After months of interviews, exams and constantly refreshing UCAS Track, you now know it for real: you got in. You’re going to Oxford, congratulations.
You might be the kind of fresher that had an Oxford University-themed mood board hanging above your bed for the past eight years, but the chances are you actually know very little about the place you’ll be calling home come October.
The truth is, most of us were so focused on getting in, we never stopped to think about what being at Oxford would really be like. So, for those of you who have woken up to the fact that you will be this year’s freshers, here’s some advice about what to expect.
Unpacking the myths
“I wonder if anybody does anything at Oxford but dream and remember, the place is so beautiful,” W. B. Yeats famously wrote. He was right: it’s often hard to tell from the way people write about Oxford whether it is university or a surreal Harry Potter-esque dreamscape, complete with gowns, croquet, and wizened old men telling you to read.
So, what is the reality behind the myths? Let’s unpack some of the biggest misconceptions about what to expect from Oxford student life.
- Not everyone is an elitist arse
It’s fair to say you might be feeling hesitant. Student life at Oxford is surrounded by many myths – perpetuated by debauched stories in national newspapers, questionable rumours about David Cameron, and tales from your uncle who went there in the 70s. We’re given the impression that everyone is a Hawking-esque genius who never leaves the library, or an elitist arse who looks like Sam Claflin. None of these fables are true (if someone at Oxford looked like Sam Claflin, I’d definitely know).
But all myths originate from a kernel of truth, and those about Oxford are no different. The city of dreaming spires has produced 50 Nobel prize winners, 120 Olympic medal winners, and 27 British Prime Ministers.
However, it is also true that students at Oxford get locked out of their college dorm rooms, ‘forget’ to unpack until half way through the term and spend Wednesday nights breaking out their moves on the ‘cheese floor’ at Park End. All these things are ‘Oxford’, even though they do not make it into the wider mythical portrayal of this university.
2. You can go out
Despite popular opinion, it is fake news that Oxford students do not go out. Yes, the party lifestyle may be limited by the fact that nearly everything – including McDonald’s – closes at 3am, but the creative among us still find ways to party into the early hours.
For example, most college libraries are open 24 hours, so if you want to continue the party there’s always opportunities for a late night adventure with the Dewey Decimal System. To survive an Oxford night out you must first plan your post-club food, because if you went out and didn’t get a kebab, cheesy chips, or something with humus, did you even go out? Whilst Hassan’s is the most famous of the food trucks, if you’re edgy or on the fringes, there are many other options, such as Ali’s or McCoy’s.
To truly appreciate Oxford clubbing however, it is essential to come prepared with a good music taste. Joking. More than half the clubs in Oxford have been known to play songs from High School Musical, with varying levels of irony. As with everything in Oxford, everyone has a different favourite club, even those who (questionably) prefer Fever.
Things you need to know
- The Oxford lingo
First, there’s the fact that everyone at Oxford speaks in code. All words can be shortened or combined, and you will soon find yourself talking about the ‘pidge’, your pigeon hole, waiting in the ‘plodge’, the porters lodge, or working in the ‘bod’, the Bodleian Library (not to be confused with a ‘bop’, a fancy-dress college party).
2. College parents
In the next few weeks, you’re going to hear from a couple of dank haired 19 or 20-year-olds purporting to be your parents. Don’t worry, these your ‘college parents’ – essentially, a couple of second-years who have been assigned to look over you for the coming year. It’s worth not taking this too seriously: some college parent-child pairings can flourish into degree-long, intimate (and at times incestuous) relationships, while others can result in a reluctant smile on Monday of freshers week and another name on your Facebook news feed. Either way, they can usually be relied on for helpful advice in the coming weeks.
3. Freshers week… what to avoid
Once you’ve impressed the cool kids by knowing the right slang, the first thing you can expect from Freshers’ Week itself is to be given, or rather be made to buy, a college freshers’ t-shirt: if you’re lucky, it won’t be in neon orange. Freshers’ Week will not only teach you how to use the libraries, it will also be your first foray into Oxford nightlife.
