Sunday, June 10, 2012

Choosing an Oxford College (as an MBA)

Every person at Oxford belongs to a college, where the colleges provide you with accommodation, matriculation, food, and graduation (even with an MBA you officially graduate with your college, and not your MBA class (though we have a nice ceremony for it in September).  Coming from outside and not familiar with the system, its really a black box, and even though I knew some alumni I still found it quite difficult. 

So I've decided to demystify (well most of) the process of applying to Colleges, as well as provide a breakdown of the # of SBSers in those colleges, and what to REALLY look for when choosing a college.  Finally, if you're still confused and really not sure, I'll give you a list of which colleges I think are best.

While there are many resources in choosing an Oxford college (see below), generally they are for undergraduates, and don't really cater to MBA who have a different set of needs, and will be probably be spending most of their time at the business school, and not their college (though this can vary)

Here are some things I wish I knew before coming in (and these are very important): 
1. You don't need to live at your college.

Yes, you don't need to live at your college.  You can rent an apartment, or seek accommodation at "Oxford University" accommodations- those that are part of the University overall and not just to a college.  Here's the most interesting tidbit- you can live at other colleges!  Assuming that the college hasn't filled up with students and has extra space (which means this can only happen right at the start of the term), you possibly can live at another college.  My friend from St. Hugh's lived at another college because A) It was cheaper, and B) It was closer to campus.  (St. Hugh's always says it initially can't guarantee you a space (in which you seek elsewhere), then always seem to come back that they've got a room (after several MBAs had found accommodation elsewhere).

Also, each college may have college accommodation offsite (so really how far the college is might not be that important).  This could be across the street from the college, or very far (and possibly very close to SBS).  Green Templeton College has Rewley Abbey Court, a giant complex of apartments right behind the business school that is very helpful if you wake up late in the morning.  Again, you don't necessarily need to be a member of GTC, as long as you can find someone from that college who will get a room with two bedrooms and you can pay him/her rent- though it does get complicated, so it makes more sense if you are actually from GTC.  Brasenose also has some offsite accommodations that are a 3 minute walk from the business school.  

2. You don't need to talk to undergrads.

Why is this important?  Well as the average MBA age is around 29, some people in their 30's or perhaps 40's with a family may not want to live near loud and rowdy undergrads.  The living issue has been addressed in point 1 (you don't need to live in your college), but for formal halls, general hanging out, and other events you may not want to hang out with 18 year olds just learning how to hold their liquor.  Each college is split between JCR (Junior Common Room), MCR/GCR (Middle or Graduate Common Room), and SCR (Senior Common Room).  A Common Room is sort of like a living room, but more than that- sort of like where all members of that group come together to socialize.  JCR is for undergrads, and SCR are for professors.  The MCR/GCR are for graduate students, and you get a separate area within the college where members of JCR are not allowed in.  (Though bear in mind that even those at the MCR could have just finished undergrad a year ago and only be like 23 years old.)  You can go down- so you "could" visit the JCR, and I suppose a professor could show up at the MCR, but I haven't seen that happen.  As for some colleges, even the dining room is separated- some colleges like St. Hugh's and Pembroke have a special table only for MCR folk!  

So really, don't be like some of my classmates who chose an all graduate college, only to regret that as they found out it really didn't matter, and wished they had chosen another college.  Those undergrads really are a lovely bunch, and I talked to many of them during the year (usually during rowing because you do mix with them there).  Still, if the thought of seeing an undergrad walking around your college annoys you to no end, only then choose an all graduate college.

3. Rowing is not located at the colleges but is located in the Christ Church Meadows.

If you are keen on rowing (and if you come to Oxford this is something you must try), do note that all rowing is done on the River Isis, south of Christ Church, in the Meadows.  So if you do decide to row, you will be going down to the meadows and not to your college for rowing.  While its obvious to anyone at Oxford, this is something I wish I knew.  So really where your college is located isn't that important (though you may have to train with them elsewhere close to college), but rather the strength of the rowing team and the facilities (for example New College, Oriel, Christ Church seem to have good rowing teams/facilities). 

