What it is Like to Study at the University of Oxford?

Christopher Brown, MSc (Distinction) in Latin American History at St Antony’s College, 2009

What it is Like to Study at the University of Oxford?

The history and prestige of the University of Oxford, and the competition to gain admission, mean that a significant aura is generated by the place and the people who study there. Many students wake up in their colleges - perhaps in the very lodgings of J.R.R. Tolkien or William Penn - long after matriculation with a recurring sense of surprise and growing pride that they made it, and a determination to make the most of it. 

Studying at Oxford makes you feel like studying matters.


Oxford’s tutorials put all students through their paces. These close discussions between 1-3 students and professors may take place in any number of settings - in faculty offices, lounges, or even walking around the quad. Participants benefit from tutorials not only by acquiring knowledge and testing their skills of debate and discussion, but also by becoming confident that they can contribute to any conversation and fight their corner under any interrogation. 

Oxford students take their exams in sub fusc (academic dress), and they sport different colored carnations for each exam (white for your first one, for example). This nod to the seriousness of the art and ceremony of study is an apt reflection of the value of the tutorial system.


Colleges at the University of Oxford incubate the most diverse range of minds in the world of ideas. Oxford students encounter fellow students along their ancient corridors (today, Tolkien’s floor at Exeter College is as sloped as it was in 1911) from all over the world. The ideas of aspiring leaders are made and mauled alike at the Oxford Union’s notorious debating chamber, where prime ministers have won their first meaningful elections (including Boris Johnson, currently at 10 Downing Street) and where votes that have made waves beyond the city have taken place. 

In 1933, for instance, still in the aftermath of the First World War, the students present at the Oxford Union voted not to fight “for King and Country” under any circumstances. Perhaps the debates at Oxford no longer command the public attention they once did, but a sense of responsibility hangs over the words spoken and decisions taken there. 

At Oxford, it feels like words and ideas matter.


A different library every day - that is the mantra I sought to fulfill. Some students manage to meet that goal almost every week at the University of Oxford. Among the “City of Dreaming Spires” and beyond the majestic Bodleian Library and Radcliffe Camera, Oxford’s 100-plus libraries are situated across the colleges and city, some elevated and others underground, some modern and other medieval. Every student at Oxford belongs not only to the university but also to one of the more than 30 colleges, which in turn contain hidden gems and secret corridors lined with books. 

Encased in serious, historic buildings, there is little option but to take your studies seriously and to remember, importantly, that exceptional students need not wait for graduation to make an impact on the world.


World leaders and seditious comedians alike flock to speak in Oxford and they are often more nervous than their audience. Visiting lecturers continue to deliver tutorials and seminars at Oxford, regardless of the circumstances in economic and cultural trends. The university’s longevity (nearing a thousand years) and reputation has endured to guarantee that leading intellect will pass by you in the street or on their bicycles at every turn. As a student you might scramble past tour groups one moment and come face to face with world-famous scientists the next. In fact, you might leap from giving a tour of your college to locking horns with a world-renowned professor who is spending one of the three 8-week terms at Oxford (Michaelmas, Hilary, and Trinity). 

Students at Oxford have the opportunity to cross paths and intellectual swords with any number of future world leaders. 

The City

A memory in every corner. From punting (boating) or rowing (if you are fond of early mornings) along the Isis river to watching football at Oxford United’s new ground, every aspect of British history and culture is expressed at the University of Oxford. Moreover, the institution provides some of the most enduring testimony to the international forces that have shaped that history and culture: from the tavern where former U.S. president Bill Clinton (while studying as a Rhodes Scholar) and other famous international alumni gathered to the U.K.’s first botanical garden (founded circa 1621). 

As in any modern city, you can walk down some streets and for all you knew you could be anywhere. But in Oxford, this feeling rarely lasts. Finally, from Oxford students can range across England, reaching the Cotswolds and London in an hour and Cambridge, “the other place,” in under two. 

Studying at the University of Oxford is a unique. In many ways, Oxford lies at the heart of the UK.  Students may graduate in Latin at the Sheldonian Theatre, and their friends and colleagues will have come from all over the world, but they leave the city more steeped in Britain than many. 

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