Unless you’re my parents—in which case you’ll happily read anything I’ve written—you’re probably reading this to gain further insight into studying abroad, either at Oxford or in general. Thus, instead of waxing poetic about English architecture and cuisine, I’ll lay out some of the basics of studying here at Oxford.
The College/University System:
If you wish to study abroad at Oxford, rather than applying directly to the University, you must first apply to one of the 30-some colleges included within it. If you’re like or me or most of the other Vassar students studying at Oxford this term, you’ll probably choose the college to which you apply rather randomly. However, while there really isn’t a “right” choice when deciding to which college to apply, your choice of college will affect your experience at Oxford in a variety of ways. For example, your college largely determines where you live, with whom you interact, and what you eat. Each college is run by a Junior College Room (JCR)—an organization similar to the Vassar Student Association—responsible for representing the college’s students, organizing college-specific clubs and societies, and hosting biweekly “entz” or parties. The JCR also refers to each college’s common room, complete with the college’s own bar.
While professors (often called “tutors” at Oxford) are assigned to specific colleges, students can take courses (or “tutorials”) with any tutor and at any college, allowing you to take the tutorials of you choice, regardless of with which college you are affiliated. Most colleges boast their own library, often used only by students at that particular college, but there are also University libraries not affiliated with a specific college; these libraries tend to be the largest and offer the most selection. At first glance, you might think that colleges are simply Oxfords versions of dorms with their own dining halls, but in reality, colleges are much more than that; they offer their own academic support and retain their own faculty.
I like to think of Oxford’s college/ university system as a version of the United States government. The university represents the federal government by offering certain programs and implementing certain regulations, while the colleges parallel the individual states with their own programs and rules that fit into the larger institutional framework. Engaged in a codependent relationship, the federal government cannot exist without the states, while the states depend on the federal government for logistical support.
Though difficult to describe a “typical” Oxford tutorial due to their great variety, a couple basic similarities remain across subjects and tutors. As a visiting student, you take two tutorials per term. One meets weekly and the other meets biweekly, both for about an hour each. This term, my primary tutor has assigned a substantial reading list and expects students to turn in a paper at each tutorial session, which constitutes the oral argument students pose during each class. Rather than an end product, the paper serves as a means of preparation for the tutorial.
In addition to attending tutorial sessions, students also have the option of attending lectures. Lectures, except when specifically assigned by tutor, are completely optional. Some lectures occur weekly while others are special events held by departments that feature visiting academics. The lecture system allows you to experience any subject, so despite formally studying only Classics and Economics while at Oxford, I can also learn about Middle Eastern politics or Virginia Woolf. While Oxford students traditionally take tutorials only within their majors, the lectures help to foster a liberal-artsy atmosphere.
The type of food at Oxford is pretty similar to that of most American universities, though it includes more Indian and Thai cuisine. However, food distribution constitutes a major difference between the Oxford and U.S. college systems. Oxford has one pay-as-you-go dining hall, where breakfast and lunch are self-service, but only offered during a limited time each day; breakfast, for example, is served from 8:15 to 8:45.
Dinner functions slightly differently—there is a self service option at 6:00 pm, but most students choose to partake in the real highlight of the Oxford dining system known as “Hall.” Hall refers not to the place in which dinner is served, but rather to the meal itself. Hall consists of three courses followed by tea and coffee, all served by a professional waitstaff. Each college sets different dress codes for Hall—some require formal attire—but certain Hall practices are universal among colleges, such as when students stand while professors enter and remain standing until the Master has said grace in Latin.