Admissions procedures for Physics courses

An outline of the admissions procedure for Physics

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 between the two subjects 50‐50. All applicants are required to take the test. By now, many subjects have similar tests. 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.

2. Short-listing

Due to the high and steadily growing number of applicants per place, Oxford Physics has introduced a short‐listing process to reduce the number of candidates to around 2.5 per place. The primary short‐listing criterion is performance on the PAT. A small number (about 10‐15% of those finally short‐listed) of additional candidates are added to the short‐list, either because their test score may not reflect their true ability (such as candidates with medical certificates) or because their application materials show other quite exceptional evidence of excellence, such as candidates with 9 or more A* grades at GCSE from schools where such achievement is unusual. However these additional candidates, only seldom receive offers indicating that short‐listing based on PAT marks selects practically all strong candidates with good prospects of getting offers.

In addition, following the University initiative on widening participation, extra candidates who fulfil criteria set by the University are added (by the Admissions Coordinator) to complete the short‐list. These extra candidates do not displace any candidates who normally would be short‐listed.

3. Reallocation

Reallocation, that is reassigning candidates from more popular to less popular colleges, has been practised by Oxford Physics for many years and by now has been formalised as part of the short‐listing process. It is carried out after short‐listing to ensure that the number of candidates per place is as far as possible the same across the collegiate university.

4. Assignment of second colleges

All short‐listed candidates are assigned to a second college, which is responsible for providing a second opinion based on one 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).

5. Interview(s) at first College

Candidates are interviewed at their first college on Monday and Tuesday of the interview week. In most cases colleges will provide 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. Interviews are essentially academic in nature, and will largely concentrate on discussions of topics in physics and mathematics. Philosophy interviews for Physics & Philosophy candidates are provided in addition

6. Interview at second College

Candidates are interviewed at their second college on Tuesday of the interview week. In most cases colleges will provide one interview marked out of 10, although in some cases colleges may give two interviews with one combined mark. Interviews are essentially academic in nature, and will largely concentrate on discussions of topics in physics and mathematics.

7. Post-interview scoring and banding

At the end of the interview process each candidate is assigned a total score calculated from the test scores and interview scores, with the two components given equal weight. 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 directly as an admissions criterion. It is, however, used to place all candidates in 3 bands: A, the top 100 or so candidates, who are likely to be offered a place; B, the next 200 or so candidates, who might be offered a place; C, remaining candidates, who will not normally be offered a place.

8. Final decisions

Final decisions are made by the Colleges and confirmed 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 approved by this meeting. The departmental team coordinates the decision process to ensure that strong candidates are not overlooked.

9. Open (pool) offers

Each year a small number of candidates decline their offer, or accept their offer and then fail to achieve their offer conditions, and so it is necessary to make a small number of additional offers 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, sometimes known as pool places, 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 including physics and maths with A* for either of the two. Our standard IB offer is 39 points (including core points) with 7 at higher level physics or higher level maths. Offers for candidates studying under other examination systems are set at a level broadly comparable to the IB offer.

11. Overseas and mature candidates

Oxford Physics welcomes applications from all sources, including overseas 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 enroll prior to their prospective start date at Oxford. We may seek further references with regard to performance on these courses before or after interview. Offers may include conditions based on the results of these courses.

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 plans for the year out. Candidates in band A need not necessarily be offered a deferred place.

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 may also nominate Physics as a second choice course, and will be considered for both courses at the same time. If a candidate is considered suitable for both courses, then only an offer for Physics and Philosophy will be made.

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.