college such as Lady Margaret Hall, or a huge old-fashioned college such as Christ Church. Some colleges have huge sports grounds and fields, others have gardens (one even has a deer park within it!). 

So, if you have an accommodation or location preference then your college choice is the chance for you to make that known.  

Different colleges guarantee different degrees of accommodation. For instance, the college I attended guaranteed accommodation for 3 years, with some colleges offering more and some offering fewer years. Most colleges have additional campuses, houses, and flats that people can live in beyond their first year of study.

The second implication of this is that the college you will pick dictates who you live with. You will be living on the university campus with your entire year group at Oxford in your first year. 

For most people, a huge chunk of their social life is orientated around the college. I have heard people compare the experience to boarding school (with a lot more freedom of course!). Most people spend time together with people from their college: that’s your social base. 

Of course, this isn’t true for everyone. There are plenty of opportunities to meet people outside of your college. Social opportunities include club nights, society events, and lectures. However, from my experience, most people primarily hung out with peers from college.

College is also the place where you will do a lot of logistical things, such as your laundry or cooking. All colleges have facilities that you use to be able to sort out your life. The university itself doesn’t provide any of these things for you.

Tutorials in College

Professors and teaching staff are not just affiliated with the university, but they are also affiliated with a college. This means that a lot of the time professors will be walking around college, with their main office potentially being within the college. 

Therefore, when you have tutorials you will likely have them with the professors in your college. Professors tend to study exceptionally specific subject matter, however, so there will be some instances where your own college will not have a professor or teacher who is qualified to teach you a certain module. When this happens, you are sent to have the tutorial at another college with a suitable professor.

The professor in your college also is the one who organises tutorials for you. You tell this professor which modules you want to study. In turn, they will find the relevant faculty members from inside or outside the college and then put the two of you into contact to organise when you will be having sessions. 

This is the case for most subjects, but there are some subjects that have so few students that the university itself will organise tutorials (the only one that comes to mind is the Biomedical Sciences course). 

The tutors at your college also determine which order you will take your modules in during your first year. It’s useful to note that they also are the ones who are likely to interview you if you make it to that stage.

Another important thing to note here is that not all Oxford colleges offer or cater to every course. For instance, my college didn’t offer History and Politics, nor did it offer the Biology or Computer Science degrees. So, when doing your research make sure to double-check whether the colleges you are looking at do offer your course.

Christ Church hall, 2017, the University of Oxford

Attending formal dinners in dining halls, such as this one at Christ Church college, can result in memorable evenings (photo by Aeypix/ Shutterstock.com)

Catering and Food

College is also in charge of sorting out food for you. The way that colleges handle food varies massively, but the general gist is the following: colleges tend to offer dinner and lunch (there is only one college I know of that doesn’t offer lunch) and some also offer breakfast. 

These are full meals that include things like desserts, side dishes, soups, and other such things. Colleges tend to offer a variety of foods, such as vegan, vegetarian, Kosher, and Halal options. 

It is important to note that some colleges offer more variety than others, so if you have dietary requirements (especially ones related to religious needs) then you should triple check when doing research. Students are trying to make the college food options more inclusive and diverse across campus, but the unfortunate reality is that the university needs to do a lot more to fix up on this front.

The dining experience in most colleges is pleasant. You can eat in the dining halls, which tend to be beautiful (if a tiny bit intimidating!) but you can take food to your room, eat out in the gardens or courtyard or wherever you want really. 

The quality of food varies between colleges as well, with some being known to have much nicer food than others. Prices also vary with colleges; some places have much cheaper dining costs than other places.


Some students prefer to cook for themselves, and all colleges do have at least one kitchen on-site for students to cook in. However, the practicality of cooking for yourself is quite questionable. For example, roughly 300 or so people lived in my college and between us all, there was only one kitchen. Not only this, but the kitchen was tiny (about two oven lengths wide and five oven lengths long) so only three people could cook in them at once. 

On top of this, Oxford degrees are notoriously intense so you might not have the time or energy to cook. The net result is that most people end up eating in halls in their first year. As people move onto alternative accommodation in the second year and beyond,  cooking for yourself becomes more normal (even though many people still stick to the trusty dining hall food).


