Oxford and Cambridge are comprised of 44 (38 colleges and six permanent private halls) and 31 colleges respectively, so it’s no wonder many students are thrown into turmoil when deciding which college to choose. This article offers some helpful tips and advice for narrowing down your options and making your final choice.

Taken from Getting into Oxford and Cambridge 2020 Entry by Mat Carmody. 

Does it offer the right course?

Not every college will offer every course offered by the universities. To find out which colleges offer your course, you can see a comprehensive list at www.ox.ac.uk/admissions/undergraduate/colleges/a-z-of-colleges for Oxford and www.undergraduate.study.cam.ac.uk/colleges for Cambridge.


Do you want to be with a certain type of student?

A minority of colleges admit only certain groups of students, so if you want to be in a women-only college or with more mature students your options are limited.

Women only: Murray Edwards (formerly New Hall), Newnham and Lucy Cavendish at Cambridge.

Mature students (over 21 at matriculation) only: Hughes Hall, Lucy Cavendish, St Edmund’s and Wolfson at Cambridge; Harris Manchester and Wycliffe Hall at Oxford.


Does it have the right character?

There’s no question that each college has its distinct character, whether it is highly academic, sporty or literary. If you’re the kind of person who would rather come out with a 2.i and have captained a sports team or run student societies than strive for a First, then you may want to pick somewhere that will be sympathetic to your aspirations.

Every year, Oxford publishes the Norrington table and Cambridge the Tompkins table, which rank the colleges in order of the number of First Class degrees achieved by their students in their final exams. This may give you some indication of the colleges’ academic prowess. But beware placing too much importance on this; colleges go up and down the tables at an alarming rate and those at the top of the tables one year may find themselves halfway down the next.


What are the admissions criteria?

The colleges all have different admissions criteria for the subjects they offer. In addition to the information provided by your UCAS application, colleges may also set their own additional requirements: some may ask you to submit a few examples of school essays, which may form part of the discussion at interview; check the college to which you are applying for individual requirements.


Is the location convenient?

It’s definitely worth locating your faculty buildings and lecture halls and seeing which colleges are nearby. This may sound faintly ridiculous when most of the colleges are located quite centrally, but you will be delighted to be able to fall out of bed and be at your lecture within 10 minutes of waking up after a hard night of working or playing. Bear in mind that a lot of people cycle around Oxford and Cambridge, so you may wish to consider cycling distance and walking distance.

Equally important is the college’s location generally: consider what facilities are nearby, and whether you’d rather be right in the middle of it all or somewhere with more space to yourself.


Does it have the right facilities?

At this stage it might be useful to consult the alternative prospectus provided by students at each university (these can be found on almost every college website). Students already at Oxbridge are expert at discussing their own college’s good and bad points. Once you have read them, you can eliminate colleges that don’t have a particular facility (such as provision for sports or music). If you’re unsure, contact the college directly for clarification. You may think now that all you will do at university is study, but you will be grateful that your college has extra facilities such as a decent JCR bar with ping-pong tables or playing fields nearby or a fantastic music venue. You may not necessarily want to row for the university but you might have fun rowing for your college, for example. It’s worth doing a bit of research into what colleges offer before you make a decision.


Should I visit the college and check it out?

If you can, you should. Just a wander around the grounds and a look at the current students will probably give you a feeling that a college is or isn’t right for you, and you are bound to prefer some over others. If you are unable to attend an open day, it is still possible to get a feel for a college by visiting at another time, although you may be restricted in terms of which areas you can explore. You can also ask questions of current students and professors. Each college has its own printed prospectus, which will provide more detailed information than its entry in the university prospectus.


Should I think about the accommodation?

You’ll be spending three or four years at university and the standard and range of college accommodation varies quite dramatically from college to college. If the size and standard of room matters to you, a bit of research will pay dividends. What’s more, some colleges offer accommodation for the whole of your course, whereas at others you may find yourself competing against everyone else in the private rental sector (and ‘living out’ can prove more costly as you will have to rent a flat or house for the whole of the academic year, not just during term time).


Should I make a tactical decision?

Lots of people try to make a tactical choice based on which colleges are less popular, less centrally located, less well endowed; the theory being that somehow they’ll be easier to get into. But don’t be fooled. Just because a college is smaller or out of the way, or has fewer applicants per place offered, you should not think that this will give you a higher chance of a place. Both Oxford and Cambridge put a lot of effort into inter-college ‘moderation’ to ensure that your chances do not depend on which college you applied to. Choose your first preference based on where you think you might be happy, rather than on where you think you have the ‘best’ chance.


If you still cannot decide which college to apply to, it is possible to make an open application. An open application is where you do not choose a college; instead, you are assigned to one by the admissions board. Allocation is often to ‘less popular’ colleges; this does not make them bad colleges, simply colleges that have fewer applicants than others in the current cycle of applications. Rest assured that whichever college you end up in, by the end of your first term you will think it’s the best one!