Why Oxford Works: 10 Benefits to Studying at Oxford University
There’s clearly something special about the University of Oxford.
Let’s take a look at Oxford in the 20th century. 9 of the 19 Prime Ministers Britain had in the 20th century studied at Oxford; the second most popular higher education option with British Prime Ministers was not Cambridge, but ‘none’. It’s seventh in the world for Nobel Laureates, beating every other British university except Cambridge. Of the 7 Poet Laureates of the 20th century, 4 studied at Oxford. There are so many examples, it feels unnecessary to go on any longer about the proofs of Oxford’s success.
But what is it that Oxford and its younger rival, Cambridge, do so well? Britain has more than two world-class universities, but it’s still Oxford and Cambridge that capture the imaginations more than any other. In this article, we look at what it is that makes Oxford University not only one of the best places to study in the world, but what makes those studies so valuable for success in later life.
1. You’re surrounded by some of the smartest people in the world
You might look at Oxford’s roll-call of impressive alumni and think it doesn’t count for much. After all, they are mostly people who achieved success after they left the university, so you would just be surrounded by a group of ordinary students, like at any other university.
But you’d be wrong about that. Oxford undergraduates can expect to be taught by the leading experts in their field, because Oxford naturally attracts some of the best academics in the world and they do teach at all levels. Nor is this the kind of teaching that involves a lecturer you can barely see at the far end of an enormous lecture hall with two or three hundred students in it. The teaching at the University of Oxford is done through tutorials – one or two students plus a tutor, learning in the most intensive way possible. This means there’s nowhere to hide; in a tutorial, you will be challenged to think through and defend every point you make to someone who probably wrote the book on the topic you’re discussing with them. It’s a challenge, but if that style of learning suits you, it’ll turn you into the best student you could possibly be.
2. You get to work with them and socialise with them
All the same, it isn’t just the lecturers who are world-class at Oxford University. If you were to study there, your fellow undergraduates would also be likely to be some of the most intelligent people you will ever meet. After all, getting in doesn’t just require top grades (which are just about accessible to people who are good at rote learning and have the help of an excellent crammer) but also the ability to shine in a really tough interview.
The structure of an Oxford college is such that you don’t really mingle with non-university people. Arguably, this is one of the university’s disadvantages. But on the other hand, this means that students spend three years or more in an environment that nurtures their academic progress at all times, not just in timetabled study hours. This can lead to great opportunities to exchange ideas with your peers or even generate collaborations that wouldn’t have occurred outside of the unique collegiate environment.
The University of Oxford has long faced criticism for a lack of diversity among its student body, particularly that it’s too white and too wealthy. That’s a larger debate that there isn’t space for in this article, but what we can say is definitely true is that a wide variety of people study at Oxford. 40% of Oxford students are citizens of foreign countries; 18% of all undergraduates are from outside of the UK. More than 140 countries and territories are represented among Oxford students, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe via Guatemala and Montenegro.
The students of the University of Oxford inevitably do fall into a particular mould – they’re articulate, they’re driven and above all, they’re academically gifted – but within that at Oxford you meet a huge variety of people, not just from different nations but from different backgrounds and different parts of the UK. Many other universities become the university of choice for a particular region (a third of University of Glasgow students are local) or a particular subject (think of UEA and creative degrees) or even a particular hobby (like Loughborough and sports), while Oxford is straightforwardly the university of the most academically talented, whatever their interests are otherwise.
4. Top employers will court you
Given all of the above, it’s not surprising that top employers want to employ Oxford graduates. 95% of Oxford graduates are employed or in further study within 6 months of graduating – and if you’re wondering why that’s a little lower than some of the competition (e.g. Bournemouth Arts University has a graduate employment rate of over 97%), it may be because Oxford graduates are employable enough to be able to take the time to find the job they want, rather than worrying about getting into employment as quickly as possible, even if the role isn’t ideal.
Third-year Oxford students get a whirlwind of careers guidance through the excellent university careers service, and also endless invitations to dinners and receptions from top employers hoping to persuade them to apply to their companies. This is particularly the case for students in subjects like Law (where firms have the money to really show off to students) but applies to a certain extent regardless of the subject.
5. You can get noticed, even as an undergraduate
Because of the prestige of Oxford, what happens there comes to national attention (even if not necessarily for the best of reasons). The election of its student union president can be reported in national newspapers. A recent campaign to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes from the front of Oriel College made not just national newspapers in Britain but was the subject of multiple editorials in leading newspapers around the world as well. There are countless examples of what might be the subject of a couple of student or local newspaper front pages at other universities making national headlines when it happens at Oxford.
