Image credit: Wikimedia Commons, Zhushenje, CC-BY-SA-4.0 License,_Oxford,_UK.jpg

The University of Oxford is a palace built of preconceived notions. Its reputation as one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in the world carries a certain mystique which many have tried to quantify over the years. The latest variation of this comes via the internet, where fanciful stories of the rituals, vernacular, and atmosphere which make Oxford unique flood your timeline before you’ve stepped one foot onto college grounds. Having been here a month, a lot of that mysterious veneer has washed off and it’s become clear that the internet’s portrayal of Oxford does not equate to the real thing.

I was luckier than most freshers going into Oxford because my sixth form had organised an advice session with some current second and third years to debunk some myths and put our minds at ease. That doesn’t mean, though, that I didn’t fall victim to the peculiar picture of Oxford life according to social media. A quick glance into the Oxford hashtag on TikTok fills your screen with picturesque scenes of coffee shops, the Christ Church Meadow, and the Bodleian. It is not uncommon to see a viral tweet about some marvellous discovery or revolutionary publication which originated at Oxford, or a newspaper think piece about the Oxford alumni who lead the government. 

Of course, it would be remiss to argue that none of these portrayals have truth in them; yes, the university is home to countless beautiful gardens and libraries; yes, it has long been an institution of academic excellence; and yes, thirty Prime Ministers and many international political leaders have attended Oxford. The university has a far-reaching legacy but the reality of student life cannot be reflected in online posts showcasing its natural and historical wonders. 

Oxford has a pervasive presence in popular culture as a representation of high academia, tradition, and respectability. If you took some of the information parroted online about university life at face value, you would think everybody dresses in sub fusc all the time, eats in regimented intervals, and speaks Latin to their tutors. While some colleges do have more formal dress codes for certain events, dinner in hall is only available for a strict time window, and Classics students do converse in Latin, the internet can mislead you into believing that Oxford is frozen in the past. You might live and work in buildings so old that it is apparently illegal to light a candle within the walls but the Oxford experience is not as alien as many make it out to be. You still have all the societies, all the partying, and all the drama of British university life, just in more intense eight-week intervals. 

On the first day, I was slightly terrified when I found out I was seated at the high table for the freshers’ formal dinner, directly opposite my college’s academic director and a few seats across from the principal. I discovered during the meal that they were just normal people who you shouldn’t be afraid of – after the Latin reading at least. One common idea I heard floating around the internet prior to coming here was that Oxford academics are only there to do research and find giving lectures and tutorials a burden. Most tutors and lecturers at Oxford are typically undertaking some form of study in addition to their teaching role and I’m sure being a tutor can be just as burdensome as any other form of employment; however, the fellows and professors I’ve interacted with or heard lectures from seemed fairly enthusiastic about supporting their students, or at least they hid their boredom well.

Before you come to Oxford it’s important not to get wrapped up in what you think the experience is going to be like. I know as well as anyone that trusting random accounts on social media to be an accurate judge of your individual university experience, especially in a place as vast and unique as this, is not a good idea. If you are looking for a more credible source of information online, check the university and college websites or ask the staff. You can trust that they will have more objective information than someone depicting university life through the lens of social media, where ‘factual’ posts are often bloated with bias and gossip. It’s only natural to seek answers about a place you’ll be living and studying in for an extended period, but don’t take the internet’s falsehoods at face value. You will not find the truth of life as an Oxford student in a popular Twitter post.