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Overseas university spotlight: University of Oxford (UK)

There's a definite buzz that can be felt walking around the streets and buildings that make up the University of Oxford.


And rightly so; it's the oldest English-speaking university in the world and second oldest overall, dating back to 1096.


That's nine centuries!


Even every nook and cranny likely has its own story or historical element to it.


Here are some of the highlights from my visit to Oxford in June 2023!


Radcliffe Camera
Radcliffe Camera, or the 'Rad Cam'

Oxford colleges


If you're thinking of studying at Oxford Uni, the first thing to note is that it doesn't have an enclosed campus but rather, its buildings are interspersed throughout the city.


Department of Chemistry
Department of Chemistry
Department of Earth Science
Department of Earth Science
Department of Biology
Department of Biology
School of Pathology
School of Pathology
School of Pathology
School of Pathology
The new Life and Mind Building (for psychology/biology)
The new Life and Mind Building (for psychology/biology)
English and Law buildings
English and Law buildings
English and Law buildings
English and Law buildings
English and Law buildings
English and Law buildings
Business School (right next to the train station)
Business School (right next to the train station)

The second thing to note is that Oxford is a decentralized university made up of 39 semi-autonomous colleges (a few are graduate only).


Linacre College, one of the graduate only options
Linacre College, one of the graduate only options
Magdalen College
Magdalen College, which is set in 100 acres and includes a riverside walk and deer park

These colleges are residential (students live there for at least the first year) but are also academic communities.


Each one has its own dining hall (where many Harry Potter-esque formal meals take place), a bar, common room, library and societies.


And many even have a college pet, with tortoises being the most popular option.


Wadham College
Wadham College was founded by a woman in 1610 and is one of the larger colleges at Oxford

When students apply for admission to Oxford, in addition to applying to a specific field of study, they can select one specific college or make an open application.


However, this is the least important part of applying, as it's very common to receive an interview request from a different college -- and you take what you can get!


Students tend to choose their college based on size, location, academics (not every course is offered at every college) and/or its values.


Inside the Queen's College quad
Queen's College was founded in 1341 and is home to a stunning library


It's also worth noting that there are no longer any single-sex colleges; Hartford College, which is considered one of the more progressive, was one of the first to go co-ed in 1974.


On the flip side, the oldest college is University College, which dates back to 1249.


University College
University College, located in the very centre of Oxford

Bailiol is the second oldest (1263), and at first it taught only theology because basically the only people who could read and write at the time were monks!

Bailiol College
Bailiol College

Bailiol is known for students studying its famous PPE course (philosophy, politics and economics), as four prime ministers went there.


Colleges do also tend to have rivalries amongst one another -- especially when it comes to rowing.


Trinity College quad
Trinity College quad

Bailiol's main rival is Trinity College, as the two have had a shared wall for more than 500 years.


Trinity College
Trinity College, founded in 1555
Trinity College
Trinity College
Trinity College grounds
Trinity College grounds
Trinity College grounds

Trinity is a medium-sized college with about 460 students and tons of green space.


Trinity College grounds
Trinity College grounds
Trinity College grounds
Trinity College grounds
Outside Trinity's chapel
Outside Trinity's chapel
Trinity's chapel
Trinity's chapel

For students looking for a college that will give them the most competitive academic experience, they may want to check out the Norrington Table, which is a ranking of all colleges on how many of their students finished with a first class degree.


Merton College was top in the latest standings, and according to one student, is known as the place 'where fun goes to die.'


Merton College
Merton College's famous alumni include T.S. Eliot and JRR Tolkien
Merton College chapel
Merton College chapel
Merton College chapel
Merton College chapel

Colleges are a major part of academic and student life at Oxford.


However, although students are tied to their colleges for the duration of the program, upon graduation, the diplomas don't actually mention the name of the college -- just 'University of Oxford.'


Academics


The other unique aspect about Oxford is its teaching and learning style, which involves lectures (taught centrally in the academic buildings) and tutorials (based in the colleges).


Essentially, tutorials are weekly conversations with the leading expert in the field and 2-3 students max.


