Starting afresh at university in a completely new environment is daunting. Starting university at Oxford University is considered infinitely more daunting – but it shouldn’t be. There’s so much to learn in and about Oxford and nobody should feel it is inaccessible; everybody gets put under the same amount of stress! I’m going to debunk a few myths while recounting my experiences of first year at Oxford.
Like many new experiences, it has its ups and downs; essay deadlines are nerve wracking, meeting new people is exciting. The gigantic libraries are fantastically scary but on the other hand, trying out new and sometimes wacky sports is fun! (I opted for ‘Alts’ twice a week, a form of non-contact amateur ice hockey where we played 5-a-side tournaments at the ice rink.)
My time at Oxford got off to a good start; it really helped that my tutor was incredibly enthusiastic, which made settling into the subject really easy. Most tutors are at Oxford, because they love their subjects and although they may test you and try and stretch your understanding of topics (which just an hour of, is exhausting), they’re ultimately there to try and help. Studying Earth Science, I get about an essay a week and one or two problem sets. It differs between subjects but there’s usually a trade off between your contact time (time in lectures/tutorials/practicals) and the amount of work you’ll be set.
Lesson learnt: Don’t worry if others from different subjects (or just with different tutor) seem to be doing more work than you; as long as you understand the material, you’re doing great! Remember your tutor isn’t out to get you, only make sure you’re working to the best of your ability.
During this first term I also discovered a lot about the Oxford scene. There’s something for everyone here; from sports to arts, and drama to writing. It stretches from college level, to intercollegiate competitions (even in drama) to university-wide societies and even beyond this. Sadly, I’m a scientist through and through, so art is really not my strong point, but I thoroughly enjoyed going to casual college badminton sessions, alts ice hockey and many of the various talks going on throughout the year, through many of the university’s clubs and societies.
Other social aspects are the BOPs (college parties) and subject-related events. For example; I took part in Geo-varsity football, a casual football match between Cambridge Natural Scientists and Oxfords Earth Scientists followed by a ‘crew date’, but there are various other more casual social gatherings.
Lesson learnt: Either concentrate your efforts on a couple of key things you want to try or master, or spread yourself thinly over a few things. Just don’t take on too much at once without first getting settled into college.
There’s also a few events more typical of what you’d expect here at Oxford; Balls, posh dinners, amazing music and a couple of University traditions such as matriculation. Matriculation was such a whirlwind of a day but I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Likewise, I attended 4 balls last year all of which were awesome! You get to dress up in a fancy dress or suit and your ticket (which ranges in price from £50 upwards) includes ALL your food and drink for the evening.
Lesson learnt: make the most of the fact Oxford is a wonderful, if wacky, place with some great traditions. Take advantage of group bookings for balls (the more the merrier!) and don’t be afraid to attend events at other colleges/societies. Also, if you’re worried about money, joining the RAG casino is a great way to get into balls for free, for a good cause – and it’s great fun to deal casino games to tipsy people.
And if you can manage anything on top of all that; there’s the nightlife. Oxford may not be the biggest party destination in the UK, but there’s a few major clubs and a wide range of music tastes to choose from. I probably averaged about 2-3 nights out a week in my first two terms which was quite a lot. My work did suffer because being hungover in lectures just isn’t conducive to learning, but I had a lot of fun!
Lesson learnt: Enjoy yourself but remember why you’re at Oxford. Also, remember that while Oxford isn’t much more work than at other Universities; that work is concentrated into shorter terms.
When all of the stress, hangovers and pure exhaustion has got to you, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel; free food! Most colleges run at least a weekly Welfare Tea, where food is usually supplied and trained peer supporters are on hand to talk to. I used to schedule them into my day so that I’d get a break from work, because who can say no to free food? It’s also a great way to catch up with your like-minded (skint or hungry) friends who you daren’t normally bother in case of an essay crisis.
Lesson learnt: Whilst you’re stressing it’s likely that someone else is too – give yourself a break and organise to join people for dinner.
Once it reached exam term the welfare team became a very important part of college life. Most people can’t just ace Oxford prelims (first set of exams) without doing any work (curse anybody that can!), and a lot of people turn into either hermits or monsters during this term as the stress piles up. I didn’t ask for help when I should have, I honestly spent some nights crying over revision.
Lesson learnt: ask for help. It’s not a sign of weakness or giving in and everybody feels the pressure. There’s loads available at college, from the welfare officers, or university-wide (e.g. services such a night-line).
All in all, I have enjoyed my time at Oxford and wouldn’t change much. One thing I do wish is that someone had explained to me at the beginning that sometimes, the stress will get to you and you need to be prepared to deal with that, but you don’t have to deal with anything alone. Aside from that; Oxford is open to everyone so don’t be daunted by the ‘traditional’ aspects. It’s a warm, friendly place with plenty of extra-curricular activities to suit all tastes and a learning environment, that is paralleled by few other institutions.
Are you applying to Oxford University? Or maybe you’re currently studying there? Comment below with your thoughts and tips!