When it comes to international students, Oxford could do a better job of explaining the college system and the differences between the colleges. To most aspiring Oxford graduates from abroad, the choice of college is just one of hundreds of boxes to be filled in on the application. More than half of the international graduates who I polled chose their college more on the basis of its location than any other factor.
After a year here, I have come to appreciate differing collegiate cultures. To some extent, that is embedded in a way that really carries over from year to year. At another level, there are fairly wild swings in demographics, temperments, and styles of relationships; this is because a great deal about the graduate intake of colleges is random. If people had a better sense of what (if anything) the Oxford colleges stand for, beyond what reading a few pages in Wikipedia might offer, it might serve both to improve their own experiences here and strengthen and foster the development of distinctive cultures at different colleges.
I chose Wadham College primarily because Sarah P recommended it, and because it seemed to be old, central, and have nice grounds. It has a reputation for being left wing, but I have never seen any actual political energy expended there. The Queer Bop, far from being some kind of affirmation of homosexual equality, is mostly just a self-indulgent and hedonistic heterosexual booze fest. The single best thing about Wadham is probably the beauty of the grounds and gardens but, given that it is not an especially famous college, no Oxford student would have the slightest trouble visiting those unhindered by the kind of bowler-hatted bouncers I have been threatened and expelled by at Magdalen, University, and Christ Church. All things considered, I do not regret the choice, on the whole, even if I do look with envy at the international relations collections held by the libraries at Nuffield and Saint Antony’s.
For incoming graduate students of politics or international relations, I would recommend either applying to Saint Antony’s – if you care about being with a large group of graduates with similar interests and good facilities serving them – or one of the very old, grand colleges – if you care more about the ivied Oxford punting side of things than which books will be in your library. Options in the latter camp include Magdalen (perhaps the most attractive college), Christ Church, University, Merton, and New (founded in 1379). Those are all fairly central, as well. Balliol, Trinity, Exeter, and St. John’s are all nice, central colleges that I know too little about to speak on with any authority.
I am especially interested in what other Oxonians may have to say about all of this. Doubtless, there are many who will disagree, and, quite possibly, some who will take offense to seeing this or that college characterized in this or that way. I only have extensive experience with Wadham, Saint Cross, Nuffield, and Saint Antony’s. Thus, anything written about other colleges should be considered little better than hearsay.
[Update: 7:45pm] All comments above about libraries pertain only to international relations collections. Those studying other things may be presented with an entirely different spectrum of appeal.