Posts tagged Oxford
Experiences as a Muslim student at Oxford University

How open do you think Oxford is towards your faith?

From my experience, most of Oxford is an incredibly tolerant environment. You don’t realise exactly how tolerant until you get here. There is so much solidarity and support in the student community, whatever race, religion, orientation, or background you’re from, everyone is welcome and any form of diversity is celebrated. You are never seen as an outsider because of your faith. In my experience, it has also provided an opportunity for my friends in college, some of whom have had very few (if any) Muslim friends, to be inquisitive and learn more about Islam.

Do you think the University and your college facilitate your faith well? For example with Halal food options etc.

The University have been great at providing a designated prayer room for all Muslims in Oxford to use, in a good location. Luckily my department (the Business School) also has a prayer room which is super convenient. Outside of those, I am also able to improvise and use spaces such as empty rooms and single study spaces in libraries if need be.
My college (as well as all other colleges) allow use of the chapel for all religions. I have made regular use of this. All I need to do is to to request the key and it’s open for me to pray in. My college (St Edmund Hall) is also incredibly good at providing food options, all of the chicken is halal and sometimes other meats too, with a Halal dietary option for formals too that takes into account any alcohol/gelatin in the meals too which is otherwise often difficult to figure out.

Do you think that there are ways to help develop your spiritual life at Oxford?

The Islamic Society is the main way for Muslims to develop their spiritual life, which I will discuss further later, but there is also a host of other societies and departments that offer discussion on Islam. The Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies also teaches students more about Islam, although this is often more in an academic context rather than a spiritual one.

I know you’re the President of Oxford University Islamic Society; could you run through the things a Muslim student at Oxford can get involved in, as well as the activities ISoc organises?

The ISoc organises a whole range of activities and is surprisingly active. We host regular socials, such as sports (football, squash, table tennis etc), dinners, and other activities, which provides a platform for Muslims in Oxford to meet each other and socialise in a relaxed setting.
We also hold religious classes for students to learn more about the Qur’an, the Prophet (pbuh), and other aspects of the religion. There are also academic and topical talks, such as social justice, Islamophobia etc.
We do a range of other events too, such as interfaith events with the JSoc, charity events, community events (e.g. feeding the homeless and volunteering), and arranging school visits to improve access for Muslim students.
We also provide free meals for all 30 nights of the month of Ramadan for students and locals to break their fast together.
Many strong friendships have blossomed through the ISoc and it is a very strong community, with many regular members but we always welcome any new members, some people only find ISoc one or two years into their degree!

Have you had any negative experiences because of your faith or your religion here?

Thankfully I haven’t had any negative experiences, I’ve found Oxford to be incredibly tolerant, more so than other universities from what I’ve heard, which I didn’t expect to be the case seeing as there is relatively little Muslim representation compared to other universities.

Some words to make Muslim students applying feel at ease?

I had the same worries that some of you may have about there being a lack of Muslims in Oxford. While there is no shying away from the fact that there are far less Muslims than many other universities, you may even be the only one in your year in college, I wouldn’t let that put you off from applying. The university and the college will do their utmost to try and make you feel comfortable, and the Islamic Society is a space that many Muslims in Oxford have found to make it easier for them to practice their faith and find others they can share common ground with.

Haseem Shah – Islamic Society President.

We would like to clarify that these are the views of Haseem only and do not presume to represent the experiences of every Muslim at Oxford University.

Tony Liu, 31 Mar 2017

Am I Right For Oxford?

Am I clever enough? Will everyone be cleverer than me? Will the tutors like me?


These are the questions I asked myself over and over again. There is no doubt about it Oxford can seem intimidating.
The stunning architecture, Harry Potter-esque dining halls and world expert tutors are enough to make most prospective applicants feel daunted.
Being nervous is normal but being so stressed that you can’t get your words out in the interview room and burst into floods of tears isn’t the best sign. As much as the interviews are used to test your knowledge, they are also a great way of showing how you react under pressure. They are designed to reflect a mini-tutorial which once at Oxford you will have on aweekly basis. So if you can’t cope with the interview, it’s unlikely you’ll cope with the workload and pressure once you start Oxford.
If you think you can deal with the pressure then ask yourself the next lot of questions:

  • Am I committed to working hard?
  • Do I have the grades?
  • Can I motivate myself to meet deadlines without a teacher pushing me?
  • Am I open to new ideas?
  • Does the tutorial system appeal to me?
  • Am I good at exams?
  • Am I passionate about my subject?
  • Does ‘Oxford Life’ appeal to me?

If you can answer YES to most of these then you really have nothing to lose!

Top Tips

  • Look around Oxford or research it online to see whether the University appeals to you.
  • Research your course, to check you will be happy studying it in minute detail for the next 3-4 years.
  • Self-analyse- ask yourself whether you truly believe you have the qualities to get you through an Oxford degree.
  • Discuss your subject with everyone and anyone who will listen and get them to ask you questions– this is a great way to practice staying calm under pressure.
  • Stop comparing yourself to everyone else – this is difficult but focus on the qualities you have.
  • Don’t pretend to be what you think the tutors are looking for, be true to yourself.
  • BELIEVE – if you really want something you have to believe you can get it and that belief, along with hard work, can go a very long way.


