What happens in an English tutorial?


Oxford student

Hi, my name’s Ankit. I’m a first-year English undergrad at St. John’s College. One of the (many) new words you’ll hear when thinking about applying to Oxford is ‘tutorial’, often called ‘tutes’ by students. Hopefully, this post can explain what tutorials are, and why they are such an outstanding way to learn.  


First off, what is a tutorial?


Tutorials are conversations between one to three students and a tutor, who is often a leading expert. They occur regularly throughout term, giving you the chance to explore a topic with someone who has dedicated much of their life to its study, yet remains keen to hear your ideas. Each tutorial differs, being special to the individuals within it.




What happens in an English tutorial?


Tutorials are based upon the topic you’ve been exploring that particular week, so are a great way to receive highly individualised essay feedback. However, there is no set format for tutorials, so not all of them will be a debate about your essay. Part of what makes tutorials enjoyable is how varied they can be. My favourite tutorials so far have included my professor reading out poems by Emily Dickinson and discussing their complexities with me, as well as looking at my Medieval tutor’s postcards depicting famous artworks of Christ to contextualise an Old English dream vision. I’ve found that our professors are remarkably good at giving us hints so we can work out answers for ourselves and gain confidence in our academic ability. I always leave tutorials understanding something that confused me before, with many fresh ideas and extremely helpful notes to aid me when revisiting the topic before exams.


Why is the tutorial system such a great way to study English?


Oxford’s English course gives you a huge amount of freedom. So long as you’re covering literature within the period restrictions, you can write about any texts with any approach you like. The intimacy of the tutorial system supports this freedom, allowing students to develop their individual perspectives and writing styles. I think this perfectly suits a subject like English, where each reader is different. Having so much contact with my tutors has allowed me to explore perhaps quite unusual and nuanced ideas in the texts that have interested me, such as animals in the Transcendentalist movement, representing traumatic history in the graphic novel MAUS, and Hegelian ideas in Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales. The tutorial system is also what allows the Oxford course to be so broad. It is likely that, together, your tutors will cover the entire scope of English Literature, from its Anglo-Saxon origins to the present day.  Though tutorials may seem intimidating at first, they’re a fantastic way for your tutors to closely monitor your academic development and help you with challenges as soon as they arise. My tutors have been very giving with their time, happy to reschedule a tutorial if I’ve been ill or need an extension on an essay I’ve found very difficult. Together with seminars and lectures, tutorials make Oxford an extremely exciting and academically supportive place to read English.