I’m a 2nd Year Oxford Student, and Here’s What I Wish I’d Known at School

14 Feb, 2024 | University Preparation

This article has been written by Keziah, a second year student at Balliol College, University of Oxford. Keziah is studying French and Italian, and she’s sharing some of the things she wishes she’d known while she was at school.

Even just a couple of years ago, I never imagined myself studying at Oxford University. I loved school and worked hard, but to me Oxford seemed too ambitious.

But, I was wrong. 

The University of Oxford is for anyone motivated and passionate about their subject – and that included me. 

After visiting the city (including Balliol, my current college), I fell in love with the idea of studying here. I could now (somewhat cautiously) imagine myself at Oxford, and I was filled with excitement. Imagine studying at one of the best universities in the world! The people I would meet, the things I would learn and the places I would go… 

From then on, I set my sights on applying. I loved languages, and wanted to learn a new one , so I applied for French and Italian. After what felt like a whirlwind of personal statement drafts, practice MLAT tests and mock interviews, followed by the real things, I received my offer in January 2022. Shocked and thrilled, I told everyone. We celebrated that evening, and I was super excited and proud that my hard work had paid off.

Of course when May and June rolled around, I studied hard for my A-levels, and by August I was anxiously awaiting my results and refreshing UCAS. 

As soon as my offer was confirmed, I was delighted! Yet, a feeling of anxious anticipation also loomed over me for the next month and a half. The imposter syndrome was real even before arriving, but many of my preconceived notions about Oxford University turned out to be incorrect, or at least not as extreme as I’d imagined. 

So I’ll break down a few of these for you, to ease any concerns you might have.

Misconception #1: Everyone Is a Genius

While yes, everyone who studies at Oxford University is obviously intelligent and hard working, we also know how to have fun. The vast majority of students here take part in a range of extracurricular activities and social events, and are interesting, kind and personable. The phrase “work hard, play hard” is often applied to Oxford, and in my experience, this is very accurate. 

It’s also true that, chances are, if you find yourself in the college library at 1am, there’ll be others there, suffering through an essay crisis with you. It’s reassuring (and sometimes even fun) to be at your laptop, grappling with your final paragraph, surrounded by friends. The camaraderie is real!

Fun evening events

Yet, all work and no play makes for a dull student life. On other nights, students leave the libraries and head to the bars, jazz clubs and black tie venues like Freud, a beautiful converted church. There are drinks, beautiful dresses and live music – the perfect opportunity to meet interesting people!

Each college has a ball and/or a garden party each year too. The Balliol Ball (theme: Les Années Folles) of May 2023 was extra special as it celebrated 50 years of female tutorship! We danced, ate and partied from 7pm-7am. The food was incredible, as were the drinks, and there was so much entertainment, from a silent disco to a 1920s-themed fairground to a DJ performance from Hybrid Minds. This was definitely one of my favourite nights from first year!

Of course, each college also hosts formal dinners more regularly – perhaps the most special one being the Christmas dinner! We all celebrate the festive season, enjoy some delicious food, and sing The Twelve Days of Christmas before taking pictures by the huge Christmas tree.

Oxford University students at a formal dinner, sitting at tables


There are many, many things you can get involved in on the extracurricular front. The University of Oxford publishes a plethora of magazines and newspapers (I personally love reading the ISIS magazine, featuring a mixture of art, poetry and thought pieces). 

There are also opportunities to take part in both competitive and relaxed sports, as well as the chance to get involved in the university’s music scene. Oxford hosts a plethora of music events each week, and is home to dozens more societies, focusing on everything Hispanic culture to Taylor Swift to Pilates.

Making friends in the first term

Group chats are always created before the start of term, so you’ll have the chance to make friends early on. Freshers week is designed to help you make friends, but remember you don’t necessarily meet your BFFs in the very first week of university! 

Be brave, go and talk to people, and join societies throughout the term! I was the happiest a few weeks into my first term, as I had the opportunity to form closer bonds with people. Keep going!

Misconception #2: The Work Is Too Hard

This links to my first misconception. Just as those around you have and appreciate a good time, so will you! 

It goes without saying that the aforementioned late night essay crises and study sessions are not a daily occurrence. Usually, these are avoidable if you plan ahead and don’t get too overwhelmed – a skill that comes with time! 

As the weeks go by, you’ll get used to planning and organising yourself. Even after the three-month long summer vacation, I was shocked by how quickly I got back in the swing of my work schedule again at the start of this year. A week in, I remembered exactly what Oxford life was like in first year, and I settled into it while also embracing the unique aspects of second year. 

The workload as a Modern Languages student

As a first-year Modern Languages student, my workload included:

  • An essay a week on literature (one for French every other week, ditto for Italian)
  • Translations in both languages
  • Language skills homework for Italian as I studied the language ab initio, that is to say as a beginner

If you’re studying a language from scratch, it’s a good idea to start learning it on Duolingo or a similar platform before you arrive, and begin to broaden and develop your interest in the culture. This could be through reading literary works in translation or watching films with subtitles. 

We had a week-long Italian language course in September before starting our degree. I was super nervous, but most people barely spoke a word before arriving, and the tutors were amazing. We all progressed at a similar pace (very quickly!), and we laughed at our many mistakes along the way. This was also a great way to make friends before our course began!

Oxford tutors

My tutors were, and are, all incredibly helpful and supportive. They understand the workload is noticeably more difficult than in school, so they help guide you as much as you need while offering useful advice and feedback. 

Remember that for most subjects, your first-year exams don’t count towards your final grade! It’s all about getting used to working at undergraduate level. If you only remember one thing, let it be this: others are going through almost exactly the same thing you are. 

Oh, and you got into Oxford University, which means you can definitely do it!

Misconception #3: You Must Know Everything

Wider reading around your subject is very important before, during and after the university application process. In my experience, being told to read dozens of books, watch documentaries, and take part in 20 different courses related to global politics is overwhelming and stressful. 

The key is to see it as fun rather than as a chore! Write down what interests you most about what you want to study. Then, research further into these areas. Find a couple of books and articles written around these subjects, and enjoy the process of deepening your knowledge.

Also, talk to others interested in your subject! Having academic conversations is so rewarding and prepares you for the style of Oxford learning, plus you can get tips about what to read or take part in. Work experience is getting more and more accessible and is incredibly valuable; online courses and online internships are a great alternative to their in-person counterparts for students with busy schedules!

You can’t know everything!

However, never feel you should know everything. As a perfectionist who has always valued academic achievement very highly, anxiety would kick in each time I was reminded how little I knew in the grand scheme of things – I feared the feeling of not knowing something, of inadequacy. 

Many ambitious students feel this way; you just have to accept that this is part and parcel of being intelligent and hard working, and turn the anxiety into a strength. Use this desire to fuel your thirst for knowledge, and tell yourself it’s impossible to know it all. Part of the fun of Oxford University is that you learn so much! You look back after each term, and realise just how much you now know.

Your tutors see your drive and potential rather than the number of facts you’ve memorised. The whole point of university is to learn and develop. Be inspired by other students (rather than seeing them as competitors) and enjoy the process! 

Sunset over the Ashmolean Museum

If there’s one thing to take away, it’s that you should aim high! Think: 

Why not me? 

I wish I’d known at school that I was more than capable and would thrive at a university like Oxford. We all deserve to succeed and to enjoy the process of learning, so work hard, and enjoy what you do!


By Keziah Mccann

Keziah is a second-year French and Italian student at Balliol College, University of Oxford. As well as learning languages and travelling, her interests include writing, journalism, film and cooking.

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