Picking an Oxford College

If you’re stuck between two or three Oxford colleges during the admissions process, check out these tiebreaker factors.

Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford, 2020

Each of the 33 Oxford colleges that accept undergraduate students offers something different to applicants (photo by Ben Molyneux/ Shutterstock.com)

Picking an Oxford College: Fun, But Tricky

The University of Oxford’s collegiate system is one of the reasons that people have found the university so appealing for hundreds of years. Some find picking a college to be a fun exercise, but there are a lot of factors to consider which can make the process overwhelming.  

In this final article in my series on the subject, I will provide my thoughts on how you should go about picking an Oxford college. This whole process can be quite tricky but I am sure you will be able to decide confidently after reading all of this!

Location and “Feel” of the Place

I think the biggest consideration when picking an Oxford college is whether you like its grounds. I am also going to count “vibes” as part of the grounds factor. 

Do you like the location?  Some people like living in the centre of the town. This might be because they like the convenience of everything being close by. They also might want to live there because they like living in a more active area (which tends to come with a lot of noise). 

Others like living further out where it’s quieter, but you trade off some convenience for this. This is just a taste question: neither option is better than the other.  Some of the disadvantages can be overcome. For instance, if you cycle, then living further out won’t make that much of a difference. You’ll also be able to incorporate physical activity into your day-to-day living more easily. 

The more significant consideration is what the actual college is like. Do you like how big or small the grounds are? Some want a more intimate experience, which is what you get at the smaller colleges. 

However, some like the more grandiose experience, with some colleges practically being a mini village. The trade-off is a bigger and more extravagant college (which also tends to have more prestige), but you will feel like a small cog in a big machine. Or you could get a more personal experience but lose some of the extravagances. 

The Size of the College

Bigger colleges take in more students as well, so you should also ask yourself if you want a big cohort, or if you would rather know everyone in your college.

Of course, the grounds themselves are really important. You might want grounds that take up a lot of space. Some places have gardens, lakes, and ponds. Other places have ultra-modern buildings that are better equipped, with cleaner facilities and bigger rooms. 

Once again, these are factors that are completely up to you. If you can visit these places to see them in person, I would make sure that you do that. See if you like the college bar and its other social spaces. You will be spending a lot of time here so, make sure you like the overall “feel” of the place.

Tutorials and Academics 

Tutorials are hyped up a lot, but in reality, they aren’t too important when it comes to influencing your decision-making process for which college to choose.

They form a vital part of your learning experience, but beyond the first year, you are likely to be taught by professors outside of the college. 

Furthermore, you are unlikely to be taught the things that your professors specialise in. Even if they teach you their specialist subject, they will teach you it at a basic level because to teach you what they learn would take multiple years, rather than multiple weeks. 

It is great that you can have discussions with people who might be experts in their field (and it is nice to be able to send them emails to help you) but remember that they also have jobs, and those jobs might make them less available than you might think.

On top of this, professors and teaching staff come and go: the person you might hope to teach you might move college or leave the university before you even get there. 

Therefore, I would try not to let your potential tutors influence your college decision too much.

Food and Catering 

There are four things to consider about food: 

  • The quality,
  • The price,
  • The frequency of meals served,
  • How available the kitchens are?

If you are really into food, you might want to ask around to find out which college has the highest-quality food. To be honest, I think it will be quite hard to find out a lot of useful, consistent information about any of these things. Most students either really like or really hate the food provided by their colleges.

If you have any dietary requirements, then you should send any colleges you are interested in an email asking if they have suitable options. This is especially true if you follow a Kosher or Halal diet.

Even if you don’t care too much about the quality of the fare, you should check the price of the meals at the college.  You don’t want to attend a college where you will have to spend the vast bulk of money paying for food! 

This is especially true if you are planning to eat almost all of your meals in hall (which is what most students do in their first year). Some colleges subsidise their food and others don’t. Perhaps ask the college for a sample of what is on their menu for the week to get an understanding of this.