Tutorials – a weekly meeting with your tutor to discuss your week’s work. The tutorial system makes Oxford different from other University. You can’t hide in the back of a lecture theatre, the spotlight is on you!

Matilda is a student and blogger at Oxford. She writes about the application process and student life in her blog and on instagram @thatoxfordgirl!

ThatOxfordGirl, 29 Dec 2016

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

How to ace Oxbridge interviews: insider’s tips

There is one component more dreaded than all other in the application process to some of the English universities: the Oxbridge interviews. While there are some very good reasons to be nervous, interviews are in reality a quite pleasant shadow of the mythical and terror-inducing experiences often talked about. That being said, it’s gooto know a thing or two about them. In this guide, we will go through what can be expected from an interview at Oxbridge, and how to best approach them. First we’ll have a look at some of basic things to know about interviews, and what they’re about. After this we’ll discuss some things to keep in mind to perform at your very best.

What are interviews?

First things first; what are we talking about? Interviews are a component of the application process to some universities in the UK, Oxford and Cambridge specifically. (It is beyond the author’s knowledge whether they are practices by any other institutions, and whether they would be similar. This guide focuses on interviews at Oxbridge). If invited to an interview, you will receive the invitation a few weeks before they take place, but you might not be given much notice (~10 days is not uncommon). Some international students are given the option to perform the interview via videolink if they are unable to attend, though we recommend to attend in person if at all possible. You will then be invited to stay in the college which summoned you for a few days, during which the interviews take place.

What is the format of an interview in Oxbridge? Unfortunately there is no single response. It depends on subject, college and what your interviewer feels like doing. In general, however, a candidate has 2-4 interviews during her stay, each being 15-30 minutes long, with one or more professors attending. The interview is meant to be very similar to a tutorial, which is the personal teaching sessions which are considered unique to Oxbridge. The interview consists largely of the professors asking questions within the subject, allowing you to respond, and then asking you to elaborate on some aspect. When answering questions you will experience a queasy feeling of being stupid, thinking all your responses are wrong. Don’t worry however, all candidates share this fear, and most likely you’ll be doing better than you think.

What is it like?

To paint a more concrete picture I will give a quick account of my own interviews. I applied to Philosophy, Politics and Economics, and had one interviews of 15 minutes in each of the topics. In my philosophy interview I was asked about how philosophy relates to economics and politics, answering something about morality which didn’t particularly seem to impress my interviewer. I was then given a problem to judge whether certain propositions where implied by others (if X then Y; X is the case, is Y the case?). Other candidates were asked ‘do you know that your suitcase is currently in your room’? While thinking about the problem my interviewer told me I had 15 seconds to respond, whereby I panicked and blurted out answers, to which she said ‘ok, now you have to go’.

The day after I had interviews in politics and economics. In the politics interview I was asked to look at some statistics and explain what they indicated. After this we discussed democracy, and some of its problems. In my economics interview I was amongst other things asked about the value of gold, and whether one should smelt gold coins and sell the raw material if the value of gold increased or decreased in different ways relative to the monetary value of the coin. To each of my responses my interviewer looked sharply at me with a blank expression and slowly said ‘ok’, with a terrifying effect. These examples are mine, and experiences vary immensely between colleges, interviewers and candidates.

Some candidates might be invited to attend interviews at other colleges. When this happens, applicants usually cannot help but speculate in the reasons behind such invitations, which is rarely of any use. This is because the reasons vary a lot, from the feared I’m-not-good-enough-for-the college-I-applied-to-so-they-want-to-ship-me-over-somewhere-else, to logistics due to some professor who really wanted to get home early to watch football. Therefore, better not to speculate and spend one’s time worrying about better things.

What are they looking for?

So far so good, but now to what you’re really reading this post for: what are the interviewers looking for in candidates? The simple answer is that they are looking for academic potential. Unlike the typical American university, Oxbridge doesn’t care if you’re active or lazy, timid or sociable; they care only about how well you would do in the field you’re applying to. In an interview a professor is trying to figure out whether they could make you flourish as a student of their field, and your job is to convince them that you have the potential and desire to do so. If there is anything you need to know about interviews it’s this, all that follows are just effective ways to do this.

Before progressing to some advice on how you’ll be able to project your awesomeness, let’s consider an interview from the perspective of a professor. Firstly, professors have lives, in which they partly live like most of us but also do research and sometimes take time to explain to undergraduates why they’re wrong. Once a year they set all that aside to conduct interviews and find new students to join the institution. The reason this is good to remember is this: every time you start speculating in what the true intention of your interviewer is (Is this a trick question?; I think I missed her hint to change topic; Oh my god, why is he staring at me like that?), remember that the truth is that they simply have better things to do than to plot elaborate schemes of how to question you. What they really want is to effectively understand your potential, and try to figure out whether they would want you as a student.

How can you convince them that you’re their ideal student?

It is difficult to give any clear cut responses, but some general advice can be given.

Make sure you respond to the questions being asked. It’s very easy to turn a question in a way that allows you to answer it in a way you know well, or might have prepared in advance. This will only frustrate the interviewer, who wants to find your potential to understand new concepts, not hear what you already know. Therefore, though it’s a bit scarier, it’s a lot better to listen to the question being asked, take some time to think and really engage with it on the spot.