Colleges also organise formals. These are three or four-course meals where you dress up formally (including your gowns) and get given higher-than-average-quality food along with wine. 

Unsurprisingly, these meals tend to be more expensive than the average meal at college but can actually be cheaper than eating out. Once again this depends on the college, but at my college, I have been able to get three-course meals for four or five pounds more than my average Nando’s order! 

Colleges also organise special formals for certain events: these include things such as Christmas formals, subject formals, parents’ dinners, and halfway hall (a celebration of getting halfway through your degree).

The Oxford College Guide: Student Welfare

The college you attend is also in charge of your welfare. There are several ways that this comes about. The first is through your tutors. Not only are they your academic tutors but they also keep an eye on how you are doing in general. 

Beyond this, each college has welfare reps: these are students who receive specialist training. You can go to talk to them about any issue you are facing, no matter how big or small. More formally, there are deans who you can also contact: there is one of them on every college site.

Additionally, all colleges are associated with a GP that you have to sign up for.  I don’t know if this is true for every college, but several colleges have a college nurse that can help you with physical and mental health concerns.


Each college also has a chapel. The head of the chapel or church is the chief welfare officer in college. They have a lot of power and can address some of your concerns and you can arrange to have meetings with them. 

Chapels also put together welfare events. They have to be neutral in their job, so the advice they give is not allowed to be based on religion: the welfare officer is a secular role, so discussing matters such as contraception and other sensitive issues will not lead to you being judged in a certain way.

Most colleges have student bodies that also organise welfare events for their students as well. For example, in our college, they organised welfare tea weekly for students. Essentially it was free food every Wednesday and an opportunity for everyone to socialise. 

Oxford terms are organised in eight-week blocks. The fifth week is typically the most draining for students, leading to a week of a motivational rut called the fifth-week blues. 

Colleges tend to spend extra money this week trying to keep students happy. One time, we had alpacas come into our college gardens and we could pet them all day! 

Our college also had a professional masseuse come in to give people half-hour massages. People also could anonymously donate cookies to others with positive messages in them. The specific mental health strategies vary from college to college.

Libraries and On-Site Resources

Each college also has a library for students to study in. Most of them are open 24-hours, but they all have their own rewards and drawbacks. Some of them are a lot smaller than others, giving off a cosier vibe. Others are a lot larger but feel less personal. 

Some libraries have toilets in them and others don’t. Some have additional quirks: for instance, there is an extra library at Mansfield College that just stocks up books that students studying PPE would need. 

Libraries also work as a sort of social hub: nothing helps you build friendships more than being stuck in the library at 3 am with other people frantically trying to write essays due in at 9 that morning!

Financial Support

Oxford can be quite expensive, especially if you don’t come from an affluent background. Colleges offer financial support to students who are going through tough periods of time. 

Make no mistake: this support isn’t the equivalent of student finance, where you will get a lot of additional money. However, the college is willing to adjust and help you with financial matters. 

Smaller instances of this would be requesting a delay in rent payment or potentially reducing it. In more serious cases, there are opportunities for you to apply for hardship funds, which are specifically put together for students who are facing an immediate financial struggle. 

You typically have to send proof of struggle to the college for this, which might seem a bit embarrassing, but it can take a lot off your plate.

Two things that students shouldn’t sleep on are the grants and bursaries that aren’t related to financial hardship. 

An example of this would be travel grants. Oxbridge loves students to broaden their horizons through things such as travel, so are willing to contribute toward travel expenses. For instance, I had been on holiday once before I went to Oxford, and my college offered me a travel grant to go to Italy, which was phenomenal and lowered my living costs quite a bit. On top of this, there are prizes and awards for academic and sports performance.

Wrapping up the (First) Oxford College Guide

So, there we have it! I hope this has served as a great introduction to how the Oxford Collegiate system works. There is a lot to think about each college has quite a lot to offer.  

The Oxford Collegiate system is quite odd, but once you wrap your head around it, you might end up preferring this way of doing things. 

As I mentioned at the start of this article, there is a second part to the Oxford College Guide which focuses on some of the more fun aspects of college life. 

If you liked this Oxford College Guide and attending an Oxford college sounds like something you want to do, get in touch with us for a free consultation: we would love to boost your chances of success!

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