Only select

27th October 2006 at 01:00
Oxbridge applications are under way. Start planning now for next year, says Matthew Holehouse, by researching the right college

Whether or not you have students waiting anxiously for news of Oxbridge interviews, it's already time for next year's potential applicants to start planning ahead. Unlike most institutions, rather than applying to the university, candidates apply to one of the constituent colleges. With 70 between them, it's a fairly bewildering choice, especially if your school hasn't a long record of sending people there. So, just how might a student go about making the decision?

First, the universities both stress that choice of college isn't vitally important. They are more alike than they are different, and most students enjoy their college, wherever they end up. All colleges, typically having between 200 and 450 students, serve similar functions: providing meals and accommodation, a social centre in the form of a junior common room with affiliated clubs and societies, and welfare care. Students who can't decide can make an open application and be assigned by the admissions board.

Having chosen which course, and at what university, they want to study, prospectuses (from or, will then help applicants to start narrowing the field.

A good way to start is by crossing off any colleges that don't cater for them; for example, those for graduates only, such as Darwin at Cambridge, or mature students (over-21) only, such as Harris Manchester at Oxford.

Boys, and any girls who don't want a single-sex college, should eliminate the female-only colleges, New Hall and Newnham at Cambridge. Next, the student should use the grid in the back pages to cross out any colleges that don't offer their subject.

At this point, it's also worth looking at the admissions criteria. Oxford uses the same selection methods for all candidates, whereas they tend to differ between colleges at Cambridge. The table in the prospectus will help if, for example, an applicant would prefer to sit a test rather than send in a school essay.

Next, location is worth considering. Most of the older colleges tend to be clustered in the city centre, with the newer ones, especially those that were originally women-only, a little further out. Girton college, Cambridge, is exiled two miles from the centre but it does have the advantage of being more peaceful and off the tourist trail.

Then there's accommodation. I chose Queen's partly because it could guarantee a room for three years. Many colleges have second-years living out in privately rented houses. While this gives the advantage of experiencing independent living, and usually means accommodation is secured during the vacations, it also means higher rents.

A candidate might also want to consider the facilities available; some colleges offer music rooms, theatres, squash courts and, uniquely in the case of Girton, an indoor swimming pool, but all these things are available at a university level. A friend applied to Jesus college, Cambridge, on account of its 55 acres of grounds, and Magdalen's deer park at Oxford attracts a fair bit of attention.

Candidates often try to pick colleges by their academic prowess. Certainly some are noted for strengths in certain fields: at Cambridge, Trinity has a world-famous reputation for maths, and Downing offers unique law courses such as the French Double Matrice, while Merton and St John's at Oxford have a reputation for being especially hard-working. The Norrington tables, which chart the performance of Oxford colleges based on exam results, can be found online ( The Cambridge equivalent, the Tompkins tables, are published in The Independent in July. However, as teaching is organised at university level, with outstanding academics spread across the colleges, in reality the difference in performance is pretty marginal.

By this point, the original list of colleges has probably been whittled down to half a dozen. Photographs in the prospectus or on the website can only convey so much, so a visit is helpful. Many people say that a certain college just feels right; certainly, for me, Queen's has a jaw-dropping factor as you enter the main gate for the first time. Porters are usually happy for applicants to look round the grounds on most days, but it's worth going on an open day, usually held in July and mid-September. As well as getting to see inside the buildings, I found it helpful to meet the tutors and students and find that they were, in fact, quite normal. Media reports about Oxbridge life tend to concentrate on the eccentrics.

A few commonly used criteria can be ignored. While I was writing my application, a newspaper advised candidates to study entry statistics for each college. The Oxford prospectus, unlike Cambridge's, contains a grid with applications per place at different colleges: between 2002 and 2004, St John's, for example, had 12 applicants per place for economics and management, while classics at Lady Margaret Hall had 1.4, suggesting that the latter is a shoo-in and the former a no-hoper. The universities urge applicants to ignore these tables. First, because the statistics change so frequently; second because, to cancel out the imbalance, the university arranges for promising applicants to be interviewed at a second or even third college if their first choice cannot accommodate them.

Colleges have often developed reputations over the centuries: St John's at Cambridge and Christ Church at Oxford are said to be conservative and boorish, while Balliol and Wadham at Oxford are supposedly militantly left-wing. This shouldn't be taken too seriously; most of these generalisations originate from small but prominent groups not seen since the mid-1980s.

Finally, a few colleges have been branded as discriminatory, leading to students shunning them. Magdalen College, Oxford, struggled to attract state school pupils from the North-east after Gordon Brown described Laura Spence's rejection for medicine as a scandal. But, as tutors are so closely scrutinised by the university councils and the media for fair play, and success rates for students from state and private schools are fairly equal, I don't think it's anything to worry about.

If all fails, you can always pull names from a hat.

Matthew Holehouse left Harrogate grammar school this summer and is reading history at Queen's College, Oxford

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