Here’s Everything You Need To Know About the City of Oxford

23 May, 2023 | Blog Articles, Get the Edge

This article was written by Halima Doski, an MChem student at the University of Oxford. At the time of writing, Halima was in her second year of study.

Please note that the Oxford Scholastica is separate from Oxford University, and it is important to understand that we have no formal connection with the University. You can learn more about Oxford Scholastica’s relationship with the University here.

Being able to live and study in Oxford over the last two years has been an experience like no other. I grew up in London, so I was worried that I might find the city too small or that there might not be enough activities to do in Oxford, but I’ve been happily proven wrong!

From little cafes and shops to Oxford’s world-famous museums and libraries, this city has so much to offer. Whether you’re visiting for two weeks in the summer, or preparing to move here for a three year degree, here is everything you should know ahead of your visit to Oxford. 

Oxford is very, very old

The city itself is estimated to be around 1,100 years old, and the university reportedly started teaching in 1096, making it the second oldest university in the world! It’s beaten only by the University of Bologna in Italy.

As you would expect, the city is truly unique given the wide range of history it has experienced, from the Reformation in the 16th century through to the Enlightenment in which many important scientific discoveries were made at the University.

The city was – briefly – England’s capital during the Civil War when King Charles I was expelled from London, as Oxford was a Royalist city at the time.

There are countless blue plaques around Oxford dedicated to key historical figures and their accomplishments, which never fail to remind me of how historic the city truly is.

The University is collegiate 

Oxford, alongside just a few other UK universities, operates a collegiate system. This means the University is made up of 39 colleges that offer self-contained accommodation, meals and social activities for their students. Teaching at the university is split between your department and college, and many students’ social lives centre around their colleges as well as other University-wide societies.

There is a dispute over which college is the oldest, with University, Balliol and Merton all claiming the title, but it is safe to say each of the colleges has a different feel, with its own reputation for being particularly academic, sporty or sociable.

I personally really enjoy the collegiate system as it provides a small family within the wider University, providing pastoral support and allowing you to feel settled in relatively quickly.

There is one college that you won’t end up at as an undergrad, which is All Souls. Recent graduates who excelled in their Oxford undergrad exams are invited to sit the world’s most difficult exam, and only a handful of students are accepted to All Souls each year.

Teaching is mainly through the tutorial system 

The tutorial system is what sets Oxford (and Cambridge) apart from many other universities across the world, as it forms one of the main teaching methods for undergraduates.

Normally students have 1-2 tutorials a week in advance of which an essay or problem sheet will be submitted. Between 1 and 3 undergrads will then meet to discuss the topic of the preset work in detail.

The experience is unique as it allows students to gain a deeper understanding of the subject, as active participation is not optional! I’ve found the tutorial system really enjoyable, as you’re able to dedicate a significant period of time to a topic, allowing you to develop your own opinion and consider a range of nuances.

In addition, you build a personal relationship with your tutors which allows for any concerns you might have to be more easily addressed.

A summer intern taking notes

There are lots of old university traditions – like academic dress

Formal academic dress is required for matriculation, public examinations and graduation at Oxford, with the history being traced back to mediaeval European robes distinguishing rank and profession. It consists of a white shirt, black trousers or skirt and a gown (oh, and you have to wear black socks!).

There have been several referendums by the student union to see if students want the requirement waived for exams, but each time students have voted to continue the tradition. Gowns can also be required for formals, a three-course meal in a college’s hall, but this varies between colleges.

There is a tradition for students to get ‘trashed’ after their last exams, to celebrate getting through the exam season. This is great fun, as it involves covering your friends in shaving foam and glitter and watching them jump into the river. This does mean your gown needs a trip to the dry cleaners afterwards, though… 

The city has set many records 

Oxford has over 100 libraries, housed in a combination of colleges, faculties and research centres, offering a variety of spaces for students to study. Perhaps this is why Oxford is credited as having produced the most published writers per square metre!

Additionally, Blackwell’s Bookshop, established in 1879, holds the Guinness World Record for the single largest room selling books – you should definitely check out the basement of this charming Victorian establishment if you’re passing through the city.

The world’s first public museum, the Ashmolean, is also in Oxford, and it hosts an impressive number of artefacts from across the world. It’s a great place to have a quick study break, or treat yourself to afternoon tea on their terrace.

Punting is a must-try

Oxford is a city that looks beautiful no matter what time of year it is. During the cold and grey winter months, the stunning buildings manage to create a cosy environment, while during the spring and summer months the city comes to life with greenery.

When the sun comes out, one of the most popular activities is punting along the river, with many colleges owning boats for students to hire. It’s great fun with friends as a relaxing way to enjoy the outdoors. 

As you can see, Oxford is a city and University with a rich history and being able to call this home is a pleasure. If you get the chance to visit, many colleges are free for prospective students to visit, allowing you to explore the different colleges to see which you may want to apply for.

Nevertheless, the city is magical to explore and there is always something to do – no matter how long you’re here for, you certainly won’t get bored!

Would you like to explore Oxford this summer?

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