Oxford College Guide – What They Do (Part Two)

Each Oxford college offers different perks and quirks to its prospective applicants.

Christ Church quadrangle with Tom Tower in centre of frame

Picking which college you want to apply to at the University of Oxford can feel like a daunting process (photo by MR. Travel/ Shutterstock.com)

What Was Left Out of the Oxford College Guide: Part One?

The Oxford College system is as confusing to understand as what happened in the Eurovision this year. But fear not! I am here to provide you with a definitive guide on what colleges offer their students.

The aim here is to give you a comprehensive understanding of what Oxford colleges can offer you. The sleuths among you might have noticed that this is part two. If you are curious about the more basic things that Oxford colleges offer, you should check out the first part. 

This section of the Oxford College Guide is dedicated to looking at the more niche and fun aspects of college life that some guides might overlook.

Social Events

You’ll find that your college is in charge of a lot of the social events that take place during your time at university. There are a wide variety of events that you could go to. 

For example, there are Bops. There are college parties that happen two to three times a term and are an excuse to dress up in ridiculous outfits. 

Bop themes are announced 24 hours before the party. Everyone then scrambles to find an outfit (the shoddier the better!). The college hosts the party, typically in the college bar.  A lot of people find them fun in themselves, but some like using them as a useful way to socialise before going on a club night.  

Bops also offer the chance for people to DJ, so it’s a chance to force everyone to indulge in some of their questionable music taste (not judging but really judging).

Other social events include the formal halls (mentioned in part one of this guide), as well as lunches, parents’ dinners, and traditional nights (such as the Burns Night). 

However, one thing that this Oxford College Guide won’t recommend is to base any decision of which college to pick on JUST the social aspect alone.

Chapel and Church Services

Almost every college has a chapel that hosts Church Services.  Most chapels run services weekly   The chapel also hosts occasional social events.  Every chapel has a Chaplain, who is the head of the social welfare for the college. They also are a person who can intervene when dealing with extreme welfare issues. 

The Chaplain also runs events frequently with free food, as well as running support groups and Bible studies. To be clear, the Chaplain’s job is to make sure that everyone in college has their needs attended to, so they do not advise people on a religious basis.  

For example, my Chaplain explicitly offered advice that would go against a lot of religious teaching. Chaplains also provide free contraception and often attend official events where you can discuss issues with them.

Chapels also have choirs you can sign up for. So, if you enjoy singing, joining a choir might be for you. This video will give you more of a sense of what it’s like to be in a choir.  Contrary to what you might think, choirs have some of the craziest nights out in Oxford!

The Oxford College Guide: Societies

Whilst the vast majority of societies are organised outside of college, there are several ones that are exclusive to colleges. These societies tend to be a lot smaller, and they also tend to be more specific, but it is a good opportunity to meet people in college. 

These societies also suit people who prefer close-knit groups. My college had a badminton club, a book club, and a law society. There were low in number but very enjoyable. I would not pick a college based on their societies though, as there are many university equivalents. Most people spent time outside of their college in societies rather than in those societies within it.

The Oxford College Guide: Extra Perks

Most colleges also have some extra perks and quirks. These are things that aren’t universal but are charming enough that they might convince you to join. Here is a list of the most notable special quirks:

  • Some colleges have a pet: for instance, Exeter College has a cat called Walter.
  • Many colleges include on-site gyms inside them, so for those who don’t want to trek to the university gym, you have one in your backyard.
  • Some colleges have extensive sports grounds that you can train on if you wish.
  • Some colleges own punts (boats) that you can use for free or at a discounted price, allowing you to row around Oxford with friends.
  • Magdalen College has a deer park – need I say anymore?
  • Some colleges have theatres in them for student performances.
  • Worcester College has an Amphitheatre for musical performances.
  • Many colleges also have charities that you can volunteer to be part of if you so wish.
  • Perhaps most excitingly, Exeter College has a tortoise guardian. This person provides tortoise trivia and advocates for the college to get a tortoise. The college has never had a tortoise, so this is a dummy position.