Be nice and demonstrate your enthusiasm. Your interviewer will effectively be choosing her students for three years to come, and will prefer someone they tolerate. The best way not to annoy professors is by being humble, and listen and think about what they’re saying. A very good practice is to seriously consider counterarguments to your position in their strongest form. Furthermore, professors like engaged students. If you are able to effectively show your interest in the topic, this will likely make a better impression than if you were to only show an aptness but indifference to it. This brings us to the last point.

Enjoy the experience. It’s very easy to get bogged down in strategies of how to approach an interview and purport yourself in them. Like a date, the best way to make an interview worse than it could have been is by thinking too much about how you’re doing. Instead, take the occasion for what it is: a chat about some field of mutual interest between two people, namely you and the interviewer. If you can think of an interview as nothing more than a chance at an interesting conversation, you’re well on your way to be accepted.

Wrapping up

Let’s review some of the points we’ve brought up here:

  • Interviews are components of the application process to Oxford and Cambridge
  • Interviewers aim to discover your capacity and enthusiasm for the subject you’re applying for
  • Focus on the topic and questions being asked, don’t worry about any hidden intentions from your interviewers
  • Be humble and demonstrate your enthusiasm
  • Enjoy the experience

In the end there’s only one other thing that needs remarking. If you’re invited to an interview, that means you have the personal capacity to be accepted, otherwise you wouldn’t have been invited. So don’t worry and enjoy the interview experience, because you can feel confident that you’re good enough to be there.


Below you will find a quick FAQ of some of the questions which haven’t been handled in the guide above:

Q: How much should I prepare for my interview?

This depends, and the recommendation varies with subjects. Some subjects don’t allow for much preparation that you could have use of in an interview. I recommend to prepare enough that you (1) you feel confident in your subject and (2) you are ‘in the mindset’ when you enter your interview. For a topic like Mathematics, or Economics, it’s definitely advantageous to have all the base concepts clearly in your mind so you don’t have to infer the definition of calculus in your interview. For others, like English or Philosophy, there isn’t too much preparation you can do, and the risk of preparing too much is that you’ll have a bunch of clever responses you really want to mention though they don’t necessarily fit the question. This might ruin your interview. Therefore, the best thing is to prepare so that you have all the basic knowledge in the subject necessary to think on our feet and tackle any question thrown at you.

Q: How should I dress for my interview?

Many candidates worry about this. The truth is that it really doesn’t matter. The reason is not (only) the immense tolerance of the professors, but rather – as mentioned above – that they have so many better things to think about than your sense of style. The only recommendation I would give is not to give them a reason to think about it either. In other words, don’t dress in a way that might make them distracted from what you’re saying (e.g. military outfit, Pikachu outfit or underwear are less recommended). In my interviews I wore trousers with a jacket, while my friend who has just flown in from a hitchhike in Uzbekistan wore sandy jeans with big holes in them, and we both got in.


Paul De Font-Roux, 18 May 2016

Economics & Management – interview with Haseem Shah at Oxford

Can you give us a short introduction about yourself?

I’m Haseem Shah, a second year E&M student at St Edmund Hall (Teddy Hall). I’m from East London (Ilford) and attended a selective grammar school there; Ilford County High School. I studied Maths, Economics and Geography at A-Level. I took a gap year in between finishing my A-Levels and starting university where I did an 8-month internship at Deloitte.

How do you find studying Economics and Management? E&M has a reputation of being easier than other degrees.

I’m constantly reminded of the “Easy & Manageable” reputation of E&M, and granted, it probably has a lighter workload than some of the other science subjects, but you have to remember it is all relative to the Oxford standard. It still requires a great amount of work and commitment if you want to perform well. We generally get set an essay and a problem sheet or two problem sheets a week. I really enjoy my degree and am very glad I chose to study it, it has a great balance of quantitative and qualitative reasoning, with a mix of maths and essays, and you can balance your options to tailor the course to what suits you best, whether you love to write or love to do maths.

How do you think a humanities subject compares to a science?

The main difference is less contact hours. We have an average of 7 hours of lectures a week and 3 hours of tutorials, whereas many science students have packed timetables of labs, lectures, practicals, tutorials etc. Humanities are more of a self study kind of degree with lots of readings and textbook work. There is also the essay writing aspect that you don’t get in science subjects.

Could you tell us more about your course, the content and the structure?

It’s generally split into three areas; Economics, General Management and Financial Management, which are the three modules you cover in first year. Economics starts off with just Micro and Macro, then a whole range of specific options open up in 2nd and 3rd year, from Monetary Policy to Behavioural Economics, Game Theory and British Economic History etc. There are 3 compulsory courses for finalists; Micro, Macro and Quantitative Economics. You then have to choose at least 2 management options, which can be financial (Accounting or Finance) or general (e.g. Strategy, Marketing etc.). It’s important to note that we don’t have 2nd year exams, so you start your “finals” modules in 2nd year, and there are 8 modules you have to do (the 3 core econ ones and 5 options, of which at least 2 have to be management).

What’s your favourite thing about studying here so far?

