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A Semester of Study Abroad at Oxford

Dreaming Spires and Essay Crises

The entrance to Christ Church in Oxford
The entrance to Christ Church in Oxford.

When I was selected to spend the fall semester of 2011 at the University of Oxford, I was certainly excited…but I also wondered whether I had chosen the right program. After all, could a semester in an English-speaking country whose culture is broadly similar to that of the US really be considered an “authentic” study abroad experience? Sure, people were impressed when I told them that I was going to Oxford, but should I have perhaps gone somewhere more “adventurous,” more different from home? Fortunately, my occasional moments of doubt proved to be unfounded.

The reality is that the experience of studying at Oxford is far, far different from anything you will find at an American university. There are two primary reasons for this: the collegiate system, and the tutorial method of instruction. The tutorial method will stretch your mind and develop your intellectual abilities in ways that you never thought possible, while the collegiate system can help ensure that your time at Oxford is as much of a social experience as an academic one. However, before I talk in greater depth about these and other unique aspects of my time in Oxford, a few practical details are in order.

Getting to Oxford

I attended Oxford through a pre-existing program organized by my home university (the Catholic University of America, or CUA for short) and administered locally by the Oxford Programme for Undergraduate Studies (OPUS). That semester, there were about 60 other students participating in OPUS—15 from CUA, and the rest from George Mason University, Azusa Pacific University, and several other schools. Based on my experience, I would strongly recommend that, when you’re researching study abroad programs, you start with programs that are offered through your own university. I found this highly advantageous because it more or less guaranteed that my course credits would transfer, thereby sparing me a significant administrative hassle. Furthermore, all tuition payments to Oxford and room and board payments to OPUS were handled by CUA; I simply paid my normal tuition, plus a $5000 program fee, to CUA, and the study abroad office handled all the details. The flip side of doing it this way is that tuition at Oxford is somewhat lower than at a typical American private university. Consequently, if you are willing to take on a little extra administrative work, and perhaps a little extra risk of your course credits not transferring, direct enrollment may save you some money.

With regard to visa requirements, the British government makes it very easy for students who are only spending a single semester there. As long as your stay in the UK does not exceed six months, you do not need to apply for a study visa in advance; the passport stamp that you get at the airport will be sufficient. With that said, when you first enter the UK, it is advisable to have a copy of your Oxford acceptance letter on your person; the border agent will likely ask about the purpose of your visit to the UK, and, if you respond that you are there to study, may want to see your letter. If you are staying for a full year, you will need to obtain a visa.

It is important to note that the UK has very tight restrictions on foreign workers, so you will likely not be able to find a job during your stay.

The University of Oxford: The Basics

The fastest way to identify yourself as a tourist in Oxford (aside from your American accent, of course) is to ask the following question: “Where is the university campus?” It is somewhat of a misnomer to speak of “the University,” as if it were a single body. Rather, Oxford is a confederation of 38 independent colleges. Each college has its own living accommodations, dining hall, recreational facilities, and student government. Furthermore, each college is responsible for its students’ tutorial instruction (more on this below). The university as a whole sets instructional standards for the colleges to follow, organizes lectures, administers examinations, and confers degrees.

If you were a high school senior applying to spend your undergraduate years at Oxford, you’d have the option of applying to a particular college; as a study abroad student, however, you’ll probably be assigned to one. I was assigned to Christ Church, one of the better-known colleges due to its famous alumni (including William Penn and Lewis Carroll), its somewhat tumultuous history (King Charles I used it as his headquarters during the English Civil War, before he was beheaded), and the fact that a few scenes from the Harry Potter movies were filmed there. Other colleges that tend to accept many study abroad students include New College (despite its name, it was founded in 1379), St. Catherine’s College, and Jesus College.

Because each college has only a few hundred students, this system offers an excellent opportunity for you, as a study abroad student, to get to know your classmates despite the short length of your stay. At the minimum, eat in your college’s dining hall at least once a week. This experience is nothing like what you’re probably used to at your home university. There is no buffet-style dining; instead, you sit down at a long wooden table, and waiters bring you whatever the chefs have chosen to serve on that particular night (most of the colleges do offer vegetarian, gluten-free, and other dietary-sensitive meals). The quality of the food varies by college, but I had no complaints about the meals at Christ Church. Meals generally last an hour, and if you don’t show up at the designated time, they won’t let you in. Since I did not live at Christ Church (most organized programs will place you in houses in or around Oxford with other American students), eating “in hall” was by far the best method I found of actually interacting with my fellow Oxford students. Another excellent way to do so is to join one of your college’s sports teams. Rowing is particularly popular, and most colleges won’t require you to have any experience in order to join the team for the semester.

