FAQ: Admissions

Which College should I choose?

The choice of College is probably seen as a much more important problem outside Oxford than it is inside. It is important to remember that the quality of teaching is the same across all Colleges: the physics lectures, practicals and projects take place in the Department of Physics, and are the same for all students, regardless of college.

The University website has some advice on choosing a College and the prospectus contains an overview of each. Another view is given in the Alternative Prospectus, written by the Oxford University Students Union. If you are undecided which College to choose, you can make an "open application" and let the Admissions Office computer choose for you.

The admissions process is explicitly designed to ensure that College choice has as little effect as possible on the chance of being accepted. One aspect of this is that candidates are occasionally reallocated from the College they chose to a different College. All short-listed candidates who come to Oxford for interview are interviewed by two Colleges. Another consequence is that candidates may receive offers from a College different from the one handling their application, or an Open Offer with no College specified.

Please note that Harris Manchester College and Pembroke College do not currently admit students to read Physics, and special considerations apply for Physics and Philosophy.

What is the short-listing process?

Oxford Physics has seen a steady and rapid increase in the number of applications for places on both the Physics and Physics and Philosophy courses, with more than four applicants per place in Physics and almost six applicants per place in Physics and Philosophy. We now use a short-listing process to guide us in reducing the number of interviewed applicants to around 2.5 per place. The primary short-listing criterion is the total mark on Physics Aptitude Test, although candidates who fall slightly below the test threshold may be invited for interview on the basis of other evidence of excellence.

What is the reallocation process?

A key aim of the admissions procedure is that an applicant's chance of obtaining a place should as far as possible be independent of the college handling the application, whether the candidate applied to a particular College or made an open application. To assist with this, candidates may be reallocated from the College initially handling their application to another College where the ratio of applicants to places is lower, to ensure the ratio is as constant as possible across the university.

Reallocation occurs after the short list of candidates for interview has been drawn up. You may, therefore, be invited to interview at a different College from that which initially handled your application. All your application materials will automatically be transferred to the new College, and there is no need to send anything further unless the new College specifically requests you to do so.

Candidates for reallocation are selected at random, and are treated in exactly the same way at interview as other candidates.

How should I prepare for the admissions process?

The admissions process for Oxford Physics is designed so that most UK candidates do not need to undertake extensive special preparation. You should, however, ensure that you are completely familiar with all the physics and mathematics you have learnt at school. During the admissions process you will be expected to demonstrate not only that you are familiar with all the material you have been taught, but also that you are able to use this material in an unfamiliar context. In particular a key skill required in the Oxford Physics course is the ability to apply mathematical ideas in a physical context.

Preparation for the aptitude test is just as important as preparation for interviews, as the short-listing process is largely based on the results of the aptitude test. In particular you should look at the syllabus and the collection of sample and past papers.

Admissions interviews for Oxford Physics are purely academic in nature and, while there is no formal syllabus, knowledge of the entrance test syllabus material will be assumed. You are likely to spend the great majority of your time talking about physics or mathematics, rather than about any wider interests you may have mentioned on your application form. Interviewers may, however, choose to ask you about specific topics you have mentioned on your form, and it is wise to ensure that you are familiar with any topics you have mentioned. Detailed advice about preparation for interviews can be found in the leaflet Interviews at Oxford; printed copies are available from the Undergraduate Admissions Office and it is also available on the University web site.

Do I need one or two maths A-levels?

The Oxford Physics course is highly-mathematical. We expect that all students who are accepted to study Physics at Oxford would be capable of achieving a Grade A in Further Maths A-level, even if they have not taken the exam. It is important that you are good at maths and enjoy the prospect of applying it to physical problems.

Further Maths A-level can be helpful in completing the course, but is not required for admission. We accept there are many reasons why a candidate may not take Further Maths at A-level and a significant minority of the students admitted to study Physics each year offer only single maths.

These students must undertake extra work in the summer vacation and their first term to catch-up with their peers, but our research shows they are not disadvantaged after the first year. Where A-level Further Mathematics is not offered, an AS-level or equivalent in Further Mathematics may be helpful in easing the transition from school to university studies. Our "standard" maths courses in the first term do not assume knowledge of Further Maths material, but they cover the relevant bits very quickly before getting on to the new stuff. Even those who have done A2 Further Maths will find that they are learning new maths after only a few weeks at Oxford.

When a candidate applies to study Physics at Oxford, we assess their mathematical ability by a number of means, including the Physics Aptitude Test, interviews and current/existing exam results. Our admissions tutors have a great deal of experience in assessing candidates with single or double maths and will make an assessment of your mathematical ability bearing in mind the amount of maths you have been able to study at school. However, for candidate on a borderline, those who have studied Further Maths may have greater opportunity to prove their mathematical ability that those studying only single Maths A-level.

How much are my GCSE grades taken into consideration?