The Oxford vibe and culture is probably my favourite thing, I love the traditions such as formals, wearing sub fusc, and generally the grand, old nature of the town, the buildings, the libraries. It’s all so Harry Potter, and you really feel a sense of history and achievement here.

least favourite thing?

The workload, although I do E&M, it is still a lot of work and probably more than most other universities. There is a huge emphasis on academic excellence here and you can’t afford to slack for a couple of days, you’d just be playing catch up.

Did you have any expectations about Oxford before you came here?

Lots of work, lots of incredibly smart, interesting people, and an institution steeped in tradition. I also expected everyone to be really posh.

How does the real thing compare?

It’s as I expected except for the preconception of what the people would be like, there are so many down to earth people here, and although there are lots of “posh” people too, generally they’re all incredibly nice and you can get on with nearly everyone here.

Do you have any advice for prospective applicants?

Don’t put too much pressure on yourself, try and enjoy the process, especially if you get to the interview stage. Go for a walk, explore Oxford, make friends and try and stay relaxed.

Anything else you want to say?

Good luck with your applications!

Haseem Shah, Economics and Management at Oxford University

Tony Liu, 24 Feb 2017


A year abroad, perspectives from an Oxford modern languages student

Can you quickly introduce yourself?

I am a French citizen of Bulgarian origin and I am *usually* a student at Lincoln College, Oxford, reading Spanish and Russian ab initio, but I am currently on my year abroad in Yaroslavl, Russia, as part of the second year of my course.

Why did you choose to apply to Oxford over any universities at home? And why for your course?
Oxford offered teaching from the most brilliant professors in the field, the modules that were of greatest interest to me, and the richest resources, which easily put the university as my top choice for this degree. The teaching system in Oxford, renowned for its tutorial scheme, was what most appealed to me in comparison to other universities. Furthermore, this specific course was offered neither in France, nor in Bulgaria, which made my application a very straight-forward path.

Was it difficult applying as an overseas student? 
Undoubtedly, the application process is more difficult for a foreigner than it is for a British student – but definitely not impossible.

The obvious drawbacks are having less guidance, advice and preparation than the home students in relation to the application process itself, whether it was for the Personal Statement, the interview or the resources in preparation for the course.

Nevertheless, these hindrances are of less significance if you are passionate about your course, which is all that the tutors are looking for in an ideal candidate. Whatever your background, if you can prove your interest in the subject, you have an equal chance of getting a place as any other student.

Could you run through some of your application process?
Apart from the Personal Statement, which everyone has to write, I had to submit an essay in English in order to show my level of literary analysis and one piece of work in Spanish. Both needed to be drawn from my ongoing course and needed to be graded.

I also had three interviews. One for Spanish, which consisted of an analysis in English of a Spanish poem that I had been given 15 minutes prior to the interview, a short conversation in Spanish and questions about books and experiences I had mentioned in my Personal Statement. The format for the interview related to the Russian part of the course was of very similar format, only the poem I was given to analyse was in English because this course is ab initio. Due to that fact, and the general recognition that it is a more complex course than ab initio courses of Latin languages, we also had an extra compulsory interview of a different nature. It was less academic and more psychological in a way, as the questions revolved around the reasons behind choosing this course in particular, our work ethic, our commitment to it and to the year abroad program, (which, unlike other Modern Languages courses is chosen by the university, not the student). We were also given linguistics exercises in English which we had to work through on the spot. Re-reading this, I realise it sounds very daunting, but that comes primarily from the fact that you only know that there will be ‘a poem’ to analyse, without actually seeing the paper in front of you – and trust me, once you do, you realise that it is the same thing you have done a hundred times over in class; it is perfectly doable and not an inhumanly difficult task. The interview process is in fact a highly enjoyable intellectual challenge in itself, so make the most of it.

I know you currently on your year abroad, before we get to that I’d like to ask you about your experiences in the UK. What was the biggest culture shock when you first moved to the UK?
Bake Off – to this day, I struggle to comprehend how people can reach such levels of excitement over cake on TV. Apart from that, I was prepared for being confronted with cultural clashes prior to moving in Oxford, because I had already moved to a different country once before in my life. I think the most important thing is not to get too upset upon realising those differences and to keep in mind that it is circumstantial, rather than it being a problem in you. Every international student will get these nostalgic moments once in a while, when they will reminisce over how easy and effortless it was to live in an environment where people had the same behavioural standards, social dynamics, language, mentality and morals as you. But as chlichéd as it sounds, stepping out of that familiar space is highly enriching and eye-opening and it is definitely worth all the struggles. Learn how to treasure what makes you different, all while adopting the new and you will get double the benefits.

Did you have any ideas about life in the UK or Oxford before you came here?
It is hard not to have any expectations, so inevitably I had a very vivid idea of what life in the UK and in Oxford would be like. And as always, it was completely wrong, apart from the anticipation of incessant rainy days and an abnormal obsession with tea – if anything, I was surprised how true those were.

I thought Oxford was going to be a daunting place of genius minds that would undermine me for days on end, that I would be swamped in work, would forget the concept of sleep, would live in a library for six days of the week, would be an antisocial and friendless nerd and that everyone was going to mock me for not being posh and pretentious enough. As you can tell, I was a very pessimistic person and I could not have been further from the truth.

