In this post I’m going to tell you the story of how I got accepted to study Physics at Magdalen College, University of Oxford. I will explain all the required parts of the process and tell you how I did in each part: grades, application, personal statement, academic reference, PAT test, interviews. This may help you with your own university applications, especially if you’re considering applying to Oxford.
Okay, so first some history so that you can see where I’m coming from. I got my primary and secondary education from state schools in Slovakia. Two years before graduation (i.e. for years 11 and 12), I got accepted to an International Baccalaureate Diploma program (aka IB) at Gymnazium Jura Hronca. This is the only public school in Slovakia that offers this program free of charge (i.e. government-funded), provided you are ranked at most 24th of all the applicants, which I did. The applicants had to do an exam in maths, English, and Slovak literature and were ranked based on that. I eventually ended up 4th out of about 100, so I got in.
For my IB courses, I took mathematics, physics, computer science and English at higher level (i.e. 5 hours / week) and economics and Slovak literature at standard level (i.e. 3 hours / week). I can’t express enough how those 2 years spent in IB changed my life. I learned so much in all the courses, started doing some volunteering, made this website, started swimming, and met so many interesting people. So, if you’re still considering where to go for your last 2 years of school, I can’t recommend IB enough.
Anyway, after those 2 years when I got my finals results, I learned I achieved 43/45 IB points with 7 (highest mark) in all subjects except Slovak literature and Bs from my Extended Essay and Theory of Knowledge. This was a very good result which meant I met my offer to study Electrical Engineering at Imperial College London (my offer was 38 points with 6 in maths and physics). In general, many UK universities put their offers at around 38 points, but the higher your predicted grade is (mine was 45), the better your chances of getting a conditional offer. For example, the entrance requirement for Physics at Oxford is 39 points but many people who get in achieve more than that. Also, once you have your results, the higher your score, the greater your chances of getting an unconditional offer if you choose to reapply next year (which I did).
Later I have decided that Electrical Engineering wasn’t the right course for me and so I tried to switch to physics at Imperial, but they didn’t have free places, and so I reapplied there for next year. Since I already had to apply through UCAS anyway, why not apply to other universities such as Oxford as well? Since I already had my 43 IB points in hand, I thought it might actually not be that impossible to get in. And that’s how I applied for the 4-year Physics masters course at Magdalen College, Oxford.
Since I didn’t really know if I wanted to apply also for Oxford or just go for Imperial, I almost missed the Oxford application deadline (which is 15 October for Oxbridge unlike 1st January for most other UK universities) and submitted the application an evening before the next day deadline. Also, since I was short on time, I didn’t spend much time choosing a college — I just opened the Norrington Table which lists Oxford colleges by how well they perform in the final exams and chose the first one — Magdalen College. I quickly checked Magdalen’s website, and, looking like a nice college, I finished my Colleges search in about half an hour. I’m not saying this is the best way to choose a college, but as I say, I was short on time, and after actually visiting the college I can say it was really nice and I’m glad I chose it.
3. Personal statement
As part of the application, you have to submit a personal statement, which is a 4000-character long (approximately 1 page long) document where you describe why you want to study the subject you applied for, what experience with the subject you have, what are your interests, why should the university accept you, etc. It is basically a CV / motivation letter which is considered along with the rest of your application. Although most UK universities consider your extracurricular activities such as hobbies, sports, art, etc., Oxford only considers them in relation to your course, i.e. if you’re applying for physics, Oxford will only consider extracurriculars related to physics. However, this is different at different universities, and so if you’re also applying elsewhere (which you should), you should also include non-course related extracurriculars.
For me, as I was again short on time and didn’t really want to spend hours writing so many versions of personal statements as I did last year, I have written my personal statement in 11 days, with total of 22 versions. You should give it a minimum of one week, preferably a month or two if you’re doing your PS, but since I already knew some things which I wanted to include from my last year’s PS, I didn’t spend as much time on it. I submitted it together with the rest of my application on 14 October.
To give you an idea what I wrote, I have written about why I find physics interesting, reflected on my AP Physics 1 and 2 courses which I took during the summer through CTY Online, described a website that I made where I uploaded solutions to interesting physics problems, written about this blog/website where I described some projects I have documented, given some of my exam results (SAT Maths/Physics, CTY Online AP courses in Maths/Physics, olympiads in Maths/CompSci), described my experience of helping to organise the Bratislava Model UN conference as Head of IT, and described some of my hobbies — photography, guitar and reading and how each relates to physics. I also included what I’d like to do after finishing my degree and what would studying physics at a UK university allow me to do. However, as this is a personal statement, you should write about why you want to study physics (or anything else), which will be specific to you.
