What Studying At Oxford Is Truly Like: Looking Back On My Three Years As An Undergraduate
Many urban myths and legends surround the university, but how many of them are actually real?
This June, I completed what have been perhaps the three most eventful and fascinating years of my life thus far. Going to Oxford had been a dream throughout my teenage days, and it still seems difficult to believe that my time there has already come to a close. I can vividly remember that October morning in 2015, unpacking and furnishing my room, a spacious ’60s flat in Trinity College, apprehensive and curious of what the next three years would hold.
In less than a month, Oxford’s freshers will be starting their first year, while aspirational sixth formers will be submitting UCAS applications and preparing for the interview process.
The university is often at the centre of much attention in the media and popular culture, leading to a variety of myths and legends surrounding it. Upon finishing my undergraduate studies there, it’s time to battle some of these stereotypes head on and reveal what being at Oxford is actually like.
1. It’s a high-octane experience
Oxford is pretty renowned for the academic intensity of its schedule. Aside from multiple lectures, humanities students will have at least one, if not two, 2,000-word essays to hand in per week, each of which will be discussed in a one-on-one manner with their tutor. At the start of every term, students face Collections, a set of informal assessments testing prior material. Finals is the ultimate marathon of resilience — in my case, 21 hours of exams over the course of 10 days, including the very memorable occasion of two (nearly) back-to-back papers, amassing to 6 hours in one go. Terms are short and the workload is high, which can make the whole experience somewhat thrilling in part (there’s a certain masochistic appeal to pulling all-nighters and scramming to find obscure books in the library), but in equal parts exhausting. Put simply, there’s no way to survive at the university if you don’t want to work hard.
2. People from all backgrounds can blend in
Let’s dissemble one myth: Oxford is not just a place for white, middle-class students. I had friends from all different ethnic, religious, and economic backgrounds, and what is more the University is generally a pretty inclusive establishment. Some colleges may be more conservative than others, but there are a lot of societies and events for LGBTQ+, BAME, and other minority groups. Not to mention, I found the place relatively liberal overall, and as a leftie myself I had no real problem fitting in. The “Bullingdon Club”-type image which is occasionally associated with the university is more an urban legend than anything else, and the vast majority of people I met in no way fit such stereotype.
Nevertheless, it can’t be denied that one’s experience of Oxford may be impacted by their financial situation. The university’s basic tuition fees are on par with many other British universities (£9,250 a year), but a “full” Oxford experience consisting of white-tie balls, guest-night formal dinners, society events, and even just going out with friends for a couple of drinks can come at a hefty price. This isn’t to say that one can’t have a good time without dishing out the big bucks (regular formals, college bops, society meetings, or Cherwell punting sessions are pretty much universally-accessible), but it is inevitable that some of the more glamorous events available may not be affordable to all students.
3. You will end up getting accustomed to its idiosyncrasies
Let’s admit it, Oxford is weird in a wonderful kind of way. It’s got its own jargon which is largely undecipherable to the outside world (“subfusc,” “rustication,” and “sconcing,” to name a few words). Its students attend exams in full academic dress while sporting colour-coded carnations, which I can recall regularly prompted tourists to ask if I was attending my graduation ceremony. You get to attend three-course dinners in gowns while being personally served. To a first-year student, the whole experience can appear somewhat surreal, almost akin to being in Harry Potter without magic (incidentally, Hogwarts’ staircase was filmed in Christ Church college). Little time will pass before you soak up all of Oxford’s idiosyncrasies, to the extent that you will be fluidly conversing in its very own vernacular.
Then again, many parts of the Oxford experience will be no different to those of any other university — you’ll be making friends, hanging out, getting hungover, hanging up on exes, and burning frozen lasagnas just as much as any other 20-year-old student.
4. Oxford is a great city to live in
To my eyes, Oxford will always remain the perfect city for a student. At 150,000 inhabitants, it’s big enough to be a bustling hub with a social life independent from its two universities, but equally small enough to be compact, calm, and largely walkable. London is also roughly a one-hour train’s ride away, meaning that the capital’s exclusive perks are never too far from reach. Above all, Oxford is an architectural gem, with a gorgeous town centre filled with Gothic spires, Baroque porticoes, and Georgian courtyards. It’s easy to forget how lucky students are to live somewhere so beautiful. Alas, the city is also pretty expensive and has a tragically high rate of homelessness, but for a student at least, it is definitely an incredibly liveable place.
5. You will get the chance to meet world-class academics
Possibly one of the best parts of the Oxford experience is the close interaction you get to have with some of the most prominent and respected scholars of our times. As a Theology & Religion student myself, there were lectures offered by Alister McGrath, the author of several well-known books and even textbooks I owned, and noted historian Diarmaid MacCulloch, the latter of whom I got to meet. Our Sociology of Religion lecturer, Martyn Percy, was even mentioned in The Da Vinci Code. The small size of the lectures and the weekly tutorial system means you get to develop a personal relationship with these academics, which can be incredibly rewarding when you’re passionate about your subject. Not to mention, the Oxford Union invites a lot of celebrities and other people of prominence, some of whom you can actually speak to if you’re lucky enough to get selected on the meet-and-greet ballot.
So, in conclusion, what did I make of my time at Oxford, and would I recommend it to others?
It was a surreal experience overall, something which I will cherish for years to come. There were certainly blood, sweat and tears involved, especially in the gruelling last weeks, but this is true of the life of any student.
Would I recommend it? Personally, yes. I would certainly say that Oxford is an engrossing and stimulating environment which will undoubtedly enchant many of its students. Whether someone will like studying there is obviously a matter of taste, but it’s important to dispel some of the stereotypes surrounding the university. After my three-year experience, I believe anyone can thrive at Oxford and find a niche for themselves, as long as they actually enjoy what they’re reading and are willing to embrace the university for what it is.