How has the actual things compared to your expectations?
I now treat Oxford as my third home and I had one of the best weeks of my life when I returned there recently on holiday from my year abroad. Ironic, is it not? To go on holiday *from* a year abroad *to* Oxford – it sounds absolutely insane, but it was one of the best decisions I have made as an adult in the making.

The phrase ‘studying in Oxford is a unique and enriching opportunity’ could not sound more generic and fake to you, but I cannot stress how true it is. One of the features of the university I was particularly impressed by was its diversity of students, societies, clubs, talks and campaigns. There are opportunities for everyone to pursue any interest they might have, accompanied by equally enthusiastic like-minded people. The support system is phenomenal – there are people constantly pioneering for the best interests of others and the chances of anyone feeling discriminated, left out or mistreated are minimal. There are also extremely elaborate systems in college and across the university that make sure students get the most sophisticated and tailored help if it is ever needed, so as to ensure that everyone is having the best time they can in the universally-recognised ‘best years of our lives’.

As for the academic side of it, the workload is more than manageable. At the end of the day, everyone has a different work ethic and approach to tasks, but the structure of each course is free enough for everyone to be able to adapt to it in their own way. The first term is a process of trial and error to find out what works best for you, so it is essential to regard it as an adaptational period, and not get too flustered over obstacles along the way. The tutorial system is fantastic – rather than being terrified of sharing a tight space with a professor a million times more experienced than you, see it as a golden opportunity to discuss what you are passionate about with a world expert and genius in that field.

Describe Lincoln College in 3 words
Family, excitement, passion.

Could you tell us more about your course, the content and the structure?
Every Modern Languages course last for four years – the standard three in Oxford and one year abroad, usually in the third year of studies. In very few cases, such as for courses of Japanese and Russian ab initio, students do their year abroad in the second, rather than their third year, and their destination and occupation are decided by the university, rather than being left to the choice of the student themselves.

The Spanish side of the first year of my course was dedicated to the study of different genres across a range of periods and movements in preparation for the Preliminary examinations at the end of that year. Most importantly, this vast array of study was meant to give us an idea of the period we would be most interested in specialising in as part of the Finalist course (the options being Medieval, Golden Age and Modern). The teaching for this is based on four lectures on the set texts and one tutorial (with a correspondent essay) per week, which seems negligible, but the secondary reading one is expected to do in order to produce a decent essay is highly time-consuming. We spend just two to three weeks on each text, i.e. just 2-3h discussing it with the tutors, so it is essential to make the most out of them and do sufficient work by yourself. The language side of the course involves one hour of grammar in classes of 6-8 people every week and one tutorial dedicated to a translation of an extract per week, as well as just one hour of speaking in groups of 6-8 once every two weeks.

As for the other half of the course, the Latin ab initio languages would be learning the language at the same time as they would be studying the literature, so it would be structured like my Spanish course, only with more language classes of course. Nevertheless, for more ‘obscure’ languages like Russian or Japanese, the first year does not involve any literature classes, apart from an introductory class for one hour a week during the second term, with no relation to the Preliminary examinations at the end of that year and no tests. Thus, the entirety of the course revolves around 8 hours of grammar, one dictation, one vocabulary test and one grammar test every week.

The second year is thus a year abroad in Yaroslavl, Russia, which is compulsory for everyone. In the third and fourth years of the course, each student needs to choose which period they will specialise in for both languages, as well as modules, topics and authors they would like to study in depth.

What is your favourite thing about studying in the UK?
How diverse it is, compared to the universities in my home country and my country of residence. This applies to the number of internationals from every corner of the world, the variety of races, religions and sexualities. There is, without exaggeration, something for everyone here and I am very pleased with how accepting the locals are towards this diversity. The effects of globalisation and open-mindedness are most striking in such a brilliant place as Oxford and it is a real blessing to be able to live in the heart of that.

Least favourite thing?
The weather. It can be challenging to sustain an upbeat attitude when it is too gloomy outside, but as mentioned above, there are millions of reasons why not to succumb to that. Jokes aside, I am genuinely very impressed and pleased with my experience in a British university, so I am happy to say that there is nothing that has significantly deteriorated my opinion of it.

So now let’s move on to your year abroad, could you tell us a little bit about how it is structured. Where are you, do places differ between courses (ab initio etc.) and how much flexibility do you have to choose where to go?
My year abroad in Yaroslavl lasts from mid-September to mid-April, with a three-week vacation in the middle for the Christmas break. We also have one week off in the middle of each of the two terms, but people usually spend those ‘exploring’ the rest of Russia. As mentioned before, we were given no choice for the destination, nor for our occupation there.

Students are obliged to go to classes at the local university every day from 9h30 until 13h15. These are tailored specifically for Oxford students, according to a program set by the tutors. Thus, they are not mixed with the Russians attending classes and lectures at the university, nor with the other British students from UCL, St Andrew’s, Queen’s, Durham, etc, equally on their year abroad in Yaroslavl. The structure of the teaching is nothing like that in Oxford and it is about as relaxed as kindergarten, but it is useful for polishing up your language skills. The classes are on grammar, literature, translation, speaking and social media studies.
None of this applies to Oxford students studying Russian post-A-level, who get to pick from a selection of places and are free to organise their year as they wish, as long as they are engaged with activities that are beneficial for their language skills.

