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 Fern talking about her experience with applying for Biology.
I started Year 12 not being sure what I wanted to do at uni – I enjoyed and did well at a range of subjects. Tactically I chose Chemistry, Biology, English Literature and German for my A levels, after looking up entry requirements for a variety of subjects, so I could keep my options open when it came to deciding what I degree subject I wanted to apply for. Over the course of Year 12 I became interested in life and medical sciences, and was considering the whole spectrum of degrees in that area, including Medicine, Biomedical Sciences, and Biology. By the end of Year 12 I found myself having to make a decision, and ultimately settled on Biological Sciences.
I decided on Biology as I was interested in many different areas of it, including but not limited to animal behaviour, evolution, genetics, and disease, which wouldn’t be covered in more human-focused subjects, such as Biomed. The structure of Biology undergraduate courses also appealed to me, as they generally start very broadly and let you explore lots of different areas, before gradually specialising. I started seriously considering to Oxford after attending an Oxford-Cambridge conference, and a UNIQ open day. I did my A levels at a further education college that doesn’t have much of a history of sending students to Oxbridge, but luckily one of the few former students that was at Oxford was studying Biology. I contacted her about it via one of my teachers, and she seemed to be very happy and enthusiastically recommended the course. My AS grades were good, so I decided to take the plunge and apply to Oxford. I took quite a pragmatic approach to my Oxford application, and decided early on that Oxford would not be the be all and end all, and researched my other uni choices eagerly.
I started application preparation near the end of Year 12. Mainly I just went in the college library and looked for relevant books in the popular science section. I also asked my Biology teacher for suggestions, and had a look at some of the recommended reading lists on the internet for Biology at Oxford and other unis. Some titles that I read and would particularly recommend:
Genome – Matt Ridley
The Selfish Gene – Richard Dawkins
The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee – Jared Diamond
Other titles by these authors, and many other popular science books would be suitable, such as David Attenborough books; I read The Secret Life of Plants, as I didn’t know much about plants, and wanted to brush up in in this area.
Keeping up with science news on major websites, or websites such as New Scientist is also helpful, as well as watching documentaries. I didn’t have subscription access to scientific journals at my college so I didn’t worry too much about reading scientific papers (I now know that there are a number of open access journals, such as PLOS, that I could have read).
The application for Biological Sciences at Oxford is relatively straightforward – there is no admissions test, and you are not required to submit any work to support your application. My personal statement wasn’t particularly exciting, I talked about what I enjoyed about my A levels, and some of the additional reading I had done – I was rejected by Durham on the grounds of a weak personal statement so I can’t comment on its quality! I finished my application fairly late, a couple of days before the deadline, and only really showed my personal statement to my personal tutor. I would recommend starting your personal statement in plenty of time, and showing it to a variety of people.
As there is no test, a high number of applicants are interviewed each year. I didn’t do any specific preparations for my interviews, just carried on with with my ‘supra-curricular’ reading. I did attend a local event ran by Jesus College (the college associated with my local area) about Oxford interviews, that talked about what interviews are like, and what kind of questions might come up. As it was an event catering for all subjects it was quite general, but still helpful.
I was invited to interview at Christ Church, where I originally applied. I tried to keep calm before interviews, and went to explore Oxford, do some Christmas shopping, and just relaxed in my room. The student helpers organized a brief subject meeting for the applications where we discussed what studying Biology was like. Though the other applicants were friendly, there were a little intimidating as they seemed a lot better prepared than me! In general I kept to myself during the day, but did attend the quiz and movie night that were organized in the evenings.
Before my interview at Christ Church I sat outside the interview room and waited, and could faintly hear the candidate currently being interviewed, who again seemed to know a great deal, and kept talking and talking. Then it was my turn – I admit I may have blocked parts of my interview from my memory as it seemed to go so badly, but these are parts I remember – one interviewer took the lead, while the other said less. I was asked about Genome, one of the books I had mentioned, and what I thought the main message of the book was. I don’t know if the wording of the question was odd or my mind just went blank, but eventually she suggested an answer for me after an awkward silence. I then brought up the issue of GMO crops, seeing as it had been prevalent in the media at the time. I made the mistake of arguing from the consumer perspective, and of course was shot down. In the final, and least awful part of the interview, I was shown some interesting and large seeds. I was allowed to examine them, and had to hypothesize how these seeds might spread. Some, such as one with prickles that would stick to animal fur, were self explanatory, whereas others, such as a large flat seed that turned out to float, were not. Even after the relatively less painful last part of the interview, I had pretty much written off the whole thing, and considered my Oxford experience dead on arrival.
