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How to choose an Oxbridge College

As if the choice between Oxford and Cambridge isn’t hard enough, these universities are unique in that they are collegiate. This means that the students are divided between different colleges which come together to form the university. Whilst the university-wide subject departments are in charge of the course structure, lectures, practicals and exams, the colleges are responsible for housing students and small-group teaching (tutorials/supervisions). Belonging to a college has many benefits, such as a tighter-knit community, targeted academic and pastoral care, and a sense of home.

Whilst open days are an excellent way to get a feel for the colleges, Oxford and Cambridge both have over 30 colleges to choose from, so it is unrealistic to try and visit all of them. With plenty of information and photos online, there is no need to have seen every single one in the flesh before you make your choice. Each university has an A-Z list of colleges on their website with the relevant links.

If you are unable to decide or you simply do not care which college you are allocated to, then you can make an open application. This does not reduce your chances of being offered a place at the University, and most students are happy at whichever college they end up at. Everyone believes that their college is the best! 

However, if you would like to make a choice, then here are some key factors to consider:

The people

The first way to slim down your choices is to research the type of students that are admitted into each college. It would be pretty sad to set your heart on a college and find out that you cannot apply!

Look at which colleges are for undergraduate or postgraduate students. Most colleges will accept undergraduates (those studying for their first degree) however some are dedicated to postgraduates.

You should also take your age into consideration, as some colleges will only accept applications from mature students (aged 21 and over).

The University of Cambridge is unique in that it has three all-women colleges, Murray Edwards College, Newnham College and Lucy Cavendish College, so your gender may be something to take into account when narrowing your choices.


Another key factor that you must research is the courses that each college teaches. Certain colleges will only teach certain subjects, so, if you have an idea of what you would like to study, you need to see where it is offered. This information can be easily found on the university or college websites.

If you have not already decided which course you would like to study, create a separate list of colleges for each subject that you would consider applying for. Make sure to come back to this before you make your final choice.

It is important to remember that certain colleges are not better for certain subjects. At whichever college your course is offered, there will be leading experts in that academic field and an equally high standard of small-group teaching. You will share the same course structure, lectures, practicals and exams as everyone on your course across the university.  

Lecture hall at a university
St Johns, Cambridge


The size of each college at Oxford or Cambridge varies greatly, so it is important to take this into consideration when deciding which one is right for you. This includes not only the size of the grounds, but also the number of students. 


Some colleges will offer on-site accomodation for the entirety of your degree, or college-owned houses, and some colleges will only offer this for part of your degree. Look at the range and amount of accommodation available.

You may also want to consider the price of the accommodation. Costs will vary across colleges and they are likely to increase annually. Information about living costs should be available across university and college websites.

Another factor is whether the accommodation is catered or self-catered. Some colleges will not have many kitchens and will encourage you to eat in the dining hall, which could either be paid for by meal or through a termly fee.  


Consider which facilities you are looking for, such as a gym, performing arts space or sports centre.

If you are concerned about disability access, check whether each college has the facilities to accommodate for students with mobility issues, as some of the buildings are old and may be inaccessible.  

Oxford and Cambridge playing fields
Christchurch, Oxford


You may wish to take into account the funding and grants offered by the college, as some will have more money available to give to students. However, remember that the university will also provide certain financial support.


Given that Oxford and Cambridge are both extremely flat cycling cities, the location of the college is not a big issue as they are all easy to get to from the city centre. However, you might like to think about whether you would prefer to be in a busy, tourist-filled city centre or tucked away in a more quiet location.


Finally, trust your instinct! If you are lucky enough to visit some colleges on an open day, you will realise that some just don’t feel right and you could easily picture yourself at others. If you cannot attend an open day, there are plenty of video tours on YouTube of each college which will help you to gain a sense of their size, appearance and layout. You can also find student testimonials online. Getting some experience of the colleges by attending a summer school is a great way to get a feel for the place.