Applying to Oxford: Experimental Psychology

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 guest poster is Eleanor talking about her experience with applying for Psychology.

By the end of a degree in Experimental Psychology course, you will have a broad grounding in the major research areas of Psychology, fulfilling the requirements for BPS accreditation, and will have the opportunity to pursue study in more specialist areas of interest, alongside preparation to carry out your own research.


This is where you demonstrate your interest in Psychology: try to pin down what it is about studying the mind that interests you. Often, this can seem quite a daunting thing to do in the small character limit of a personal statement. I would advise you to include the following:

  • A critical evaluation of one or two books/psychological phenomena/research studies: rather than a reading list, tutors want to see that you have a genuine interest in and engagement with Psychology – I would recommend reading and researching as broadly as you can (a general Psychology textbook, which can often be found in local libraries, might be useful here) and then focusing on the area(s) of Psychology that you are most interested in; think about how generalisable the findings of studies are and whether there are methodological limitations, like a small sample size, when critically evaluating the material you’ve included
  • Reference to examples of psychological phenomena that you have observed in your everyday life, with links to topics that you’ve studied or books that you’ve read: I discussed witnessing someone faint on a bus and linked this to a study examining bystander apathy and helping behaviour (Piliavin, Rodin and Piliavin, 1965 if you’re interested)
  • Discussion of any experience related to Psychology: I mentioned volunteering at a school for children with Special Educational Needs and how this gave me a deeper understanding of autism than I would have gained from books – additionally, something like teaching can be linked to Developmental Psychology and even working in retail can be linked to consumer behaviour but don’t create a link if there really isn’t one.

THE Thinking Skills Assessment (TSA)

The TSA has two main sections: the first looks at your problem-solving and critical thinking abilities in a multiple-choice section and the second looks at your ability to argue for a position clearly and concisely in a short written exercise.

You can ask your school or college to register you for the TSA; if you are not currently attending school or college, you will need to find a registered test centre and ask them to register you. The test usually takes place in early November.

The multiple-choice component is a test of fluid intelligence and not of any particular learned skills or facts. I found it useful to familiarise myself with the format of previous tests from the TSA website and used a book on critical thinking to develop strategies for solving the problems on the test, but did not do any other preparation. Do not be disheartened if you find the tests very hard: the average score is around 60 (out of 100) and the scores will be reviewed as part of your overall profile – there is no one score which will gain you an interview.

The written component is looking at whether you can argue coherently for your position and back up your argument with evidence. It is not marked but is sent to the tutors at the college you’ve applied to/been allocated to. Mine was not mentioned at interview, but it is worth making a note of the main arguments you put forth immediately after the test in case it is discussed. The topics for the exercise are a choice of 5, usually related to current affairs – so the most useful preparation is to keep up to date with the news and current affairs.


You will typically have one interview at two different colleges – the college you applied to/were allocated to and a second college.

The format and questions will vary depending on the tutor who is interviewing you. Some of the questions will pertain to their own area of research: the tutor in my first interview was a social Psychologist, so the questions he asked were related to social psychological research. It might be worth looking up the specialisms of the tutors in Psychology at the college you will be interviewed at (a Google search of the name of college and ‘Psychology tutors’ should do it) to prepare yourself – however, this will not help you prepare for your second interview, as you will not know the college until the day before so rather than getting too caught up researching niche areas of Psychology, it is most helpful to have a broad awareness of the main areas of research in Psychology, which reading a general Psychology textbook will help with, and being prepared to critically evaluate a study and ‘think on your feet’.

Some common questions worth preparing for in advance are:

  • Why Psychology/why Oxford?: usually a standard question to help settle you down.
  • How would you conduct an experiment to determine X?: I was asked how to test if a drug was effective
  • What would you expect the results of X experiment to be?: I was asked what I might expect the results of an observational study examining when Olympic athletes smiled the most after winning a medal, then given the actual results and asked to explain them.
  • What are these graphs showing?: I was asked to interpret what normally-distributed and Poisson-distributed data were showing.
  • Discussion of anything you mention on your personal statement/TSA writing section: I discussed the helping behaviour study that I mentioned in my personal statement.

I prepared for my interview by going over my personal statement; reading my own summaries of the books I had mentioned in it and doing a practice interview with my Psychology teacher, which was a great ‘dress rehearsal’ and helped me be less nervous for the real thing. My teacher’s questioning style was actually much more demanding than my actual interviews – I got the sense that the tutors wanted me to do well and were happy to give me pointers and feedback on my answers as we went along. The interviews really stretched me and pushed me to think in new and more sophisticated ways.

Interviews are truly not a test or a way for tutors to massage their egos by humiliating you – they are a way for the tutors to see if you would be suited to the Oxford tutorial system and the demands of the course. There are no wrong answers, so just keep an open mind and make sure to ‘think aloud’ and fully elaborate your answers so the tutors can get an idea of your thought processes and how you work.

I think that’s everything! I hope that this was helpful – if you have questions, please don’t hesitate to email me at eleanorcgale[at] and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.


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