What it’s Like to Study Abroad at Oxford University
In the spring of 2017, I studied abroad at the University of Oxford through IFSA-Butler. Oxford has several colleges within the university, and I went to Hertford College, the school with the famous Bridge of Sighs (pictured above—it’s much less impressive inside than outside haha).
As a quick background, I’m a 2018 grad of Amherst College in Massachusetts, where I studied Math and French. Studying at Oxford was one of my favorite college experiences, but I barely documented it on my blog. I wanted to write this post to give prospective students a better idea of life at Oxford, especially since the academics at such an elite school might sound intimidating.
At the time, my friends actually tried to dissuade me from applying to Oxford, saying “Don’t go to Oxford—you’ll die!” A lot of people assume that going to Oxford will be so intense to the point it’s no longer enjoyable. I like a good challenge though, so I applied anyways, got in, and went.
I was expecting the worst, but I luckily didn’t die—the academics were intense, but I found the work satisfying, and I still was able to enjoy life outside of class.
So, I want to dispel some myths in this post about what it’s like to attend Oxford as a visiting student. Here are 6 things you should know if you’re considering studying abroad at Oxford, plus a YouTube video I made for my study abroad program in 2017! (This video includes most of the academic info in this post—#1-3. If you prefer to watch/listen instead of read, go for it. The rest of the post is new information, though).
What it’s Like to Study Abroad at Oxford University
1. Classes are extremely individualized and very infrequent
Courses at Oxford are tutorial-style, meaning you often meet one-on-one with your professor, though you might sometimes meet in groups of 2-3. Professors at Oxford are called “tutors.” You address your tutors usually by “Dr. X,” rather than “Professor X” as you might in the US. “Professor” actually refers to the head of the department in the UK, rather than being just a general term for a university professor.
Each student has a primary tutorial and a secondary one—these two tutorials are your entire course load. Primary tutorials happen once every week, and secondary tutorials are every two weeks. Both primary and secondary tutorials last one hour. Instead of being lectures, tutorials are a chance for you to discuss your work. I took math as my primary tutorial, and French as my secondary.
For humanities and social science classes, you’re generally assigned a 2000-word essay for each session, as well as required reading. During your tutorial, your tutor will ask you questions about your essay, and bring up other discussion points.
For STEM classes, you’ll likely have a problem set, which you’ll go over in your tutorial. STEM classes are sometimes accompanied by 1-2 lectures per week, but it depends on your course. I had lectures for real analysis, but I didn’t have any for complex analysis; normal Oxford students already took the course in the fall, but I was only there in the spring.
2. The workload is intense, but there are long breaks between terms
Oxford runs on 8-week long trimesters, called Michaelmas (October-December), Hilary (January-March), and Trinity (April-June). In between each term, there’s a 6-week break. I was at Oxford for the Hilary and Trinity terms—most American colleges will count 2 Oxford trimesters as the equivalent of one US semester.
This might sound like a breeze compared to the American academic schedule: 1.5 hours of class a week, only 2 courses per trimester, and 6-weeklong breaks?! The workload at Oxford is actually pretty heavy though, and requires you to be self-motivated.
For my math tutorials, I had to basically learn the material on my own. Even when I had lectures, they were only somewhat related, as I needed to cover specific concepts to satisfy course requirements at Amherst (my home college).
For my French tutorials, I had to read stacks of texts and essays, sometimes entire books, between each tutorial. I’m extremely grateful that French was my secondary tutorial and not my primary, because I couldn’t imagine that volume of reading weekly—the extra week really made a difference!
That said, academics at Oxford are manageable, as long as you space out your assignments and work steadily throughout the week.
3. There are no exams for visiting students
This may vary by program and college, but through IFSA-Butler at Hertford College, we didn’t take exams. Our grades were based solely on our classwork. For math, that meant the amount of effort I put into my problem sets—they weren’t graded on correctness, though I guess correctness is usually positively correlated with effort. For French, I was graded on my essays—whether I understood the texts at a deep level and had sound arguments. Having no exams definitely eased some of the academic stress, and helped me focus on actually learning.
One thing that surprised me about studying language at Oxford was that my papers were to be in English, not French! I later learned that it isn’t so unusual to write papers in your native tongue when doing foreign literature analysis. While it might seem like a lost opportunity to practice the language, it also allows you to focus purely on literary analysis, rather than expressing yourself in a foreign tongue.
Another interesting fact about grades is that the scale is very different in the UK vs. the US. A 70 or above in the UK is the equivalent of an A in the US, a 60-69 a B, and it goes on. It’s kind of like the scale in France, where a 10/20 is a passing grade!
4. People will pick up after you, whether you like it or not
Oxford’s image is pretty accurately posh and elite. I lived in college-owned housing, and there were workers who would empty our room trash bins daily, and clean our shared bathroom and individual rooms weekly!
In the college dining hall, workers would also take away our plates for us—there was no place to bus our plates ourselves.
I guess all of this was pretty convenient, except when I wanted to sleep in and the housekeepers knocked on my door early in the morning to empty my trash haha. I was kind of uncomfortable with this level of “poshness” though—I have no problem doing all these tasks on my own.
I would also be remiss not to mention the level of privilege at Oxford. For instance, participating in extracurriculars and the social scene can be pretty expensive. Some student organizations require you to pay around 100 pounds (125 USD) to join, and I had to pay 90 pounds (110 USD) just to get access to the university pool.
