Getting into Oxford: 5 things students wish they'd known before applying to Oxford

Useful tips about University of Oxford undergraduate admission process

Posted by Khachik Gevorgyan on Jan 03, 2018

University of Oxford is one of the world's renowned institutions, and the dream of many ambitious students. Admission is highly competitive, so talent and passion for your field of study are a must. In a sense, your application to Oxford begins well in advance of the admissions process itself: you'll need to acquire substantial knowledge about your subject, and develop your ability for independent thinking. Dedication is key; hopefully, in a year's time, you'll find yourself at the gates of the university.

University of Oxford undergraduate entrance requirements

· A-levels: AAA
· Advanced Highers: AA
· IB: a total score of at least 39 points including core points, with 7-6-6 in subjects taken at HL
· Or equivalent (see www.ox.ac.uk/intquals)

Applying to Oxford undergraduate as a mature student

For students from many countries ordinary Secondary School Leaving Certificate would not be sufficient to make a competitive application, but your first year of a bachelor's degree from another university (like Yerevan State University, etc.) could be an acceptable alternative. You will need to contact the central admissions team for further guidance, on study@ox.ac.uk, they will be able to clarify for you.

Oxford does accept applications from students who are currently studying at another university. Your full academic record would be taken into account in your application, including your high school qualifications and study at university level, so they would need evidence of your performance on your university course. The Admissions department would expect you to be performing at a high 2.1 or first class level (a US GPA of 3.6-4.0). If possible, your reference should come from one of the academic staff at your current university.

Applicants for a second undergraduate degree must apply in the same way as other applicants, by following the steps outlined at https://www.ox.ac.uk/admissions/undergraduate/applying-to-oxford?wssl=1. You must submit your UCAS application by 6pm (UK time) on 15 October. You should have (or be expecting) a high 2.1 or first class degree or equivalent.

You should ensure that your UCAS personal statement includes an account of your academic work at university as well as at school, and the UCAS reference should be written by someone who is familiar with your academic performance in your degree. Second undergraduate degree applicants should also send a transcript of their degree to the college considering their application by 10 November. Applicants for PPE are also required to sit the Thinking Skills Assessment (TSA) exam as part of the application process - please see http://www.admissionstestingservice.org/for-test-takers/thinking-skills-assessment/tsa-oxford/about-tsa-oxford/ for more information.

Graduate applicants are required to fulfil the same entrance requirements, and are considered in open competition with first-degree applicants. More recent academic achievements will carry more weight than qualifications achieved at school, although a strong academic profile will generally be expected throughout. You can find more details about applying for second undergraduate degrees on www.ox.ac.uk/sud. For more information about PPE at Oxford and the application process for this course, please see https://www.ox.ac.uk/admissions/undergraduate/courses-listing/philosophy-politics-and-economics?wssl=1.

University of Oxford undergraduate subject choices

Applying for PPE - Politics, Philosophy and Economics Undergraduate studies

You may apply for PPE having done any combination of subjects at school; it is not necessary to have studied Politics, Philosophy or Economics. History and Mathematics are useful backgrounds, but are not essential. Although a background in Mathematics is not formally required for admission, PPE applicants should have sufficient aptitude for mathematics to cope with the mathematical elements of the course. Mathematics is a particular advantage for the Economics component of PPE, as well as for the first year logic course in Philosophy, and for understanding theories and data in Politics; it is useful to have learnt the basics of differentiation before starting PPE.

Many successful applicants have studied Maths to at least AS-Level or equivalent. Therefore you may like to consider taking Maths to AS-Level, or an equivalent qualification such as IB Standard Level, even if you do not pursue it further.

My experience as an undergraduate applicant to the University of Oxford

When I decided to apply to Magdalen College, Oxford for PPE, an older friend of mine told me to reconsider applying to an ‘easier’ college. I thought this was absolutely the wrong thing for him to suggest; firstly, because the interviewers here are so careful to pool applicants who are Oxford quality, and secondly, because if you want to be somewhere, why not try to get there? I think the most important part of Magdalen to me is the community: the undergraduates, the graduates, the tutors and Fellows. They’re the people I see every day in an invariably friendly atmosphere, who make the effort to discuss their ideas and listen to yours too, who lend you their lecture notes the day you wake up late, who seem to be interested in everyone and everything. I don’t think there’s ever been an instance I’ve not been able to find someone interested in projects I was carrying out, or knowledgeable and helpful enough to help me with something I was stuck on. It’s feeling like being a participant in the College’s life that makes this place feel so much like home.

