Oxford Demystified - Human SciencesWatch
A lot of my advice will apply to similar subjects and to anyone applying to the university in general, but if you are reading this, I really hope you take the time to properly consider applying for Human Sciences!
Less than two years ago I could be found joking with my friends about how I would never go to university. I always enjoyed school and my subjects, but for some reason university never seemed like a proper option to me. The fifth child out of six, my four elder siblings finished education at 16 and went on to supermarket work and joining the army. Similarly, my dad went straight into work, my mum never got her GCSEs, and my grandparents worked in factories and as carpenters.
My secondary school was nothing special (but not totally awful!) with 65% gaining 5 GCSEs at A*-C and OFSTED rating ‘needs improvement’, as well as low progression to university. Even though I enjoyed my time at secondary, the emphasis was never on getting people to achieve highly.
As I started sixth form, I started to wonder what exactly what I would do when I left. Considering a career in teaching, I discovered I would need a degree. At this point I began to open my mind to the prospect of higher education and through my own research, as I had no-one else to ask, I found out that a lot of the myths I believed about university weren’t correct (see: crippling debt paid from your own pocket)
As the myths were busted, I realised university was exactly the right path for me, and so I had to decide on a course and a university….
GCSEs and A Levels
I would like to stress that you don’t need to be perfect to get into Oxford, and your application is contextualised at every stage of the process. Comparing yourself to others only causes unnecessary stress and wastes time you could be spending working on the rest of your application (Or looking after yourself, because that is just as important 😉)
Another common myth I have seen perpetuated on TSR is that all your A levels need to be the so-called ‘hard’ subjects to get into Oxford. Every A-level has its merits and for most courses it will not matter if you have a ‘softer’ subject.
GCSEs: one 9, five 8s, four 7s (Spanish; Maths, History, Art, Physics, Biology; English Lit, English Lang, Chemistry, RS)
A Levels: Biology, Maths, Fine Art (Predicted A*AA respectively)
Why did you want to study your subject?
I spent the start of year 12 bouncing around between biology and fine art, totally unaware of the sheer range of courses offered at universities. After watching a YouTube video by Rosie Crawford and Eve Bennett, I found out about the UNIQ summer school and decided to apply.
When you apply, you can choose a first and a second-choice subject. After writing my personal statement for biology, (NOTE: personal statements for UNIQ were discontinued after 2019) I was on the hunt for a second course. Searching through the listings, I stumbled across Human Sciences and clicked on the page. It was absolutely a eureka moment. The description of HumSci summed up exactly what I had been looking for in a course.
Human Sciences is the perfect hybrid of science and social science, formulated to provide students with a strong foundation to go into the world and try and fix some of the major problems we are facing right now. Whether you wish to go into conservation, virology, genetic research, civil service, charity work, law or something entirely different, HumSci has it covered. I have never truly had an idea of what I want to do as a career and doing Human Sciences means I don’t feel pressured to work it out any time soon; rather than closing doors, the degree opens many.
Like many others who have attended UNIQ or similar programs, attending the residential solidified that this was the degree I should be doing. I enjoyed every single lecture and each one felt so new and exciting, and, as cheesy as it sounds, I would climb into bed still thinking about what I had learned that day. Thinking about doing HumSci felt natural and comfortable where biology and art hadn’t.
Seeing as I first found the degree through Oxford, and they invented the degree itself, it was a given that I would be applying to Oxford for it…plus there really aren’t many universities that offer it!
Even with the other universities that offer the course, none of the others quite match up to the depth and breadth of the one offered by Oxford. Even though the intense workload does seem daunting, it also means I will be able to study as much of what I love as possible.
Besides the course itself, I fell in love with the city. Large cities really intimidate me, and I wanted to live somewhere that felt homely and friendly. Oxford is small enough that you can walk pretty much anywhere given you have the time, or you can cycle around instead. The collegiate system meant that I felt I would have somewhere I would belong and get to know lots of people.
Lastly, I love everything about the tutorial system. Personally, I learn best when I can properly engage with the content and talk it through with people. I always felt like I was being drowned out in my sixth form classes, and tutorials seem like a place where I will be heard- To me, academics truly valuing my ideas and opinions and engaging with me on them is an incredibly exciting prospect.