The Food Rota

Each college has its own food rota. Some serve three meals a day, others serve two, and some alternate depending on if it is a weekday or a weekend. Depending on your own schedule and when you could see yourself eating, this might have a substantial impact on where you end up deciding to attend. I know quite a few people who didn’t want to attend Mansfield College because they don’t serve lunch.

Finally, you should find out how many kitchens are available in the colleges that you’re interested in. My college only had one small kitchen for 300 people. This simply wasn’t sustainable, so everyone ended up eating in Hall. If you like cooking for yourself, you should prioritise a college that has a high number of accessible kitchens.

Food is quite important, so I would say it is one of the factors you should think about the most when considering which college is the best for you.

Student Welfare

Most colleges offer a decent amount of welfare support, but there is a bit of a trade-off. The bigger colleges tend to have larger budgets to handle welfare concerns and host more events, but these colleges also tend to have histories and viewpoints which don’t necessarily reflect the needs of the current student base. 

Some of these colleges are very behind when it comes to attitudes on race, gender, and class. The consequence of this is that whilst you might have more resources at your disposal, you might not be able to use them in the way you want to. 

Smaller colleges have smaller budgets, but you are more likely to have some social or personal issues dealt with better. I would investigate welfare and would definitely consider it a top five factor to think about, but not at the higher end of the list.

Libraries and Resources

On a first read, libraries might seem like an insignificant factor. As someone who didn’t use libraries before I got to Oxford, I didn’t think they would be that important, but trust me. You will use them a lot more than you think. Not just as a social space, but also for long hours of doing work. This is especially true when you have exams.

Opting for a college with a larger library is a clever idea because when it comes to exam season, it can be quite difficult to find a seat to study in smaller places. You can go to faculty libraries such as the Philosophy and Theology Faculties Library, or the Bodleian Social Science Library but they have limited hours, so they won’t be as convenient. 

I wouldn’t make a library a dealbreaker in your decision-making process. Just try to ask someone or find photos of the libraries in colleges to figure out which ones you would want to study at.

Financial Support

How important this factor is depends on your financial situation. If you are lucky enough to be living quite comfortably, then this will likely not be a factor for you. For those who come from lower incomes, I would suggest looking into some of the grant and bursary schemes that individual colleges have. 

If the college in question doesn’t have a hardship fund, or there is extraordinarily little information about their support, I would immediately remove them from your shortlist.  

There are also colleges that are known for supporting people who come from less affluent backgrounds, such as Mansfield and Wadham.

There is a Student Union group called Class Act that might be able to help assist you in your choice when it comes to this aspect of decision making. I think this is a significant factor for a lot of students, especially if income and funding are two of your top concerns.

Social Events in College

I think that potential students should also think about social events. Some colleges are more sports-focused. Others are more exam-orientated (looking at you, Merton). If you are a highly social person, I wouldn’t pick colleges like these.  

I don’t want to cause any confusion here. Every college will have a vibrant social life: it’s just some might go the extra mile.

All colleges will have bops and club nights. People also go out when they feel like it. If you don’t care about the social aspect that much, then any college will do. Heck, you might even want to avoid some colleges that are known for going out loads. 

When it comes to more relaxed non-drinking events, pretty much every college will have you covered, so you don’t need to worry too much about that. If you go on an open day, it might be a good idea to ask around. Official college pages might be deceptive on this front, so it is better to ask a student to see what they say.

Chapel and Choirs 

I would not pick a college based on its chapel. Some chapels are more pretty to look at than the others, but you should ask yourself how much time you are planning to spend there during your time at Oxford.

Even for the religious among you, there is a high chance that you will end up attending a church outside of any of the colleges that suits your beliefs more. 

Some might want to attend a college because of its choir, but almost every single college choir also auditions people who are outside of college, so you could still get into your dream choir regardless. As such, don’t think about this particular factor too much.

