Although I tried to go to university with as few expectations as possible, I definitely still found a few things surprising when I arrived. These are some of my hot takes – don’t let me put you off Oxford! 🔥
1. Secret Societies are a Thing
I only watched Riot Club after coming to Oxford – and I’m glad I didn’t watch it before! Riot Club definitely peddled some extreme Oxford stereotypes, and it is definitely not representative of my experience at Oxford. Riot Club is supposedly based on the Bullingdon Club, which boasts old members including David Cameron, Boris Johnson, George Osborne (funny how they’re all famous British politicians) as well as Princess Diana’s brother Charles Spencer, King Edward VIII, and many more.
Although the Bullingdon Club is now becoming obsolete, there are other secret societies (*ahem* Piers Gav). Only last year, one of the secret societies in my college ‘came out’ as it were, and are now an official dining society who invite (often controversial) guest speakers to join for the dinner. This society is no longer membership by invitation; anyone in the college can join.
Opening up secret societies is definitely a good thing – secret societies are basically a big club of friends who only let their friends join. Making them public helps increase access for people who are not from elite backgrounds and lessen the ‘posh snob’ reputation that Oxford has.
Obviously though, it’s difficult to know if some of the other, more infamous secret societies are still around because that’s what they are – secret. And no – before you ask, I’m not part of any of them (although part of me kinda wish I was…) – I’ve just heard rumours.
2. The Oxford Union is Basically Prep for Parliament
Ooh the Oxford Union. (Note: it’s a different thing to the Student Union, which runs the clubs and societies amongst other things). It’s a beautiful place but sometimes the workings on the inside get ugly. A lot of nepotism/cronyism happens, and certain people are snakier than others.
Firstly, people run for elections in ‘slates’. This is where a team is formed of an applicant from each position (President, Vice-Pres, Secretary, etc) and they band together. Usually, it’s to advocate for a certain type of change – increasing access, or suchlike. This is laudable, but things get a bit murky from here.
The candidates then get people to vote for the others on their slate, often through word of mouth. When it gets to election season, those Facebook profile frames with #voteAspire (or insert any cheesy word here) appear everywhere to try and get people to vote for a specific slate. I’ve even heard stories of one-night-stands asking their hook-up to vote for them and their slate in the election.
People in the Oxford Union aren’t supposed to support or run for positions in the Student Union, but there is definitely some cross-support going on. This can be seen as abusing a position of power. Little by little, the Union seems to be getting better though!
Joining the Oxford Union itself is expensive, at £286.34; even with a Fresher’s Fair discount it’s £257.50. I didn’t pay for the Union membership, as I don’t have the time to go to the talks (unless it’s free and I’m really interested in the speaker, like Howard Shore, or Al Jazeera’s Head to Head). And yes, the Union membership is something you can just buy – it’s not something to be touted, like I see on LinkedIn. Many talks are also available on the Oxford Union’s YouTube channel anyway – so I don’t think I’ll be getting Union membership ever, really!
3. The University Act Surprisingly Quickly if Something Gets in National News
Since Oxford University is such an old, established institution, there is a lot of red tape and bureaucracy. Things take a lot of time to change, and might even have to go through several committees. Disciplinary actions are often privately handled to maintain the institution’s reputation.
However, if something makes it to National News e.g. when UNWomen Oxford cancelled Amber Rudd’s talk, the University acts surprisingly quickly, and sometimes its reaction seems a bit random and unjustified. Generally disciplinary action occurs, sometimes the University distances itself from the event, and sometimes the University tries to explain it. There’s no official method available for us to figure out what the methodology is, and often there is no consultation with the students.
On the other hand, if something doesn’t make it to national news, the University sometimes doesn’t deal with the issue with urgency. This is clearly not the way to go – why should it wait until something makes it to national news for the University to act? It would be too late by then!
4. Interviews are Actually Not That Bad
Interviews at Oxbridge have always been seen to be gruelling, difficult and demoralising. You hear stories everywhere on The Student Room about people coming out of their interviews crying.
Whilst I can’t speak for everyone, for most people they’re just a chat with a world-leading expert in a subject you’re supposed to be interested in. They want to know if you’ll be a pleasure to teach (and whether you’re teachable), because they’re going to be teaching you for the next 3 years.
There will obviously be the odd tutor who is unforgiving and grumpy after a long day of interviews, and there will be people who react strongly to being pushed out of their comfort zone, but on the whole, interviews tend to not be as scary as people (often schools!) make them out to be.
Not as bad as people make them out to be.
5. Colleges Are Different From Each Other
5. a) Admissions
The general message from both Oxford and Cambridge is that they’re more alike than similar (which is true) and that your choice of college won’t affect your chances of getting in (which is debatable). There are systems in place to try and make the admissions process as fair as possible, such as pooling, but a look at the statistics suggest otherwise.
For example, why did Trinity College Oxford only make 55% of its offers to state schools whilst Mansfield College manage to admit 96% of its students last year from state schools? (For context, 93% of children in the UK are taught in state schools. Of course, there is a gap in exam results between state and private schools, but this is not enough to explain the poor statistic from Trinity).
5. b) Tutor Specialism and Quality
Other than the difference in demographic between colleges, there are also differences in academic tutors and their specialties. Every subject at a college will have a head tutor and maybe other tutors too, who are researchers in their own right.