There are dozens of additional quirks beyond the ones that I have mentioned. so, if you are interested in a particular college, try to engage with some of their social media accounts or check out their website to see what you can find out more about these niche quirks and perks!

This Oxford College Guide focuses on a broader understanding of the colleges rather than looking at more specific things.

Intercollegiate Sports 

Each college also arranges sporting activities. Some of these are very casual- for instance, a tennis society where people from within the college can play against others. 

However, there are more formal college sporting activities. Colleges will have sports teams that play against other colleges in various tournaments and competitions throughout the whole year. These intercollegiate competitions are called Cuppers competitions. 

The dedication and commitment you have to give will depend greatly on the college you are at. Some organise impromptu training sessions, some have more formal plans, and others just turn up on the day. 

Most colleges have some sports fields that are used for these games and training practices. So, if you are into sports, you might want to find out if the college you’re applying to has a good reputation for competing in these intercollegiate competitions.

Quite a few social activities are linked to sports. Different sports teams might organise initiations, which are social trials that you must complete to be accepted into a team. 

Some of these tasks are mundane, but some of these tasks might be downright unpleasant, so be careful about attending events like this. Most importantly, make sure you have a good sense of your social limits before you take part in activities like this.

rowers lifting 8-man shell above their heads, Oxford

Intercollegiate rowing is an excellent activity for making friends in your college (photo by Nutfield Chase/ Shutterstock.com)


It would be ridiculous for me to mention sports without discussing rowing. Rowing is an extremely popular sport within Oxford and a lot of large-scale social activities have something to do with rowing. 

Each college has a boathouse or a rowing club. The degree of commitment and hours will depend on the college.  In general, rowing is taken seriously on the Oxford campus. Sometimes you might have to row more than five times a week, especially in the lead-up to a competition.

You don’t need previous experience to row.  You might not be able to join the top team immediately, but you can work your way up through the ranks. 

However, you do need to pass a basic swimming test to ensure that you would be fine if the boat tipped over, but the test doesn’t require you to be an Olympian (I failed it, but let’s not talk about that). The rowing teams also tend to organise things such as formals, meetups with other rowing teams, and club nights.

The Oxford College Guide: JCR

The biggest thing that I haven’t mentioned so far is the JCR. The JCR stands for the Junior Common Room, and it is likely going to have a significant impact on your life in college. The JCR refers to two terms.  Let’s go through them each individually.

The JCR can refer to the undergraduate common room.  This is a social space where people meet up. What the room has in it varies massively by college, as does the style of the room. Some have vending machines, ping pong tables, sofas, TVs, games consoles and a lot more. This is also the place where the (other) JCR has its meetings. The JCR is where a lot of interactions happen.

The JCR also describes the student body, which fulfils a similar role to what student councils in school do. However, the JCR has a LOT more responsibility and influence over what happens than your old school council used to.  

JCR Roles

There are many roles you can take within the JCR. For instance, you could be put in charge of welfare, you could be a fresher’s rep, the event’s organiser, the organiser of the college ball, women’s rep, the President, or the Vice President. 

There are many more roles than this. To make it very clear here, these roles come with a lot of work attached. You get given a budget and have to organise events, hold meetings and push for votes to have things changed in college. Some roles require formal training.

These roles can be quite fulfilling, but also stressful depending on the position you have. If you pick a role based on an identity trait, such as BAME rep, Women’s rep, or LGBT rep, then you might have to deal with some tough topics and push for policies that make the JCR more inclusive, which can be quite intense. 

The Events and Balls Manager is also quite time-consuming. This makes sense given some of the events have budgets that are in the thousands of pounds. This involves fun things like planning, but also more boring, administrative tasks like dealing with insurance policies, contract signing and health and safety concerns. So, taking up a role in the JCR means you will have an impact on your time at the college.

Putting Forward Motions

Even if you don’t take up a role with the JCR, you can still be a part of it by putting forward motions: these are policies that you want the JCR to put into place. Provided that it’s a constitutional motion (yes, each JCR has its own constitution that they publish on their website), people will have the ability to vote on it to put it into place. 

