Why which college you go to matters
It has a huge influence
When applying for Cambridge we were faced with a myriad of choices, because Oxbridge, unlike other universities in the country, has a collegiate system. And although which college you apply to might not affect the chance of your success, this does not change the fact that college does matter, as your experience of Cambridge is undeniably influenced by which college you go to.
One obvious place to start is geographically. Living in a central college is not the same as living further out where you have to trek 30 minutes to get to Sainsbury’s. We’ve all heard about Girton thighs, or my favourite, how they are ‘girtoned’ from all the cycling. Even living in a central college does not guarantee that your life will be easy and convenient for all years. Many smaller central colleges like Clare and Tit Hall have accommodation much further out than their main sites. Talk about false advertisement.
If by luck you do live in one of the large, picturesque, central colleges (ahem King’s, Trinity, John’s), things might not be all as rosy as it seems. For one, the daily influx of tourists probably equals your whole student population. Sure, living centrally means you don’t have to experience the pains of a long, cold walk after a night out, yet your comfort is compromised by a loss of calm and privacy.
And how does one touch on something as ephemeral as reputation? Because each college certainly has one, but to precisely pin it down, is difficult. This does not mean that we are defined by the reputation of our college, but neither are we able to escape it altogether.
In my own experience, I go to quite a sporty college (Jesus), so sporting events and their respective socials seem prevalent. Although I am aware that if I was part of sports such as rowing, football or rugby I would be part of this camaraderie, but the FOMO is not as strong as my aversion to physical exertion. Though for some colleges that have a stereotype, such as John’s, their college’s reputation may cast a longer shadow, requiring people to feel the need to define themselves against it.
For the most part I find myself identifying more with my college, than with the university. Of course when I applied I was drawn to the name and reputation of Cambridge, but paradoxically, for the most part I’m in Cambridge, I forget I’m at such a prestigious university. Instead I feel like I belong to a college community that shelters, feeds, and supports me.
Perhaps the most important aspect of different colleges is their relative wealth. This influences the everyday life of students through the welfare and services each college provides, which varies widely. From something as small as washing machines, which some colleges provide for free, whereas for the majority of colleges there is some fee, to a much greater sums when it comes to bursaries, subsidies and prizes awarded to those who get firsts.
The cost of living as a student in Cambridge is by far dependent on which college you go to. The variation can be quite astounding between the most expensive and cheapest colleges to live it, when considering the price of accommodation, formal hall and food in college, library fines and other additional costs. If you’re not convinced, or are as curious as I about how your college compares with others, check out this article.
Much has been said about the difference in welfare support given by colleges. Each college has some tutor system which is supposed to offer assistance to students independent of academic support, but how this actually pans out varies. At my college students are not assigned tutors individually, as they are at other colleges, instead there are a number of tutors common to all students we can approach. This means that we are not personally known to our tutors, and makes it more difficult to approach them with sensitive issues.
Perhaps less serious but still important, the nature and occurrence of May Balls are dependent on the individual colleges. While John's, Trinity, Jesus, Clare are a few others have annual May Balls, most other colleges normally alternate between May Balls and June events. Ticket prices are also notoriously varied, for instance a Robinson ticket costs £100, whereas a Magdalene ticket can set you pack £380 for a pair (i.e. still £190 each).
Just how important a May Ball is within our overall Cambridge experienced should be considered when some students lose out on the chance to go to their own college's May Ball. The expensive price of the tickets notwithstanding, colleges such as Caius and Sidney have delayed when they will be hosting their next May Ball. It's no secret either, that some Balls are thought to be better than others, with Trinity and John's tickets being the most sought after. For something that seems so quintessentially Cambridge as a May Ball, it is actually heavily influenced by which college you're at.
In short, the college you go to is vitally important, and should be something that is seriously considered before applying. If Cambridge University is responsible for our intellectual experience, then it is our respective college that governs the overall feel of the full Cambridge experience.