This is something that’s often overlooked when applying to colleges, but it’s also not that important. I’d say pick your battles – the tutor specialism is something to consider if you want to do research in that area in the future, but bear in mind that they’ll be able to grill you if you write about it in your personal statement!
The tutor specialty is difficult to look up beforehand, as is the quality of the tutors. Colleges can have a huge variation in quality of their tutors for certain subjects – some tutors are really good, and some are not. Most are pretty ok. I’d say The Student Room probably is the best place to find out.
It’s also important to find out if you and the tutor will get along. The best way you can do this is to go to an open day and meet the tutors, but I know this won’t be possible for those of you applying this year! Something like this is really difficult to find out, and I just hoped for the best.
5. c) Food and Accommodation
There is also a difference in food quality between colleges (chicken, potatoes and rice every day for lunch and dinner, anyone?) as well as difference in accommodation availability, location, cost and quality. This is again quite difficult to figure out, but I’d say this is quite an important thing to know. Food and living conditions are things you’ll have to deal with every day!
Certain colleges also sort accommodation into ‘bands’ where higher bands have nicer rooms (en suite, maybe a bedroom + study room) with an accompanying higher price, whilst lower bands have less desirable rooms (smaller, no en suite) with a lower price. My college has a flat rate, which I agree with on principle as it means that there’s no segregation (socially or physically) between the ‘rich’ people who can afford the nice rooms and the ‘poorer’ people.
Also consider if the college runs a ‘scholar’s ballot’, where people who did well in exams get priority when choosing rooms. Although I have done well in my exams, I consider this to be a bad idea because it just helps people who did well to do even better.
5. d) Financial Support and Grants
There is also a huge difference in financial support and grants. The availability of grants doesn’t necessarily scale with the college’s wealth, either – you’ll have to look into this yourself. For me, I don’t need to buy any books so a book grant wasn’t particularly essential, but grants for travelling (for academic or non-academic purposes) were something that I definitely used!
5. e) General Giving-A-Sh*t
Some colleges are really politically active (Wadham – I’m looking at you) and some are really not (Queen’s is known for being apathetic about everything). Of course, these are stereotypes, but sometimes they are true!
Some colleges place a lot of emphasis/pressure on academic performance (the scholar’s ballot is just one manifestation of this), and some colleges less so. I’d take a little look at this too, to see which college you think suits you better.
Some colleges are also better at welfare and support than others. If you’re lucky, you won’t need it – but it’s likely that either you or your friends will at some point. Something to bear in mind.
Finally, some colleges are more rigid compared to others – this is definitely something that’s difficult to find out before you join, but you only realise the consequences once you’re in. Friendly, helpful college staff really do make a difference!
As for me, I was lucky that I didn’t mind that I lived a bit further out for my first and second years, then moved into college for my third year. I picked a great college for food and general financial support though. All in all, Queen’s is a good college for me 🙂
6. It’s Not All About Work
After the trials of IB (where I pulled an all-nighter way to often) I thought that Oxford would be more of the same, or even worse. I thought that it would be a lot of work, and very little socialising.
I was wrong!
If there’s anything I’ll take from Oxford, it’ll be a piece of paper, and memories with some of the best people I’ve ever met. This unexpected time for socialising could be because of the freedom, with no obligations in terms of cleaning or cooking if we don’t want to.
The collegiate environment also means that you live with most of your friends, and it’s easier to build up a wider network of friends. Not only that, there are so many (free!) social events going on all the time!
7. Oxford Does Weird Things With Time and Space
Oxford wreaks havoc with your sense of distance. Everything beyond a 15 minute walk is ‘far away’ (poor students at Lady Margaret Hall and St Hugh’s College – they have to walk over 15 mins just to get to a supermarket!)
Obviously this is a very privileged thing to complain about (even just compared to students in London, where a 30 minute tube ride is considered relatively close!) but how central a college is was something I didn’t consider before coming to Oxford. The only real modes of transport around the city are walking or biking – taking the bus if you have to head to a satellite town – so suddenly things seem much further away.
As an undergraduate in Oxford, we don’t refer to dates. Instead, we number the 8 weeks of term, so that the week we start term is 1st week and the last week of term is 8th week. We then refer to the days as ‘Monday of week 1’ or ‘Thursday week 5’. Today, it’s Monday of week 3.
What’s more, weeks start on a Sunday (i.e. yesterday was Sunday of week 3, and the day before was Saturday of week 2). This has always made sense to me, because my calendars have always started on a Sunday, and ‘weekend’ to me means the two ends of the week!
To everyone else though, it seems to confuse them… (Starting weeks on a Sunday makes much more sense than starting on a Thursday *ahem* Cambridge *ahem*)
It also gets weird when people arrive back in Oxford in the weeks before term starts. We often have tests in the week before term starts – this week is called ‘noughth week’ or ‘zeroth week’. But if you arrive the week before, it then becomes ‘minus oneth week’, which just gets weird!
Time also goes both really slowly and really quickly. The first few weeks seem to stretch on for a long time, but after 3rd week, time just zips past for me and suddenly I’m moving out again! The weeks feel long, but looking back on the term, it feels all too short.
These are all that I can think of for the moment – I hope these were useful or entertaining! Did any of these surprise you? Let me know in the comments!