Colleges (and their lesser known relation, permanent private halls) are essentially their own miniature universities that make up the wider university of Oxford. For most students they are where you’ll eat, sleep and work during your time here. Depending on the college you’re likely to be housed either on-site or in college owned accommodation somewhere in Oxford in first year while most freshers will eat at least some of their meals in their college hall. Each also has its own library that has most of the books you might need in first year – personally I didn’t learn how to use the faculty library until the middle of my first year. For many subjects your college may also be where you have many of your tutorials or classes, particularly in first year.
While your college is important for most students at Oxford it’s not the be all and end all of studying at Oxford. There’s plenty of capacity to mix with people from other colleges. University level sport, drama and societies like the Union are perhaps the most obvious way to meet people if college feels a bit claustrophobic but it’s also very doable to get to know people on nights out or just via friends of a friend.
While colleges are far more similar than they are different it’s worth saying that many of them do have some sort of reputation that comes with them. I’m sure Merton students probably find it hilarious the fiftieth time they’re told that their college is ‘where fun goes to die’ but these stereotypes rarely limit your Oxford experience.
To help freshers settle into Oxford each first year has a set of college ‘parents’ and at least one fellow fresher will be their college sibling. College parents are just a pair of second, third or fourth years who volunteer to help out. As a result the level of parental care can vary, many of the first years I know were effectively raised by single college parents but others have gone on to stay friends with their parents through to second year.
College parents are generally meant to introduce themselves to you digitally before term starts and in person in freshers week so you have a point of contact to ask questions if you need to. They also tend to take you out for a meal in freshers week to further help you get to know your college family.
Once you start at Oxford people pair up quite quickly with their college partner of whatever gender. Proposals vary in seriousness at different colleges but usually it’s just a case of asking a friend, or as potential partners begin to run out, anyone you vaguely know. I sealed my first marriage with a handshake and my second (bigamy is usually frowned upon) with a Haribo ring. Deciding whether you actually want to have kids is a decision you save till the end of first year though.