If you could give any advice to international students thinking of applying, what would it be?
Do not feel intimidated by all those British students who have lived and breathed that educational system, culture, language, mannerisms and morals all their lives – you already have your life back home and that will never change, so why not give it a go at something new, something more challenging that will make you grow more than any one of those home students? Because at the end of the day, you are juggling emigrational adaptation with a degree in one of the most prestigious universities, which will undoubtedly be highly regarded and admired. You are obviously not doing it for the reputation, but it is a favourable added bonus to the fact that you would be a more well-rounded person, with an exceptional flexibility and acute social understanding and adaptational skills.

Things may get tough, you may occasionally feel like an outsider when a conversation about an essential element of British pop culture you are entirely oblivious about takes place for too long, but that is too superficial to be of any major importance. If anything, you will be more interesting to people because you bring in something new and exciting that they are not used to, and that brings in a lot more points than being excited with them about ‘The Great British bake-off’. At the end of your experience, you would have enjoyed the benefits of two separate ways of life, which can only ever be an asset to your personal, social and professional growth.

Ana Yovtcheva, a Russian and Spanish student on her year abroad in Russia.

Tony Liu, 21 Feb 2017

Physics, an interview with an Oxford Student

Can you give a short introduction about yourself? 
I’m a second year Physics student at Corpus Christi, originally from Manchester!

What’s it like studying Physics at Corpus Christi? 
The work is difficult, as you would expect, but Corpus Physics is a very close-knit group and so I know that they’re always happy to help out on any particularly hard questions. Especially when you have to spend the entire day together in labs – it’s definitely a strong bond that gets formed.

How do STEM subjects compare to humanities? 
STEM compared to Humanities in general have a very different set of workload – the difference between problem sets and essays (although some STEM subjects also have essays) means that we work in different ways. From an application point of view – there’s also more of an expectation of prior knowledge of your subject for STEM, whereas it would be relatively normal to apply for a humanities subject, like Law, without having formally studied it.

Could you tell us more about your course, the content and the structure? 
Physics is timetabled so that there are lectures in the morning, tutorials in the afternoon with lab days kept clear. This means that there is a built-in level of structure to your week and day, making it relatively easy to find a working time after your lectures or tutorial. In first year, the course offers a good grounding in maths – with half the courses being focused on mathematical methods. The other topics cover electromagnetism, optics and a choice of short courses. In second year, we cover Electromagnetism and Optics in more depth, Quantum Mechanics and Thermodynamics.

What are your most and least favourite things about studying here so far? 
Best thing so far is having those rare eureka moments and working as a group, worst has to be some of the labs.

Did you have any expectations about Oxford before you came here? 
I reckon I had a typical set of expectations of Oxford – that everyone would be ridiculously intelligent, rich, from Eton or somewhere in the South, and so I wouldn’t fit in

How does the real thing compare?
When I first got here I was still terrified but the more I spoke to everyone, it soon became clear that your background was irrelevant and essentially never came up in conversation. Although there are inevitably people who are intelligent, and who did go to Eton – that didn’t define them and makes them no different from everyone else. Everyone was in the same situation of trying to fit in, find friends and figure out the usual stuff like laundry and cooking.

Teneeka Mai is a physics student at Corpus Christi College, Oxford

Tony Liu, 21 Feb 2017


Biochemistry at Oxford

What is Biochemistry?

Biochemistry is the study of life at a molecular and cellular level. This involves using chemical, biological and some physical techniques to understand the different processes occurring in a biological system. You will be looking at how individual atoms interact with each other all the way to the dynamics between populations of complex cellular organisms.

Course Structure

First Year:
The first year of the course is designed to provide students with the fundamental theory and techniques required to understand the underpinnings of a biological system. There are five courses that are taught throughout the entire year.

Molecular Cell Biology (MCB)
Biophysical Chemistry
Organic Chemistry
Biological Chemistry
Math & Statistics

1. MCB for short, is simply the study of cells on a molecular level – this course forms the foundation of the rest of the degree which is built upon in the following years. The three main topics of this course are genetics, cell biology, and metabolism. These are really just extensions of the what was taught in A level / IB biology. For example, genetics comprises of how genetic information is conserved through its structure (DNA & RNA) and the processes involved in expressing this information to produce proteins (through transcription/translation). Similarly, metabolism involves looking at the metabolic processes taught at A level (glycolysis, citric acid cycle, electron transport chain, etc) but in a lot more detail.

2. Biophysical Chemistry, whilst sounding very daunting at first, is essentially the theory of the physical techniques you will need for the course. The three main branches are quantum mechanics, thermodynamics, and kinetics. Quantum mechanics is infamous for being the most complicated topic – it doesn’t help that it’s the first lectures series of the year too. It forms the basis of understanding the structure of atomic orbitals and how they interact with each other. Contrastingly, the questions asked in problem sheets / exams are usually quite straightforward and the math is often the simplest of all the topics (no calculus required!). Thermodynamics (Gibbs free energy) and kinetics (rate constants) are really extensions of A level theory, just with a lot more manipulation of the mathematics behind it.

