This week marks the start of the new term at Oxford and Gonzaga. The shared start date might be one of the only similarities between the two schools.
This probably isn’t much of a surprise, but Oxford academics are completely different from what we encounter at GU.
While terms at GU are divided into two semesters, there are three terms at Oxford and the academic year lasts from September to late June. There are two main differences between Oxford terms and terms virtually everywhere else: the names of the terms and their length. The fall term is known as Michaelmas, the winter term as Hilary and the spring term as Trinity.
Oxford has its own vernacular that takes a while to get used to. For instance, referring to students as freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors doesn’t translate here. Instead, you identify students by year and first years are also known as freshers.
Each Oxford term lasts eight weeks with a multiweek break in between. Technically the term is short, but Oxford tutors fit the maximum amount of material into each week. I read and
wrote as much during the eight weeks of Michaelmas as I did during my first two years at GU. Studying at Oxford is a quest for the ideal balance between efficiency and depth.
The tutorial system is the most significant difference between Oxford and American universities.
A tutorial is a weekly course that typically involves anywhere from one to four students and a faculty member known as a tutor. In a humanities tutorial, students discuss their work with the tutor and dive deeper into the topic for that week after completing a substantial reading list and a 2,000-3,000 word essay beforehand.
The level of accountability is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, especially because both of my tutorials last term were one-on-one. Tutors question your argument and specific aspects of the materials they asked you to cover. If you don’t have a solid foundation in all of the content, you’ll flounder for about an hour.
To cover all of the content and actually understand it, time management is crucial. In terms of keeping on top of work, every week at Oxford feels a little bit like finals week at GU. It’s an unbelievably rewarding academic experience, but it keeps you on your toes.
Unlike finals week, there aren’t exams administered throughout term. Oxford courses don’t include exams, midterms or finals. An Oxford degree involves mock exams at the beginning of each term (known as collections) and a handful of comprehensive exams that determine a student’s degree status.
Everyday schedules are much less rigid at Oxford than at GU. Lectures, tutorials and seminars provide some formal structure to each day, but for the most part, the day is concerned with completing assignments on your own time.
While day-to-day academics are more flexible at Oxford, degree programs in the U.S. are far more accommodating in terms of changing your major. Oxford students apply to their specific programs and begin reading these subjects immediately rather than taking core curriculum for the first year or two. While GU students can wait to declare their majors until junior year, Oxford students begin university with their subjects cemented.
Double majors are fairly rare at Oxford. Certain degrees involve the study of multiple subjects (such as politics, philosophy and economics, lovingly known as PPE) but it is uncommon for a student to study two separate subjects beyond formally combined degrees. My English literature and political science degrees seem strange here because a combined study of these topics isn't offered at Oxford.
As students are immersed in their subjects from the beginning, many degrees at Oxford take three years to complete. When I say that I’m a visiting third year, I often have to explain that I’m not missing my graduation because most American programs require four years.
Experiencing two radically different approaches to higher education has been one of the most interesting things I’ve done as a college student. While I have come to appreciate the tutorial system, it’s difficult to make a judgment about which is approach is necessarily better because they’re both so distinct from one another.
Emily Klein is a staff writer.