Other universities you can apply to
Human Sciences is really not offered at that many universities and none of these courses are exactly the same. Each one has slightly more of a focus on different areas, e.g. some are more biological, more anthropological, more geographical etc. Because of the disparity in course content you are unlikely to fill all 5 slots with these options, so I recommend working out which sub-section of HumSci you would like to do a degree in as well. (Popular options are applying for HumSci and biology, HumSci and anthropology and HumSci and psychology)
UCL: Human Sciences
Exeter: Human Sciences
Durham: Health and Human Sciences
Sheffield: Health and Human Sciences
Manchester: Biology with Science and Society
Cardiff: Human and Social Sciences (Heavily psychology based)
Did any of your teachers inspire you? Or any other expert (TV presenter etc)
I speak for many when I say I have found studytube to be a really inspirational resource. If it wasn’t for studytube, I don’t think I would have even found my course in the first place, let alone had the confidence to apply to Oxford.
A cheesy but very true phrase from Vee Kativhu probably inspired me the most in my journey applying to university: “Rejection is redirection.” Remembering that Oxford is not the be all and end all made the process ten times easier because I really didn’t have anything to lose. I fell in love with my insurance choice (Exeter, Penryn campus) and so I knew I had a safety net to catch me if things didn’t go to plan.
I also found Tilly Rose from That Oxford Girl a great help. Her blog posts, and those of other students at Oxford, are easily accessible and are an accurate, reliable way to find out what the university is really like. She is also really responsive on Instagram and has been super kind to me, so if you ever have any questions, she is more than happy to help and can point you in the right direction (She studied English at Oxford)
Which resources did you use? Which books/journals did you read? Which did you like best, and why? What did they teach you?
I read Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari as my main resource for my application- Human Scientists swear by it for giving you the perfect grounding in the subject. I found it to be a really easy read, not too heavy in subject terminology and it was a really engaging book (I’m even planning to read it for a second time because I loved it so much!!)
I also read “Social and Cultural Anthropology”, one of the Very Short Introductions books written by John Monaghan and Peter Just. This was another book that I found to be incredibly good at giving you all the baseline knowledge you need to know, so if you are coming from a particularly scientific background, I would definitely recommend this book.
As interviews drew nearer, I found Aeon Essays interesting to browse. I tried to read essays that felt more out of my comfort zone so I wouldn’t be completely thrown should something unexpected come up at interview.
TED talks were an enjoyable way to access a broad range of information fast. As a Human Scientist you can’t go wrong with having as broad a knowledge base as you can, and it simply isn’t possible to read a whole book (or even half a book) on every single subject that forms the course. Here are two I particularly enjoyed:
Re-engineering the brain, Gero Miesenboeck
How societies can grow older together, Jared Diamond
This podcast episode on the dangers of at-home genetic testing was an exciting listen. Despite knowing the fundamentals of genetics from biology class, I didn’t know much about the applications of it. It is quite interesting to think back to this podcast now we are in the middle of this pandemic: every time I hear “no test is better than a bad test” it reminds me of listening to this! This is one of the moments where it has really hit home how applicable Human Sciences is to the struggles we are facing in our lifetimes.
Finally, here are resources we were recommended on UNIQ by one of the lecturers.
PODCASTS: Radiolab, Science Vs, Inquiring Minds, The Story Collider, The Infinite Monkey Cage, StarTalk radio, 60-Second Science, Stuff You Should Know, The Naked Scientists
YOUTUBE: National Geographic, VSauce, AsapSCIENCE, SmarterEveryDay, SciShow
Did you attend any lectures, or take part in any competitions? If so, would you recommend them, and why?
I attended the lectures on UNIQ, and also lectures on the Humanities and Social Sciences (HASS) residential hosted at Exeter University for Year 12 state students in the South West. On the residential I got to learn about sociology, philosophy, politics, criminology and law. Because I don’t do any humanities A-levels, I felt that these lectures really strengthened my application as it proved my interdisciplinary academic interests. I would highly recommend searching around for widening participation residentials because you can never learn too much about your subject!