The votes happen at JCR meetings which take place every week or every two weeks in the JCR (completely not confusing). You might have to give a little speech describing why you are putting forward the motion, as well as taking part in a discussion, answering any questions or criticisms that people might have about the motion.

Of course, if you want to, you can just totally ignore the JCR, but you might miss out on the chance to make college life better. Some motions are more mundane, for example, changing the name of the title of a role, to changing how many times the college serves meat a week. 

There are also more substantial things that the JCR does such as donating money to causes such as BLM, boycotting certain products, or engaging constructively (in an educating role) with colleges that have links to human rights abuses. This is a part of the Oxford College Guide that might ruffle some feathers, but it is important to make you aware that the college community has to ask and discuss some very tough topics.

The JCR also has a hand in organising social events. There are entertainment reps who are in charge of organising club nights, as well as more chilled and informal social activities.

The Role of Collections

At the start of every term at Oxford, undergraduates undertake something called Collections. These are essentially mock exams: they don’t contribute to your final grades whatsoever. 

They are designed to give you and your tutors some sense of where you are at with the modules that you studied the term beforehand. Your tutors are the ones who set the Collections for you, and you tend to sit them within college the week before the term officially starts.

Some colleges might take Collections more seriously than others, but this isn’t that significant, as every college will make you do a Collection. This will make up a very small quantity of time at college, so I wouldn’t think about it too much. If there is an Oxford College Guide that indicates this is important, be careful about its advice!

The Oxford College Guide: Formal Balls

One final thing to discuss is that Colleges also have balls (any excuse to dress up fancy!). Balls are a five-to-eight-hour party, with lots of fun activities to do. The price of the ball varies greatly from college to college, as do the activities. 

Smaller colleges can afford to have balls on a more frequent basis: some of them have balls every year. These balls are still very fancy, but they tend to be cheaper and have a smaller amount of people coming. To be clear, when I say smaller, I mean 800 people and by cheaper, I mean £95. 

Alcohol, soft drinks, and food are all included in the cost, as well as the activities. Examples of activities at balls have been bumper cars, giant swings, drag queen performances, fortune tellers, casinos, traditional dancing, and other things on top of this.

The larger colleges have balls every three years. These are called commemoration balls, with different colleges filling in the gap each year. These balls are VERY fancy. The dress code is white-tie.  Most people don’t have white-tie attire and it can be very expensive to buy. 

As such students rent white-tie attire, which can still be very costly.  These balls have live performers, boat tours, and multiple-course dinners (e.g., a five-course meal). They also have things such as unlimited champagne. There have also been suggestions of things such as hot air balloons. The budget for these events tends to be much larger- with some having a budget in excess of a million pounds.

Price of Tickets

The price of these tickets can be all over the place, but they are comfortably in the triple-figure range. A lot of them are comfortably over £200. The Christ Church Ball costs £200 if you don’t want food. It costs £250 with a three-course meal and an extra £25 if you would like a boat tour. 

So, these balls can be pricey but might be the biggest and most extravagant party you will ever attend in your life. Additionally, if you are from a lower-income household, most balls offer a limited amount of access tickets, so that people who might have not been able to afford it can attend.

The college you go to will give you first dibs on tickets for the ball. As commemorative balls are always in high demand, some people pick their college to secure a ticket. However, given that you would only be guaranteed tickets for a ball for one of your three years there, I don’t think that this should be considered when making a choice. 

You can still go to other balls at other colleges. Someone from that college can buy you a guest ticket and there are also general release tickets. However, as I mentioned, these tickets sell out quickly.

Wrapping up the Oxford College Guide

If it isn’t clear yet, colleges offer a lot to students just beyond the basic things that you would expect from most universities. I would recommend going to visit these colleges, if possible, to get a sense of what they are like. If there is one thing you should take away from this Oxford College Guide, that would be it! 

This run-through should have you asking some questions about what sort of place you would want to study. If you need more help with this, there is always my third article to look at. 

As mentioned before, if you want some more personal advice about applying to Oxford, don’t hesitate to reach out to A&J.

I have also written an article on what it is like to study PPE at Oxford, so also feel free to check that out!

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