Help! How do I pick a college?

Amy Nugent

Above image: Grey College (hill college)

Don’t panic!

Firstly, do not panic! There’s a lot to choose from, and although each college presents itself with a slightly different identity, you will find your friends no matter which college you belong to!

In this blog, I will summarise how I set about choosing a college, and some of the differences between them which might help you find it easier to pick which one is right for you, whether you are planning to live in or out of college.

Where to start?

I’ve created this flow chart on college selection. Remember, this is just a starting point, and I’m about to break down some of your options so read on…

* catered or self-catered for undergraduates

** Small – Less than 400 UGs and PGs living in college

Medium – Between 400 and 500 UGs and PGs living in college

Large – More than 500 UGs and PGs living in college

(Figures from 2022/23 academic year)

Please note

For the 2023/24 academic year, Hild Bede will fall into the medium category & will host self-catered and catered options

Postgraduate accommodation is also available in every college as well as Ustivov (PG only).

Living in college

Catered vs self-catered

The first step is to choose whether you want a catered or a self-catered college. This will probably have the biggest impact on your college lifestyle, or at least I felt this way.

I chose to look exclusively at catered colleges because I did not want to cook, I thought this would be the most sociable option. In hindsight, I’m completely happy with my decision, and I loved socialising at mealtimes with my friends. Going to the dining hall was a great way to bump into friends who weren’t just in my corridor or my block. If you are struggling with your choice between catered and self-catered accommodation, I found that the experience of getting to have meals with a wider group of people than just those in my direct proximity was fun and one that I miss now that I live out of college.

All the colleges I selected as my top choices were catered, and when it came to picking my preferred college, I put St John’s over the rest due to some trivial fact I heard which said they served dessert at lunch unlike any other college, this became an interesting point of comparison to set it apart from the rest. You might not be surprised that this trivial point that motivated my college selection meant that when I found out I would not be part of St. Johns, I was not exactly devastated. I got the email that welcomed me to Grey College, and I felt nothing but excitement.

In terms of self-catering, of course, you can choose your own meals to suit your preferences and budget, and you might prefer this especially if you don’t want to live by college-structured mealtimes. College does offer multiple options for each meal to suit dietary requirements but if you want to guarantee you will be eating your favourite food, or simply don’t want the repetition of eating in the same dining room every day, this might be much more to your liking.


Although college doesn’t necessarily guarantee location (and you should research to see whether the college you are thinking about has more than one site), your placement in the city is important, especially if you are planning to get around without public transportation. Some people choose a location to suit their degree. ‘Bailey Colleges’ such as St Chad’s can be found in the city centre – making them very handy for going to the shops to buy your favourite snacks, or if you are planning on hitting the clubs and aren’t keen on a long walk.

Hild Bede is set out on the opposite side of the city by the river within large grounds, it may seem slightly out of the way to most of the other colleges, but it is located in a very popular area for student housing, so even if you move out of college in your second or third years, you will still have good access to its facilities. The ‘Hill Colleges’ (St Mary’s, Grey, South etc) are further from town, but very handy for the main campus known as the science site, this is where the Bill Bryson Library & Teaching & Learning Centre are located. You must check out the map of the colleges and university buildings to see what colleges are closest to your lecture buildings, but bear in mind that you won’t necessarily be taught in your department building in year one (for example, I never set foot in the English building, Hallgarth House until my second year).

Every college is a vast mix of students studying different subjects, there is no ‘English Literature’ or ‘Computer Science’ college, each college offers a mixture of subjects and students so you get a really diverse mix.

Big or small?

This comes down to personal preference. Whilst in small colleges you will probably get to know most of your peers, larger ones will have a lot more variety in terms of the faces you will be seeing in college. I like being in a medium-sized college, where I have found a group of close friends, I got used to seeing many familiar faces, and still have so many new people to meet.


For any liver-in, accommodation is probably at the top of your concerns: from your bedrooms to kitchens, bathrooms to dining room. Accommodation does vary from college to college. So… what makes Durham different?


For some of you, this might be your biggest ick, and maybe even deterring you. For others, this might be your ideal situation, one you are excited about. Room sharing does vary from college to college (in Grey, if you are assigned to share a room you only have to share for one term and then can swap out into a single room, however in other colleges sharing is for the entire academic year), so I can only speak from personal experience.

As someone who didn’t opt-in to share a room (yep, you can’t always get what you pick), I was slightly nervous when I got the news a few weeks before moving to university that I would be sharing a room. After receiving my roommate’s name and email, we quickly got in contact and began chatting to each other – only to discover we had so many shared interests! Grey sent out personality forms beforehand which let you fill in information concerning the likes of whether you were noisy, or quiet or a night owl amongst other things. They really matched us brilliantly. Plus having the biggest room on the corridor made us the social hub – perfect for getting to know people. Sharing meant that I had a friend to do everything with – whether this was attending welcome events, meals or parties. So, if you are feeling put off because of the possibility of sharing, then please keep an open mind! I found that I was so much less homesick because I spent less time by myself, and I had a really positive experience. By sharing for a term, I also paid less for accommodation.

That being said, if you have your reasons for not being put in a shared room, it’s something worth discussing with the college to see how they can make allowances. Also, note that some colleges have no shared rooms anyway!

Green Spaces

I am going to focus on this aspect of college as I believe it is one of Durham’s unique attributes, and one of the reasons I most wanted to come to Durham over any other university. There is an abundance of green spaces, I personally loved this connection to nature, and it is lovely to have an outdoor space to relax. Your college is a part of your Durham life whether you live in or out, and it is great to have somewhere to go to if your student house doesn’t have any outdoor space.

Facilities and vibes

Which is the sportiest college? Which one should I go to if I’m most interested in doing student theatre? Which one has the nicest social space or JCR (Junior Common Room)? Which one looks most like it came out of a dark academia novel? Okay, these questions might be valid, but they are also highly subjective and you might be looking at answers founded on stereotypes.

When I chose my colleges, I wanted to see which ones offered extracurriculars of art and dance, and so whether they had the facilities for these activities became part of my choice criteria. The best place to find these details is by looking at the college’s list of societies, sports, and facilities on their website or social media pages, or, if you have any specific questions, email the college or come and visit an Open Day. Let me reassure you, if your college doesn’t cater to your specific interests, the Students Union will as it has a whole host of groups that members of any college can join. Also, there is always the possibility of setting up your own society in and out of college, which constantly happens to suit students’ changing interests.

Living out of college

Living out of college does not make you any less of a member of that college community! It’s important that you consider which places cater to your needs and interests – whether this is joining a college sport or attending formals or balls. Big social events will vary from college to college in terms of frequency and formality, so you should check out the colleges’ social media pages to see what they are getting up to and if that fits with your interests!

Discover more

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Amy Nugent

Hi, I’m Amy and here at Durham I study Liberal Arts at Grey College. In my spare time I can be found dancing like there’s nobody watching, getting stuck into my latest art project, or writing kooky stories in one of Durham's many beautiful spots.

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