I didn’t really find out about competitions until they had already closed which I was really bummed about at the time, but it didn’t weaken my application because I had so much other stuff I wanted to talk about. If you get to do competitions then that is great- but don’t fret if you cant 😊
Did you have any work experience?
nope! I was really unsure of what work experience I could do that would link to human sciences apart from labs, but unfortunately, I had missed the deadline for most and didn’t get places at the ones I did apply to. While I considered some more obscure placements like working in a museum, I couldn’t find anywhere in my area that would take year 12s on for work experience. Actual jobs are thin on the ground where I live, and decent placements are even harder to find!
Oxford knows that not everyone will have access to the same opportunities. All these things are so good to do and you can learn loads from them, but you application will not really be at a disadvantage if you don’t get work experience or participate in competitions. Again- don’t fret! I would just recommend looking earlier than I did
Did you have a specialist subject/EPQ?
I started an EPQ in year 12, but by the time I was sure that I wanted to do HumSci instead of Fine Art, I had chosen my universities and weighed up that the extra stress was not what I needed in my life as my personal life became very turbulent at this time and I was finding it hard to keep up with my studies. I did make sure to learn my super curricular topics in as much depth as possible though, and I would have loved to do an EPQ on the cultural significance of education. I will probably research this more during lockdown anyway to give me something to do!
What did you mention in your personal statement and why?
My personal statement was actually the part I found trickiest during the whole process. I applied for combinations of Human Sciences, Anthropology, Politics and Spanish across my 5 choices, and I had a lot to try and include in a very limited piece of writing… but I managed it!
For my personal statement I made sure to reinforce all the way through how strongly I believed my interests linked to HumSci, and why I believed HumSci was important. I discussed the most interesting points I extracted from my reading and made sure to use my own opinions instead of talking about what other people think… it’s a *personal* statement for a reason!
I had two paragraphs on the residentials I attended and what I learned from them academically, a paragraph explaining what skills I gained from each of my a-level courses and why they would benefit me for the course, and a small concluding paragraph with some extracurricular skills and linking back to my desire to study the subject.
My four top tips for a HumSci personal statement would be:
1-They know you are applying to other universities and probably other courses. Writing a statement for HumSci can feel confusing because of the diversity of the course itself and how very few people apply for it at all 5 universities. If, for example, you are applying to four psychology courses but human sciences at Oxford, write about psychology. If you are applying to anthropology, neuroscience, genetics, biology, you name it… write about it. You don’t have to even name human sciences in your personal statement. Having a niche interest can actually really help focus your statement and cut out waffle.
(Personally, I did mention Human Sciences in my statement, but a lot of what I wrote was anthropological and I only had a small section dedicated to science.)
2-Only mention things that you would be excited and prepared to talk about at interview, as this is one of the main purposes for the personal statement alongside giving the admissions team an insight into who you are.
3-Show rather than tell. Whenever you want to make a statement such as “I am passionate about Human Sciences”, take a moment to consider WHY you are. Once you have done that, take the sentence out and write your reasons. Empty statements don’t benefit you, and the admissions team will have no more idea about why they should choose you for this subject than they did before they started reading.
4-Get others to read through it. They don’t have to be experts in your subject to be helpful, but I can guarantee they will spot errors that you will have missed. Whether it’s a teacher, a parent or a friend, hand it over and just let them read. I would advise caution here though; constructive criticism is great, and it will improve your PS. However, the more alterations and different opinions you take on board, the more your statement will deviate from your own voice. You don’t want to sound like a robot!
What techniques did you use for the entrance test?
For Human Sciences, you have to take both sections of the Thinking Skills Assessment Oxford (TSA) It consist of a 1.5 hour multiple choice test focusing on problem solving and critical thinking, and a half hour essay on one question chosen from 4 options in the test.
Because the TSA does not require any subject knowledge, it is used for many different subjects which weight the test differently for shortlisting and admissions, and for which you would be aiming for different scores.
For Human Sciences, the TSA and your contextualised GCSE score are weighted 50:50 for determining who gets an interview. You should be aiming for a score above 60, and anything above 65 is considered very good for the subject. Do not be shaken by PPE and E&M students who get scores in the 70s and don’t get shortlisted; they are far more competitive subjects and the standards are much higher to get the numbers down.
