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The College-Gap: It’s easy to criticise what you know best

Beyond just academics and number of quads, do the often ill- or uninformed college choices we make on our university applications significantly affect our ‘Oxford experience’? 

Does your college have a popular bar or JCR? How are the sports teams (or lack thereof)? How social and expensive are your accommodation(s) and (formal) hall? Many (or all) of these questions are often only made apparent once your college choice is locked in. So, what exactly is the problem, or is it even one at all?

Equally important is the question of whether the college system itself negatively impacts your overall ‘university experience’? If you don’t play a sport or aren’t extremely outgoing and sociable on nights out and active in societies, you might find it quite difficult to form or join a tight-knit friend group outside of your own college. You will arguably never be as close friends with someone as that person is with those who they cook and eat with, go to formals with, and pre-drink or get ready with for nights out and other events. So, does the college system benefit or hinder you in expanding your social circle? It’s different for everyone, but I don’t think this should limit your ‘Oxford experience’.

The college system evidently offers many benefits. Lots of colleges provide accommodation of some form across all years of study so that you can avoid having to deal with difficult landlords. Hall and formal hall are privileges not many other universities afford their students (and if they do, at a cost). College-comradery is perhaps the biggest benefit of them all; being able to connect with someone simply because you are members of the same college. College patriotism is very real. I found myself calling college “home” after only three weeks – sorry Mum. I love my college, but sometimes I feel that I am more a student of Somerville College than of the University of Oxford. But is that an issue?

It isn’t for me, but only because I have been lucky enough to find a small group I get along well with in college as well as some out-of-college friends through my niche subject choice (German and beginners’ Czech) and other connections here and there. Yet, for many, the college system can feel limiting. But isn’t this the case at every university? University is equally about making friends as it is learning how to live independently and, at times, be lonely. I don’t think it’s fair to blame the college-system for limiting your social network. Sure, some people are fortunate enough to find a large, but close friendship group in their college within the first two weeks. Those people are incredibly lucky, but it doesn’t mean that if you aren’t part of these groups, you’ll never find friends.

So, what exactly is limited by your college choice? Things like location, architecture, and approaches to certain traditions (such as wearing sub fusc in formal hall) can easily be researched before applying. I am, for example, extremely lazy and the proximity to both Wellington Square and the Taylorian were indubitably deciding factors when applying to Somerville. However, I didn’t know that the college bar is, quite frankly, not very exciting, nor is it one of the cheapest. And though the food in hall is great, it is also relatively expensive. But then again, everyone has access to a kitchen. Each college has its pros and cons – that’s the nature of the system.

I was initially inspired to write this article because I found myself criticising my college and my own ‘Oxford experience’ without really taking time to consider what it really is that I am criticising. Sure, it would certainly be great if the meals in hall were closer to <£3 (as it is in some other colleges) than the £4.52 it is in Somerville. And, of course, it would be great if Somerville was known for more than just its weird brutalist structures and the fact that it is “Maggy T’s” college.

But this article is not about the merits and demerits of my own college and instead about the fact that though the college system is not perfect, it itself cannot single-handedly ruin your ‘Oxford experience’. Indeed, whilst a quick 5-minute browse of Oxfess and Oxhate will result in numerous submissions of people criticising their own college – and some of them do, in fact, touch on real issues like discrimination – most of them are tedious or are, in the grand scheme of things, unimportant and often out-of-touch first world problems. Instead, it is the people you surround yourself with and your willingness to socialise beyond your college that can define your experience. Though some people find such socialising difficult because of their college choice, I still think that the college system affords more benefits and privileges to the average student than it does disadvantages. 

Beyond the veil of college patriotism, do you think your college offers the same opportunities other colleges do, or would you like to switch colleges if you could? I don’t think I would change … or maybe that’s just because I know I can’t.

Image Credit: Philip Allfrey//CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia commons

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