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College Life: The Lowdown

12th September, 2019

If you’re interested in applying to Oxford or Cambridge it’s likely you’ll have heard the word “college” come up frequently. Your application will involve either choosing a college, or making the decision to send off an open application.

But what actually is a college - and what does college life involve? Here’s our guide.

Home from home

Whilst at university, you can consider your college your home. It’s where you eat, sleep, and do your laundry - and more importantly, it’s likely to be where most of your friends are. All colleges provide first-year accommodation, and living together is a bonding experience that can form the start of lifelong friendships. There’s nothing quite like being able to walk thirty seconds down the corridor for midnight toast and a film night in with your friends.

On a less exciting (but equally important) note, it’s handy to know that every college provides halls for all their students to eat in. This usually includes three meals per day, with brunch provided at weekends. Dietary requirements will be catered for, but if this is a concern then lots of colleges also have kitchen facilities (although not all of them, so if this is important to you then consider this when choosing a college!).

International students revising for university exams with friends

Many also have alternative dining areas, such as St Anne’s’ cosy coffee shop, Balliol Buttery, and the informally nicknamed “Dicky P’s” cafe at St. Hugh’s. All of this adds up to ensure you won’t go hungry whilst in college.

Oxford University students enjoying a formal meal in their college hall

Sense of community

As well as being home to your personal group of friends, the college system creates a sense of community in the college as a whole. Sizes vary, but even in the largest colleges it’s possible to know everyone in your year. This creates an inclusive and friendly atmosphere, not often found in universities without the college system.

This even extends to work: if you end up doing a dreaded all-nighter during an essay crisis, working in a college library means there’s likely to be someone around for a much-needed 3am coffee break.


On the subject of work, it’s also important to know that most of your teaching will be in college, especially in first year. This is because tutorials are held in college with your subject tutors. This is handy as it saves time walking to and from tutorials, which is particularly useful for arts and humanities students, who might have up to four tutorials a week. In contrast, science students learn mostly through lectures and labs, which take place outside college in their department. However, all students have at least one or two tutorials per week, for which a piece of work such as an essay or problem sheet will have to be prepared.

Oxford university students in a tutorial
Cambridge University students playing sport and socializing

Sport and hobbies

University is often cited as the best place to try out new activities, whether this be taking up karate for the first time or stepping up your football hobby to the next level. However, at university level it can be competitive to make the top teams, and training often requires an intense level of time commitment. College level sport is a great intermediate step for those who just want to play some sports in their free time at a less competitive level, or try something out for the first time. Each year most sports hold an inter-collegiate “cuppers” competition, which is an informal way of putting your new skills into practice!

This isn’t limited to sports, however; most colleges also have societies for other activities such as drama, baking and journalism. And if you spot a gap where something’s missing, you can always set up your own college society!

Social spaces

Last but not least, colleges provide several spaces that allow you to socialise without having to walk more than two minutes from your room. College bars will sell both alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks for cheaper prices than can be found in town, and often do special deals on college drinks. They usually have pool tables and darts, and often host activities such as student open mic nights and quizzes, which are a great way to unwind after a long day.

All colleges also have a Junior Common Room, which is a general space with sofas and a TV for socialising - and is also where weekly JCR meetings are held. These provide opportunities to raise any concerns with the way the student body is run, and there are usually perks for those who attend, such as free pizza.

As well as this, many colleges have beautiful gardens and outdoor spaces in which students can relax. Although Oxbridge is famous for “keep off the grass” signs in college quads, many colleges open up access in the summer term, and so on sunny days students will often be found eating lunch or revising while lying on the quad.

Oxford university students study in the summer sun

Now you know what a college is, check out our sister company's tips for choosing a college here - bear in mind that not every college will offer your subject, so check this on the university website.