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 Zachary, who studied Biochemistry.
In a lot of ways, applying for Biochemistry is one of the simpler processes that the Oxford admissions system has to offer. We – for I, too, was once an applicant – don’t have to sit aptitude tests, and since there isn’t an A level in Biochemistry, having a bad teacher doesn’t quite cripple our understanding of the subject.
But there are negative consequences to the simplicity of the process. Not having a special test or being able to ask your teachers for as much help means that what you do have to do – writing a personal statement and surviving the interviews – is that much more important.
Before we even get to the personal statement, let alone the interview, there’s something you have to do first. You might not live near a library, but there is one thing that you probably do have: a device with internet access. Kids at private schools might have shelves stacked with biochemical encyclopaedias, but I’ll let you in on a secret. Everything in those textbooks is also on Wikipedia.
If you’re interested in how respiration works – and I mean really works – then look it up. If you don’t understand how DNA can unzip, the internet is there for you. Seriously. Spending a productive thirty minutes learning about something you’re interested in (whether cell division, HIV or how chlorophyll works) is by far a better use of that time than staring at your textbook again, hoping that the facts are going to sink in.
What’s more, when you look at these things, hopefully you’ll be drawn to other areas. I managed to catch the ‘flu in the year I applied, and so I spent a bed-ridden afternoon reading about what the influenza virus looked like. When I didn’t understand some words, I carried on Googling until I thought I did. Before I knew it, I was looking at different families of antibiotics, reading about how they work and how bacterial resistance develops.
Remember too that Biochemistry is an experimental science. Every fact that you read about was at some point discovered by someone in a lab. Try to find out how they did it: it will help you understand what you’re learning, and also help you know more about the scientific process – what principles lab techniques work on, and why they work.
This stuff is all useful. It might not seem like it, but it fills in holes that you wouldn’t have even realised were there. I’ll explain later, when we get to the personal statement and interviews bit.
Moving on to the personal statement, it’s important to recognise what tutors do and don’t expect. The first thing they expect is to read is something that has been written by someone who does not have a degree. In that sense, it’s necessary to be realistic.
On one level, that means don’t put down that you read articles from Cell or Nature. You don’t. And even if you do, you probably don’t fully understand them. Trust me on that one. I have a degree from the place that you’re applying to, and even I have absolutely no idea what goes on in some of those pages.
On another level, do write about why you’re interested in Biochemistry. The tutors know that the field doesn’t get as much press as Medicine, and it’s not taught in schools like other subjects. Everyone who wants to apply for Biochemistry has a reason why they want to do it, and a story about how they got interested. Tell that story.
Next, show what you’ve done to prove that you are interested. Here’s where the reading comes in. Did you go to the local library and take out some books? Did you look things up on the internet? If so, then what did you read about? What did you learn? I mentioned in my personal statement that I found out about beta-lactam rings – a type of antibiotic I ended up looking at when I was ill – and that I thought it was a really interesting intersection between chemistry and biology, as well as showing how large scale biological processes such as disease can be understood in terms of tiny chemical reactions.
On that note, it’s important to steer away from cliches. Remember that these tutors could look at folders stuffed with personal statements, and might only bring a few through to interview. Yours has to reflect why you want to study there, and also has to stand out. Your first word wasn’t “enzyme”, and while Richard Dawkins is a great writer, you probably won’t be the only one to have read The Selfish Gene. The better item to include would be what you decided to read after you finished The Selfish Gene.
The next stage is the interview. While there’s a lot of mythology about these interviews, luckily very little of it relates to science degrees. Being asked to juggle while reciting the Sumerian alphabet backwards sounds ridiculous even for a Classics interview. But for Biochemistry? Not a chance.
Here’s what happened to me. I was brought to a room, where I sat outside for a few minutes. Eventually, I was called in, asked a few questions and had a bit of a conversation with the professors. After 20-30 minutes, I left.
The questions themselves varied. But one thing they all had in common was that it wasn’t about the answer. It was about how you got to the answer in the first place. Thinking out loud is good practice here, as sounding out your answers is how they know what is going on in your head.
One question that I was asked was “What do you think the role of heat is in biochemistry?” For something like this, there isn’t an obvious right or wrong answer – heat is used in different ways at different times by different organisms. But by explaining what I was thinking – that heat is often a waste product, and I could think of numerous examples where a chemical reaction happened to produce heat as a side-effect – the tutors had a better understanding of my thought processes. More than that, it was also an opportunity to show off how much I had read. If there is something that you’ve bumped into that has similarities to what you’ve been asked about, then bring it up. Ask if they are similar. If they ask why, explain your thoughts.
Finally, they’ll ask you if you have any questions for them. This is not a time to ask them questions about their research. It’s tempting, but the best case scenario is you’ll get an answer along the lines of “Yes, the gamma-elodase precursors are interfacing well with the hydroxytelalam rings we synthesised, what are your thoughts?” If that happens, what are you supposed to say? In case you’re wondering, I just made those words up. But that gives you an idea of how pointless it is to ask about what they do in the lab.
I’ll say it again: the interview is not about answering the questions. It’s about your mind and character. Four years is a long time to be stuck doing something you aren’t keen on. They need to know not only that you can do the degree, but that you are really willing to push yourself as far as you can.
However, just because the interview isn’t about getting the answer right doesn’t mean that you can’t prepare for it. Practice interviews are extremely useful. Not for rehearsing answers – although being able to say succinctly why you want to study Biochemistry is never not going to be useful – but to get in the practice of thinking these questions through.
Ask yourself – if you had to, say, prove that DNA carries genetic material, how would you do it? Better still, find someone willing to sit with you for an hour or so, and ask them to ask you these questions. Another way to help is to get them to ask you questions about your personal statement. Ask them to pick up on specific phrases, or to ask you about topics you’ve mentioned. If you’re floundering, then go away and do some more research. If not, then you’re well on your way.
The simplest advice is just to be yourself. If you really are fascinated by Biochemistry – whether that means you spend your spare time doodling glucose molecules or you think that bacteria are the coolest things since sliced bread – then that will shine through. And if you aren’t that keen, then the degree probably isn’t for you. But if you think it is, don’t let anything put you off. At the end of the day, it’s a pretty fun way to spend four years.
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!