Applying to Oxford: Earth Sciences

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 Rebecca, who will be studying Earth Sciences at Worcester from this October.

Earth Sciences is a multi-disciplinary subject combining many aspects of the sciences to find out more about our planet. Generally, any science background is useful: it is a requirement to have studied Maths, as well as Physics or Chemistry at A-Level, although it is useful to have done both. Other useful subjects are Further Maths, Biology, Geology and Geography.

There isn’t a vast choice of colleges which offer Earth Sciences: just 7. On the department website, you should be able to find a biography of the different tutors, and their research interests, which might help you to narrow down your college choices. In terms of your chances, college choice doesn’t really affect this, as the selection process is very department led, so even though some colleges have a high applicant/place ratio, your chances of getting into the university as a whole are not diminished by this.

PERSONAL STATEMENT

In your personal statement it’s important to communicate why you want to study Earth Sciences and your passion for the subject. After countless revisions and all your teachers’ opinions, it is easy for it to start to sound like someone else’s work, and it’s important to keep it yours. After all, at interview you want to be able to show your real passion for geology. What inspired you to study geology? Have you seen any impressive real life geology? There is no expectation that you will have studied geology before, but it’s important to show that you do have an interest in geology, and that you have read around the subject. Having said this, reading around the subject and showing your interest does not necessarily have to include reading; it’s perfectly legitimate to talk about a lecture you went to, or a museum exhibition you saw. Try to extend what you have done with a “I saw ……. which prompted me to look into ………. reading ………”, for example, rather than just name-dropping titles of different books. I talked about the subjects I studied, picking out certain aspects of them to elaborate upon. I also spent some time talking about my extra-curricular activities, although mine were mainly academic STEM-related activities, and how they had improved qualities like leadership and teamwork. When writing my personal statement, I found it easier to write each paragraph individually and then move them around so that the whole flowed well. Not having been on any geological field work before, I found it really useful to find a local geology group who ran fieldwork to have a go and see if I would enjoy it.

Luckily, there is no admissions test!

INTERVIEWS

The purpose of the interviews is to see if you would get on well with the Oxford teaching style, that is: would you thrive in a tutorial where you have to defend your ideas? Can you think critically and not take ideas for granted? But it’s also intended to see if you are the sort of person who your tutor wants to teach.

The interviews take place in Oxford during December and the timetable is always published way in advance, so it’s a good idea to make sure you will be around for them. You get to stay in college and get meals and some entertainment though the quality of this varies from college to college!

At interview you will have two interviews, one in a college and one in the Department. For the college interview, it may be at the college you applied for, or you may be moved to another college. If you make an open application, then you will be assigned a college.

I had two interviewers in each interview. The interview at my college was more based on the science and maths which I had studied at A Level. The maths aspect was that I was first had to derive an equation which related to geology with guidance from the tutor and I was then asked to carry out various operations on it, such as integration. I also got asked some chemistry and physics questions. I was also asked a biology question and as I hadn’t studied biology since GCSE this was quite tricky, but it’s OK to say that you don’t know! The most important thing is to keep talking through what you are thinking. This might take some practice, as you might not be used to talking your way through a maths problem (that’s where talking to yourself comes in handy!) so try talking as you do your maths homework, or discussing with your teacher why that chemical process occurs. If you can, try to organise a practice interview: it’s even better if you don’t really know the person, so my school helped me to set up an interview with a teacher from another school in a reciprocal arrangement.

At my second interview I did get given a rock, but it’s not expected that you have any geological knowledge; they just want to see if they think you would be good at geology once they’ve taught you. The second interview had more off the wall questions, but they had context, something which the press doesn’t give when it publishes Oxbridge interview questions.

Before interview, I would advise looking over your personal statement, as well as glancing through any books you mentioned or notes you made at a lecture you went to, just in case they ask. I didn’t really get asked about any of these in my Oxford interviews (I did at Imperial), although I did get asked about my EPQ.

Something I would advise to help prepare is if you can to go to an open day and look around the department and also the college. The college I applied to had an event where you could meet the subject tutors, which I found really useful when it came around to interview, as I had already met some of the interviewers and seen the places where I was going to be interviewed. I had also met some of the student helpers who helped at both the open day and the interviews. All this combined to me feeling much more relaxed when it came to the interviews. Something I found quite hard was going to the JCR or other events at the end of the day, as I thought I was being assessed then too. Looking back this was a bit silly of me, so something I would definitely encourage people to do is not just sit in their room, as I had a bit of a miserable time looking at the same 4 walls for most of my stay!

I also fretted a lot about what to wear, but there was a range of attire worn. I would recommend you to wear something that makes you feel comfortable; I personally preferred to dress quite smartly as it got me into the mind-set, but some people were more casual. Also don’t forget the basics: things like an alarm clock are important, as you don’t want to be late!

If you have any special needs or access arrangements, do declare these on your UCAS form. You will be asked if you need any special arrangements for your interviews. Although quite a lot of back and forth had to take place with a few different people, when I turned up there was indeed coloured paper for us to work on, and no-one tried to hurry me when I was given something to look at. Some things, though, never materialised. You are told to bring work to occupy yourself while waiting for the interview, so I explained that I type my work and need internet access to do this and was assured that there would be internet available but there was none, so that’s something to keep in mind. (Ed: Hmm, that doesn’t sound good! In that case, you should definitely inform the college in question.)

Overall, I would say to enjoy the process: to be applying to Oxford you must love your subject, so let that come through. If you have any questions, feel free to contact me on rebeccalcolquhoun@gmail.com.

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