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College Daze

One of the decisions Oxbridge candidates are asked to make as part of their application is which college they would like to attend. Once upon a time, this was a simple matter. Writing in the 'National Review' of October 1906, an anonymous public school head issued this firm advice:

A parent who asks 'which is the best college at Oxford' means 'where would my son fall in with the most desirable companions'. If your son is a clever boy, send him to Balliol. Even if he does not appear clever, still send him to Balliol, as that is where any latent abilities which he may possess will be drawn out. But if you cannot, will not or do not send him to Balliol, why then send him to New College, Christ Church, Magdalene, Trinity or University (College), and he will have every chance of spending two or three, or even four, completely happy years.

Over a hundred years later, the bit about sending a clever boy to Balliol remains pretty valid. But there are lots of other places at Oxford and Cambridge which that boy (or girl) might like to consider for happiness and intellectual stimulation, as well as to improve their entrance prospects.

How do you, though, choose between fifty-nine different Oxbridge colleges? As the college system hardly exists outside Oxbridge, this question can flummox even university educated parents. To make matters worse, there are quite different places called Trinity, St. John's, Pembroke, Magdalen(e), Jesus, Corpus Christi and St. Catherine's at both Oxford and Cambridge. The really famous ones have vastly more applicants than others for the same course. At Merton, Oxford, up to ten students may be competing for each of the college's six History places, while elsewhere you might be competing with only four.

As a result, some candidates would rather not pick at all. Both the Oxford and the Cambridge prospectus make clear that this is perfectly OK. All students need to do instead is to submit an 'open' application. This will leave the decision as to which college his application will be sent to the university itself. But is that wise?

It can certainly be tempting. As some dons will point out, almost every college now contains some undergraduates who had ticked this option. However you need to know that open applications have traditionally been far less successful than targeted ones. The reason for this is unclear. Perhaps colleges do like to be chosen or perhaps candidates who shrink from such a choice come from schools academically less geared than others towards Oxbridge.

Certainly, sending your application form to the university rather than a specific college should not be taken as an obvious way out. It does work, but mainly 'for excellent candidates with exam scores in the top percentile marks', as one admissions tutor put it. In other words, if what you have to offer is more mixed, pick your own college.

One way to do this, of course, is by putting down a name at random. Another, traditionally suggested in the Oxford prospectus (and echoed in the Cambridge one), is 'not to worry too much about choosing a college', as this is mainly about 'your living environment'. To the uninitiated, this could suggest that the size of the snooker table in the student common room is all you should really care about.

Candidates might want to take this advice with a large pinch of salt. It is not just that the most academically renowned ones have vastly more applicants but not necessary more places. It's also that not all colleges take students for all courses. Most importantly, interview questions at top colleges can be considerably harder than elsewhere. And while a growing number of candidates invited up by Oxford are now seen by two colleges, Cambridge candidates are not. A Cambridge college faced with a good candidate it nevertheless does not wish to admit will merely put her on a university-wide shortlist (the so-called Pool). Just a fifth of Pool candidates in the end get a place elsewhere.

Most importantly, each college has its own ethos, preferences and, to some extent, admissions policy. Such details are never spelt out, but a college which describes itself as 'exceptionally informal' or stresses its students' varied social and educational background is really saying that it would love to find yet more smart applicants from modest homes. This information can narrow your choice, while still leaving you with a decent shortlist.