The principal indicators are the PAT and interview scores but all information supplied on the UCAS form is taken into consideration.

What maths should I know on arrival?

The Oxford Physics course does contain lots of maths. This is equally true for the joint course in Physics and Philosophy, which contains at least as much maths as the Physics course. This means that A-level Maths (or its equivalent) is essential for entry. Further Maths, at either AS or A2-level, is desirable, but it is not a requirement. What matters is that you should be good at maths, and enjoy the prospect of applying it to physical problems and working out the answers.

This section will be revised to reflect recent detailed changes in the way maths is taught in the Oxford Physics Course. In the meantime this page provides useful general guidance but should not be taken as definitive.

Assumed on arrival

Algebra and Trigonometry: Properties of polynomials, including the solution of quadratics. Inequalities. Arithmetic and geometric progressions and the binomial expansion. Functions and inverses. Rational functions and algebraic division; partial fractions. Graphs of functions. Trigonometrical functions and their relationships; sum and difference formulae; multiple angle formulae. Logarithms and exponentials.

Calculus: Differentiation and integration of polynomials including fractional and negative powers; extensions to trigonometrical functions, exponentials and logarithms. Differentiation as finding the slope, and location of maxima, minima and points of inflection. Integration as the reverse of differentiation and as the area under a curve; simplifying integrals by symmetry. Product, quotient and chain rules. Integration by substitution and by parts. Volumes of revolution. Differentiation of implicit functions. Integration by partial fractions. Separable differential equations.

Other: Roots of equations from zero-crossings and areas by Simpson’s rule. Basic ideas of vectors in 2D and 3D. Elementary probability theory and statistics.

Recommended but not essential

Complex numbers in Cartesian and polar forms. Complex roots of polynomial equations. Vector scalar (dot) and cross products. Basic properties of matrices. Differentiation from first principles. Series and limits; Taylor and Maclaurin series.


Numerical solutions of equations by bisection, interpolation, Newton-Raphson. Non-separable differential equations. Arc length and area of a surface of revolution. More advanced properties of vectors and matrices.

Recommended textbooks

Oxford Physics provides self study materials to help new students make the transition from school to university level mathematics. These are based on the FLAP (Flexible Learning Approach to Physics) modules developed by the Open University, and will be provided to students who need them either on or shortly before arrival. The FLAP mathematics modules have also been published as two books, Basic Mathematics for the Physical Sciences and Further Mathematics for the Physical Sciences, which are suitable for students who want to start straight away. Roughly speaking, the first volume corresponds to the topics assumed on arrival, while the following volume covers the additional material listed above.

What is the standard A-level offer?

Our standard A-level offer is A*AA, the A* in either physics or mathematics; excluding general studies and critical thinking. Individual offers will be based on this but may vary in details; in particular the subject of the third A grade is often specified. It is not standard practice for offers to be set at higher levels, such as including results in a fourth A-level or results from Advanced Extension Awards, but exceptions may be made in particular circumstances.

I do not have A-levels, so can I still apply?

We welcome applications from candidates with a wide range of qualifications, including Scottish and Irish Highers, the International Baccalaureate, and many national qualifications. More details can be found on our page for International Students and at the University's International Qualifications page.

What about Mature Students?

We welcome applications from Mature Students. Further details can be found on the University web site. Applications are judged in the same way as applications from any other candidate, but A-level entrance requirements for successful applicants may be varied. Potential applicants are encouraged to contact us, preferably by enquiries [at] physics [dot] ox [dot] ac [dot] uk (email), to discuss specific questions about an application. Note that Harris Manchester College, which is dedicated to mature students, does not accept applications for Physics.

How do I apply to do a second undergraduate degree?

Applicants for a second undergraduate degree are treated in exactly the same way as those for a first undergraduate degree except that they are required to submit certain additional materials. Further details can be found on the University web site. All applicants applying to read Physics as a second undergraduate degree are required to take the admissions test.

Please note that some Colleges do not accept applications for second degree students in Physics; further details can be found in the information pack on the University web site. Successful applicants may be granted Senior Status, that is exemption from the first year course and examinations, but decisions on this are made by individual Colleges and may require additional information to be provided.

Can I take a year out/gap year?

This depends on your plans. Sponsorship schemes offering a year’s work experience in a physics-related field may be excellent, but some activities are less useful. An athlete who does not train for a year will be pretty rusty. Likewise a physics (or maths) student who does not use his or her brain for a year will also be pretty rusty and this is the danger of a gap year!

The Institute of Physics has contacts with over 300 companies, may be able to assist with suitable activities for a gap year. See the Year in Industry programme.

Some of the activities we hear suggested for the gap year could be done during the long vacation between the first and second years. Or you may like to consider taking a gap year after your degree.

Can I apply for both Physics and Philosophy and Physics?

Candidates who apply for Physics and Philosophy, if invited for interview, will be asked if they would consider a Physics place if not made an offer for Physics and Philosophy.

