8 Fascinating Facts About Life as an Oxford Student
About the Author
Stephanie Allen read Classics and English at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, and is currently researching a PhD in Early Modern Academic Drama at the University of Fribourg.
1. Tutorials are the best and worst thing in the world
Unlike most other British universities, where teaching is done by lectures and seminars, Oxford uses a tutorial system.
For most students (and in particular those studying arts or humanities) what this means is that twice a week, they research and write a 2000-word essay, and then spend an hour either one-on-one, or in groups of two or three, discussing that essay and the topic it covers with their tutor. Now, considering that the researchers and professors at Oxford are among the leading experts in their subject in the whole wide world, this is a pretty amazing opportunity; to spend a few days learning all about something that interests you, put your thoughts on that topic into words, and then discuss your opinion with the person who probably wrote half the books on your reading list.
Some (ahem – most?) students find it quite hard to concentrate on learning all about a topic that interests them, most of the time. Despite their noble intentions, they somehow manage to while away whole days strategising about how to attract the attention of the beguiling-looking Philosophy student sitting opposite them in the Bodleian library, reading all the university gossip in the Cherwell newspaper and looking at pictures of cats in tights on the internet. Allowing for all these other tasks and pursuits, the normal amount of time left over to research and write the 2000-word essay is approximately one night. And despite what a student might confidently reassure herself at 6pm on the evening of that night, fifteen sleepless hours is definitely not enough time to read 5 articles and write an essay you can spend an hour discussing with someone who knows literally everything about the topic.
Tutorials in this case are among the most toe-curlingly awful experiences one can have; from the moment you turn up, pale, jittery and probably quite smelly after a night of no sleep and far too much coffee, to the total horror of your tutor saying ‘I haven’t had time to read your essay, since you sent it so late – can you read it out?’, to the final insult, being asked to elaborate on a point you’ve stolen word-for-word from an academic essay and don’t understand at all. I once saw a friend turn a shocking shade of purple and almost swallow her own tongue when she realised, half-way through a tutorial on Francis Bacon, that the two books she’d plagiarised freely at 2am the night before to form the entire basis of her essay were both by our tutor. Yuck.
Oxford University is made up of 44 smaller colleges, where students live, study, eat and socialise. When you apply to Oxford, you actually apply to one of these colleges, and the one you end up in will determine quite a lot about your experience at the university: most students will make friends in their college, go to its social events, play on its sports teams, live in its accommodation and work in its library. There’s actually quite a lot of variation in the Oxford experience according to which college you go to; some, like Exeter or Hertford in the centre of town, are smaller and have fewer students; others, like St Anne’s or Somerville, are bigger and further from town. Some are sporty, like Keble, Teddy Hall or St Catz, while at others the social scene is more focused on Union politics, or drama. And it’s no myth – the student attitude towards work varies from college to college. Students from Merton, for example, are rarely spotted outdoors, and when they are, they’re probably pale and spotty, wearing glasses as thick as bottle stops and struggling under a huge pile of books.
Not surprisingly, there’s a tradition of rivalry between the different colleges, which are known for having their own, distinct character. Oriel, for example is often referred to as ‘Toriel’ because of its long tradition of conservatism, while Wadham is known for being fun, forward-thinking and liberal – and Christ Church, quite simply, is Slytherin.
3. There is one college you will never, ever go to
One side of Radcliffe Square is occupied by what looks like a huge, white medieval fortress, separated from the rest of the town by 30-foot walls and a huge cast-iron gate. Inside, nothing disturbs the pristine stillness; the lawn is always perfectly mowed and trimmed, and no one ever walks on the grass. All Souls is one of Oxford’s most elusive and mysterious institutions; a college founded in the 1400s, which stopped accepting undergraduates in the 19th century.
The college accepts up to two new members a year from its applicants, and has a total of 76 members who receive free accommodation and food in Oxford, and a generous allowance on top to fund their research. If that sounds like a good deal, then the application process is simple: just be a genius and you should be fine.
The college invites applications from those who’ve already achieved the very best undergraduate degrees in the country, and asks its applicants to sit an entrance exam once described as the hardest in the world; it only recently dispensed with the one-word exam, in which potential members had three hours to write an essay on a single word. Previous words have included ‘water’, ‘style’, ‘innocence’ and ‘conversion’. And as if that wasn’t flummoxing enough, there’s also a second, ‘general’ exam, also three hours long, that includes essay questions like, ‘Defend kitsch’, ‘Should intellectuals tweet?’ and ‘What role should disgust play in our moral decision-making?’.
