Applying to Oxford

Leah Kramer in conversation with Silvia Andreoletti, who will be studying PPE (politics, philosophy, economics) at Oxford.

What will you be studying? Why did you choose that subject?

Silvia will be studying PPE – politics, philosophy, and economics. She first heard about the course in English class back in S2: she was arguing with a fellow student, when the teacher said, to distract her, that she should investigate the course PPE at Oxford, as loads of successful politicians studied it. This stuck at the back of her mind, and, well, now this dream is becoming a reality.

What made you pick Oxford as a university? Why did you choose it over Cambridge?

One key factor was the quality of the education at Oxford. What makes Oxford stand out is the tutorial system. The lecturers and tutors are fantastic, usually world-renowned experts in their niche passionate about translating their love for the subject onto other students  – in fact, Silvia’s future tutor for philosophy studied with one of her favourite philosophers – Isaiah Berlin. Normally, students have one lecture and one tutorial every week for each subject they study, and one essay (or set of problems, depending on the subject) is assigned for the next class. The size of lectures can vary, but they’re usually smaller than usual university classes and the lecturers are always available for questions or advice. 

What really sets Oxbridge apart from other universities, however, are tutorials (tutes for short – called supervisions at Cambridge). Tutorials are one to one or one to two, and students can discuss their essay with the tutor, discuss the topic being studied to expand their knowledge and check their understanding, and clarify any doubts or issues with the material. In the first year of PPE, students have 4 lectures and 4 tutorials a week, for each of the 3 subjects as well as maths.

Prestige also plays a role; the quality of the education is world renowned, and once students have graduated, a bright future is almost guaranteed.

When people think about Oxford, they might think of posh, nerdy snobs. But in reality, that isn’t the case (at least not at Silvia’s college, New College). People are very welcoming, and there is a strong LGBTQ+ community, as well as a pet turtle (Tessa) which students communally care for and competes against other college turtles in an annual race (yes, really).

Oxford offered the course Silvia wanted, and Cambridge also requires more details in its application – many years of reports are needed, and the admission test is more mathematical.

What can’t be forgotten is that Oxford is basically Hogwarts in real life. Minus the evil wizards (hopefully).

What was the application process like?

Silvia contacted a second year PPE student at Oxford, and talked to him to see if Oxford was the place for her. It’s also a good idea to communicate with other students looking at universities, so that you can share tips and relieve stress. The Student Room is a good website. 

Try to attend open days and read as much as you can about your university, college and course: this not only lets you see whether the university really is the right place for them, but also demonstrates interest if you mention details in interviews and will set you apart from other candidates. There are general Oxbridge open days in the summer and fall, as well as events for admitted students between March and September (depending on the college).

She started her personal statement in August, but she would recommend starting it as soon as possible, as it takes a long time to get the text where you want it to be. Try to get it done by September, and then ask a teacher and some close individuals to read over it. Lots of people will want to read your statement, but don’t make every change that is suggested – remember that it is your personal statement and needs to remain yours. Make sure to include citations, as these prove that you are sincerely interested in the topic and give you subjects to talk about in your interview; it’s a good idea to read around your chosen course as early as possible.

PPE applicants need to take an admissions test, the TSA (Thinking Skills Assessment). It consists of two parts, a part on critical thinking and an essay. Start  thinking about the test in August, and try to practice some questions to see if you’re any good before you decide to apply. Cambridge offers vaguely similar courses, but the admissions test is largely maths based, meaning it is possible to study your way through it, while the Oxford test seeks to see how you think, a bit like an IQ test. It isn’t really possible to increase your score significantly, in her opinion – however, doing practice papers and reading about how to approach and answer the questions never hurts.

Silvia had three online interviews in early December, each about half an hour long and one for each subject in PPE; most people have one or two longer interviews. Applicants will need to be excused from 3 days of school, as the schedule for the appointments can change at short notice. The interviewers tend to be friendly, and don’t mind if you don’t get the right answer – what’s important is how you approach the question. The questions can vary, but, surprisingly, interviewers don’t really ask about your personal statement or your extracurriculars. What seems to be important in interviews is your genuine interest for the subject, and how you tie topics together and to real world events. The interviewers want to see how candidates approach the questions and prompt you to talk through your work, so even if you get to the wrong answer, you might still impress with your reasoning. What’s interesting is that generally, if you think your interview went badly, then it probably went well! Unfortunately the other way around also applies…

In an application Oxford requires predicted grades, which need to be very high. Based on these grades, your personal statement, and your interviews, the university can then give you a conditional offer. This offer is dependent on an average, but this average can be quite low. For PPE, Oxford is looking for candidates who have taken maths 5; it isn’t necessary, but the vast majority of people who get accepted have maths 5. 

What does Oxford look for in an application? Are grades what matter, or extracurriculars and passion/intelligence? What do you think stood out on your application?

Oxford is looking for potential. It isn’t like in the Ivy League, where universities look for fully developed individuals who have all their extracurriculars. Oxford wants genuinely interested, smart individuals who can think outside of the box. It’s important to already know something about your subject, even if it’s in a very niche area of it or only slightly related, as this shows you are self-motivated and will cope well with the extensive reading schedule set at Oxford, and of course it’s important to always keep up with the news and recent developments in your field. 

Do you know what the workload is like at Oxford?

Workload wise, students don’t tell you what the workload is actually like because they don’t want to scare you away, but the Oxford website estimates around 40 hours a week. Some people say it can be about 60 hours, depending on how efficient you are and how far along in the term it is.

PPE students write one to two essays a week, as well as solving problem sets for maths. It shouldn’t be too much at once though, as students have about two weeks to finish the work and there’s a lot of downtime between contact hours (lectures and tutorials).

Exams often take place at the beginning of a semester (but this very much depends on the college, and can vary slightly between subjects as well) so students have the holidays to study, which is both a blessing and a curse! Final essays still need to be written at the end of semesters, as well as some exams or final projects, but the final grade isn’t affected by any of these until your final year. Interestingly, there is a very low rate of failure at Oxford (people who drop out or don’t manage to get their degree), as there is a great system to spot students who are in trouble, whether academically or personally, and get them back on track so they finish their degree in time and have a good time at the university.

Do you have any general study tips?

What’s always advisable is not to procrastinate, but that’s easier said than done. Try to make the subject fun, try to make it interesting, otherwise you won’t do as well as you could do.

If you have any questions about applying or studying at Oxford (or Cambridge!) or PPE in general, don’t hesitate to contact Silvia at [email protected].

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