Applying to Oxford: Physics

Hello, and welcome to our new guest series on the blog: applying to Oxford for various subjects. There will be a guest contributor every day writing about their personal experience of applying to Oxford for their own subject.

Today’s post is written by Ellie, who is in her second year studying Physics at Balliol College.

Applying to Oxford is often confusing and sometimes intimidating , so here is a brief outline of the idiosyncrasies of applying for Physics at Oxford, and advice on how to best prepare for it.


The personal statement is your opportunity to demonstrate how interested you are in physics in your university application. I initially found my personal statement difficult to write, unsure how to convert my love of physics, a subject based in mathematics, into words. In the end, I tried to keep it as simple as possible, focusing on specific topics within physics I enjoyed rather than trying to explain why the entire subject appealed to me. I began with a few introductory sentences, then went on to talk about the topics within the A-Level course I enjoyed the most and why. It’s also important to demonstrate your love of the subject outside of school so I went on to discuss a couple of books and magazine articles and highlighted the parts that had interested me the most. I concluded by talking about experiments I had found exciting and interesting on a tour around the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge. Going into detail in this way shows a genuine understanding and interest in physics; it’s far better to talk in depth about one or two books than to list the titles of six. It’s also preferable to keep the contents almost completely academic; I dedicated only three or four lines to extracurricular activities at the very end of my personal statement.

Don’t worry yourself too much about your personal statement; I wasn’t asked about it in any of my three interviews at Oxford (although this wasn’t true of interviews at other universities). In general, the tutors are going to be far more interested in your PAT score and your performance in the interviews, so try not to get too stressed about making your personal statement perfect.


The PAT is taken in early November and is used by Oxford to get an additional measure of a candidate’s ability in both Physics and Mathematics. It is divided into a pure maths section and a physics section, each allotted 50 marks. A syllabus is given for both sections on the Physics department’s website; most of the topics are standard for all A-Level or equivalent courses, but give it a quick check through to make sure you’ve covered everything and understand it all. However, whilst the PAT syllabus is similar to the A-Level, the style of question is significantly different and it is this that makes the paper challenging. Instead of guiding you step-by-step through the question, the PAT requires you to think more independently and work out how to use the information given in the question yourself.

The best preparation for the PAT is to do past papers. There are plenty available on the Physics department’s website, although they only give answers to one sample paper so it’s worth getting a helpful teacher to go through the solutions with you if at all possible. Also bear in mind that the format for the physics section changed in 2015; there is now a series of shorter questions instead of a combination of multiple choice and longer questions. Don’t worry if your first couple of attempts go badly: there is a definite technique to the PAT which you’ll develop as you do past papers. I also found doing questions from Physics Olympiad past papers to be good preparation, especially when I wanted to save up PAT papers for closer to the date to the exam. The syllabus they cover is slightly different to the PAT and I found the standard of the questions to be harder, but they encourage the style of thinking that is useful for both the PAT and the interviews as well as containing lots of interesting problems.


I found my Oxford interviews to be both the most nerve wracking and most enjoyable part of the university application experience, as I think many do. Although it was a very pressured situation, it was great to experience something similar to an Oxford tutorial and I enjoyed the intellectual challenge. I applied to Balliol and was given two interviews there, as well as a third at St Hilda’s. All three followed the same format: the first of the two tutors in the interview asked me some questions on maths whilst the other remained quiet, then they switched roles and the second tutor asked me questions on physics. The tutors helped guide me through the problems whenever I got stuck, and didn’t expect me to be immediately familiar with the all topics we were discussing. For example, in my first interview I was asked about partial differentiation, a topic not on the A-Level syllabus and something I knew very little about. The tutor explained the basic principles to me and then I used these to answer his questions.

As with the PAT test, the best way to prepare for interviews is to practise. Continue answering as many practice questions as you can and see if it’s possible to arrange a practice interview or two with a teacher. Get used to explaining your thought process out loud as you answer questions. This feels very strange and unnatural at first but it allows the tutors to see how you go about approaching problems and turns the interview into much more of a dialogue between you and them. In the interview itself, remember that taking some time to pause and think is okay. The tutors will not expect you to be able to answer all their questions instantly. Try not to panic if you’re asked a question on a subject you are not familiar with; the tutors will be using this question to see how you process new information. Finally, don’t worry if you are asked a question you can’t answer. The tutors will build up the level of difficulty throughout the interview until the questions become very difficult and at this point they are more interested in the way you go about solving the problem rather than your actual answer.

I hope you found this article helpful and I wish you the best of luck in your university applications! Please feel free to get in touch via the social media links below if you have any questions:

Instagram: @ellie.cook

Twitter: @EllieMCook



One thought on “Applying to Oxford: Physics

  1. aakashl says:

    Great post! I actually applied to the 2017 Fall Semester MPhys4 at Balliol College, too. I was just wondering if you could talk a little bit about that college and how studying physics is there?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s