I started thinking about the entrance test quite in advance, and so I counted how many past papers there are and then counted that many weeks back from when I would be sitting the test. Starting from the oldest past paper, I did one test a week.
My first ever attempt at the TSA got me a score of 53, and in the real thing I scored 67.3 overall. Although this test is aptitude based and you are likely to score similarly every time, you do get better with practise as you acclimatise to the types of questions asked and the short time limit.
I did every practise paper in test conditions- quiet room, by myself and 90 minutes on the timer. One of the biggest troubles people have with the TSA is running out of time, so I recommend that you be harsh on yourself from the beginning. Some people found that it helped them to do all the past papers in 80 minutes, so when they did they real thing they had time to go back and check their answers; although I never tried this myself, it is worth a go if you find you are struggling to complete it in an hour and a half.
You will very likely find that you are better at either problem solving or critical thinking (Usually the latter.) Halfway through my practise tests I saw someone recommend doing all the critical thinking questions first, and then going through and doing the problem-solving ones afterwards. I used this technique in the real thing and it greatly helped me.
Now I’m going to admit that I hardly practised the essay at all. I did one full essay as practise the day before the test, and I planned my points for a couple as well. The essay isn’t marked for Human Sciences, and it doesn’t play much of a role in the selection process. So long as you make sure to be clear and concise in your answer, you will be fine! Write an introduction including the phrase “I argue that…” and continue this thread through three paragraphs with distinct but linking points. A conclusion is helpful, but it is better to finish your third point and scrap the conclusion rather than sacrifice your point for the sake of wrapping it all up. That being said, 3 points + 1 conclusion > 4 points and no conclusion.
Finally, I recommend trying to clear your head the evening beforehand. Don’t try to cram any more prep in because the last thing you want is to be overly stressed, sleep badly and be tired and panicked in the exam room. I sat down with some hot chocolate and a soft blanket and watched Gilmore Girls for an evening!
How did you choose your college? Did you go to an open day and if so, did it help you to decide?
I originally applied to St Hugh’s and got my offer from Keble. (I must admit that after my interviews I was secretly hoping that I would get an offer from Keble) For people fresh out of sixth form, there are only 9 colleges that offer HumSci which is both a blessing and a curse. Although it would be cool to have more choice, selecting a college is easier when you have fewer to choose from!
I went to the summer open day and visited three colleges: Magdalen, Hertford and St Hugh’s. Before I went to the open day, I had a strong feeling I would be applying to Magdalen because of how gorgeous and large it is, and I was really taken with the dining hall and the deer park. Going on a tour of the college, I didn’t feel the connection to the place that I had expected. I still thought that it was lovely, but it wasn’t the right place for me.
St Hugh’s was the first college I visited on the day and I ended up staying for over an hour longer than I had scheduled because I loved it so much! I realised that I preferred to be slightly further out from the centre, and I enjoyed having so much greenery around me. The welfare activities seemed so pure (flower arranging!!) and the proximity to the Pauling Centre (Home of HumSci) was useful too. I came away from the open day with no doubt in my mind about where I would apply.
Although I was so deeply in love with St Hugh’s, I couldn’t help but be elated that I got Keble as I had largely overlooked the college. I still had the greenery, as it is opposite university parks, and it is equidistant between the centre of Oxford and the Pauling Centre, which makes it more convenient than Hugh’s. Moreover, I realised I kinda missed the tradition offered at some other colleges, and the hall in Keble is just beautiful!! The accommodation beats St Hugh’s any day, and I’ve heard the food is great too!
All in all, I would have been over the moon at St Hugh’s, but I am equally in love with Keble. You will love whatever college you get!
How did you find the interview process?
Waiting to hear whether I had an interview was emotionally draining for me. I struggled with not knowing exactly when I would hear back and fell into the trap of constantly checking my emails at the end of November until I received my invite in the middle of maths class 2 weeks before interviews were due to be held.
Once I knew I had an interview, I was remarkably calm. I started to recap the content of my personal statement and do some further reading around the subject, but because I had received such excellent advice on how to approach the interviews from my widening participation mentor, I trusted that I would perform to the best of my ability.
