Studying dominates a significant portion of an Oxford student’s daily routine, from sorting through reading lists to transcribing lecture notes and tackling essays. The charm of proudly donning a cosy sweater, embroidered with your college crest, and stylishly strutting your way into the nearest library or cafe, is undeniable. These are the communal spaces where students eagerly strive to conquer assignments and mark up articles with fluorescent highlighters. Especially during exam season, libraries overflow with determined first-years and finalists alike, prepared to showcase their tireless work. 

Essentially, there is no student without studying. Study spaces are to students what kitchens are to chefs, an integral foundation that aids their learning to help formulate the beautiful recipe of an essay or problem sheet in the most productive way possible. But is there a universal study space, destined to yield the most amount of productivity? 

The Dreaming Spires of Libraries

The obvious choice might be the library. If ever you’ve craved silence, you will certainly find it here. In fact, the silence in a library is so deafening, filled with the clatter of furious typing, page-turning, and bag rustling. Personally, I find hyperfocusing on these small, repetitive sounds, making places like the library less than ideal; for me. However, others staunchly defend libraries as their personal sanctuaries. 

Some of my friends, for instance, prefer studying in St. Hugh’s College Library, especially when deadlines loom and an all-nighter looks inevitable. The advantages of having a college library are evident, when central libraries such as the Radcliffe Camera close in the evenings and you live far away from the city centre. Sometimes, all you need is a change of scenery, and since getting work done in your hallway is likely a challenge, the college library emerges as an uncontested choice. It’s easily accessible and always open, providing the tranquil environment necessary to motivate that final burst of productivity. 

Beyond college libraries, there are university-wide libraries. If you’re fortunate enough to secure a seat in the Radcam, you’re treated to beautiful, luxurious views. Even if you find yourself bored, at least you have something aesthetically pleasing to gaze upon. Hermione Granger’s dream, covered head to toe in books; where better to feel like a proper Oxford student, enjoying the aesthetics of dark academia? Libraries like Vere Harmsworth or the Law Library offer similar environments, and watching others study definitely serves as motivation. 

A special mention goes to Duke Humfrey’s, quietly tucked away inside the Bodleian. With an open upstairs area allowing prime people-watching, you can work feeling superior while taking a nosy peek at others – a bit of harmless fun that makes studying a bit more bearable. When a friend took me there, I was surprised to discover it even existed. The snug cubby upstairs provided the privacy to focus on work while enjoying the panoramic views of the library.

And how could we forget the marvellous Glink? Descending those seemingly never-ending stairs feels like entering a strange science lab or futuristic spaceship, unbounded by space or time, with not a single window or non-grey wall in sight. One of my friends swears by the white round table, nestled in the distant corner of the Glink, citing its surreal and bizarre ambience; being in that space evokes the sensation of participating in a laboratory experiment. Perhaps there’s something about this unique environment that creates a conducive atmosphere, encouraging concentration and fuelling the commitment to study. 

The library tactic doesn’t usually work for me, though. The quietness is often distracting because it amplifies all other minuscule sounds tenfold. Once I hear someone cough, it’s all I’ll be able to focus on, rendering my trip to the library useless since I no longer get anything done. Though I have noise-cancelling headphones that I adore, the thought of blasting loud techno to drown out the scuffles and scratches is off-putting when I realise I can’t work with such loud music penetrating my eardrums. 

Certainly, it’s effective for many. When some of my friends really need to focus, they head straight for the Radcam in the morning, hunting out a tiny corner to occupy for the rest of the day. And if you’re studying at such a beautiful university, there is no reason why you shouldn’t make the most of it. Alternatively, for those who have an Oxford Union membership, there’s also the Union building, complete with both a library and outdoor spaces perfect for studying. The Union serves as a place to be productive without the added stresses of upholding total silence (not to mention not having to pay for a drink).

Cosy Cafes

Others swear by cafes, and I’m inclined to agree. The steady background chatter of people catching up over a cappuccino drowns out the irritating sounds of keyboards and coughs. Sometimes, the gentle hum of background music creates an ambience that makes me feel like the ultimate student. When I go to a cafe, I feel more motivated to study, knowing that I’ve made a financial investment (well, all of £4) toward a probably overpriced coffee. I can’t leave now! I’ve already paid for my drink. I’m going to sit here and get all my money’s worth, no matter how long it takes. 

