Oxford college selection

Ben Saunders, a fellow Oxonian blogger, just wrote a post on choosing your Oxford college, and I thought I might jump in with a few suggestions of my own. For the uninitiated, the college you choose will have a fairly big impact on your time in Oxford. It will be your major point of contact with the university administration, one place where you meet a lot of people socially, and possibly a place where you will live and/or take meals.

There are a series of important characteristics that Oxford colleges have in greater or lesser amounts, all worth considering:

  • Location (the criteria most international students seem to rely upon for selection)
  • Reputation (some are old and famous)
  • Finances (some will be able to help you financially)
  • Library resources (some have excellent subject specific libraries)

To aspiring students of international relations, I suggest you ask yourself the following: “Would I rather be at an old, famous, rich college near the middle of town or a smaller, more specialized, and much newer college on the edge?” In the former case, I would suggest somewhere like Merton. The location is good, the grounds are very nice, the chapel is stunning, and I am told they have a good bit of money to toss around. In the latter case, I would suggest St. Antony’s. It is all graduates, and pretty much everyone is working on politics, IR, or economics. You also get a library with good resources for your subject, and preferential access to a similar library at Nuffield. Nuffield is a good choice if you prefer a very quiet, sober sort of collegial environment.

That said, each of the colleges has features to recommend it. The considerations above include some that didn’t occur to me when I was making my own selection, particularly in terms of library resources. Living in a St Antony’s residence along with two of their students has allowed me to use a fair number of their facilities. Crucially, however, that does not include the library, which colleges sometimes guard jealously from outsiders. Wadham, the college I chose on account of location and a friend’s recommendation, has been very good to me and I would recommend it to people who are particularly keen to avoid the pretension that is so often a mark of the Oxford experience goes. The gardens are also very nice, especially in the spring and summer.

As Ben explains, the decision isn’t one to stress over. It is just worth doing a bit more than putting a map of Oxford on your wall and throwing a dart.

PS. One last thing to consider: as a graduate, you select one college in your application. If your program accepts you but the college does not, you will probably be assigned to one of the colleges that get the fewest applicants. This may be reason enough to avoid the really famous colleges like Christ Church and Magdalen.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

20 thoughts on “Oxford college selection”

  1. I think it matters less for graduate students – for undergrads it really is the academic and social base (not to mention the college makes the admission decisions!) For grads though there is, as you point out, the added question of whether to go to a grad-only or mixed college.

    I got the impression you’d been somewhat frustrated by Wadham in the past…

  2. Ben,

    The overall experience with Wadham has been very good. I wish I had known how small the IR section in their library is. Otherwise, I think it is a very good example of a nice, central college with a mixture of graduates and undergrads in differing subject areas.

    Lots of Canadians come here, also, because there is a scholarship for law students from Canada.

  3. … which has the really awesome advice not to apply to a college when anyone else from your school is applying there (“especially if you’re applying for the same course”).

  4. I can see why avoiding that may be wise. Still, I don’t think having a pre-existing friend or two around would really hurt your ability to socialize in the new environment.

  5. I had a friend who came to Jesus from a quite large and good Sixth Form in Cambridge. Every year they had large numbers applying to Oxford, and apaprently teachers used to actually coordinate who applied where (‘sorry, you can’t apply to Balliol because Pete is’). I should point out that of the five people from my school year who came to Oxford, two went to Christ Church.

  6. It is much more important which college you are at if you are an undergraduate and if you are not a scientist, I think (and possibly if there aren’t that many other people you know coming to Oxford). As an undergraduate, the college organises the vast majority of your teaching, at least as a non-scientist, so it obviously makes an enormous difference to the quality of your teaching. Being a scientist means conversely, at least as an undergraduate, that you are much more likely to mix with people from outside your college because you are taught with them much more. As a graduate, your college is more or less totally insignificant academically, and much less important socially. Unless you’re at St Antony’s, St Hugh’s, Wolfson or Hilda’s, I wouldn’t worry about location, since all the other colleges are within ten minutes walk of each other, especially as not all colleges will guarantee accommodation and particularly not accommodation on-site for all of a degree.