I was asked to arrive at St Hugh’s on Tuesday and told I would be free to go by lunchtime on Friday. Arriving in Hugh’s was incredibly exciting even if reality did begin to hit a little at that point. After dinner on my first night, interview times were posted on the noticeboard by the door, so I knew right away where I would need to be and when. All candidates for Human Sciences are guaranteed interviews at two colleges, and you find out you second college as soon as times are posted.
My first interview on the Wednesday was a really pleasant surprise. The interviewers were so lovely and welcoming, and they seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say. I enjoyed my interview so much that it felt like I blinked, and it was all over- I kept notes of my thoughts as soon as each interview was over, and I wrote “fastest 20 minutes of my life”!
I had been warned by other applicants that my second interviewer would be acting as the ‘bad cop’- aka, he would be pushing me much harder than the other had. I found that hard to believe because he was so lovely in our briefing, but once I got in there it was a different ballgame! I tried not to let it get to me and continued to approach the questions in the same way as I would for any other interviewer, and clearly it must have gone better than I thought it had. I did make a very silly mistake in this one, calling South America ‘South Africa’ by accident, and it preyed on my mind for far too long! Everyone else I spoke to had said things they thought were silly as well though. It is ok to slip up and it proves you are human.
My third interview at Keble was far more relaxed due to how I had gradually acclimatised to the process by that point. As with the others, it was led by two interviewers with one taking the lead and the other asking only one or two questions (all 3 consisted of one male and one female interviewer) I was so pleased when I left this one that I walked out in a daze and realised I’d wandered into the admin offices, then had to find a student helper to assist me in finding my way out of the college- oops!
On Thursday evening the HumSci interviewers had a meeting to discuss who to call for a last interview with the panel. This is when they have candidates that are strong enough to give an offer to that are unplaced and have not yet been taken up by a college. If you get a panel interview, this shows they have faith in you, so don’t worry! Checking the board to find out I didn’t have another interview was a huge relief though, and I celebrated by staying awake until 6am watching the general election results come out with my friends. What a time to be in Oxford!
Overall, I had a really positive interview experience. There were highs and lows but I am proud of how I conducted myself and I had lots of fun by the time I had to pack up and leave at the end of the week.
Any interview tips?
1-Say everything that comes to mind. The interviews go by so fast that you will regret it if you don’t say what you were thinking at the time.
2-Practise analysing graphs, charts and images. Be able to talk about what you find interesting and be able to form opinions on what factors you think have influenced what you are seeing
3-Make sure you keep reading around the subject before interviews. There were a few occasions where I was asked about topics that I had researched only a few days beforehand!
4-Be yourself! The interviewers want to find people, not robots. Don’t be afraid to laugh, talk and dress in your normal manner. (I wore jeans and a jumper for all my interviews)
5-Admit your mistakes and move on from them. Asides from the whole South America saga, in one interview I found myself rambling on and repeating the question back to the interviewer. I realised this, acknowledged to him that I had done this, and he led me down the correct path.
6-Where you don’t know an answer straight away, think out loud and explore different ways you would approach it. Human Sciences is all about finding different approaches to tackling problems, so the more you can show you can do this in the interview, the more you will show you are suited to the course.
7-Find a way to be able to wind down in the evenings. It doesn’t do anyone any good to dwell on an interview that has already finished, so whether you go and socialise in the JCR or you curl up under a blanket and watch your favourite show, make sure that you can sleep well that night.
8-PLEASE BRING A BLANKET! I was so cold in my room, and you do not want to be chilly on a December night when you have a big day ahead of you.
9-Check in with your parents/guardians/carers even for 5 minutes each night because they will be dying to hear from you!
Did you socialise during interview week? If so, what did you do?
I was lucky to have my best friend at interviews at the same time as she submitted an open application and was allocated to the same college. We stuck together a lot, but also spent time in the JCR playing pool and mafia with everyone else and getting to know the other candidates. It was great to be able to relate to everyone else because you are all in the same boat. I ended up making a really great friend from America who was applying for law, and it was so interesting to see where our subjects overlapped!
During the half-hour report time before interviews I spoke to others in the waiting room to keep me distracted and stop me panicking. Also, the student helpers were so friendly and gave great advice!
How did you feel after the interviews?