To make things super easy, I have broken down the process into five, simple steps. Whether you choose to tackle one step an hour or one a day is up to you – the important thing is to not rush, but work at the pace that feels right for you.

  1. UCAS application - Submit by 15 October in the year before your course begins at www.ucas.com.
  2. Tests - For most courses, you need to register to take a test as part of your application.
  3. Written work - For many courses, you need to send in written work as part of your application.
  4. Interviews - If you are shortlisted, you will be invited to interview in December.
  5. Decisions - Candidates who have been interviewed will be told whether or not their application has been successful on 10 January 2018.

1. UCAS Application and the Personal Statement

Submitted with your UCAS paperwork, the personal statement is extremely important because it’s one of the first things admissions tutors will judge you on. It can also be one of the hardest things to get started with. If you want to study at Oxford, you need to apply a year before the start date of your course by completing an online UCAS application form at www.ucas.com. Applications open in early September and there is a strict deadline of 6pm (UK time) on 15 October. Your application must be complete - including the reference - and submitted before the deadline. Late applications cannot be accepted.

Completing a UCAS application for Oxford follows the same process as for other universities, it just has an earlier deadline for completing the application. It can take a few days at least to complete your form so make sure you leave yourself enough time to get everything together.

Personal Statement: What Should I Show to Oxford?

Be Passionate!

Demonstrating a genuine enthusiasm for your subject is an absolute must. This means more than just a perfect attendance record – to truly impress you’ll need an in depth and up-to-date knowledge of your topic that goes beyond just what you’ve learned in class. One way to gain some serious points in your favour is to reference a recent development in your field, or mention a brand new study, article or book you’ve read that’s pertinent to your course.

Using your personal statement to show off your knowledge achieves two things: firstly it proves that you’re passionate and knowledgeable about your subject, and secondly, it shows you’re capable of independent study.

There's a phrase used a lot for Oxbridge applications, ‘demonstrable passion’, which is usually misinterpreted. You don't need to have trekked up the Amazon to track down a rare tree frog in order to study biology, but you do need to explain confidently why you want to study your subject, that you know what it involves, and that you've spent time of your own learning more about it. A lot of the material in the Oxbridge course you're going to have to teach yourself, so if you can show that doesn't scare you it’s a real bonus. This is one of the main differences between Oxbridge and other universities, so showing a proven ability to learn independently will go a long way.

Follow some rules

You’ll need to know exactly what you want to study before you start writing your personal statement; you won’t get very far with it if you don’t know this, as the whole thing should be geared towards why you want to study that particular course. I don’t recommend trying to apply for two or more very different courses in the same application; only choose different courses if they are very similar, because otherwise you risk your personal statement looking indecisive and disorganised (unless you’re applying for a Joint Honours degree, of course; more on that later). Before you begin writing your personal statement, there are a few rules to bear in mind:

– Word count – you have 4,000 characters or 47 lines of text to work with.
– No copying – UCAS has detectors that can tell if you’ve copied a personal statement from somewhere else, and the consequences of getting caught doing this are likely to be severe.
– No names – don’t mention any specific universities or courses, as the same personal statement will be sent off to all five of your choices.

If you’re reading this article because you’re in the process of writing a covering letter, slightly different ‘rules’ apply (though these are more guidelines):

– Tailor your covering letter to the role you’re applying for. Sending the same generic letter for multiple jobs won’t cut it.
– Keep the job advert beside you while you write your covering letter, and touch on how all the points in the ‘essential’ and ‘desirable’ traits they’re looking for apply to you.
– Keep it concise – don’t ramble on for page after page, as recruiters won’t have time to read it all. One or at most two pages is more than enough

 What does my Personal Statement need to include?

  • Interest in PPE! - You must show that you are genuinely interested in spending 3 years of your life studying politics, philosophy and economics. Include comment on all three in your statement.

  • Personal Drive - You must show that you can motivate yourself. Many people do this with an example where they show personal drive and determination to get something started/improved, where they have to set a big goal and achieved it. You also need to make it clear that you enjoy pushing yourself - and the sense of achievement it brings.