4. You will socialise almost exclusively according to bizarre rituals
Why meet your friends for coffee when you can attend formal hall (a very fancy dinner that happens once a week in the presence of all the tutors, and with everyone dressed in academic robes), throw eggs and pasta sauce at students finishing their exams, or gather outside Magdalen College at 5am on May Morning to watch some of the country’s supposed brightest young sparks jump like lemmings off a bridge into waist-deep water? Why go to the pub when you could get involved in all the political intrigues of the Oxford Union, join the sports club Vinnie’s, which doesn’t allow female members and has the distinct feel of being the last little outpost of the elitist British empire, or catch a glimpse of the notorious and awful Bullingdon Club wearing their uniforms to a university ball?
The Oxford social scene is really just a collection of curious traditions that have somehow remained intact from the very, very olden days. Not all of it is good – it’s no surprise that the student population are almost always being hauled over the coals in the press for perceived sexism, for example – but it is all very idiosyncratic, and often fun, and definitely to be experienced while you’re here.
5. The town has more published authors per square mile than anywhere else in the world
I’ll confess, I’m not entirely sure how scientific the test that established this fact is – but Oxfordphiles boast that the town has more published authors per square mile than any other place in the world. Of course, the total is bolstered by all the scholars beavering busily behind the college walls on their monographs on Shakespeare or Proust, but the town is positively bursting with sites of real literary interest: a stroll down St Giles will take you past the place where JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis met as part of the Inklings writers’ group (obviously, a pub; academics love pubs) – and if you carry on far enough you’ll eventually get to Christ Church, where Lewis Carroll was inspired to write his Alice books (though you’d be forgiven for being distracted by the dining hall, the famous site of filming for the Harry Potter films). Afterwards you could wander over to the Botanic Gardens, to see the bench that forms the setting for the end of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy – honouring its literary history, the university have carved Lyra & Will into the back of the bench. And that’s just for starters: the university has historic and current links to many of our best-loved authors. Martin Amis was a student at Exeter College, Nigella Lawson went to LMH; Phillip Larkin, W.H. Auden, T.S. Elliot, Seamus Heaney, John Le Carre, Amitav Ghosh and Iris Murdoch were all here at some time or another – and I could go on, for pages and pages.
6. … And a lot of space to store their books
Oxford University has more than 100 libraries crammed together in the city centre and hundreds of miles of out-of-town book storage. As you explore Radcliffe Square, you’re actually walking on top of underground tunnels full of books that run between the famous Bodleian and Radcliffe Camera libraries. As a student here, the abundance of libraries means there are always new places to explore and treasures to find, whether it’s the hundreds of thousands of ancient manuscripts, one-off editions and other curiosities in the Special Collections reading room, or the nooks and crannies of your college library. If you’re the bookish type (which, let’s face it, if you’re thinking about becoming an Oxford student, you probably are), the city is the perfect place to get lost. What’s more, the number of libraries means that you can always find the right place to work, whether you prefer the antique wooden desks nestled in bay windows at the Taylorian, or the very modern and very purple Social Sciences Library, there’s something for every mood.
7. On Wednesdays we wear bat suits
… Well not quite bat suits. But if you walk through the town centre just before an exam, a matriculation or graduation day, or basically before the university has any opportunity at all to demand that its students don their academic dress, you could be forgiven for thinking you’d accidentally intruded upon a convocation of bats, or maybe witches.
Oxford might be the only university whose students wear a uniform for exams and other special occasions – it’s called subfusc, and consists of a black suit for men, or a black skirt and cardigan for women, with a white shirt underneath, a black ribbon round the neck, and a huge, billowing black robe with funny ties that come off the shoulders. And a hat, which you’re never, ever allowed to wear. No one really gets the point of the hat. Or any of it, actually. And what’s more, getting your subfusc right multiplies the last-minute stress of any exam by approximately a million times – the night before their Finals, the university’s poor, sad students can reliably be found not in the library, calmly re-reading their notes one last time, but instead tearing their bedroom apart in a state of blind panic, muttering something along the lines of, “WHERE IS MY BLACK RIBBON?! I had a ribbon. I bought a ribbon this morning. Where is it? How can a black ribbon just disappear? Hmmm, perhaps if I colour this bit of dish-cloth in with a black biro I can use that as a ribbon instead…?”
8. Everyone is obsessed with Latin
At my sister’s graduation from Manchester, there were speeches, poems and stories, and all the students and parents cheered each student as they went up to receive their diploma. At my graduation, by contrast, everyone sat silently, politely bemused, as a very, very old lady read out some Latin for about an hour, and then something happened involving a sceptre and lots of nods. And Oxford’s deep love for Latin does not end at graduation; matriculation, or the ceremony in which new students join the university, is also conducted in Latin; Latin prayers are read out before formal dinner and my old college, St Hugh’s, which was only founded in 1886, somewhat pretentiously prints in each book that the book is ‘ex libri Sancti Hugonis’.
And of course, you can try it out for yourself. If you like the sound of the Oxford student lifestyle, you can get a flavour of the experience by coming on one of our courses – to explore the rituals and traditions of life in Oxford, including glamorous parties, punting on the Cherwell and all the excitement of campus life.