Cafes also tend to be warmer than libraries, so as someone who has no body temperature regulation whatsoever, it’s comforting knowing I’ll be in a toasty environment and not worry about freezing my way out of doing an essay – though sometimes, that would be nice… 

Admittedly, I am the Goldilocks of study spaces (or of anything, really). Constantly complaining about how this cafe is too loud, this library is too cold, why was this latte £5? Full of complaints, I am! Nowhere seems to be quite right for me, but I have studied in countless cafes, with personal favourites being Coffeesmiths, Fantastea, and Tree Artisan Café. Yet, one place I often venture to with my friends has to be – drum roll, please – Pret a Manger! This seems to cause quite the stir in my friend group, for one reason: whether the superior Pret resides on Cornmarket Street or in Summertown. 

To Pret or Not to Pret

Perhaps this is a trivial debate, especially to those living more centrally, but with my friend group based at St. Hugh’s, we naturally became acquainted with the various charms of north Oxford. This became particularly relevant when we felt too lazy to go into town but still wanted to go somewhere. In my first year, we didn’t have a choice between the two Prets. However, since the Summertown branch opened last year, it has sparked an insignificant yet amusing rift in our group. Some stayed loyal to Cornmarket Pret, whilst others migrated to the arguably triumphant north Oxford Pret – and I’ll explain why. 

I’ve never been a massive fan of Cornmarket Pret. While easily accessible with plenty of seats, finding somewhere to sit is a rarity unless you arrive as soon as they open. The downstairs area is often overcrowded, with people constantly filtering in and out with their oat lattes and peach coolers. It’s often hot and stuffy, causing me to overheat like a jacket potato, and the constant movement of people makes it visually distracting. The worst part might be when you finally hunt down a seat, only to discover that the table is wobbly! It’s a day-long battle with the table, pleading it to stay still just while you write that concluding paragraph. The only times I’ve enjoyed going to this Pret was early in the morning when you still have the luxury of picking any seat, and even then, sometimes they start blasting some royalty-free dubstep, spoiling the long-awaited silence anyway. 

Obviously, the biggest perk of going to Pret is the investment in a Club Pret membership of £30/month. It’s certainly worth your money if you frequent Pret a lot. For example, if you were to buy one latte every day, you’d be spending almost £20 more per week without membership. Once you’ve paid your £30, every coffee you buy is basically free! For the entirety of my second year, I invested in a subscription, knowing that I’d have no choice but to go and ensure that my money got put to good use. Of course, back then, it was only £25, but that’s besides the point. If it’s convenient and easy, then it’s no wonder it is so beloved by students.

Now, imagine if you could use your subscription, except in a Pret that’s way better. Welcome to Summertown! I acknowledge it’s too far away for most students, but maybe that’s what has preserved the integrity of the north Oxford branch. Having opened only last year, I finally witnessed the luxury of no wobbly tables, cleaner atmosphere, and much quieter music. One of my friends particularly enjoys Summertown Pret, considering its proximity to supermarkets like Tesco and M&S, allowing you to swiftly plan grocery shopping and studying all in one. The atmosphere feels more zen compared to its city centre counterpart, making it the ideal study space for easily distracted people like me to actually crack on with work. Plus, you are less likely to have awkward run-ins with people you vaguely know, preventing uncomfortable eye contact and sheepish hellos. So, if ever you are banished to OX2, just know that not all hope is lost.

Home Sweet Home

What about those times when you don’t want to spend money or leave your room? Naturally, you have a built-in study space five feet away from your bed. While I can’t deny the sheer convenience of studying in your room, I am a staunch believer in separating work from sleep. Not only does it become easier to distract yourself or convince yourself that this essay can be done while snuggled up in your duvet, there’s great benefit to leaving your work stresses away from the place where you’re supposed to wind down and relax. It’s already enough having to endure the hardships of academia. On a practical level, I also find that the more I study in my room, the messier it gets; that in itself is quite overwhelming, so the less time I spend cooped up, the better it is for when I inevitably have to clean up the remnants of an essay.

The Ultimate Study Space

As much as I’d love to declare that The Ultimate Study Space exists, the reality is that there are too many contenders vying for this sacred spot. Finding a one-size-fits-all is impossible, but, remarkably, I’d say that it only works in our favour. Whether it’s the serene silence of a library, the bustling atmosphere of a cafe, or the familiarity of one’s room, the beauty lies in the variety of studying styles, offering flexibility for students to choose spaces that align with their focus and comfort. With a myriad of amazing places available to students, Oxford ensures one thing – there will never be a shortage of study spaces.