Admissions procedures for Physics courses

An outline of the admissions procedure for Physics

This page has been updated in September 2020 and aims to reflect standard practice pre-Covid and also adjustments for 2020 to take the effects of Covid-19 into account.

Oxford Physics operates a centrally coordinated admissions process which rests on two fundamental principles: that each candidate is considered following equivalent procedures regardless of the candidate’s background and that the probability of getting a place at Oxford does not depend on candidate’s choice of college.

The Department of Physics takes responsibility for the initial stages of the admissions process (1‐4) and helps coordinate the later stages, but all interviews are performed in and by the colleges and all final decisions on admissions are made by colleges.

1. Applications

Applications to read Physics or Physics & Philosophy at Oxford are made in the same way as applications for any other undergraduate degree at Oxford, with the exception of arrangements for the written Physics Aptitude Test (PAT). The PAT is a two hour paper which covers mathematics and physics with marks split 50-50 between the two subjects and all applicants are required to take the test. Since 2011 the Department of Physics has been working in partnership with the Cambridge Assessment Admissions Testing (formerly Cambridge Assessment) which administers the test. The test is set and marked by the Department of Physics. Candidates need to register with the Admissions Testing Service to take the test. Further details, including syllabuses, sample papers, and reports on previous tests are available on the Aptitude Test page.

Please note that the syllabus, format and difficulty level of the November 2020 PAT test will be unchanged compared to previous years. This will allow applicants and their teachers to use the previous years’ papers as a good guide to the type of question to be expected on this year’s PAT test.

2. Short-listing

Due to a high and steadily growing number of applicants per place (reaching 8.8 in 2019), Oxford Physics performs a short‐listing process to reduce the number of interviewed candidates to around 2.5 per place (around 500 in total) which represent the maximum number of interviews the faculty can provide.

The primary shortlisting criteria are the PAT score (out of 100) and (from 2019 onwards) the contextual GCSE (cGCSE) score. The University uses contextual data for UK applicants and the cGCSE score is expressed as the number of standard deviations the applicant is away from their ‘expected’ number of A*/9/8 grades and will usually be in the range -2.00 to +2.00.

For applicants where there is no contextual cGCSE information, they are assigned a cGSCE score of 0.

Applicants can be automatically shortlisted based on either their PAT score or their R-score:

  • R-score (pre-shortlist) = PAT mark + 10 x cGCSE

In 2019 approximately 80% of interviewed applicants were shortlisted in these two ways, with the remaining 20% of the shortlist based on either the inclusion of other contextual information or where the application form showed other evidence of excellence or mitigating circumstances.

For 2020 it will remain the case that excellent performance on the PAT, either by itself or also incorporating the cGCSE score, will result in automatic shortlisting for interview. We recognise the substantial Covid-induced disruption to many applicants’ education in 2020. We expect for 2020 a larger proportion of shortlisted candidates for whom mitigating circumstances will have played a role in the decision to shortlist that candidate.

In this respect, where possible, we encourage schools to include in their UCAS reference an account of the teaching they have been able to provide since March 2020, and both schools and applicants to inform us via the UCAS form of any extraordinary disruptions (beyond the universal pandemic factor).

Guidance for applicants who are entirely unable to sit the 2020 PAT test (for example, due to a government lockdown compelling them to stay at home) will appear closer to the time of the PAT.

Looking further ahead, as 2020 GCSE grades were not based on examinations, the role of the cGCSE factor in shortlisting for the 2021 admissions round (for admission in October 2022) will be reviewed closer to the time.

3. Assignment of first college

Most shortlisted applicants who specify a college choice will be interviewed at their first choice college. However, some will be reallocated to a different college.

Reallocation, that is reassigning candidates from over-subscribed to under-subscribed colleges, has been practised by Oxford Physics for many years and is now formalised as part of the short‐listing process. It is carried out after short‐listing to ensure that, as far as possible, the ratio of interviewed candidates to place is the same for all colleges.

4. Assignment of second colleges

All short‐listed candidates are assigned to a second college, which is responsible for providing one (third) interview. This second college is chosen at random except for candidates with relevant disabilities or medical certificates (second choice colleges for those candidates are chosen such that they are located geographically not far from the first choice colleges).

If the first choice college is not able to offer a place to a candidate, the second college has first refusal on that candidate.

5. Interviews at first College

Candidates receive two interview marks from their first college. This is normally provided by two separate interviews, each marked out of 10, although in some cases colleges may give one long interview or three short interviews, and then marks are combined to give two final marks. In addition, philosophy interviews are provided for Physics & Philosophy candidates.

Interviews are essentially academic in nature and will principally consist of maths and physics questions; some colleges have separate interviews testing maths and physics while for others both interviews combine maths and physics.