3. Organic Chemistry. The subject people either love or hate. Unlike A levels, it is a lot harder to do well in this subject through memorization of reactions. The key difference at University is being able to appropriately select the most important factors that drive a reaction – a lot of this involves thinking about molecules interacting with each other in 3-dimensional space (similar to thinking about orbital shapes back in high school). You’ll learn significantly more types of reactions but they ultimately follow the same fundamental laws. By focusing on understanding these underlying concepts most of the problems thrown at you are definitely doable.

4. Biological Chemistry is somewhere in-between MCB and Organic Chemistry. A major portion of the course is devoted to studying the properties of key biological molecules such as proteins, polysaccharides, nucleic acids and lipids. A lot of the mechanisms and theory learnt concurrently in biophysical and organic chemistry is applied to this course, making it very satisfying to see how everything synchronizes together.

5. Math – the bane of most biochemists. Whilst there is an assumption of no prior knowledge, A level Maths certainly makes the course a lot easier. The course goes by very quickly and the few that have not done math since GCSE may struggle (begins with quadratic equations in 1st week to differential equations by 8th week). The course is split into Math & Statistics and apart from one or two concepts do not go beyond the A level syllabus. The Math section is predominantly focused on calculus and its applications to biological systems – virtually all the long answer questions in problem sheets and exams are linked to a theoretical experiment. Similarly, the statistics section places emphasis on the applications of significance testing, normal distributions, and linear regression in a biochemical setting.

Second & Third Years:
The 2nd & 3rd years are organized into four courses:

Macromolecular Structure and Function
Bioenergetics and Metabolism
Genetics and Molecular Biology
Cell Biology and the Integration of Function

All four are compulsory although there is some choice about which material to cover. These courses stem from the MCB and Biological Chemistry topics taught in first year with a lot of the concepts built upon the application of theories from Biophysical and Organic Chemistry.

Fourth Year:
The fourth year is research focused, including a 20-week research project followed by studying two options from a list of advanced topics.

Type of work?
The difficulty of the course isn’t that the concepts are extremely hard to grasp but rather due to the sheer amount of information thrown at you. Most science subjects at University are either essay based (Biology) or numeric based (Chemistry/Physics). Biochemistry is unique for first year as it is pretty much split down the middle – work is set as a mixture of essays and problem sheets both quantitative (Math, Biophysical chemistry) and qualitative (Biological chemistry). Most tutorials set by your college will be essays predominantly on topics regarding MCB. These tutorials are either solo or with another student and involve a discussion with your tutor (usually a professor) on the topic of your essay. This is a great way to get into the nitty gritty details of the subject and to clarify any misconceptions you may have.

Work set in the following years is almost completely essay based with tutorials revolving around a topic from one of the four courses above.

At the end of first year, students are required to take an exam known as prelims on each of the five courses studied. Thankfully, these exams do not count towards your degree but do require a pass on each paper (of around 40%) for you to proceed to the second year.

The only assessments that count are in your 3rd and 4th year. At the end of third year you sit 6 papers – 4 of which are the main topics studied in 2nd and 3rd year and the remaining two being the general paper (a combination of the main topics learnt throughout the course) and a data handling exam.

Apart from the data handling paper the other five exams are purely essay writing, with each exam being three hours in length and requiring three essays to be written. These papers count for an overall 60% of your degree.

The remaining 40% is in fourth year which consists of a combination of your research project and coursework on selected advanced topics.

N.B. As with most subjects at Oxford, students are required to take informal exams known as collections at the beginning of every term (don’t worry they don’t count for anything).

Typical week (1st year):
2-3 hours of lectures a day
A tutorial (requires writing an essay of about 1200 – 2000 words beforehand)
An organic chemistry tutorial (problem sheet taking 5-6 hours due beforehand)
A biophysical or biological chemistry class (problem sheet taking 5-6 hours due beforehand)
A math/statistics class (problem sheet taking a few hours due beforehand)
A practical that lasts 3-6 hours

Oxford Biochemistry course:

More resources regarding the course:

Mark Yu Xiang, 02 Apr 2017

Oxbridge vs. Ivy League? The choice matters

The Choice Matters

Anyone who has ever browsed university league tables will have noticed the dominance of British and American universities in the top, and in particular, in the very, very top. Out of the top 10 places in QS’s World University Rankings 2016, nine were taken up by British or American institutions. Most famously, there is Oxbridge (Oxford and Cambridge Universities) in the U.K., and Ivy League (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and a few others on the East Coast) in the U.S. Both evoke a variety of stereotypes: ancient towers and libraries, tweed-wearing quirky professors, fashionable leather shoes, frat parties and college-crested jumpers, Stephen Hawking and Mark Zuckerberg.

Getting into any of these places is a job well done, and having the option to pick between them is, as it were, a first-world problem on steroids. Whether you are fortunate enough to be pondering offers from both sides of the Atlantic, or whether you are simply trying to figure out what the differences are between these places, read on. I will try to highlight some similarities as well as differences in a way that can hopefully help you make up your mind, wherever you are in the process. But do note I don’t talk about financing issues in this piece, and that summary overview cannot replace researching the specific universities you are considering. Also, these thoughts are my own and are based on research I have done and anecdotes I have; others might disagree and you should always do your own research, with your own goals in mind. But even so, this article might be a place to start doing that.


