Oxford University Profile

Life at Oxford University: quirky traditions and facts you didn’t know

University of Oxford is the oldest English-speaking University in the world and has been in existence for over 800 years. And they haven’t been wasting their time: over the course of the last nine centuries, the University of Oxford has built a reputation for achievement and excellence It has become a global brand that people respect, admire and immediately recognise. Oxford is ranked amongst the very best establishments of higher education for the quality of the teaching, and for the numerous discoveries, breakthroughs and research projects that change the world we live in. Check out some of the frontier work done by academics and students at Oxford here.

In this entry, we’ll cover everything from the teaching (what some people are there for, you know), the collegiate system that structures your daily life at Oxford, some quirky Oxford traditions, and, importantly, all the opportunities you have to enjoy yourself beyond academics.

Teaching at Oxford

One of the things that makes the education special at Oxford is the tutorial system (they have a similar system in Cambridge called ‘supervisions’, so not that special, but still). A tutor is Oxford’s name for a member of academic staff, who are all experts in their field, and a tutorial is a chance to get individualised teaching from them. At least once a week in each subject studied, groups of two or three students will spend an hour with their tutor, discussing a topic in depth. This personalised attention means that you will face rigorous academic challenges on a weekly basis, encouraging and facilitating your learning in a way that just isn’t possible in a lecture (which you will of course also have at Oxford). It also means that tutors are immediately aware if you need any extra support with any aspect of your course, so they can help you right away. It’s your job to research and prepare for them – often the discussion will revolve around an essay or a problem set that you’ve completed in advance and explore related ideas.

This may seem daunting, but you really don’t need to be experienced in debating. You just need to be ready to present and substantiate your opinions, accept constructive criticism and learn from your tutor and tutorial partner. You’ll quickly find that it’s both a pleasant experience and a truly uniquely effective way of grasping hard material.

Studying at Oxford – the Collegiate system

Another thing that makes studying at Oxford a special experience is its collegiate system. Oxford consists of 38 Colleges and six private halls. Most colleges have between 300 and 500 students at a time, usually at both undergraduate and graduate level, studying a broad range of subjects. Depending on the size, there could be as few as one or as many as ten students studying the same subject in each year group. Students usually live in college in their first year, and may have the option to do so in later years as well. However, it’s also common to spend at least one year ‘living out’ – renting a property privately with friends.
Your college will shape much of your experience: it is within college walls that you will sleep, eat and have most of your tutorials. Colleges provide a ready-made community, making it easier for new students to settle in and meet those studying other subjects. Lots of social events are based in and around college communities – and intercollegiate rivalry plays a big role in Oxford sports, especially rowing!

The colleges vary in terms of size, age, distance from the city centre, endowment and atmosphere. It can be hard to pick a favourite college when there are so many to choose from – but fear not, a general fact is that most people end up preferring the college they end up at, so the choice is not all that important.
You can find more information on each of the colleges here or rank all colleges according to your preferences here.

Living at Oxford- the city

However, there’s more to life in Oxford than teaching and colleges. The quaint atmosphere of the city comes from its dozens of historic and iconic buildings, including the Bodleian Libraries, Ashmolean Museum, Sheldonian Theatre, the cathedral and the colleges. In the city centre you will find lots of shops, cafés, restaurants, theatres, cinemas, pubs and clubs. There are plenty of green spaces too: riverside walks, England’s oldest botanic garden, the University Parks and college gardens. Despite the building and traditions being so old, Oxford has one of the youngest populations of any city in England with its 40,000 university students from Oxford University and Oxford Brookes. If you ever do get bored, however, London is only 90 minutes away by bus which runs 24 hours a day.
Here are a few links if you want to explore more about accommodation in Oxford or opportunities for student sportdrama and music, and all the other clubs and societies. If you want to go to Oxford to see for yourself, read more here about open days.

Being an international student at Oxford

Many of our readers will be international students – and it’s a lovely place to be just that. I could tell you about my personal experiences, but I’ll spare you. Instead, you can hear dozens of international students tell about their experiences on Oxford’s Wall of Faces.


Formal Hall

Formal hall is essentially a three-course dinner that takes place in the Hogwarts-like college Dining Halls (Christ Church dining hall, as seen above, is in factalso Hogwarts dining hall). Students sit at the long tables, and the college’s fellows preside grandly over the occasion at “High Table”. Some colleges hold Formal Hall almost every night, others only a few times per term – either way they make a great excuse to invite yourself to other colleges until you’ve seen them all. All colleges require that students and fellows wear gowns, and on Sundays the college choir sings grace.


Pennying is a rather bizarre drinking game. It was invented by dons and students at Oxford University during the 14th century. The basic goal of the game is to slip a penny into someone’s drink without them noticing – if you succeed, the person has been ‘pennied’ and has to down their drink in one go. On top of this, there is a maze of rules. For instance, once one has been ‘pennied’, the pennier is asked what the date on the coin was. If they can’t answer correctly, they too have to down their drink. If you penny a drink that has already been pennied, you have to down the drink you pennied.This also works as a sneaky way of getting a free drink! Pennying is often played at another British tradition called crew dates. Check out all the full rules of pennying here.

Sub Fusc

If you’ve ever seen a photo of Oxbridge students swooping around wearing long gowns like Snipe and pressed white shirts, you’ve seen sub fusc. Sub fusc is compulsory dress at certain events in both Oxford and Cambridge. Each person’s sub fusc reveals what degree level they are studying at and whether or not they have a scholarship.
The essentials are black suit, white shirt and white bowtie for men, and women must wear black skirt, black tie and white shirt. Although as of 2012 at Oxford, men and women can wear either gender’s sub fusc. Gowns are differing lengths with differing silk trims according to their status. ‘Commoners’ for instance, ie. basically everyone without a scholarship, wear a shorter gown, DPhil graduates wear a scarlet robe.

Sub fusc is compulsory for matriculation ceremonies, sitting exams, collections (beginning of term tests) and formal hall. During exams, students at Oxford wear a white carnation in their lapel on the first day, then pink, then red on the final day of exams. Cambridge has abolished the requirement to wear gowns during exams.

Life after Oxford

Whatever your degree subject, there’s a huge range of potential employment opportunities after Oxford. Leading employers recruit across our range of subjects, and we’re one of the top five universities targeted by leading graduate recruiters. For example, students from across our range of subjects go on to work in sectors including law, finance, government, media and arts, winning places using the transferable skills from any Oxford degree.
You can expect a well-paid job after graduation: 27% of Oxford’s students take home over £30,000 in the first year after graduation.

Interested in reading more? Make sure to check out:

– Alternative Prospectus [a detailed insider’s description of life at Oxford written by Oxford students]

– Explore the undergraduate courses available at Oxford

– Explore the post-graduate opportunities at Oxford

– What people do after Oxford

Rune Kvist, 18 May 2016