Colleges vary widely. Here are some things to think about. Not all of them will feel important to you.
1. Location Some colleges are in the centre of town, which means they can be convenient, but they may be less tranquil and are likely to get a lot of tourist traffic. Girton College in Cambridge is a long way from the centre of the town: no popping back to your room between lectures to pick up something you forgot.
2. Wealth Some colleges are immensely wealthy. This means they may have cheaper room rents and dining charges. They may offer generous grants or subsidies. (I was at Trinity College at Cambridge. They had a grant available for students to take a trip overseas. I used it to go skiing. They also gave out £50 book grants to buy textbooks. This was back when £50 was a lot of money. The Wren Library at Trinity owns a Shakespeare first folio. And the original manuscript to Winnie the Pooh. This seems to impress some people.)
3. Facilities Some colleges have great sports facilities, boathouses and so on. Trinity had its own law library, which was open 24 hours a day – very convenient when the university libraries were a (seemingly) long walk away and were not open in the middle of the night.
4. Accommodation This varies widely, but is mostly very good and often much better than at other universities. When I was at Trinity, they guaranteed accommodation for all three years, but only two were guaranteed to be in the college itself, which meant you could feel a bit out of the way if you were living elsehwhere. Rooms were allocated by ballot. If you were at the top of the ballot you could opt for extremely grand, central, historic rooms. Some rooms have bathrooms en suite; some have separate bedroom and living area. Room rents vary accordingly.
5. Architecture Everyone’s seen the grand buildings of King’s College, Cambridge. (Actually, the left-hand half of that picture is Clare College.) Living and working in a place like that may or may not appeal to you. Churchill College is very, very different, and you may feel more comfortable with that, or you may feel disappointed by it. You might also think about the kind of person who would apply to somewhere like King’s, and the kind of person who would apply somewhere like Churchill. Which type are you more likely to fit in with?
6. Reputation Once you’ve graduated and left the university, very few people will ask which college you went to. If they do, it’s probably because they went there, too, and want to know if you were at the same college. Nonetheless, other people will ask you from time to time and I always feel a tinge of pride when I say ‘Trinity’. After all, Newton went to Trinity. Everyone’s heard of it. There’s nowhere better. Robinson, on the other hand . . . But you may not care about nonsense like this.
7. Women Two colleges, both at Cambridge, are women-only: Newnham and Murray Edwards. (Lucy Cavendish is also women-only, but it only admits mature students and post-graduates.) I’ve always had a soft-spot for Newnham. It’s architecturally attractive, and has a great location. It’s arguably easier to get in. (The student I advised not to apply because I didn’t think she’d be offered a place went to Newnham.)
8. Fellows The teaching staff are called ‘fellows’. I’m always a bit suspicious of the idea that you might apply to a specific college because of a particular fellow who teaches there: you may actually never end up meeting them, let along be taught by them. Stephen Hawking is at Caius College, Cambridge. Good luck meeting him. I got told off once for craning my neck round his office door to catch a glimpse.
9. Statistics Two sets of statisics are of interest here. The first are the league tables of the colleges in each university. At Cambridge it’s called the Tompkins table and at Oxford it’s called the Norrington table. These give you an idea of how academically-focussed the colleges are. In simple terms, if you apply to Trinity College, Cambridge, you’d better have incredibly high grades because, historically, students at Trinity get the highest results in the university’s exams, so presumably the college’s admissions tutors are looking for students who’ll continue that trend. (That embarrassingly low 89% you got in that one module might therefore rule you out.) Whereas those at Fitzwilliam tend to be somewhere near the bottom. You might conclude from this that it’s ‘easier’ to get into Fitz (as it’s known) than it is to get into Trinity. Of course, you might want to mix with the kind of people who go to Trinity, if you’re a very academic type. Or you may by far prefer the kind of people who go to Fitz because they have a life and you want one, too. But beware! There are also statistics that compare the number of applicants to the number of offers made, and you might be tempted to apply to a college with a favourable ratio. Of course, everyone else will be doing the same thing and last year’s ‘easy’ college will suddenly become next year’s hugely oversubscribed one. I’m not convinced that playing these numbers games is helpful.
Once again, there’s no real substitute for visiting and having a look round. Colleges are often closed, or behind formidable-looking doors. But if you ask nicely, and say you’re a prospective student, they’ll probably let you in. Some colleges charge admission to tourists, but there’s no need for you to pay this.
And you might find this website interesting: Choose Your Oxford College.
Having chosen a college (and, presumably, a subject) you’ll need to complete the UCAS form like everyone else, but there are additional considerations and other aspects to the application . . .