College Admissions

Attending Oxford University

It’s true that town-gown relations are not always friendly, but local residents pelting college students with stones and arrows? That was the situation in Oxford back in 1340, when the university’s complaints to King Edward III resulted in the Carfax Tower being lowered.

Seven centuries later, Oxford is not only safe from bows and arrows, it is a delightful place to attend college. While most American students either do post-graduate work or spend a year at Oxford as part of a junior year abroad program, it is possible to earn the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree at the university.

Studying at Oxford is very different from attending an American college. Instead of spending the first two years fulfilling general education requirements, students choose a subject when they apply and study that subject in depth. While students do have some lectures to attend, the heart of the educational experience is the tutorial. Each student has a tutor, and they meet weekly to discuss a paper or other work the student has completed. In science, a tutorial may include two or three students.

With weekly papers, students need to be able to manage their time. Academics are rigorous, but there are plenty of opportunities for fun. Libraries close early and students head for pubs and dance clubs. While the streets of downtown Oxford are as crowded as London, students can get a soothing dose of nature by walking through the gates of Christ Church College into a huge meadow with trees, river, even cows.

One of the traditions that make the Oxford experience special is the formal dinner. Students dress up (though I saw plenty of jeans when I attended two of these dinners a few weeks ago) and are served by waiters, as college dignitaries sit at the head table. Each college has regular formal dinners, and they provide an opportunity for students to come together and continue a ritual that has gone on for centuries.

Who’s a good candidate for Oxford? This is a place for motivated students who would rather research a topic on their own than work in a group. Students who have a passion for one subject would enjoy Oxford, but those who enjoy sampling different subjects should look elsewhere. Students can’t switch majors like they can in American schools, so they must know what they want to study. Also, before receiving a degree, students take final exams that cover the entire three or four year program, and that is serious pressure.

The focus on academic ability and passion for a student’s intended subject is clear in the admissions process. They don’t care about extracurricular activities or community service. Students generally need SAT scores of at least 1400 (2100 on the new SAT), and three SAT Subject scores of at least 700 or two AP scores of 4 or 5. But grades and test scores are not the only consideration. The academic interview is crucial. This is a thirty-minute meeting with a tutor in the student’s subject or a related subject. The tutor may give a student a paper to read before the interview and then ask for the student’s opinion. If a student disagrees with the paper, the tutor might announce that he or she is the author and that the paper won a Nobel Prize. Very intimidating, but the student who can intelligently argue against the paper is impressive. It’s not what you know, but do you have the skills to learn. There’s no quota on American students, and one in four is admitted.

The cost is about $40,000 a year (2005), for a very comfortable standard of living. For science students who can complete a degree in three years, this can be a good deal. For a student who loves learning and enjoys working independently, Oxford provides a unique educational experience.