Studying at Oxford University as an international student

Oxford University has a thriving international student community, welcoming students from all over the world.  Today,41% of Oxford’s students are from countries outside of the UK, but every student’s experience is unique. 

This week our student advisor, Jessica Wen, interviewed four international students in their third-year at Oxford to find out about their experiences of applying to, and studying, at the University.

She talked to:

Miri: from Japan studying experimental psychology

Adarsh: from India studying physics

Nicolai: from Denmark studying history and politics 

'Jeremy': from China studying materials science

How did you find the application process to universities in the UK?

Nicolai: My school was not great at supporting students for UK applications.  The counsellors were both Americans and, in the past, the majority of students had gone to universities in Europe, the US, and Canada, but not the UK.  Most of the application process was thereby left to me to research.  I was surprised by the level of commitment required by the UCAS system, with a subject test in the autumn and an interview during my school mock exams, which meant significant rearrangement of my schedule.  My teachers were  very helpful with doing a practice interview based on questions I had found online and giving feedback on my personal statement.

Jeremy: My school helped me with my UCAS application.  UCAS is a bit complicated for international students, so it is quite helpful to have experienced people to guide you through the process to save time and avoid mistakes that could potentially lower your chances. However, as with many international schools, my school did not have a specialist in Oxbridge applications, so they were not as helpful for my personal statement or interview preparations.

For personal statements and interviews, I found an education consulting firm specialising in Oxbridge applications quite helpful.  The tutors were all Oxbridge students or recent graduates, so they know the system very well.  I believe my chance of getting into Oxford would be much smaller without extra help.  So I recommend that students get additional help if your school has little experience in Oxbridge applications - it will make a huge difference. 

What do you wish you knew before you applied to Oxford?

Adarsh: It would have been nice to know about the differences between the colleges.  Academically, all colleges are very similar; but they are all slightly different in various ways, such as location of the college, location of undergraduate accommodation, whether accommodation is guaranteed, etc.  The social atmosphere tends to differ between colleges too.

Miri: For the application process unique to Oxford (i.e. tests, interview), I was quite in the dark as there were no other applicants to Oxford from my school.  I was quite unprepared for the interview.  My teachers tried to help with a mock interview but this was not the Oxford style (mock tutorial) and was rather like a "standard" university interview (e.g. "why do you want to study the subject").  It would have been reassuring to have more resources about what the interview was like, especially for specific subjects as they differ greatly depending on the course.

What does day-to-day life in Oxford look like for you?

Miri: During term, I usually have 1-2 essays a week.  I usually spend about 3 days reading for and writing up an essay - during these days I probably spend around 6-7 hours a day working.  I have around 5 lectures a week, and a 3-hour lab as well.  For the fun stuff, I enjoy going to the Japan Society events and spending time with my friends at the pub several times a week.  I also was involved in a volunteering organization and tutored children once a week!

Adarsh: Most days, I have lectures in the morning until lunchtime.  I eat either in the hall at college, or at the Gloucester Green market where they serve great street food from many cuisines.  I like to keep the rest of my day fairly flexible: I usually work for 3-5 hours, and spend the rest of my time relaxing by reading books, watching movies or hanging out with friends.  Most days, I usually attend an event (a social/seminar) held by one of the student societies or departments that seem fun or interesting.  Academically speaking, I usually have 2 tutorials a week, with a problem sheet due for each (around 5-10 hours of work).  Labs are usually once a week, with the entire day being spent in the lab.  Overall, I spend roughly 40 hours a week working on my degree.

What’s the most surprising thing about studying at Oxford?

Miri: The surprising thing is that many of the students "play hard" as much as they work hard.  Even if you think you don't have any time off from work, by the time you graduate you will be surprised at how much fun you also had during university!  There is so much you can do at Oxford, whether that is participating in sports or societies, going out, or just chilling in your bedroom with some tea and friends.  You learn to make time despite the amount of work you might have, which I think is a great skill to acquire before leaving university.

Jeremy: The workload and hard work required for the lectures was surprising (in my previous education system, the lectures teach you everything).

Adarsh: For me, the most surprising thing about Oxford was the people.  Before I arrived, I had a preconception that a lot of the people would be obsessed with academics, or a bit snobbish.  Now, it seems silly.  The vast majority of people are quite relaxed and extremely nice and sociable.  I have made some really good friends here!  My tutors are also very relaxed and helpful with any problems we may have.

Nicolai: The quality of the food in college is actually pretty decent.  I don’t think British food is the best in the world, but the food served for my college meals was surprisingly good and very cheap.

What do you find most challenging about studying at Oxford?

Nicolai: The intense 8-week terms can be difficult and the relentless deadlines each week keeps you constantly on your toes.  Of course, this helps you develop the ability to manage your time and produce quality work in a short time span, but it’s intense, and you will need a break after 8 weeks!

Adarsh: The most challenging thing about Oxford for me initially was the culture shock.  I was a bit stunned by suddenly becoming a completely independent adult.  Back home, college is usually a continuation of high school, and you don't have the absolute freedom to do whatever you want like you do in Oxford.  The work can be a bit challenging but it is always manageable, and you can always ask people for help.

What’s the best thing about studying at Oxford University?

Nicolai: The best thing is probably the tutorial system. You get time with experts in the field and it really allows you to engage in the topics you find most fulfilling and get to grips with those you find most difficult. The Oxford libraries are also fantastic and the range of material available to students is great.

Adarsh: My favourite thing about Oxford is the very unique (and often weird) experiences you can only have here.  There's the whole tradition of wearing the suits and gowns (“sub fusc”) that is simultaneously cool and ridiculous.  You can have a chat with a Nobel Laureate over a snack.  You can go punting on the river (and laugh at your friends almost falling in).  I have even managed to do a bit of fencing and folk dancing!  There are just so many cool things you can get to be a part of.

Jeremy: College and society balls!

If you're keen to study at Oxford University, applications through UCAS for September 2021 are already open. Get in touch with our team today to find out how we can help you navigate the application process and support you with your UK university aspirations.

Jessica Wen
Student advisor. Jessica is an undergraduate studying Materials Science at Oxford University.
Published on 7 June 2020