To say that the University of Oxford’s reputation precedes itself is a massive understatement. Like Krispy Kreme donuts, it doesn’t need to advertise—they practically sell themselves. For 925 years Oxford has been synonymous with higher education and academic brilliance. Nor is it an institution than rests on its laurels. The university is currently ranked 1st in the world by Times Higher Education and it has been at the forefront of vaccine development in the fight against Covid-19.

Should I apply?

Much like its counterpart Cambridge, Oxford stands out as a north star for the studious. Its reputation across every subject and department is world-leading, as are the copious resources available to the diverse scholars who live and study there. It’s no surprise, therefore, that last year more than 23,000 students applied for undergraduate programmes and an additional 34,000 for graduate studies, with a dauntingly low 14% and 16% success rate respectively. Indeed, given these admissions statistics, it might be more appropriate to compare Oxford to the North Pole rather than to the North Star. You can easily find them on a map, but they are a long, hard slog to get there!

Some students get in on their first attempt, while others, like myself, apply more than once before gaining admittance. In that respect I wish that I’d had the help of Think Tutors when I was first applying to Oxford, since it would have helped make the admissions process both less intimidating and more efficient (not to mention efficacious)—but the upshot is that I’m at Oxford now (studying for my DPhil in history) and that both myself and others at Think Tutors can help you navigate this challenging but exhilarating endeavour.

Naturally, it goes without saying that it is more than worth the effort of applying. Studying in the city of dreaming spires is like running with Usain Bolt, cooking with Gordon Ramsey (minus the profanity), and being on stage with Beyoncé. It’s like living inside Hogwarts, Disneyland and Brideshead Revisited all at once. For there is nowhere else in the world quite like it. The libraries are the biggest and most beautiful; the colleges are the oldest and grandest; the dining halls are the most storied and splendid—and the pubs are the quaintest and their ales the most quaffable. Even bizarre traditions like college tortoise racing and Merton’s Time Ceremony are uniquely quirky and cool.

How does the application process work?

Like Cambridge, Oxford operates along a collegiate system. This means that rather than studying at the University of Oxford as such, you actually live and learn (more so at the undergraduate level) in a specific college. This could be at any one of thirty-nine different colleges or six permanent private halls (known as PPHs, which specialise in but are not limited to theological training). All of these are scattered around the centre of the city and its adjoining precincts.

How do I choose a college?

Choosing a college is a major decision. It’s not quite as important as deciding which subject to study, but it’s close. After all, it’s the colleges which directly interview and admit students to the university. One’s college is where you live and eat, learn and study, as well as socialise (and occasionally party!). There are no ‘bad’ colleges, however, only different ones. Some are well-known for their academic achievement (as measured by the number of firsts attained in a given year, as reported in The Norrington Table). While others may be known for their beauty, traditions, food, student experience, welfare support and so on. The best way to pick a college is to view their websites, watch their videos, and visit the college in person.

Personally, when choosing a college, I have always cared more about the beauty of its buildings, the quality of its food, and the centrality of its location rather than whether it had a high score on the table or if it was a ‘rich’ college (i.e., had a massive endowment). I like to focus on the things that make every day a little bit more magical, which is why I applied to (and was thankfully accepted) at Harris Manchester College.

Life at Harris Manchester is terrific for a number of reasons. First, its library is a beautiful and friendly place to study. Second, its food and dining hall are utterly fantastic, which is ideal for me, not only because I’m a glutton and love to eat, but also because I enjoy brining friends from other colleges to dine at formal dinners. Third, the college, though not large, has stunning buildings, which always give me the Hogwarts shivers. Lastly, as a small college it’s a more intimate atmosphere which I really enjoy and its location in the city centre meant that other libraries and amenities were never far away.

Applying as a post-graduate

As a doctoral student I don’t spend time in lectures and mostly work researching in the library (both in college and at the Bodleian). This past year, however, I worked both as a Junior Dean at Regent’s Park College and helped teach in the history faculty. This provided me with a great window into the current undergraduate experience at Oxford. It was encouraging to see that despite the strains and limitations of a pandemic, students were still making the most of their studies. Indeed, I didn’t encounter a single person who wished they were going to university elsewhere.

So too, in the years ahead, life at the university should return to normal. This means that everything from bops (i.e., themed college parties) and rowing to debates at the Oxford Union and student clubs should be up and running again. For me, that means once again joining other students golfing, beagling and blind wine tasting. For others it could be doing judo, choir, skiing or pretty much anything else under the sun. There are even skydiving and scuba diving clubs.

Is it worth applying?

It’s hard to put into words how magical and rewarding it is to attend Oxford. That said, it is not easy. Nothing is. The pace and the pressure can be highly demanding and that can take its toll, although there are a lot of pastoral and welfare resources available to assist with keeping calm and carrying on. But despite these challenges, the uphill climb to get into Oxford is more than worth your efforts. Likewise, at Think Tutors we’re expertly equipped to help you along your way.