What about Materials Science?

Candidates who apply for Physics may also name Materials Science as a second choice. If a candidate is considered suitable for both courses, then only an offer for Physics will be made. Note that the option to apply for Geology/Earth Sciences is no longer available. See the prospectus for more details.

What is an Open Offer?

Every year a small number of candidates for Oxford Physics receive an Open Offer, sometimes called a Pool Place Offer. This is an offer of a place to study physics at the University, but without a College being specified. Recipients of Open Offers are guaranteed a place at a College, but which College this is will not be determined until after the A-level results are published in mid August. Each year a small number of candidates fail to meet the conditions of their offer, or withdraw for other reasons and the vacancies arising from this are filled by candidates holding Open Offers. Every Open Offer is underwritten by a particular College, and in the unlikely event of a vacancy not arising a place will be made available at the underwriting college.

Open Offers are not made for places in Physics and Philosophy. However, candidates applying for both Physics and Philosophy and Physics may receive an Open Offer for a place in Physics.

What are the fees for a physics degree?

Information on fees and other expenses can be found on the University of Oxford Student Finance web pages. This page contains information for Home, EU and International Students.

What are the English language requirements?

Candidates must have a high level of competence and fluency in English. The University website has details of the Formal English Language Requirements.

Are there any grants or bursaries?

The University of Oxford offers a very generous bursary system, details of which can be found at the Student Funding section of the University web site. In particular, we would like to encourage UK students to read about the Oxford Opportunity Bursary. UK students from lower income backgrounds, who also receive full statutory government grants, should be able to meet their entire basic living costs during term-time without needing to take out a student loan for maintenance. Funding for International Students is limited, but a Funding Search Webpage is available.

How do I indicate which year of entry I wish to be considered for?

The UCAS application allows a candidate to indicate whether or not they wish to be considered as a deferred applicant.

How do I indicate if I want to be considered for an alternative course in addition to my existing application choice?

Where the University allows students to be considered for an alternative course, these applicants will be emailed by the Undergraduate Admissions Office after receipt of the UCAS application. Applicants will have until 10 November to respond to this e-mail to indicate their preference. This includes applicants for Physics and Philosophy who also wish to be considered for Physics, and applicants for Physics who also wish to be considered for Materials Science. If you do not reply to this email you will be assumed to be only applying for the main course named on your UCAS form.

If you do not receive an email from the undergraduate admissions office by 1 November then you are advised to contact them directly. Applicants for Physics and Philosophy who also wish to be considered for Physics should email physphil [dot] options [at] admin [dot] ox [dot] ac [dot] uk while applicants for Physics who also wish to be considered for Materials Science should email materials [dot] options [at] admin [dot] ox [dot] ac [dot] uk. You may wish to check your email filters to ensure that emails from the ox.ac.uk domain are let through.

Who will receive feedback on my application?

Unless advised otherwise in writing by the applicant, feedback will be sent to the person submitting the reference on the UCAS application materials. If you do not wish feedback to be sent please contact privacy [dot] options [at] admin [dot] ox [dot] ac [dot] uk and contact the Tutor for Admissions at the College handling your application.

Can I submit an additional personal statement or can my referee submit an additional reference?

The UCAS application is the main record of the application, and information that is relevant to the admissions process should be included there. Oxford is not the only university that would wish to know about any particular circumstances that may have impacted upon an applicant’s academic record or mitigating personal circumstances. If there is additional information that is identified after the UCAS application has been submitted, only then should referees submit further material, directly to the Tutor for Admissions in the College that the student has been invited to attend for interview and the Academic Administrator at the Department of Physics.

Does the University take contextual data into account?

The University collects contextual information about applicants on the Oxford application form. From 2009 entry onwards, the Undergraduate Admissions Office will collate information centrally for all applicants domiciled in the UK, using publicly available information from the government, and disseminate this information to colleges and departments. Five aspects of contextual information will be looked at: (1) the performance of the applicant's school or college at GCSE or equivalent level; (2) the performance of the applicant's school or college at A-level or equivalent level (both using DCSF or equivalent data - in both instances a candidate will be flagged if their educational establishment performs below the national average); (3) the postcode that an applicant gives as their home address (assessed using Acorn information - where a candidate's postcode falls into groups four or five the application will be flagged); (4) whether a candidate has been looked after/in care for more than six months (determined from the UCAS application); (5) an applicant's participation in either a Sutton Trust summer school or the Oxford Young Ambassador Scheme.

Where an applicant is predicted in their reference to achieve the standards required for entry to the University (three A grades at A-level or equivalent, including Physics and Mathematics), and performs to an appropriate standard in the pre-interview admissions test (in the top 80% of the cohort), a candidate will be strongly recommended for interview if the contextual information in at least three of the five areas is flagged.

Note that this use of contextual information does not result in either an automatic offer of a place or a lower offer to a candidate.