A classic Oxford experience is also going to a school ball, which is also often 60-100 pounds, and sometimes upwards of 200 pounds! These sky-high prices can make participating in certain experiences prohibitive for students without the means, which is really sad. I was lucky that my financial aid from Amherst carried over to studying abroad, as student life definitely felt more expensive there.
5. There’s a strong sense of tradition
While study abroad students didn’t have to take exams, they were quite the formal process for normal Oxford students. They have to wear gowns for exams, which is what they graduate in as well. It’s also common to pin a color-coded carnation to your left chest, but it’s not mandatory. There’s an entire page dedicated to the rules and regulations of exam dress on the Oxford website.
There were also weekly formal dinners, or “formal halls,” where you could have a 3-course candlelit meal in the college hall. To begin the meal, there was a formal opening: the college officials would proceed in (wearing their gowns), everyone would stand while they said a Latin prayer, and then you could sit down for the food.
6. It’s difficult to become friends with locals
Since your classes are mostly one-on-one, it can be difficult to make local friends naturally. On top of that, I lived in a house with only international students, and I also arrived in the spring terms, when friend groups had already established themselves.
I became friends with zero locals or even full-time Oxford students. The closest I got to befriending locals was chatting with my international friend’s then-boyfriend, who was a local student.
This was probably because I grew really close to the other visiting students in my house, so I didn’t feel the need to socialize that much outside of that group. I did also join the orchestra for a term, but it wasn’t enough time to actually make friends.
I don’t consider it a huge loss since I’m still in contact with my good international Oxford friends, but it is kind of funny to spend half a year in England and come out with no English friends. It is very possible to make local friends, but you have to put yourself out there and take initiative yourself.
What to Pack for Studying Abroad at Oxford
This section contains affiliate links, meaning that I may earn a small commission on any purchases made through these links. This doesn’t cost you any extra, and is a great way to support my blog if you found this post helpful.
There are a couple essentials you’ll need for your semester abroad, if you’re coming from outside of the UK. These links go to Amazon if you’re planning to shop there anyways, but I also want to encourage you to buy from small, local shops, if you can.
- Universal adapter—I used this one when living in Europe, and when I traveled to the UK. Keep in mind that this doesn’t have USB C charging ports, so you’ll need a USB to USB C cable or adapter if that’s what your phone needs.
- European SIM card—You can buy SIM cards once in England (I recommend Lycamobile, which is cheap and can be found in many corner shops). But, if you want cell service upon arrival, you’ll need to buy something at home, or at the airport. This SIM card has good reviews, but feel free to shop around as well.
- Wise borderless account—You’ll likely need to exchange currency or open up a UK bank account, but you can skip the formalities and high conversion rates with a Wise borderless account. Wise gives you the real exchange rate and takes a 1% fee. This is way cheaper than services like Western Union and sending money directly from traditional banks. Wise also has a free borderless account that allows you to hold 50+ currencies (including the British pound!), and withdraw the equivalent of 250 USD from ATMs for free each month.
I hope you found this post helpful! Feel free to leave any questions in the comments. I just ask that you do not email or DM me to ask specific questions about applying. Please contact your study abroad advisor instead for that.
On the whole, I really enjoyed my time at Oxford and know I’ll look back fondly on it.
Cheers (is this too cheesy for a post about Oxford haha?),
Courses at Oxford sound awesome! Most of my science classes at university had 400-600 students in the lectures, so if it hadn’t been for my music classes, I’d never have had a small classroom size. :[ I would’ve loved to study abroad while I was in college but never got the chance to (kinda my own fault; I was doing too much). That’s awesome that there were no exams for visiting students!
I really enjoyed reading this, Lily! Also, small world, I went to UMass Amherst! I studied abroad in Edinburgh and found a lot of similarities in this post. It was super hard to meet local students. Our classes were also infrequent, very different than at UMass!
It is such a small world, haha! It looks like you’re in Boston too, which is where I’m currently based 🙂 It must’ve been amazing to study in Edinburgh. I visited when I was at Oxford, and the city is so lovely. I would’ve loved to explore Scotland more!
This was such a fun post to read! I love hearing about other people’s study abroad experiences. I had the same issue as you when I studied at Sciences Po in Paris – I only made friends with other international students and no French students. But I wouldn’t trade those friends for anything and we still keep in touch even 4 years later!
Glad you enjoyed it! I do think you can probably form closer bonds with other study abroad students as you’re going through something similar. I also studied abroad in France, but in Bordeaux! I actually made a lot of local friends there, I think mostly because we lived in host families and because the program was language-oriented, so I was really motivated to practice with locals.
Thank you for this post! I am a current Wellesley student (Also from the Boston area!) thinking about studying abroad at Oxford, but I’m nervous about it. This helped me get a better sense of what to expect! Can I ask which college you went to?
Hi Kate! Glad it could help you 🙂 I went to Hertford College through IFSA Butler. Hope you get the chance to go – it’s a really fantastic experience!
Hi Lily! I loved this article it was super informative. I was wondering what are the requirements to get into Oxford as a Canadian or American student.
Hi Kennedy, thanks for reading and leaving a comment! It depends on the study abroad program and the Oxford college. Most usually require around a 3.75 GPA. I would look into the programs and colleges you’re interested in!
Class of 2018 from UMass Amherst and I spent a semester in Cork, IRE at UCC. EU/UK course load is pretty intense! We had to sit exams and it determined if we got credit for our requirements ! I also did not really make any friends, but the personal experiences are immensely valuable nonetheless. Thinking of studying for my MA in Oxford
Myths are always far away from reality, you have bursted all the myths about studying at oxford with detailed information. This is really very deep and clear. Great work