  7. My school did, indeed, coordinate which students applied to which college. I ended up at Merton (at least partially) because another girl in my year applied (successfully) to read PPE at New.
    I have a range of prejudices about assorted colleges from my undergrad days: I didn’t respect St Peter’s because it combined being architecturally ugly with poor academic performance; disliked St Catherine’s for being ugly & built in a swamp (amidst the Merton playing fields); Mansfield is IMHO too small; & Christ Church is a bit too pompous for my liking. Eveyone will likely have different views & prejudices.
    I disagree with the last poster re. location. LMH is a bloody long way from anywhere useful; plus both Anne’s & Somerville are further from Exam Schools than many folks might be keen on. It’ll may depend on what you study, though, cos people working in the Science area will find those colleges much more convenient than those visiting, say, the Philosophy Library.

  8. Great source of information here. I have just recently been accepted as a graduate student to a course at the DPIR and Linacre College and I was actually quite worried about my college choice as I had only picked Linacre because it appeared to be the closest graduate college to the Department. After having actually done some research, Linacre seems to be very focused on science subjects. Do any of you, especially those in Politics or IR, have any experiences with Lincare, good or bad, to share? Is college choice really nothing to worry about?

  9. Linacre is not so much of a college. Nobody lives there. They have no quads. I don’t think they have a library.

    College choice is very important for undergrads and somewhat important for grads.

  10. As a grad student, your choice of college is not hugely important. It affects the kind of funding you might get, and the library resources that will be close at hand.

    In short, you can have an excellent Oxford experience as a grad student from any college.

  11. I assume it isn’t particularly easy to change colleges once you’ve been accepted to one, so no real point in me stressing over it now.

  12. Changing colleges during the course of a graduate program isn’t really possible. The only chance to do so is in between a master’s degree and a doctorate. I think you’re right not to stress over it.

  13. This seems to be a kind of closed post, but since I feel quite strongly about this, I really want to leave a comment anyway…
    I completely disagree with the idea that the choice of college isn’t so important for postgrads. I’m a postgrad at Oxford myself, and I thank the heavens I picked Wolfson. Not only does it have a great librarian who will order anything for you (unlike librarians at St. Antony’s, Linacre and St. Cross, as I’ve heard from my coursemates who are going there), but it’s also a big and lively postgrad community. Which might not seem that important, but considering the only thing that saved me from utter desperation this year has been my social life here in college, it does actually matter quite a lot. Plus it’s one of the very few colleges where students can actually make a difference, since they’re highly involved in college activities (we also have one common room for everyone, fellows and students alike). I have joined in helping out the completely volunteer-run bar and am organising the refurbishment of the bar myself.
    This is not to say that it might be the best college for everybody – there are a lot more scientists than social scientists or classicists or historians, and some might consider to be quite far from the city centre (even though that is a gain in terms of setting).
    Still, I would pretty much recommend Wolfson hands down to any postgrad applying to Oxford, and I think being here has made a huge difference in terms of the positives of my experience as a postgrad here.

  14. Wednesday, March 01, 2006
    In laudem Collegii Wadhamensi

    Having lamented, a couple of posts ago, the prevailing ignorance of my Alma Mater even within the otherworldly precincts of Oxford University, it would be remiss of me not to post a short description thereof here, drop in the ocean as such a little endeavour will be.

    Most people have a somewhat ambivalent attitude towards their education and this blogger is no exception. But one’s attitude softens as one gets older and transmutes into a procession of notable images on a gently glowing background, clouded not, as in one’s teenage years, by beer and cannabis sativa but by the mists of memory. As a Marxist I must, of course, admit that Wadham College is an institution of the ruling class; but one day it will be an institution of the working class, and I don’t think turning the place into a workers’ cooperative will greatly change the atmosphere for the students. It will simply admit the college workers into that same fellowship, and exclude the occasional, mercifully rare, private-school Tory wanker.

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