How to choose Oxbridge colleges

26 Oct 2015

Check whether your course is offered

Most colleges will offer the major courses with 100+ students. However for subjects like Oxford biomedical sciences, there are only 16 colleges out of the total 30 that offer this course. So first check which colleges offer your course.

Oxford: College: (subject overview page, e.g. Architecture)

College character/atmosphere

Every college can have a distinct character and atmosphere:

[Female only]
3 Cambridge Colleges, Newnham, Murray Edwards and Lucy Cavendish only admit females only.

[Mature students only (age of 21 above only)]
Oxford Harris Manchester College (lots of Singaporeans)

[Number of students]
A college with a small number of students may feel more homely and a family like environment while a larger college may feel like a more vibrant and lively atmosphere.
Cambridge: Gonville & Caius is a very large college with ~550 undergraduates while Corpus Christi is a small one with ~250 undergraduates.
Oxford: Wadham is a relative large college with ~450 colleges while Corpus Christi is one of the smallest with ~250 undergraduates.

Most colleges situated in the central and southern parts of Oxford have beautiful early century architecture in the characteristic sand color with differing degrees of size and grandness. On the other hand, colleges in the northern part are mostly more modern and therefore don’t give that historic feel.


Some colleges can be really far apart from the town center, thus considered inconvenient location wise, e.g. St. Hugh’s College, Oxford which takes good 20 minutes to walk to the center. On the other hand, some colleges can be right in the center of the town allowing your daily to be very convenient, e.g. Downing College, Cambridge, situated among restaurants in the town center.

For attending department lectures early in the morning, you will also want to consider the location as this can take good 20 minutes unless you have a bike of course,


As you already know the renowned colleges are renowned because they are very rich. St Johns’, Oxford once used to own the whole road connecting it to St John’s College in Cambridge. Trinity College gives out 1000 scholarship for all its students that receive 1st in prelims as well as hosting the grandest May ball.

For a number of lucky students, these colleges do offer some amazing standard student rooms, almost luxurious. Rooms are categorized into grades with differing quality and price and chosen often through ballot. This will depend on colleges, but A* and A rooms will often be ensuite.

Older colleges definitely have rooms that may need refurnishing. Extreme cases include, not being warm enough in the winter due to not tightly sealed enough windows and the floor not being tilted as a 5th floor room. For modern colleges like St Catherine’s, Oxford, all rooms have pretty much the same quality, very modern ensuite rooms.

Most rooms will be single. However, there’s also the option of going into shared rooms between 2,3 and 4 with additional housing facilities such as kitchen, lounge sofas and etc depending on colleges.

Higher chance of getting in?

Studying last year and the years before admissions intake ratio to choose a college with seemingly higher chance of getting in would be something that can be empathized from the applicant’s perspective.

However, although each year's college-specific applicant:intake ratio statistics may be different amongst colleges, the pooling system ensures near equal admissions chance regardless of the college chosen.

Having said that, the very top colleges, Merton, St.John's, Magdalene and etc., in the Norrington table (ranking of all Oxford colleges by performance) are very strict in their demands for applicants' academic capability such that even though their annual intake number for a course is 4, they may only take 2 they are happy with. So looking at the Norrington table or Tompkins table and then avoiding the top few may be a good idea. Having said that it is important to remember that each college admits applicants at the unit of subjects and that different courses at a college are of different performance/level on the Norrington table. Therefore your applying college being in the top 10 of Norrington table doesn't necessarily mean your applying college is strong for your applying degree subject. There isn't a table the ranks colleges by subject. Having said that, it is possible to find out how strong a college is for a particular subject by going to the college/subject webpage, e.g. Oxford Trinity College/ Chemistry (but not all colleges display such information like Trinity).

Regarding open applications, theoretically, the system assigns open applicants to colleges with least numbers of applicants that seemingly indicate great chance of getting in. Clearly the universities will have a system to ensure all applicants regardless of applied colleges will be fairly assessed. For example, the pooling system is in place to ensure worthy applicants are given places at the departmental level. Please refer to the ‘Pooling system’ for more information.