Each Oxford or Cambridge college has its own unique character, and, though most can vouch for the fact that you end up falling in love with whichever one you go to, it is certainly valuable to spend some time selecting one that might be right for you. On a pragmatic level, not every college offers all degrees, with some smaller courses (e.g. Veterinary Medicine) only being offered at a selection of them. Furthermore, some colleges are specifically for post-graduate or mature students, and two Cambridge colleges (Newnham and Murray Edwards) admit only women.
It is in your interests to spend a bit of time researching different colleges before applying to either Oxford or Cambridge, specifically by visiting on an open day if at all possible. Often it is the tangible things you can’t get in a prospectus which might jump out at you. The architecture perhaps, or the beauty of a front quad. Not all the variables that will make your decision are reliant on the statistics you’ll see about the number of applicants, interviews offered etc. These statistics only go so far, and after that it is up to you to select a college which fits your personal ethos.
Colleges like Wadham and St John’s have excellent arts reputations, whereas colleges like St Edmund Hall and Worcester have more of a sports focus. If proximity to your department is more important, then consider somewhere like Keble for Engineering, or Jesus for Chemistry. For overseas students, it may be worth looking into how many years are spent in college vs. at annexes or in independent housing. If you don’t like the idea of cooking your own food then this may play a bigger part in your decision making process than the history of the college, or its famous alumni.
It is also worth considering lifestyle factors such as the distance of the college from both the centre and your department – perhaps more of a consideration for Oxford, given its larger size as a city, but also worth noting for Cambridge as some colleges can be difficult to travel to and from without a bike!
Your experience will also be influenced by the size of the college: some students love the idea of a small college with a slightly more intimate feel where you can get to know everyone in your year, while others find this suffocating. Equally, consider the age of the college: some students want the authentic ‘Oxbridge experience’, complete with ornate libraries and 16th century chapels, while others might prefer more modern architecture. Furthermore, remember that your college is where you will live, eat, socialise (though you will certainly meet people outside of this!), and do a significant amount of your work (including supervisions/tutorials), so make sure you are happy with the availability facilities. Find out about the kind of accommodation you can expect (and whether you will be required to live out of college in your second or third year, as this is quite common), the food served in the canteen, and the library – does it have the books you might need, and is it a space you would want to work in? Of course, you will have access to a range of other university libraries so this is not necessarily a deal breaker, but when choosing colleges, it is certainly important that you can imagine yourself working effectively in your college of choice. Remember, though, that academic rankings of colleges (the Tompkins Table for Cambridge, and the Norrington Table for Oxford) fluctuate annually, so this is not a wise method of selecting a college.
While it can be tempting to scour the application statistics and try to ‘tactically’ pick a college, you are not any more or less likely to gain an Oxbridge offer overall through this approach: both universities have processes in place to ensure that talented students have a fair chance of admission even if they happen to apply to an oversubscribed college. This is called ‘pooling’, and ensures that a student’s application is open to consideration by multiple colleges, as appropriate. At Oxford, this process happens before interview: applicants invited will likely be interviewed by one or two colleges other than their original choice, to maximise their chances of gaining an offer. This system operates differently at Cambridge, and instead happens after the first round of offers are made: students are originally interviewed only by their chosen colleges, and, in the event that the college in question thinks a student is a worthy candidate but is oversubscribed, the applicant will be placed in the ‘pool’ in early January (immediately after offers have been made), where other colleges can view their application and make an offer, or perhaps conduct a further interview before deciding whether to do so.
Equally, an applicant may not have a preference of college at all, and so may instead decide to make an ‘open application’, where they will be allocated to an undersubscribed college. This poses no advantage or disadvantage in terms of likelihood of gaining an offer, and most students find they have some degree of preference for one college or another, so it is worth using this choice as you have it! For the most part, once there, students will naturally grow a very special affinity to the college they end up at. A contributing writer to this article applied to Worcester and ended up at St Edmund Hall, and couldn’t possibly be happier with the way things worked out.