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CollegesStudent experience

Durham’s Colleges Explained


‘But I thought I just left college?’

‘I thought university was college?’


Ah, yes, a common mistake. As an English student, I’m inclined to rectify this etymologically (where the word originated). “College”, if we take it all the way back to its Latin roots, literally just means “a group who choose to be together”…and hence, the word has been adopted by many such groups with many different functions!

A sense of community

In the case of Durham, though, a “college” is a community within the University. There are currently 16, with the 17th opening this year! Each one is interdisciplinary – meaning that it is composed of a wide variety of students, from various subjects and at various phases of their study, as well as featuring University alumni (graduates) and University staff.

In terms of practicalities, colleges allow each student to be part of a smaller, more concentrated community than the University at large and therefore benefit from greater access to opportunities and attention than they might otherwise manage to obtain. (However, that is not to say that the boundaries of your college represent the limits of your University life; more on that later!). All colleges offer the opportunity to “live in” (be resident within the college) in your first year, other students and postgraduates have the opportunity to live in as well. This organisation allows you to focus on getting into the swing of University life, rather than fretting about practicalities – particularly if you are in a catered college, and don’t even have to worry about cooking! It also means that you have the opportunity to get to know the people in your college really well: think of it as a ready-made friendship network!

College Events

Each college has its own facilities – sports equipment, common rooms, a bar, and so forth – and societies. Each college is basically a social hub! The benefit of the collegiate system is that it allows students to run, and participate, in a really broad range of activities. Fresher’s Week is a prime example of this; each college runs its own events programmes, introducing you to the diversity of its community. Similarly, throughout the year each college will hold its own events (such as Formals, Balls, and the highly-anticipated College Day mini-festivals). If this sounds like organised fun…well, that’s because it is. However, there’s great virtue in that! For one, it means that you will have certain access to a range of activities and events which will definitely run (removing the uncertainty which so often surrounds student-led planning!). However, it also means that you have a guaranteed social network which is both diverse and welcoming. Rather than just meeting people from your course – which, given the intense nature of lectures and seminars, can be difficult anyway! – you will have the opportunity to interact with a broad array of individuals from all sorts of personal and academic backgrounds, whilst knowing that you share at least one thing in common: your pride in your college identity! As well as being a closer representation of real life, it’s certainly a privileged social situation, particularly when battling the often tumultuous times which entering any university brings.

Each college is distinct

Although each college shares similar features, each has a slightly different feel. As well as varying in size, age, and location, they all boast slightly different atmospheres…a topic upon which I will let them speak themselves! Download our College Guide.

However, your College life often interacts and overlaps with the other elements of your University experience – your academic life in your Department, and your participation in the collective University environment – in some weird and wonderful ways. For example:

  • Your College Library will be intimately intertwined with your academic experience (and probably the composition site of many an essay)
  • You may get involved with the Student Union through your College
  • Your College will contribute to your holistic academic development – by hosting careers fairs, providing academic opportunities, and creating mentoring systems, for instance
  • University societies will often use College facilities (particularly the bar and social spaces)…

These are but a few ways in which Durham’s various elements are interconnected. I know it may sound a little confusing, but it’s best to see Durham as a bit of a spider’s web: even parts which seem like individual strands turn out to be interwoven into the whole! Or, if that metaphor is a little abstract (I fear my inner English student is betraying itself again), maybe this handy diagram might make the constituent parts which determine life in Durham a little clearer…

Another practicality – when you apply to Durham University, you can choose to apply to a college or to place an open application. You, unfortunately, aren’t guaranteed your first-choice college, although many are lucky! However, we can promise that – no matter where you end up – your College will be an absolutely integral part of your University life.

To find out more about our wonderful colleges you will find information in our prospectuses and college guide – both of which can be downloaded here.

To see more of student life at Durham follow @thedurhamstudent on Instagram and like and subscribe to our YouTube channel @durhamstudent


Emily Smith

Hi I’m Emily, as befits a recent English graduate, I was Collingwood College’s student Librarian when I was in Durham (I hope to return soon to study more). You’ll usually find me, for either work or play, buried in archives researching the obscure, the niche, and the forgotten…and sometimes wrangling dragons.

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