Freshers’ is also an opportunity to explore Oxford’s many pubs and cafes. It’s important to find both your favourite and closest cafe, not just so you can start to feel part of the fabric of the place but also because they can be a surprisingly good place to work if you want to escape the library. Befriending the owners is always a good move. The other staple of Freshers’ Week is the freshers’ fair. This will be the first test of your emotional resilience. Either come prepared to say no, or accept that you will say yes to everything out of social awkwardness, after which you will leave with a lot of plastic shot glasses, heaps of propaganda and a lifetime membership to underwater hockey.
With over 200 clubs and societies at Oxford, finding something you are interested in is a great way to make friends outside of college and ensure your life is more than just essay crises and queueing for Bridge. Although, you will be receiving emails from these societies until the day you die.
4. Your tutors
Once you’ve survived all this, your first tutorial is probably on the horizon. The relationship between a student and a tutor is a complex one.
At points, you will probably severely dislike your tutor, nearly as much as they will severely dislike you for taking them away from their research and not knowing that vital piece of legislation passed in 1689. Eventually, though, you will also come to realise that they are one of the most intelligent people you have ever met, and thus invaluable to actually passing your university exams. Every tutor is different: some will be friendly, some will be maternal, some will be aloof, and some will subscribe to the ‘tough love’ doctrine. Your first tutorial is your first opportunity to suss out what breed your tutor is and begin to plan your adaptive strategies accordingly, they won’t change, so you have to. It is also where you will get your first impression of your tutorial partner, who can either be your best friend or arch-nemesis. Choose wisely.
5. Reading lists
You might have already commenced on your eye-wateringly terrifying 32-book reading list. If it looks too long, it probably is, and even the harshest of tutors wouldn’t expect you to read more than a fraction of it, so don’t waste too many hours in your local library in the coming weeks trying to get through it. After you’re first week, you’ll soon realise these really do not matter, and any meaningful reading is done the night before your essay is due, or, more likely, five minutes before your first tutorial.
Since you’re reading this article, chances are you have a fairly good idea already what Cherwell is. We’re Oxford’s most-read, and most-respected, student newspaper, championing bold and fearless student journalism since 1920 (or something). A stack of our newspapers will be delivered to your JCR (Common Room) every week, containing all the latest news, opinion and, at times, salacious gossip for your consumption.
Unlike other student outlets, we’re fiercely independent, meaning we aren’t held back by meddling by the Iniversity. Recently, we’ve held the university to account how much it pays its staff, and revealed Exeter College’s attempts to police its students speaking about their ket use online.
Want to get involved? We’re always eager to have new writers, and if you’d like to write for us, fill out this form or drop our page a message on Facebook, and we’ll be in touch.
Oxford – constantly changing
In my first tutorial, we were told to look back over the summer reading – most of which I had not read – on Edward Gibbon. That evening, whilst panic reading his work Memoirs of my Life, I came across the quote: “To the University of Oxford I acknowledge no obligation; and she will as cheerfully renounce me for a son, as I am willing to disclaim her for a mother.” Gibbon, a canonical historian, hated Oxford and was made to leave. Obviously, that’s a little concerning to read at the end of your first week.
But his 18th-century shade highlights that Oxford is not always a beautiful ‘opera’ where we do nothing but ‘dream and remember’. Oxford is a real place, one where for the next three years you will fail and succeed and laugh and cry. I can’t really tell anyone what to expect from Oxford.
Oxford is not an intimidating, time-warped museum piece, but is constantly changing, made different every year by the people who arrive. If I have any actual advice, it is firstly to realise that G&Ds ice cream is overrated, and secondly, not to be worried that you aren’t ‘Oxford’ enough.
In the most cliché way possible, Oxford is what you make of it.