People of faith should also check is if the college they want to go to has a prayer room. If the answer is no, I wouldn’t recommend that college.  They are likely not to be able to cater to any other of your specific religious or spiritual needs. You would be surprised at how few colleges actually do have a prayer room.

Societies and Clubs 

The vast majority of societies that you will attend will not be college ones: they will be university-wide ones that you can attend regardless of the college you are associated with. 

Also, most colleges don’t advertise what activities they have going on because there aren’t that many.  The only time you might want to seriously think about societies is in terms of your personal identity. 

For instance, some colleges have better LGBT societies and organise more social events for BAME students than others. So, if you are from those groups, this might be something you want to take more seriously. When picking an Oxford college, societies shouldn’t really need to play too much of a factor.

Extra Perks

The way I think about factoring extra quirks into the decision-making process is by thinking of them as tiebreakers. You could have many colleges you are interested in. Some of them will have perks that you think you’d really appreciate if you went there.

If there is one perk that you know you’d use all the time, then take it seriously. Extra quirks are great so definitely think about them. I think they are the sort of things that end up winning people over. Therefore, you should factor small quirks into the equation when picking an Oxford College, but only if you’re really stuck between two or more colleges.


rugby posts on the backfields of Magdalen College, Oxford,

If you’re sporty, make sure to think about which colleges have the best reputation for intercollegiate sports and athletic facilities (photo by Carsten Medom Madsen/ Shutterstock.com)

Sport is a bit of a complicated topic. It won’t matter to some people, especially if you aren’t into sport that much.  There are three levels when it comes to considering sport as a factor in the college decision-making process: 

  1. For students who aren’t into sports, then it won’t matter how sporty the college is. Just ignore it as a factor.
  2. For students who like to play sport but aren’t SUPER into it.  You will likely be satisfied with the opportunities that come your way from general sports societies that you could sign up to, rather than ones that are focused on your college. And, you would still have the option to join your college’s teams. Therefore, you won’t need to consider sports as a factor for your choice of college. 
  3. However, if you are REALLY into sport, then it should be one of your main priorities. I would look at the grounds that the college has available to them.  For example, I know the Worcester College is great for sports facilities and grounds. It’s best to get in touch with some students to find out more about the sports side of each college. 

Overall, when it comes to picking an Oxford college, how much of a factor sport plays depends on your own personal preferences.


The JCR will end up playing a huge part in your life at college. The problem is, the people who hold positions in the JCR change every term, so it would be difficult to get a read on what your experience with the JCR would be like. 

Perhaps check to see if there have been any recent controversies (Oxford student newspapers or blogs tend to be an effective way to do this). 

Some JCRs are more active than others. Perhaps ask around to see. Remember that you always can just stay away from that aspect of college life.

Collections and Mocks 

Collections is another area that I don’t think you should consider too much when making your choice about your college. 

Yes, some colleges are more serious about Collections than others, so you might feel a bit more pressure. The worst-case scenario is that you get a mild reprimand from a tutor.

So, whilst Collections can be stressful, they aren’t high stakes. Most people wouldn’t even bring it up in a college guide. So I would not base picking an Oxford college on what the Collections are like at this particular place.

Formal Events and Balls

To be honest, I don’t think that formal balls should play a significant factor whatsoever in what College you pick. The main reason for this is that you will have opportunities to go to balls that you like the sound of, especially if you make friends with people from that college, or you keep a sharp eye on the general release. 

The choice of college you pick will impact all aspects of your life at university. Basing your choice on increasing your chances of having one very fancy night out during three years at Oxford isn’t the best move. So, picking an Oxford College based on a ball is a short-sighted decision.

Wrapping up Picking an Oxford College

So, there we have it! This is all the advice and information I have to give when it comes to picking an Oxford College.  

These four articles should give you the tools to make a smart decision about what college you will be applying for.

If you would like to talk to an expert about this, please feel free to contact A&J, who can not only help you find the right college but can guide and support you through the entire Oxford application process!

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