Since you will spend most or at least a vast amount of time studying at any of these universities[1], understanding the differences in academic experience is very important. In short, at Oxbridge you will spend three (or for some courses, four) years exploring the subject(s) you have chosen in depth. In particular, in the social sciences and humanities, which are less standardised in terms of curricula, you will dive deep into the specific options that you pick, gaining a strong command – though not necessarily much of an overview, unless you add that yourself – of your subject(s).

Meanwhile, an American liberal arts degree (which you will get at the Ivies) encourages and even requires wide exploration of varied subjects (at Harvard, undergraduates do 32 options over their four years). In theory there is significant room for specialisation through taking the maximum allowed number of courses in a particular subject. However, apart from the fact that the chance to experiment is one to make use of, the large number of different courses will tend to push towards overview and brief familiarizing, compared to the narrower rigour of Oxbridge. The takeaway point, then, is the choice between the curious exploration and general education at the Ivy League on the one hand, and Oxbridge’s emphasis on sustained study and subject-specific mastery on the other. Debates will continue to rage over the advantages of each, but largely this distinction should feed into personal reflection on which is right for you, given your goals, ambitions, and interests.

Study aside, there are other important things to think about (something of which I was sublimely unaware during my own application process). Non-academic factors can be subdivided into two categories: Non-academic university life, and what we may broadly call background culture.


Beginning with background culture, it’s undeniable that spending your undergraduate years in the U.S. or the U.K. will shape you into different persons. As one person unhelpfully reminded me as I was personally battling with the decision between Oxbridge and Ivy League: “Wow, just remember that you are really choosing what kind of person you will be for the rest of your life.” As much as this was an exaggeration (as I also told my distressed self at the time), it is true that American and British general culture (norms, bureaucracy, behaviour, partying) differ and that you will be influenced in different directions depending on in which you choose to immerse yourself.

The best way to get a sense of this is, if you are able, to visit and experience the respective cultures (hint: google open days for your favourite universities or send them an email). However, that’s far from always possible. (I’d never visited the U.S. when I got admitted.) But this is difficult to advice on generally, so I will just mention a couple of points: First, talk to as many people with relevant experience (e.g., fellow nationals who have lived in one of the countries) as you can, and see if you really struggle to picture yourself in either of the images that emerge. Second, think about how much you value a cultural and social challenge in itself. From a European perspective, anecdotally it seems to me that those of my friends at Ivy League colleges had a much more challenging time to feel at home, on average, than those in the U.K. Is that part of the challenge you are aiming for, or something which would stand in the way of your goals?

Life In The Bubble

When it comes to non-academic university life, there is more that unite than separate Oxbridge and the Ivies. Frankly, old elite universities share a number of features, including the strong sense of “living in a bubble”, curious traditions and many scarily intelligent peers. As well as, of course, drinks and parties, competition for social status, and performance anxiety. But similarities aside, there are, needless to say, differences.

One of the most notable differences is probably how extra-curricular activities are viewed. An American friend on an exchange year from Columbia to Oxford told me that she had asked the President of Columbia in her first year, “What should I prioritise, my studies or getting an internship?” The President had answered that to be frank, from the university’s point of view it was the internship. In my experience, this is the opposite of the typical attitude among Oxford tutors, although this is an area of massive individual variation. This is not to suggest extra-curriculars are dead at Oxbridge – very much to the contrary. But it does say something about the greater institutional support available at American universities and about the general difference in attitudes. Once again, the ideals of the education of citizens (Ivy League) and the education of thinkers (Oxbridge) come out.

As for living arrangements, it is difficult to generalise. Oxford and Cambridge offer a combination of secluded life in a college, yet with a wider (though not extremely large) city surrounding it. Many students spend part of their degrees living in normal shared flats. Top U.S. colleges offer quite different experiences depending on location – Columbia University is in the middle of New York City, whilst Harvard and Princeton have highly concentrated campuses without that much going on in the immediate surroundings. Dartmouth, on the other hand, boasts extensive access to the outdoors. All in all, these differences underline the fact that you are looking for a place to live, rather than just study, and that’s something you need to keep in mind.

In The End

In the end, though more alike than different, Oxbridge and Ivy Leagues present two distinct alternatives, and which you choose makes a difference. Do your research. Think about whether you are looking for liberal arts breadth or Oxbridge depth as far as your studies go.  If you feel strongly in the direction of one country, direct your application resources (time and effort) accordingly. Try to move beyond the stereotypes. Remember that most people you ask for advice will (and who could blame them?) base their answers on exactly such stereotypes. Don’t stress, take your time. This is a tricky choice, and requires careful thinking about yourself and what matters to you.


Erik Hammar graduated with a B.A. in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from Christ Church, Oxford, in 2015. After leaving high school, he received offers from Harvard College as well as Christ Church, Oxford. He is now working in London.

[1] I will use the word “university” throughout, even if “college” is more accurate as far as U.S. undergraduate degrees are concerned.

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Erik Hammar, 28 Jun 2016