If you are thinking of studying Physics at Oxbridge, firstly congratulations on making such a bold and fantastic choice. Physics as Oxbridge is both an exciting and daunting prospect. Its hard work but the rewards are tremendous.
To reach your goal however youll have to pass over certain hurdles designed to see if you are the correct fit for the sort of education on offer. Firstly, your personal statement, but dont spend excessive amounts of time on this. Get it done and get it sent off. Ill come back to this later.
The physics aptitude test is a scarier prospect but it really shouldnt be. It is used to make sure you have the basic knowledge and way of thinking required to allow you to be moulded in to an Oxbridge student. The physics aptitude test is aimed at a level which is a small step ahead of what you may be studying at A Level, but is designed so that it doesnt require much pre-existing knowledge. It will cover both maths and physics. The aim of the test is to use very basic GCSE level knowledge and get you to solve complex and, dare I say it, odd problems using this grounding, building up solutions from first principles. So theres no point in, whilst preparing for the aptitude test, spending hours and hours swotting up on stuff you havent quite covered yet in class but your friends have as this sort of knowledge isnt what they are testing for. Know your basic stuff, dont be scared of numbers and strange situations, relax and work towards an answer that seems credible.
If all goes well, youll get a call up to interviews in mid-December.
When I arrived, the head tutor at the college brought all interviewees into a large room and gave us a quick talk about what he expected from us over the course of the interviews and what we should expect. Ive since spoken to him about the interview process and he assures me that everything he said was truthful so its definitely worth noting:
They are looking for people that they can teach. Not natural geniuses who will ignore and try to bypass there teaching methods. So be receptive in the interviews, listen and learn. Prove you can be a student. One method to help you get this across is to pretend that you have reached your limit when you havent quite yet. By doing this, by becoming stuck, the tutor will invariably go into teach mode to see if you can quickly pick up what he is saying. If you have already studied what he is teaching you and you can pull out a bit acting, you can ace this part of the interview. For me it was integration and differentiation of exponentials and how they related to sinh and sin functions. Very basic but enough to plant the seed that I am a quick learner.
They havent read through your personal statement. They couldnt care if youve read this book or been to this laboratory or worked in a charity shop for ten years. All that they care about is the Physics. So whilst having a solid personal statement is important, dont put too much weight on it. Get it done, say the important things but dont dwell.
They will push you over the course of the interview to the point that you dont know the answer. My professor regularly says that he has had students who are taken to their limits, cant get any further, panic and breakdown. He also said that not one of these students are ever made an offer. The point of an interview is to be testing and youre definitely not the best at Physics in the room. They want to see how you deal being pushed out of your comfort zone. So stay relaxed and talk openly about the problem. Say what youre thinking so that they can work out if you are on the right track. They want you to get to the right solution as much as you do, so they will guide you to the end if needed. Once again, this is them teaching you. So listen and act on what they say!
They expect you to study Physics, Maths and Further Maths to A Level. I imagine you probably know this already, but one girl at my interview didnt, unsurprisingly went into panic mode and didnt get herself an offer.
They dont ask trick questions. At school I was told horror stories that they would be setting you up for
a fail constantly, asking questions with false-bottom floors waiting for you to trip up. This was simply
not the case. Everything I was asked very much had a grounding in AS level and GCSE Maths and Physics
and was just taken conceptually to a new level.
They dont care about family ties to a college or which school you are from. So dont mention it. It comes across as pretentious.
They dont care what you wear, so be comfortable. I used to turn up to tutorials in football kit with mud on my face. First impressions do count, so I definitely wouldnt recommend this at interviews, but they are just normal people. Wear jeans and a t-shirt if it will help you relax and get the offer. The interviewers dont judge your fashion sense!
Relax. Realistically you have nothing to lose. My phone went off in my first interview. It was horrendous. Up to that point Id been nervous and making silly mistakes. After my phone started vibrating and I was advised to switch it off, I decided that Id blown it and all the nerves disappeared. I realised I had nothing to lose. My professor in later years, very much enjoyed telling this story, which always ended with, Before your phone went off, you werent going to be offered a place. You were a mess and were scared. Once you decided that you had no chance, you relaxed and instantly I saw the potential in you. Having said this, you should definitely switch your phone off! I think I got pretty lucky.
I had three interview over two days, the first two at the college that I had applied to. One of these was a maths based interview, one a physics one. My final interview was at a separate college, was a mixture of maths and physics questions and it was used to check that the conclusions from the first two interviews are correct.
If all goes well, you will receive a letter over the Christmas holidays. Its a great Christmas present!
So if you are thinking of studying Physics and this process doesnt seem to intimidating, apply! Best of luck!