When you apply to Oxford or Cambridge, you have the opportunity to apply to a specific College, or you can make what is called an “open application”. If you make an open application, you will be randomly assigned to a College. When your application has been sent to that College, you cannot ask for this to be changed (unless a procedural error has been made, for example, if you are a male applicant and have been assigned to one of the women-only Colleges in Cambridge). Your application is then treated in exactly the same way as students who have applied to the College directly.
A number of students make an open application based on the misconception that doing so will increase their chances of being made an offer. Statistically, there is no difference in the success rates based on students who state a College preference, and those who do not. Quite often, international applicants will make an open application, based on the fact that they have been unable to attend an open day or visit the University prior to applying formally through UCAS.
There are 29 undergraduate Colleges at Cambridge, and 34 at Oxford. Whilst not all of the Colleges will necessarily offer the course for which you are applying, there will be a number which do. When you research these Colleges, you might find that there are more similarities than differences. If that is the case, and there are no obvious differences (such as very traditional versus modern, or small versus large subject groups), it might make it difficult for you to choose which College is right for you. That said, there probably will be one or two Colleges which you can’t really see yourself attending. If that is the case, there is already a reason to make an application directly to a College; imagine making an open application and then being assigned to a College you actively disliked!
Notwithstanding prior perceptions, it is extremely rare for a student to be unhappy at the College they end up attending; the vast majority form very strong attachments and keep in touch with the College and University more generally, for the rest of their lives. If you know anyone who attends, or has attended, Oxford or Cambridge, you will probably know this anecdotally. With that in mind, choosing a College might become less of an arduous task. There are always some students who can only imagine themselves at a particular College, but often this is based on perceived prestige, or family tradition. If you believe that attending a particular College is as important as attending the University itself, then your application decision regarding has already been made. If that is not the case, you might be minded to make more of a strategic application.
In reality, however, it is worth remembering that your College is effectively where you live, eat, possibly play sport or attend College societies, and where you will make your initial group of friends. No College, however, is isolated from the wider University, and you will have friends across all Colleges, and your Faculty. The quality of teaching across the University is the same, and you will be in no way disadvantaged by attending one College compared with another.
If you have any further questions, you might like to visit our FAQs page. Alternatively, you can always contact us directly.