4. Academic reference
As part of the UCAS application, UK universities require an academic reference from one of your teachers or someone who knows you well and is not family-related. This is to give them an objective idea of what you are like according to someone else, not you. Most people ask their teachers to write the reference for them, but since I was already studying at Imperial (and it would have been awkward for me to ask my personal tutor there to write me a reference for Oxford), I have decided to either let one of my secondary school teachers or my summer program instructors to write it. Since I did 2 physics courses AP Physics 1 and 2 during the summer through the CTY Online program and have really enjoyed them and did very well in them, I have asked my instructor from one of the courses to write the reference for me. She had a PhD in physics and was during some period in the past teaching engineering at University of Pennsylvania, so I thought her reference would be credible to Oxford. After some time when I got to read the reference (only after it was submitted through the UCAS system), it was a really great boost to my confidence and it also supported the rest of my application (for example she has written about me asking good questions about physics, about being hard-working during the course, and described some specific cases to illustrate the points). Therefore, ask someone that knows you academically well to write the reference for you because it will help support your application and its objectivity.
5. PAT test
The next thing on the agenda was the Physics Aptitude Test (aka PAT), which is a maths and physics questions test compulsory to take for all Oxford Physics, Materials, and Engineering applicants. I almost missed the registration deadline for PAT as well — I have emailed one test centre in London administering this test that I’d like to register on 12 October, with the final deadline being 15 October. In order to register I had to submit a registration form within one day, and pay within another day, finally receiving confirmation of registration on 14 October, a day before the deadline. Had I been a bit slower, I might have missed the deadline and not be considered by Oxford at all. (Lesson: register early.)
About the test itself, it is a set of 10 maths (section A) and 10 physics (section B) free response questions to be completed in 2 hours, each section worth total 50 marks. It is a no-calculator, no-formula-sheet test. Based on the results from this test, Oxford eliminates around half of the candidates and the rest get invited for an interview. As you can probably expect by now, I didn’t leave much time for preparation for the PAT (since I had my Imperial coursework to do and I was quite confident with my maths and physics problem solving abilities), and so I spent just about 2 evenings doing 2 or 3 past papers. This was very useful though, since you can see the structure and type of questions that come up, and can revise topics you’re not very sure about. On the actual test day, I felt quite good after finishing my paper, estimating that if I have everything correct I should end up with around 94/100 (I’m pretty sure I didn’t have everything correct though). To get an interview invitation, you generally need 45-55%, so I felt I should probably get one. If you’re curious about the questions, here’s the PAT test that I did in November 2015 (I think I did all questions except #12 and #13), and here’s a page with all the past papers if you’re interested.
After I made it through the PAT test, I got an invitation for interviews at Oxford. If you’re from the EU, it is expected that you’ll attend the interviews in person, and if you’re from overseas, you might get Skype interviews instead. The interview days for me lasted 4 days, from Sunday 12 noon to Wednesday afternoon, with the interviews being spread throughout, and I was accommodated in my college for the duration of the stay. I have been preparing for the interviews during about one week before my trip to Oxford, and during that week I have revised majority of high school physics by going through many of the chapters in the physics textbook that I have used before in my physics course. This meant that I was quite confident with the material before my interviews. I had 2 interviews at my college (Magdalen College) — a maths one and a physics one — and then another one at another college (Jesus College) — maths and physics combined. Each lasted for about half an hour and in each one there were two people interviewing me — usually one asking a question and the other one writing down notes on how I did on that question.
First I had a physics interview, where I got asked about 5 questions in succession during half an hour, and I had to explain my thinking process on solving each question. They were mostly questions on different areas of physics, and one was based on my interests from my personal statement. I think I did quite well in this one, having answered all the questions except the last one because we ran out of time (and because it was hard). The second interview was a maths interview on the same day, also about half an hour, where I got asked I think 3 maths questions (one on differentiation and 2 on geometry), with the third one taking up most of the time. Again, it wouldn’t be terrible if I didn’t solve the last question (I did just in time), since they want to see how you approach it rather than to see the final answer. I think I did quite well in this interview as well, being contented with answers to all 3 questions. The last interview was a maths+physics interview at Jesus College the next day, where I got mixed maths and physics questions. This one was the hardest one, since I wasn’t able to answer one or two questions correctly because of stupid mistakes and not having studied just the area of physics they asked me about. However, it probably wasn’t a disaster since I still got an offer. The way this works is that you get a mark from each interview and each of those 3 interviews carries the same weight in your application, so I think having done quite well in the first 2 interviews at my college made up for the third one.
Note: To tell you more specifically about my interview experience in Oxford, I’m planning to do a separate post just on my interviews and go over the exact questions that I got asked during them. Stay tuned!
So, here’s a long story short of how I got into Oxford for Physics. I hope this post has been useful to you, especially to those of you considering applying to Oxford or elsewhere, whether for physics or for a different course, and I hope that you have enjoyed the read! If you have any questions about the application process or anything else mentioned here, feel free to comment below or write me an email and I’ll try to get to you. Good luck with your applications!