  • Intellectual ability - Your UCAS form will mention your grades. Most applicants will be applying to Oxford with good GCSE's (an A average), high AS-Levels (AABB or better) and excellent predicted A-levels (AAA or better). Your UCAS form is a chance to show that despite similar grades to all the other applicants you've got that little bit extra that will make you more interesting to teach than the hundreds of other very well qualified people applying, or that you will benefit more from the tutorial system at Oxford.

  • If you want to mention your extra-curricular activities, make them relevant. Yes, playing violin at Grade 8 level is terrific but it doesn't tell an Admissions tutor anything about your suitability for PPE or Oxford. Anything you do mention must have obvious relevance that you then need to draw out. What has volunteer work at an Aged Care Home taught you about social policy towards the elderly? If you represent your school at Football, how has that developed your leadership skills?

  • Anything that looks like showing off should be avoided. Do not hint at what your parents do for a living, or your family connections. 'I shadowed an MP for a week and this allowed me to...' reads far better than name-dropping.

How do I set out my Personal Statement? 

There is no right way of setting out a personal statement. One suggestion is something similar to the following

  • Paragraph 1: A general introduction on why you want to study PPE

  • Paragraph 2-4: A few sentences for each explaining why you want to study Politics, Philosophy and Economics respectively. Try to include some specifics such as books that you've read, activities that have contributed to your interest (internships, travels, competitions).

The above should cover about 2/3 of your personal statement

  • Paragraph 5-6: One or two paragraphs covering your extracurricular activities - make sure you include any links between these activities and PPE. If there aren't any, don't mention them.

  • Paragraph 7: A final summary saying why you want to apply, and what you hope to achieve, as well as how you believe you are suited to the course

2. On the TSA (Thinking Skills Assessment)

The Thinking Skills Assessment is a two-hour test involving multiple-choice reasoning questions and an essay. Candidates may access their test results from the Admissions Testing Service website.

 It is designed to help tutors assess whether candidates have the skills and aptitudes needed to study the following courses:

  • Economics and Management

  • Experimental Psychology

  • Geography

  • Human Sciences

  • Philosophy and Linguistics

  • Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE)

  • Psychology and Linguistics

  • Psychology and Philosophy.

Why does Oxford use the TSA?

Every year, thousands of extremely able students apply to Oxford. Almost all of these students will have perfect or near perfect exam results, well-drafted personal statements and excellent references. As a result, it is exceedingly difficult for tutors to identify which of these students are the most able. The TSA was designed with the aim of providing an objective way to differentiate between these students – in effect, it ranks students according to the quality of their thinking skills. In the same way that A-Levels separate out all sixth-form students on a scale of U to A*, the TSA Oxford separates out applicants on a scale of 0-100. However, the vast majority of applicants score in the 50-80 range.

Oxford argues that the TSA is fair for two reasons. Firstly, it allows all applicants to be directly compared. A-levels and GCSEs do not perform this function because students take different subjects with different examination boards. Secondly, the TSA assesses skills rather than knowledge and it is argued that this approach is fairer. This conclusion is drawn because of the false belief that knowledge can be taught but that skills cannot. Therefore, the admissions officers argue that the TSA is fair because your educational background should not matter.

However, skills are not simply determined by your natural ability, they can be improved through practice and training. I am certain that a good education indirectly trains and improves thinking skills. In my view, you can, and should, train for the TSA Oxford.

3. Additional Written Work to proove your expertise and professionalism 

Most courses require you to submit a strong sample of relevant, original academic writing that pertains to the subject you wish to study. Luckily, there’s a word limit of 2,000 so you don’t need to write a novel. The best thing to do is to look through your past school papers and submit the ones you are most proud of.

What is written work?

If the course you are applying for requires written work please send a work that demonstrates your analytical, reasoning, language and writing skills, as appropriate for your chosen degree course.

The written work may well form a springboard for discussion at your interview should you be shortlisted, so make sure to keep a copy for your own reference.

4. The Interview with the representative of the University of Oxford

If you get a good score (for my year, it was 60.05 and above. They grade on a scale. Don’t be alarmed by a 70 – that’s very good! (I got 68.1!) – have a good reference (and grades), and write a good personal statement; you may be shortlisted for interview! Somewhere between half to a third of applicants are interviewed. People who apply for Medicine have to be in Oxford for this – the rest can choose to be interviewed via Skype (find the best connection you can!). There should be no material disadvantage of your chances if you opt for this.