Each week, students are asked to prepare a paper, project or reading and come to the tutorial ready to discuss -- and have their arguments torn apart.


One student said, "You write a 2,000 word paper on a topic, come in to discuss it, have it picked apart, and when you leave the tutorial, you think, 'Oh, now I understand the subject.'"

In this system, it's mandatory to keep up with the reading and work outside of lectures; there's no way to hide in the back or skip a session.


For this reason, students also need to have strong time management skills, be comfortable with independent learning and able to openly debate and discuss their subject with the actual experts in that subject.


It's an extremely intense mode of study; basically, the subject that you're studying has to be the meaning of your life.

This is also why students must pass an interview in the admissions process (see below admissions section).


Oxford also operates on a 3-term system, starting with Michaelmas in mid-October to early December, Hilary from mid-January to mid-March and then Trinity from mid-April to mid-June.


Overall, the university is made up of about 26,000 students, almost half of whom are international.


It operates the world's oldest university museum (the Ashmolean), the world's largest university press (Oxford University Press) and regularly ranks as the top university in the world.


Oxford admissions


So this will likely come as no surprise, but Oxford is one of the most competitive universities in the UK when it comes to admissions.


Sure, they publish minimum entry requirements for each program, but students who are admitted are likely to have achieved well beyond the minimum scores.


In addition to the normal UK application requirements of a personal statement, reference letter and academic qualifications, Oxford requires an interview and may also require subject-specific tests and samples of written work, depending on the program.


However, the interview is not your standard 'where do you see yourself in five years' type of questioning.


On the contrary, in an Oxford interview, students may be presented with a problem, puzzle, article, etc., and asked to comment on it.


Oxford interviews are designed to be extremely hard -- but the catch is, there is usually no right or wrong answer.

The idea is to get students to stretch their minds specific to their program choice and for tutors to see how they problem-solve and think (therefore, talking out loud is recommended!).


For example, one student's interview question was: How many grains of sand do you think there are in the world?


The closest thing to the Oxford admissions interview as we know it today was actually the way Oxford students historically used to take their exams.


Back then, exams would be held orally over three days, and other students could come and watch!


The Divinity School, built in the 1400s, was the university's first examination hall.


Oxford's Divinity School
Oxford's Divinity School
Oxford's Divinity School
Oxford's Divinity School
Oxford's Divinity School
Oxford's Divinity School

The Divinity School is such a beautiful building though, and you may even recognize it from films such as Harry Potter or Mary Queen of Scots.


Oxford's Divinity School

Bodleian Library


Despite its pressure cooker academic environment, Oxford grants students with access to some of the world's best resources and the largest academic library in the UK.


The name 'Bodleian Library' actually refers to the entire network of the university's 26 libraries.


Rad Cam
Rad Cam

It was originally named after Thomas Bodley, who swooped in to save the library in the 1600s when the collection was down to only three books.


You can see the TB initials here
The TB initials engraved here is the only outward act of remembrance for him (besides the name of the library)

You can thank King Henry VIII for that; he burned the entire collection when he was angry that the Pope wouldn't grant him a divorce.


Bodleian Library
Bodleian Library

Nowadays, Oxford's collection includes more than 13 million printed items, and it is one of six copyright libraries in the UK (meaning they have a copy of every book printed in the country).


These items are housed in 153 miles of bookshelves, which means you could walk to London and back on top of them!


The Weston Library, which was also where the D-Day landings were planned
The Weston Library, which was also where the D-Day landings were planned

Perhaps most interestingly, to get a reader's card for the library, students must recite and take the Bodley Oath:


“I hereby undertake not to remove from the Library, or to mark, deface or injure in any way, any volume, document or other object belonging to it or in its custody; nor to bring into the Library or kindle therein any fire or flame, and not to smoke in the Library; and I promise to obey all rules of the Library.”

So back in the old days and pre-electricity, students had to wake up before dawn, as they could use only the light of day coming through the windows to study.


Oxford formalities


With such a long history, there are many traditions that have survived the test of time.