Like all applicants I had at least one other interview at a different college, and mine was at St Hilda’s. I went off to the interview feeling weirdly relieved, as I thought I probably wasn’t going to get an offer now, and therefore had nothing left to lose.
After I found my way to St Hilda’s (some colleges will escort applicants to their interviews elsewhere in Oxford, Christ Church did not) I was greeted by a helper at St Hilda’s college, who escorted me to a waiting room and then to my interview. She was a current Biology student there, and said the interviewers were her tutors and that they were very nice, which made me feel more at ease. Again I had two interviewers, and again one lead the conversation while the other said less.
This interview was generally more fun and relaxed, possibly because I was less nervous. I was shown a graph, comparing the numbers of genes in different organisms – humans, fruit flies, etc. I knew that graphs may come up and was dreading them, having not done any maths since my GCSEs. However, this one was pretty simple, and I answered that it looked like gene number does not vary that much between organisms that seem to differ a lot in complexity, which they seemed happy with – they had to double check the graph themselves which made me feel more at ease. When the opportunity to talk about my extra reading came up I decided to take control of the conversation this time, and talked about something discussed in The Third Chimpanzee – how testes size in great apes varies with mating strategy. In hindsight this was a slightly embarrassing choice, but I felt confident talking about it and again the interviewers seemed happy. In this interview there was also a ‘hands on’ section, I was given a piece of dirt with a twig and some moss to examine, and asked to discuss the organisms presented before me. Again feeling confident and wanting to show off what I knew I talked about the micro-organisms that lived in the soil, and the lichen on the wood. The final question of the interview was roughly ‘if you could invent any machine to further biology what would it be?’ after confirming that I could say anything, I thought for a moment and answered ‘a machine that would show us life on other planets’, which may have been silly but they seemed to like.
I felt much better after my second and final interview. I wasn’t sure whether I would get in, but I had hope that St Hilda’s would offer me a place. Before Christmas I received a letter from Christ Church, saying that they were unable to offer me a place…but they were aware that another college was planning on doing so. I wasn’t terribly surprised given the disparity in interview quality, but I was still very relieved and excited when my offer letter from St Hilda’s came a few days later.
That’s not the end of the process of course, I received a reading list from my future tutors (that was completely optional), and I had to reach my offer grades of A* (in Chemistry or Biology) AA. The college also ran a welcome day for offer holders, that unfortunately I could not attend due to snow! I thankfully just got my grades, and began reading Biological Sciences at St Hilda’s College.
After being a student, and particularly after helping out during interviews myself, I gained some additional insights:
- In many ways Oxford interviews are like the tutorials that Oxford students attend. At interviews they are not only examining your aptitude for a subject, but how well you do in that situation, and whether you will do well in the tutorial system. Thankfully no tutorial I did was ever as bad as my first Oxford interview, and as you know what the topics are in advance they are far less daunting!
- While I did not have any preparatory reading for either of my interviews, sometimes reading is set before Biology interviews. If there is, typically you will be sent into a room with just pen and paper, and given a choice between two short journal articles, on different subjects in Biology. You are given a set amount of time to read these and make notes, and will be expected to discuss the article in your interview.
- The amount of ‘relevant experience’ amongst my fellow students varied hugely – some people had volunteered in wildlife sanctuaries during their gap years, others were writing for science websites in whilst in sixth form, while others, like me, had just done Biology A level and were passionate about the subject, had read a few books and attended a few additional events and lectures. If you have done something relevant to Biology, fieldwork or trips etc, definitely mention them in your personal statement and interview, but don’t worry if you haven’t done any of those things, admissions tutors understand that people might not have access to trips to the rainforest, or working in a lab, or that perhaps their particular interest in biology doesn’t lend itself to those types of activities, and it won’t damage your application.
I hope this helped, and please comment below if you have any questions! Don’t forget to share this post if you found it useful (the Facebook and Twitter share buttons are below) and subscribe to the blog for more application tips!