It is important to take advantage of college meals and activities to get to know your fellow students, because the actual teaching at Oxford is highly individualized. It revolves around a method known as the tutorial system. Here is how the tutorial system works: each week, your professor assigns you a pile of reading and an essay prompt, which is normally very broad (example: “Why are school enrollments so low in the least developed countries?”). You have one week to plow through the readings and, on the basis of these and any other sources that you are able to find, write a 2000- to 2500-word essay offering a well-supported answer to the prompt. You then meet one-on-one with your professor for one hour, in the course of which you read your essay aloud. Your professor frequently interrupts you to ask tough questions, poke holes in your arguments, and suggest improvements in your writing. At the end of the hour, you receive your prompt and reading list for the next week, and the process starts over. For some courses, you’ll be assigned problem sets instead of essays, but the basic procedure is the same.

The Radcliffe Camera, an iconic domed library
The Radcliffe Camera, an iconic domed library.

In a typical semester, you’ll take two tutorials. Although Oxford students do attend lectures, these are meant to prepare them for the exams that they take immediately prior to graduating. As a study abroad student, you will not take exams, so you will probably not be required to attend lectures (although I sometimes did find them it helpful to sit in on them). This means that you will only spend about two hours per week “in class.” Don’t be fooled, however: chances are that you will work harder for those two courses than you ever have as an undergraduate. My tutorial subjects were Development Economics, for which I wrote essays, and Advanced Microeconomics, for which I completed problem sets. On most days, I would aim to be in the library by 9 a.m. at the latest, and, with the exception of a lunch break, often would not leave until after 5 p.m. You’ll probably hear Oxford students talking about their essay “crises,” which generally occur when it’s 10 p.m. on the night before your tutorial and you haven’t even begun your readings. If you want to avoid this situation (and trust me, you do), you’ll need to learn to budget your time and exercise self-discipline. Many American students struggle to adapt to the unstructured nature of the tutorial system.

Once you get used to it, however, it’s an incredibly valuable experience. I never imagined that, over the span of eight short weeks, I could become as much of an expert as I did in my two tutorial subjects. For my Development Economics tutorial, I would often end up reading 30 or 40 journal articles each week, about 10 of which would make it into that week’s essay. For Advanced Microeconomics, I was largely responsible for teaching myself the material contained in the problem sets; the lectures were somewhat helpful, but I still spent a lot of time poring over textbooks. If this sounds intimidating, it is. However, what you will quickly realize is that you can do it, and you will be better off for having done it. It is pleasantly surprising and immensely satisfying to learn just how much you are capable of, and the first “job well done” that you get from your tutor (it may take a few weeks, but it’ll happen) will make it all worthwhile. There is no question that the tutorial system will make you a better researcher, writer, and arguer. But, in my opinion, its most valuable benefit is the self-confidence that you will have gained by the end of the semester.

The City of Oxford

Of course, no study abroad experience should consist of all work and no play. Oxford is a lovely city in which to spend a semester. Most of the colleges, particularly the older ones, are architectural gems and are clustered in the city center; thus, the city’s skyline is dotted by domes, turrets, and spires, hence its nickname as “the city of dreaming spires.” Two rivers, the Cherwell and the Isis (the latter of which becomes the Thames as it flows towards London), run through the city, and each is lined by beautiful woods and meadows that make for great hiking, picnicking, and reading locations. As you would expect in a famous university town, Oxford has several excellent museums, the most famous of which is the Ashmolean. Christ Church Cathedral is well worth a visit, as is the Sheldonian Theatre. I’d say the same about the Bodleian, the main university library, but as a student you’ll be spending a lot of time there!

The Isis river in Oxford
The Isis river in Oxford.

Christ Church Meadow
Christ Church Meadow.

The Bottom Line: Should You Study at Oxford?

There is no question that a semester at Oxford will likely be much heavier on the academics than a typical study abroad experience. Furthermore, if you want to learn a new language or immerse yourself in a completely foreign culture, then you’d be better off choosing a different location. If, however, you want to hone your research and writing skills, gain a truly in-depth knowledge of subjects that interest you, and do so in a setting like no other, than I cannot recommend Oxford highly enough. Most American universities have some type of program at Oxford, either through OPUS or through another on-site administrator, so chances are it won’t be too difficult to make it happen. I look back fondly on my time amidst the dreaming spires, and I have no doubt that you will too.

Related Topics
Student-to-Student Reports
Study Abroad in England
Living Abroad in England

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