It starts from when new students arrive and undergo a matriculation ceremony at the Sheldonian Theatre (where graduations also take place) at the end of Fresher's Week.


The Sheldonian Theatre, designed by famous architect Christopher Wren
The Sheldonian Theatre, designed by famous architect Christopher Wren

Students dress in formal academic gear known as the sub fusc, listen to words in Latin, pledge their loyalty and are then officially added to the university's register.


Sheldonian Theatre
Sheldonian Theatre

Speaking of sub fuscs, another Oxford tradition is that students have to wear this formal apparel to exams and even formal dinners at the colleges!


The city of Oxford


An easy hourlong train ride from London, Oxford is home to about 150,000 people.


One of the first things you'll see when you arrive at the station and head toward the city centre is that it has its own castle!


Oxford Castle
Oxford Castle

It's also full of green space and waterways and has the UK's oldest Botanical Gardens.


River Cherwell
River Cherwell

Compared with its rival Cambridge, Oxford is the more lively of the two, particularly for its pubs and restaurants along Cowley Road.


Cowley Road
Cowley Road

I found my favorite coffee shop in Jericho, which has outdoor seating perfect for a glimpse at Brasenose College.


Jericho coffee outside Brasenose College

Another cool place for a quick and easy meal is Vaults & Garden, located inside University Church of St Mary the Virgin and directly opposite the Radcliffe Camera.


Inside Vaults and Garden
Vaults and Garden cafe

Fortunately, Oxford was not bombed during WWII because it's said that Hitler planned to use it as a communications centre; this means all of its historical buildings and alleyways are well-preserved.


Sunset in Oxford
Shopping street in Oxford

Other Oxford landmarks include its very own Bridge of Sighs, built in 1913 as a replica of the Bridge of Sighs in Venice (and as not to be outdone by Cambridge, who built theirs in 1831).


Oxford Bridge of Sighs
Oxford Bridge of Sighs

But unlike the others, Oxford's Bridge of Sighs is a totally useless bridge over a road!


Oxford Bridge of Sighs

In more recent history, a hidden away pub on the left-hand side of the bridge, the Turf Tavern, became famous when Bill Clinton paid it a visit whilst studying at Oxford.


I'll let you research and read the other things he got up to at this pub on your own!


Turf Tavern in Oxford
Turf Tavern in Oxford
Turf Tavern in Oxford

An even bigger name visited the university in 1931 though and gave his famous lecture on the theory of relativity.


Einstein's blackboard and handwriting are still visible today in the History of Science Museum, which also happens to be the first ever public museum in the world -- of course!


Einstein's Blackboard at the History of Science Museum
History of Science Museum

Nearby the museum is Blackwell's Bookshop, which has three miles of shelving underground -- the perfect place for a bookworm to get lost.


Blackwell's Bookshop

Lastly, for better or for worse, Oxford does bring in its fair share of tourists.


But it's no surprise; the place is just incredibly historical, beautiful and buzzing with the energy of hosting the world's leading intellectuals.


Queen's College
Queen's College

University of Oxford: Summary


The University of Oxford is one of the most special universities I have ever visited.


You don't have to be a history buff to take a delight in all the beautifully preserved buildings and architectural mastery throughout.


I found the city to be exceptionally inspiring and both peaceful and lively at the same time.


Oxford alleyways

And whilst Oxford's teaching and learning style is not for everyone, it's an unrivalled option for those who do want an intense and competitive academic experience and someone ready to work hard.


Students absolutely have to know what they want to study and be ready for the most immersive experience of their lives in that field alone.


But as a result? They'll benefit from up close and personal access to the world's leading academics who are quite literally writing the books on the subject matter itself.


 

Interested in applying for college or grad school abroad?


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G'day! My name is Sara, and I'm the founder of College Apps Abroad and a Certified Educational Planner (CEP), one of only 40 CEP's in California and 300 worldwide. I have more than 10 years of experience working in international recruitment and admissions, and I've studied and lived overseas myself in the UK, Ireland, Australia and Brazil for almost a decade. I've also worked for some of the world's top institutions, including The University of Edinburgh, the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and The University of Western Australia (UWA)!

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