Holidays to make you feel smart: summer courses at Oxford

If you’re like me, you went to a state university. The education may have been good, but your student union looked like a shopping mall and your dorm resembled a Soviet prison. Here’s a chance to relive the youth you never had by studying at one of the world’s greatest and most beautiful universities.

Recently I checked out out two summer school options at two historic colleges at Oxford University–the Oxford Experience at Christ Church College (pictured here) and the Creative Writing Summer School at Exeter College.

The Oxford Experience is the pricier and cushier of the two. There are a series of one-week courses from July through early August on everything from Darwin to the history of the English language. The small classes (max 12 people) and experienced teachers ensure that you’ll learn a lot. Students live at the college and there’s a real communal atmosphere, with interesting people from around the world. I met several who were on their third or fourth year. Day trips to places such as Bath and Stonehenge mean you’ll have your entire vacation taken care of for you.

Next year’s courses will be as varied as ever, with classes such as The Twilight of the Romanovs, King Alfred and the Vikings, English Romantic Poetry, and the Art of the Illuminator.

The summer school for writers at Exeter College is more like a real university course–three weeks of intensive work with professional writers that can earn you college credit if you’re already attending university somewhere. You have to apply to get in and there’s required coursework. If you’re serious about your writing career, it can also give you the one thing talent can’t–contacts.


One of the best aspects of this summer school is the series of guest speakers. I attended one on screenwriting by Nicholas McInerny, who writes for The Bill, the UK’s most popular cop show. He had piles of good advice for getting into the business and staying there, and much of it applied just as well to fiction and nonfiction writing. I found myself taking notes. He even offered to help a student meet a TV producer. You won’t get that at a community college course.

Both schools have a lot going for them. You get to stay in college accommodation, surrounded by Gothic spires and lovely gardens. Food is provided by the colleges, but have no fear. This is far better grub than the cafeteria swill they serve at more proletarian universities. Christ Church and Exeter have sumptuous dining halls decorated with ornate stonework and stained glass windows. You also have the advantage of staying in the heart of one of England’s most historic and beautiful cities, with teachers who will point the way to all the best hidden spots.

While prices look steep ($1600 or more per week for Oxford Experience, and about $3500 for three weeks at the writing school) that covers decent accommodation and great food so it’s not much more than getting a hotel or B&B for the same amount of time, and takes a lot less planning.

So if you want to experience high culture and learning at its best, try a smart holiday at Oxford University.