4. Having a lot of fellow MBAs in your college could be beneficial.

Lots of MBAs in your college.  This could be quite an beneficial thing (or not, if you want to meet other people in your college), as you can all go to "your" college together, sign up for events together, have dinner at formal hall together (and invite other classmates in a large group), and graduate together.  Unless your college is amazing (say Christ Church, where all your friends will want to be invited for dinner), getting other MBAs to go to your college will be hard, and you'll have to be extra sociable to get along with the other MCR/JCR folk there.  It's also a lot easier to have some MBAs in the same college as they can tell you certain rules and tips (go here to get your key fob, go there to register for things, park your bike here) accumulated along the way.  I certainly benefited from having a large number of MBAs at St Hugh's- we had familiar faces to chat to during formal hall, other events, balls, and even graduation.  That doesn't mean you don't talk to other folks in the MCR, but it does make a difference! (i.e., let's go to the St. Hugh's MCR event together with 6 MBAs, vs. I'm the only MBA in my college, should I go to the event tonight?)

Of course no one tells you which colleges are likely to have the most MBAs, and you only find out afterwards.  Allow me to spare you the trouble of not knowing (that frustrated me to no end coming in):

Varies year to year, but GTC always has the biggest number.  While it feels like everyone is from GTC, its only a bit more than 1/4 of the SBS MBA population. 
Detailed breakdown of the Oxford Colleges for SBS MBAs.  Numbers will vary year by year.

5. Old Colleges does not mean the facilities are old.

Sure, some colleges will have furniture that are centuries old, (one Canadian classmate remarked that the room he is staying at St. John's College is older than his country!), but the facilities are not always the case.  Many places have installed modern showers, plumbing, etc, though this is the UK (which means that it still might not work very well compared to modern cities (afterall, Oxford is over 900 years old).  If this is a concern to you, then make sure you call and ask about their facilities, or better yet, come to Oxford early and choose a room or outside apartment yourself. 

While the general things to think about are the size, age, location, accommodation, & feel of the college, as mentioned in the video above, I felt that there were some questions left unanswered that I wish I knew.  In the end I applied late and didn't have that much choice, but if you get in first round and can choose any college, you may find this guide quite valuable.  In the end I had two choices and my deciding factor was really which college was older! 

Of course, if you're still stuck (and or don't have time/don't want to do the research), I've listed the "Kent List" of preferred colleges, of ones that I quite like.  My preferences generally are old colleges, with very large grounds, and not super far from SBS.  So while I'm sure you'll love the colleges below, if your tastes are totally different from mine you may want to reconsider.

Kent's List:
Christ Church (Amazing architecture & largest grounds, dining hall IS the Harry Potter experience (though food isn't that great), a bit far from SBS and too many tourists, but otherwise amazing)
Trinity College (City center, with beautiful grounds and old buildings.  The dining hall is a bit more modern (still older than probably anything you've seen) and the food is amazing.
Balliol- Also city center, and really beautiful architecture (grounds not as large as the previous two), and great dining hall that provides lunch too!
Worcester - no one really knows that much about it but it has extensive grounds, and the actual college is closest to SBS.
Keble- Extremely beautiful grounds in the middle area- surrounded by beautiful century old buildings- right next to University Parks, a bit far from SBS but still closer than Christ Church.  It's dining hall grandness beats out Christ Church, though I heard the food isn't that great)

Here's the second list of great colleges after the first.  I myself went to St. Hugh's College, and while I love my college, I probably still would recommend the ones above over my college to incoming MBA students.  The ones below are also great, mainly because of the old history, grounds, or perhaps they are more fun with a lot of MBAs.  Note that the following below are in no particular order. 

St. Hugh's
Green Templeton
St. John's

And finally, the college's I'd personally avoid.  Note that I am heavily biased against "newer colleges," that look like regular buildings you'll see in every other city.  But also for each college below some members of those colleges have said (in private) that they "really don't like his/her college."

St. Catherines (too modern, too far)
Linacre (really far, not really good architecture (as mentioned by an architect))
Wolfson (REALLY far from SBS, too modern for my taste)

So there you have it!  While undergrads should probably choose a college that has their subject, and perhaps other reasons, for an MBA choosing a college it is a bit different, but whatever your choice, you'll probably end up loving your college anyway and will become a proud alum

Bear in mind that college choice isn't as important for MBAs because you'll be spending most of your time in the business school anyway, and the great thing about the MBA is that you have members from all colleges that can invite you to their college for events (its much harder for undergrads to meet people from other colleges), so it really doesn't matter anyway!

Please comment below if you have any questions, or if you have found the post useful! 


  1. Extremely helpful - thank you!

  2. Really helpful-not just this post but others on this blog too.

  3. Any comments on Exeter?

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.