The interviews are held in December over a span of two to six days. The college that you choose, or are allocated to, will interview you at a certain time and date. After that, keep checking the notification board or your email for invitations to other interviews. You may be interviewed by two or more colleges, though your original college has first dibs. I was only interviewed by one college myself.

Preperation for interviews

The best preparation for interviews is to read your personal statement and any written work you submitted, practice voicing, your train of thought and argument in a clear way, and basically read about your subject (as you should have been doing all this while). The interviewers look for teachability, passion, and organised thinking. They are not going to quiz you on facts, though you are expected to have at least some degree of general knowledge where your course is concerned. Some people participate in mock interviews. Do that, if you think it will make you feel better. Don’t, if you think the thought will distract you during your actual interview. You don’t have to. I didn’t. (Note: Admissions tutors advise against coaching.)

The interview is purely academic – they don’t judge you based on your background or clothes or accent (though please speak clearly!). They may ask you about your personal statement, a hypothetical scenario, or current affairs. The questions are not meant to stump you completely, but should be unfamiliar enough to show your critical thinking skills rather than memorising skills. Interviews are often said to be like mini-tutorials – you may find that answers need a moment or two of deep thought, and your interviewer will often guide you through that process. It isn’t about the answer – sometimes the question doesn’t even have a right or wrong answer – it’s about how you reach it. They’re generally friendly and want you to be at your ease so that panic doesn’t affect your performance.

My interview

My interview was held over Skype. They usually want you to be in your college or school when interviewed, so that college staff can make sure you are uninterrupted – sometimes the interviewers may ask you to show them the room to prove you are alone. I was in Yerevan, on holiday. The line was a bit shaky, so after introducing themselves they switched off their video and just watched mine.

I was interviewed by three people for each component of my course, and each of them had a ten-minute talk with me:

  1. The first, the politics tutor, asked me about an opinion I gave on democracy in Armenia, making me explain why I felt it was important, as well as consider and give opinions on the efficacy of autocracy in comparison. The conversation was mostly questions from the tutor, followed by my answer, followed by questions about my answer, etc etc.

  2. The following bit with the philosophy tutor was more unnerving – he told me a story and asked me what I could infer from it. This ventured into fields of epistemology – the philosophy of what we know and how we know it. (As in, how do I know I am not just having a very vivid dream about the interview?) I felt almost totally lost, and tried to figure my way through it. The tutor tried to help, but I felt his efforts were in vain.

  3. Finally, the economics tutor led me through a scenario of homogeneous cookie production with a certain number of loyal and fickle customers, asking me how to price my cookies such that I will earn the maximum profit possible. This one in particular made me feel very stupid at the end for giving the wrong answer in the beginning, as well as not knowing what a cartel was. With the tutor’s guidance, I reached the best solution.

  4. After the last part, they asked me if I had any questions. I asked the philosophy tutor how he would have answered his question – he gave the opposite answer from me but didn’t have time to explain why.

I ended the interview feeling appallingly idiotic, on the verge of both laughter and tears. It felt like I had been terrible at answering all of them, especially the philosophy tutor. I thought I’d failed.

I didn’t let that spoil my holiday, though.

5. Decisions of tuitors after the interview

Tutors will make a decision based on:

  • your interview

  • any admissions tests or written work required for your course

  • your examination results and predicted grades

  • your personal statement

  • the academic reference

Offers can be made by a particular college or may be 'open' (not made by a specific college). They can also be 'conditional' or 'unconditional'.

The outcome will usually be announced in January. You’ll get an email and a letter, as will your referee. Unlike Cambridge, the pooling happened during the interview stage, so any offer you receive comes from your college or another college that interviewed you. Otherwise, you will get an open offer, which means that they haven’t decided on your college but you are confirmed a place in one of them.

For PPE, the standard offer now is AAA, with an IELTS score of at least 7.0 overall and for each component (they also accept TOEFL and others, check the page out: http://www.ox.ac.uk/admissions/undergraduate/international-students/english-language-requirements). By the way, acceptance rates overall are about 1 successful applicant for every 6.5 applicants, and 1 to 10 in the UK.

If you are of comparable intelligence, can reason well, and love learning about PPE (or indeed any other subjects that Oxford offers), go ahead and apply!

Good Luck with your studies.

Your Sincerely,

Argishti Atshemyan