I felt really relaxed. It was calming to know that I had done all I could whatever the outcome, and I just shut my mind off from thinking about Oxford too much until the week before decisions came out when the panic began to sink in. I felt that my interviews were probably rather average, and I wouldn’t get an offer, but it made me fall in love with my insurance choice. I had actually planned out a lot of my future at Exeter before I got my Oxford offer because I was so sure I would be going there, which gave me a weird sense of closure. I definitely felt prepared to be rejected. I was very appreciative that I got the chance to be interviewed and I still felt proud to have got that far.
Where were you when you got your offer? How did you react?
I heard the doorbell ring at quarter to 9 in the morning and took in a parcel, only to realise there was a letter on top of it with an Oxford stamp on. My mum got really excited and insisted that we open it together. I once again told her not to expect an offer letter in the envelope and sat down next to her and opened it…. to see Keble college marked at the top. Before I even unfolded the letter to read the contents, I started shaking because I knew it had to be an offer (due to the fact I had applied to Hugh’s)
Reading the words “I am pleased to offer you…” was extremely surreal. My mum had never doubted that I would get an offer, but even still she was utterly delighted and shocked that I was holding proof that Oxford university wanted me to go there. I was absolutely over the moon and immediately updated all my friends from UNIQ before having to sprint to my 9:15 lesson! It took a long time for it to sink in and I’m still not even sure it has, but it was the best feeling ever.
Are you looking forward to coming up to Oxford?
Absolutely! I have already made friends with so many other offer holders in WhatsApp and Instagram groups and I am really excited to meet everyone in person and to study the degree of my dreams. What with all the added confusion surrounding the pandemic, I can’t wait to get back to normality and have a structured education once more!
So there we have it- all the reasons of why you should apply to Human Sciences and how you can prepare your application. If you have read this and you don't think it's quite your cup of tea, please share with friends who are interested in biological or social sciences, because you never know who is just waiting to stumble across their perfect course.
This chapter just goes to prove that Oxford students are not one-size-fits-all kinds of people. Here you were, with no Oxford background, not even wanting to go to university at all. You only looked at a degree because you wanted to teach, and when you by chance got onto a UNIQ programme (highly recommended by many people who have written these chapters) you chose Human Science because you needed a second subject. Then you fell in love. I simply love the randomness of all of this!
So do not, dear reader, think that Oxford students are born with silver spoons in their mouths and are tutored to smithereens for an Oxford place they were destined for since the age of 11! You, like Shiobha, could just fall into it, take a chance on Oxford and walk away with a top notch education!
So now you have found out about your dream course, you wisely decide to research it. You find out about those two icons of Oxford, Vee Katihvu and Tilly Rose. You listen to Ted Talks and you go to residentials. Many of the chapters I have read show me students who have an organised plan, just like you. They are determined to find out more about their subject.
I love the advice you give about the TSA as well. It will put many candidates' minds at rest.
You have prepared well for the interview, and the blanket remark is very apt, especially as we are talking Oxford in December!
As a parent, I particularly appreciate your comment about keeping your parents informed about how the interviews are going. We are probably as nervous as you! I can remember my elder son phoning me after the first interview and saying it had gone well. He then added that he was excited because straight afterwards he had wandered into Blackwells and seen my favourite celebrity, Michael Palin, signing books. He saw that as a good omen, and this set him up nicely for the second interview, which went really, really well!
Having people around to fix the problems of the world will, I am sure, come in very useful in the current uncertain climate.
I wish you all the luck in the world.
Thank you for instilling a new hope in me that I could possibly ever get to Oxford!!
I cannot thank you enough for this incredibly useful thread on the Human Sciences, all your in-depth advice about every single step of the application process is beyond helpful!
Thank you for instilling a new hope in me that I could possibly ever get to Oxford!!
Now look at her! An Oxford offer holder!
At last, when someone asks me about Human Sciences, I can send them something that is actually useful!
so I’m thinking of studying human sciences at uni and figured it would be good to encorporate this into my epq. I was thinking I could study something along the lines of ‘to what extent are the decisions we make already decided’ and focus on the biological side vs the societal side.
Does this sound like a good idea or is it too pyschological for human sciences??
Do you have any ideas of points I could include or how to structure???