All this attention means that even as an undergraduate, there is the possibility to get noticed while you’re at Oxford, whether that’s in politics, journalism, activism, debating, drama or any number of other ways. Of course, being in the right place at the right time helps – and it’s definitely the case that not all Oxford students who have been in the media spotlight wanted to be there – but going to Oxford is certainly a good start in coming to the attention of the world.
6. You can’t rest on your laurels
As the above should make clear, Oxford isn’t a university that allows people to coast through doing any less than their best. The workload – an essay a week or more in humanities subjects, and an equivalent amount of study in sciences – means that there’s no chance to rest during term-time. At other universities, there might only be a handful of essays per term, so in the last couple of weeks you can catch up with a lot of time spent intensively in the library. At Oxford, it all has to be like that. At the same time, other universities count earlier years of work towards a final degree, so students can go into their final exams knowing, perhaps, that they’ve already at least passed their degree. At Oxford, the final exams are everything, so there’s no storing up a cushion of marks beforehand.
The intensive, personal style of tutorial teaching also requires students to keep pushing themselves all the time. When there’s no class to hide in, you’re not assessed against the standards of your peers but against the standard that your tutor believes you personally to be capable of – and that can be a very tough ask.
7. You’ll never be busier
It’s clear that being a student at Oxford entails grappling with a mountain of work. But there are also a huge number of societies to get involved with, plus the usual business of having a social life. Studying at Oxford is so busy that students are strongly advised not to have a part-time job during term-time, and many colleges have rules about how many nights during term time students are allowed to spend out of their rooms as well. This is quite prescriptive, but then Oxford terms are only 8 weeks long; in other words, students are in residence at university for slightly less than half the year.
It’s no secret that graduate roles in competitive jobs require ridiculous amounts of hours. Careers like finance, journalism and law frequently require new graduates to prove themselves by arriving in the office first and leaving it last, which can mean some very long working days. But if you’re used to the study schedule of an Oxford student, you can probably take it in your stride.
8. Everyone in the world has heard of your university (even if they think it’s in London)
Who hasn’t heard of the University of Oxford? As the oldest university in Britain and tied jointly for being the most prestigious, there’s scarcely anywhere you can go where people won’t recognise the name on your CV.
Admittedly there might be a bit of confusion – witness the number of people who think that there are three universities in Britain, called Oxford, Cambridge and Oxbridge, or those who think that both Oxford and Cambridge are suburbs of London – but that won’t count against you when it comes to getting your foot in the door at interview, and a quick visit to Wikipedia should clear things up anyway.
9. You’ll learn some very specific skills
Oxford graduates don’t, in general, do particularly well in jobs that mostly depend on people doing what they’re told and not questioning things that don’t make immediate sense. The training of three years of tutorials encourages students to question and analyse everything they encounter; to think quickly and creatively; and to do their best to come up with answers and solutions even if they aren’t that well acquainted with the topic.
Outside the classroom, Oxford students pick up a whole variety of other skills, from being confident around bigwigs to being unafraid of formal situations and undaunted by buildings designed to impress. Having spent three years in the company of people more intelligent than them, Oxford students are likely to be less scared than most of speaking up in front of authority figures. David Cameron, an Oxford graduate, has been described as an “essay crisis Prime Minister” due to his tendency to do things on the fly or last minute and hope for the best, and this is one of the mixed advantages and disadvantages of an Oxford education: Oxford graduates can do a great job at short notice (they’ve had to do that every week of term for three years) but knowing that does make people relax when perhaps they ought to hurry.
10. There are few places quite like it
It’s fair to say that there is one place quite a lot like Oxford. But even between them, Oxford and Cambridge produce fewer than 8,000 graduates per year. Take out the sizeable percentage who will carry on to do further study, and that’s not a whole lot of people – it’s no wonder that employers court them so enthusiastically.
If you wanted to pick up the skills that Oxford teaches, experience the same level of academic rigour, and all in a beautiful, inspiring and historic setting – well, there really aren’t many other places you can go. It’s no wonder that so many people with aspirations to reach the top decide every year that Oxford is the place for them, however much competition and hard work is involved in getting a place.
What do you think makes Oxford graduates so successful? Let us know in the comments!
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