The Collegiate System

The most striking difference between Oxford University and the majority of American—and British—universities, after tutorials, is the collegiate system.  Students who apply to Oxford University are admitted to one of its 38 colleges and 6 permanent private halls, which are spread throughout the city of Oxford.  Permanent private halls operate roughly the same as the colleges, except that they have a specific religious affiliation.  The colleges and halls are independent entities, rather like states in the US, with the university being the ‘federal government’ that oversees them.  The colleges are all relatively small, the largest being St. Catherine’s College (my college!) with about 800 graduate and undergraduate students.  Many of the colleges are significant smaller, with some halls having fewer than 100 students.  The small size encourages a strong sense of community, as well as strong inter-collegiate rivalries.

The age of the colleges varies from those founded in the 13th century (University, Merton, and Balliol Colleges) to newcomers like St. Catherine’s in 1963 and Green Templeton in 2008 (from a merger of Green and Templeton Colleges).  Due to the immense age of the university, the architecture of Oxford spans the centuries from medieval to gothic to modern, and everything in between.  The character of each college also varies widely.  Each one has something that it is famous for and that it prides itself on.  Christ Church has its beautiful cathedral and meadow, Worcester (pronounced “Wooster”) has its brightly colored chapel and its orchard, St. Catherine’s has its open, modern architecture and very friendly atmosphere, and so on.  Every Oxford college is unique.

Despite their differences, the colleges all share the same basic structure and function.  Each college accepts students for almost any course of study; although some rarer subjects are only found in the larger colleges.  Each college also houses its students, provides a dining hall, laundry facilities, a gym, and pretty much everything you would expect a college to have.  Every college has a library, and most also have a chapel, some of which, such as Christ Church Cathedral, are truly spectacular.  The colleges also tend to have the cheapest bars in town, as well as lounges (called Junior, Middle, and Senior Common Rooms for the undergraduates, grad students, and faculty respectively).  The Common Rooms are also the names for the student government of each college.

Although much of student life is centered in college, much of a student’s academic life is often found outside of it.  Every academic department has its own center located somewhere in the city, and most departments either have or share a library.  Additionally, all tutors are affiliated with a college, and will generally hold their tutorials in their respective college or department headquarters.  Lectures are held all throughout the university, some in departmental offices, some in libraries, some in colleges, and some in the university’s Examination Schools (where the end of the year exams are held, hence the name).  Many clubs and societies are also university-wide, with their meetings held anywhere that is most convenient for the majority of their members.  As a result, students find themselves travelling all over the beautiful city of Oxford during their three years at university, surrounded by the “dreaming spires”.


Oxford University is renowned, not just for the high quality of its education, but also that it remains one the very few universities in the world that operates using the tutorial system.  Rather than the typical required lectures and seminars of most universities, especially in America, in which students attend several hours of lecture every day and perhaps take part in seminar classes of ten to twenty or so students, an Oxford education centers around regular one-on-one tutorials with their professors.  For their tutorials, students prepare an essay, typically around 2,500 words, about a topic which they have been given, along with an extensive reading list.  In the tutorial, the student presents their paper to their professor, known as their tutor; although some professors simply request a copy beforehand to critique, many still stand by the tradition of making their students read their essays aloud during the tutorial.  The tutor then critiques the essay and discusses information pertinent to the topic.  Most tutorials last about one hour, and take place either weekly or fortnightly.

The typical Oxford student, depending on his or her course of study, will have two or three tutorials a term.  St. Catherine’s College typically makes its visiting students (what they call their study abroad students) take two tutorials every term, one meeting weekly and one meeting fortnightly.  Therefore, over each of the three eight week terms, students will generally write twelve essays, or roughly 30,000 words.  In addition, most tutors will recommend lectures for students to sit in on that may pertain to the subject of their tutorial.

For Michaelmas term (the name of Oxford’s fall term), I am taking a weekly tutorial on ancient Mesopotamia and a fortnightly tutorial on select Old Testament texts.  In addition, my tutors asked me to sit in on a twice-weekly lecture on the ancient Near East and a weekly lecture on the Old Testament.  Often, the lectures will not directly reflect the material covered in the reading lists and essays for the tutorials.  Rather, lectures offer an overview of the subject, while the student works with his or her tutor to determine specific topics of interest to delve into further.  The result is an education that is broad in scope and substantial in depth, as well as personalized to a degree that is elsewhere generally only found at the graduate level.  It is well worth the sheer terror that comes with reading your essay aloud to your professor.

St. Catherine’s College, Oxford: First Impressions

This evening marks the end of my third full day at St. Catherine’s College—or St. Catz as it is affectionately known—and I’m slowly getting settled in at my new home, Staircase 12 (it’s basically a dorm).  After an exhausting nineteen-hour journey to get here, it is wonderful to be able to say that after three days, St. Catz is already beginning to feel like home.

After a short flight from Rochester to Chicago, I had a five-hour layover before my overnight flight to Heathrow in London.  We arrived over London on-time, around 8am, but were left circling the city for an hour until the fog cleared enough to land.  I had to laugh to myself that there could not be a more stereotypical way to begin my life in the UK.  From London I took the Oxford Tube, a 24 hour bus service between Heathrow and Oxford, to Gloucester Green Station (pronounced “Glosser”), and from there took my very first taxi to St. Catherine’s.

Once I arrived, I was told that my room was not yet ready and that I would have to wait for about two hours.  After a brief tour, I was put on the phone with Helen Alexander, the administrator in charge of Visiting Students, so that she could email my parents to tell them that I survived the trip (as I could not yet access campus wifi).  Ms. Alexander then asked me to come to her office for my welcome packet and a chat while I waited.  Naomi Freud, the director of the Visiting Students, soon joined us and made us all tea, while we discussed my tutorials for the term, my trip, and Oxford in general.  The two were amazingly kind and friendly, and made me feel completely welcome and at ease.  Soon enough, my room was available, and I was able to move into my new home.  It looks like it will be a wonderful year!