Oxford University doesn’t have a central campus. Instead, it's split up across a variety of colleges and departments across the city. All undergraduates belong to a department and college. Your department is automatically determined by your course, but you'll have the opportunity to apply to one of the 35 undergraduate colleges. Colleges are much like halls of residence at other universities, and they’re where you live and eat meals (at least for your first year). However, your college is so much more than where you just eat and sleep!
Each college has its own bar, dining room, common room, and library. They're home to a wide variety of student clubs/societies and, for most students, the majority of academic tutorials take place in college. This ensures that all Oxford students are part of a smaller academic and social community.
College sports teams, music groups, bars, and common rooms all make it really easy to make friends with other students in your year and in the years above. Every college also has a "Junior Common Room" (JCR), and a student committee that organises events and holds open meetings (here, you can help make decisions about policies, purchases, and less serious stuff like what the college mascot should be, and whether the JCR President should wear a onesie to all meetings).
No matter which college you choose, you'll still study the same course because your curriculum, lectures, and exams are all organised by your department. This means that there isn’t really a “best college for… x, y, or z”. The admissions process is also designed to compare the standard across colleges so you can’t "tactically" choose your college to increase your chances of being offered a place.
Oxford colleges vary in their size, location, student population, architecture, and traditions. Do you want your college to be big or small? Old or new? Near to the middle of town or somewhere quieter? You may also want to consider practical differences such as the number of years they can offer you accommodation, the cost of rent, library opening hours, and whether you can keep your room during the vacations.
The best way to get a feel for different colleges is by coming along to an Open Day. Visiting all the colleges in a day is pretty much impossible so we recommend narrowing it down to a few by doing a bit of research before hand, or trying out our College Suggester.
However, if its all a bit confusing, you just can't decide, or can’t make it to an Open Day then don’t worry! The title of this page is actually a little misleading, because, to tell you the truth, you don’t even have to choose a college. Each year, almost 20% of applicants throw themselves into fate’s hands and choose to put in an "Open" application. Then, they’re automatically pooled to a college at random.
In fact, even if you apply to a preferred college, there’s still a chance of ending up with an offer from another one. If for example, one college has more brilliant candidates than places, the university can ensure that all of those candidates get a place at Oxford by moving them to another college.
The thing about the college system is that by the end of Freshers’ Week, almost every Oxford student is convinced their college is the best. Don’t forget that you can get involved in university-level clubs and societies to satisfy any interest that isn’t covered by what is offered in your college. Check out the student life section for more.