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The College System

Prospective applicants seem to get super stressed about which college to apply to but this stage of the application process should be the fun part.

Oxford, Cambridge and Durham differ from other UK universities, in that they are collegiate. This means that whilst you attend ‘Oxford University’ you are affiliated to a particular college within it. Your college is often your home in first year, the place where you eat your meals, often have your tutorials and chill out with your friends in the common room. This doesn’t mean you only have friends in your college as with so many extra-curricular activities at Oxford, there are opportunities to meet other students across the university.

When applying to Oxford, most people apply directly to a college which has caught their eye. Some, instead, choose to submit an ‘open application’ and let the university decide to which college their application will be sent. However, the chances are you may not even end up at the college you applied to. This is because the ‘pooling’ system’ means that whilst at interview, the college of your choice might send you for an interview at another college. This can occur for many reasons: if one college is over-subscribed and another college has fewer applicants; if the college you are interviewing at thinks that you are Oxford material but not quite right for their college; if your area of interests may be better suited to a tutor at a different college; or, if your first choice of college simply wants to check that other colleges agree that you are the right sort of person.

This all sounds pretty complicated but in reality you just need to follow your gut feeling. Everyone I’ve met loves their college. For me personally, I was just so desperate to go to Oxford that any of them would have done!

Top Tips

  • Get yourself to an open day but if you can’t make it don’t panic, you can check out the colleges on the Oxford University website:

  • Ask yourself whether you’d prefer a small or large college, an old or modern one.

  • Make sure the college teaches your subject, as some are only taught at certain colleges.

  • Schools generally advise that not all of their students apply to the same college.

  • Think about the location of the college: do you want to be central or on the outskirts of the city?

  • Do you want a college with more of a public school reputation or not?

  • Go with your gut feeling!


Collegiate – A university comprised of different colleges. There are over 30 colleges within Oxford University.

Oxford College – Communities within the University where students usually have their tutorials and often live at some point during their degree.

Pooling system – When you are interviewing at Oxford and your first choice of college sends you to be interviewed by another college. If no college has accepted you at the end of the interviews but it is felt that you are Oxford material, you could be put in a 'pool'. A college which still has places remaining may then offer you a place based on recommendations from other colleges, along with other parts of your application.

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