For the 2020 admissions round all interviews will be virtual. Further details on the timing and structure of these interviews will be conveyed in due course.

6. Interview at second College

Candidates are interviewed at their second college after first college interviews have concluded, and will receive one interview mark (out of 10).

For the 2020 admissions round all interviews will be virtual. Further details on the timing and structure of these interviews will be conveyed in due course.

7. Post-interview scoring and banding

At the end of the interview process each candidate is assigned a numerical total score calculated from the R-score (pre-shortlist) and interview scores.

This score is used to rank all applicants, but as the score does not incorporate all relevant information (such as examination results, references, and personal statements) this rank is not used as an absolute admissions criterion. Final decisions are based on academic judgement and taking into account all individual circumstances.

The R-score is used to categorize all candidates into 3 bands: Band-A, approximately the top 100 candidates; Band-B, approximately the next 150 candidates; and Band-C, candidates ranked below Band-B.

Each year there are slightly over 200 offers made in total. Normally, almost all Band-A candidates are offered a place while rather few Band-C candidates will be offered a place.

8. Final decisions

Final decisions are made by individual Colleges in a joint meeting of all College physics tutors. All decisions not to offer a place to Band-A candidates, or to offer a place to Band-C candidates, must be justified within this meeting. The departmental team coordinates the decision process to ensure that strong candidates are not overlooked. This means candidates can receive an offer of a place from any college, including colleges which did not interview them.

9. Open (pool) offers

Every year a small number of candidates either decline their offer or accept and then fail to achieve their offer conditions. There are therefore a small number of additional offers (13 in December 2019) so that these vacancies can be filled. Due to the small number of places at individual Colleges, these offers are made by the department, with no College specified. These Open Offers guarantee a place at Oxford, but the College will not be determined until the admissions process is completed in August.

10. Standard offers

Oxford Physics has a standard offer at A level of A*AA which must include both physics and maths with an A* in any of Mathematics, Physics or Further Mathematics. You are also expected to pass the practical component of any science A-level used to meet your offer.

Candidates not sitting A levels can find equivalent offers here (other UK qualifications) and here (international qualifications).

11. International and mature candidates

Oxford Physics welcomes applications from all backgrounds, including international and mature applicants. All applicants are required to take the aptitude test. Information on past and predicted examination results is interpreted in the light of guidance from the central Admissions Office.

Candidates must declare in the Educational History section of the UCAS form any courses they have taken after leaving school or in which they expect to enrol prior to their prospective start date at Oxford. In particular, any candidate currently attending another university must make this fact clear in their application.

12. Deferred offers

Candidates applying for deferred offers are treated in the same way as those seeking direct entry, except that the assessment will include consideration of other relevant factors such as whether physics and maths skills will become rusty during the year out.

13. Physics and Philosophy

Applicants for the joint school of Physics and Philosophy are assessed for their suitability to study physics in very much the same way as applicants for the single honours physics course. Their suitability to study philosophy is also assessed through additional interviews or joint physics/philosophy interviews.

Applicants for Physics and Philosophy will be asked whether they also wish to be considered for straight Physics. If such a candidate cannot be offered a Physics and Philosophy place, they may then be offered a place for straight Physics.

Significant differences in the admissions process include:

  1. As many Colleges do not offer Physics and Philosophy, applicants are only reallocated (if reallocation is necessary) to Colleges which do. Reallocation and the assignment of second round Colleges is performed in a manner which ensures that as far as possible all candidates are interviewed at a College with a particular interest in Physics and Philosophy.
  2. The first College will also provide one or more interviews in Philosophy. The second College may also provide further interviews in Philosophy.
  3. After interview, Physics and Philosophy candidates are banded by the Physics Department as if they were Physics candidates, ignoring the results of Philosophy interviews. Physics and Philosophy candidates deemed acceptable on Physics grounds will be offered a Physics and Philosophy place if they are deemed acceptable for the joint course; otherwise they will be offered a Physics place if they wish.
  4. Open Offers are not made in Physics and Philosophy.

14. Monitoring

At the end of each admissions round the process is assessed to determine how it can be improved in subsequent years. Data is collected on the different indicators used, and is subsequently compared with the results obtained by successful applicants in University examinations.

15. Complaints

Applicants who wish to complain about any aspect of the application process should write to the Tutor for Admissions at the College handling their application. If an applicant has been reallocated then they should write to the College they have been reallocated to. Where the complaint includes matters handled by the Department, or by a second College, the handling College will refer enquiries to the appropriate authorities.

If a complaint is upheld this will not necessarily alter the final decision on the offer of a place. In the event that the final decision is changed it is not usually possible to offer the applicant a place for the coming year, and a deferred place for the following year may be offered instead. In the same way, candidates who do not achieve their offer conditions, but who subsequently have this decision overturned on appeal, may be offered a deferred place.