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How To Get An Oxford Engineering Offer: Chapter 3 - Super-curricular and Resources

Super-curricular activities

So, let’s talk about engineering super-curricular activities. These are arguably more important than the style of your personal statement since these really show your passion for the subject and why Oxford should accept you. Super-curricular activities are activities within your subject beyond the standard curriculum (this means your homework, A-Levels, etc.). I’ve collated some engineering ideas; you likely will not be able to do all of these (I didn’t!) but doing some is a good idea. With all super-curriculars do something that genuinely interests you; faking an interest because you think a certain activity would look better than an alternative will only make it less enjoyable for you and harder to discuss enthusiastically.

Do some wider reading. I only read a small number of books directly related to engineering and instead read online articles about engineering topics that interested me. If you find a book you think may be a good read, go for it! One rule of thumb is to try and allude to at least one book/piece of reading in your personal statement, though if nothing inspires you it’s not a requirement. Please note Oxford as a University do not have an official engineering recommended reading list, but some individual colleges may (e.g. Balliol,

Develop digital skills. Programming and 3D modelling are two key digital skills for engineers. If they’re totally new to you, why not give them a try? These and other digital skills will be beneficial for both the course and your application, as such proficiencies show you understand the tools of the industry and how to use them. I recommend Sketchup or Blender as good free software for beginners. The former is good for architectural design whereas the latter is more powerful and multi-purpose, despite the steeper learning curve.

Make or do something. Personally, I found my passion for engineering through designing roller coasters with the software NoLimits 2 I became aware of not only what engineering projects would be like, but also how fun they can be! If you have an interest that you could make or do something engineering related in, a project of your own design can spark your creativity as well as being an enjoyable venture. If you do, ensure you’re thinking critically about what engineering skills you develop as you go.

Undertake summer schools. My experiences at the UNIQ and Sutton Trust Summer Schools were able to better inform my university choices whilst giving a significant boost to my application. These summer schools were fantastic and fun, but also gave me ideal personal statement experiences. They demonstrate an interest in the subject (you’ve given up time to complete the summer school) and give you specific topics to talk about in your statement for example, I wrote about a project on wind turbines I undertook at Durham and the elements which interested me most. Access schemes like these have little financial cost for attendees as the universities cover your travel, accommodation and nearly all food. However, due to their access-based aims you may not meet the criteria aside from academic strength by no fault of your own. I applied for the Headstart Engineering courses which are more expensive but aren’t access schemes. These have a good reputation and are highly worthwhile (though I did not attend one myself).

Work shadowing. I took part in the great “BAE Systems Engineering Taster Week”, a scheme where you and other attendees work on a military-based project at BAE for 5 days then present your work. This scheme was again of little cost to me (accommodation and food were provided) and extremely valuable, particularly as I had not explored aerospace engineering previously. This was a silver-accredited Industrial Cadets scheme; you can find out online about which schemes award this verified qualification. Additionally, I also did a week working at Alton Towers to satisfy my desire for theme park experience. There is a wide range of engineering-based workplace options that may interest you and offer work experience. Getting these opportunities requires a thoughtful cover letter or other application form, as well as a bit of luck. Some companies have official schemes with formal application processes, but otherwise you will need to reach out to the company directly. The application deadlines for formal schemes are often early so make sure you’re proactive and ideally planning ahead soon after starting year 12!

EPQs. EPQs allow you to choose a subject and research it in depth before completing a report and/or a practical project (e.g. website or app). If you focus your project on something engineering based, you will find it much easier to link into a strong personal statement and more relevant for gaining additional knowledge in your chosen field. They are useful, though not mandatory.

Olympiads and other challenges. The Physics and Maths Olympiads as well as the UKMT challenges are all good ways to show you have a higher level of understanding. These only come once a year and are mostly arranged through your school, though not all schools offer them. If you place highly enough to get an award (gold, silver, etc.), well done! Mentioning the Olympiad and your award briefly in your personal statement or teacher reference gives a quantifiable idea of your strength at essential subjects.

Essay-writing competitions. Essay-writing encourages you to research and synthesize knowledge on a topic. It’s a great way to explore an area of engineering which interests you and may inspire your personal statement topics. It also highlights good literacy and report writing skills. If you do win an essay prize, be sure to mention it, though competing is beneficial regardless. I enjoyed preparing and writing my entries although I didn’t win any prizes.

Online courses. MOOCs (massive open online courses) are a good way to enhance your learning, particularly if you haven’t had the opportunity to participate in a summer school. There’s a large variety online, so trying a few to get a taster before fully completing them may be sensible. Doing further research or applying what you’ve learned in real scenarios makes MOOCs easier to discuss and shows an admissions tutor that you are intellectually curious. Open University is a good provider of free MOOCs also.

Lectures. Universities often do publicly accessible lectures for example, I went to the nearby University of Manchester for lectures on politics and physics. Lectures are not only at the academic level that you will want as an Oxford applicant, but they may encourage you to look at areas of your subject you’ve never thought about before. Search online to see if there are any public engineering lectures of interest going on near you. Alternatively, some universities publish lectures online, which allow you to watch them without travelling anywhere.

Societies and clubs. Running or taking part in an engineering, physics or maths society/club can allow you to meet with people with similar academic interests to you, allowing you to stretch and challenge each other’s perceptions of the subject. If you are struggling with doing so in your school, trying finding forums or groups online which you can get involved in. I personally participated in STEP Maths classes which built a great team of like-minded maths students who enjoyed complex problem-solving.

Women in engineering schemes. Whilst this obviously won’t apply to all my readers, women in engineering schemes can be a useful resource if you are a female-identifying applicant. These range from essay competitions (e.g. the Newnham essay prizes) to summer schools (the Trinity College Cambridge Women in STEM Summer school) and beyond. They provide a useful insight into the subject and will help you achieve your engineering aspirations. Search online to find more as there are many varied opportunities out there!

Super-curricular links:


A Short Introduction to Engineering by David Blockley. A concise book about the background of engineering

Sketchup. Beginner 3D modelling software

Blender. More advanced, but more powerful, 3D modelling software

NoLimits 2 Coaster Simulation. My program of choice for designing roller coasters -

UKMT Maths challenges. A variety of competitions available -

British Physics Olympiad challenges. A variety of competitions available -

EES. Team engineering project to design an engineering solution for a company -

STEP Maths. A Cambridge admissions qualification and useful to hone maths skills -

Essay writing and other contests by PetitePanda on TSR. A great resource including Oxford and Cambridge college competitions such as the Newnham essay prizes, amongst others -

Summer schools and access schemes to apply for:

UNIQ - (UK Year 12)

Sutton Trust - (Year 12)

EDT Headstart - (Year 12)

Isaac Physics Residential bootcamp (expected to return for future years) - (Year 12)

BAE Systems Engineering Taster Week - (Year 11+)

Bristol Engineering Department Outreach week - (Year 10-11)

Trinity College Women in STEM residential (female or non-binary only, Year 12) -

Oxford Uncover Engineering (female students ages 14-16) -

Resource Recommendations

Here’s some resources which I used and found useful during the application process, ranging from personal statement reading to interview preparation.

Professor Povey’s Perplexing Problems this great book is essential reading for interview preparation and by chance Professor Povey was one of the interviewers at my own Oxford interview. The problems in this book are some of the closest you’ll find to real Oxford interview questions, making it highly useful to attempt a reasonable number of problems. Personally, I spent most time on the 2-star problems. 1-star problems are good practice with simpler solutions and 3-star problems are great to ensure you stretch yourself; I still struggle with the 4-star problems now! The book also covers many topics I recommend trying some from every field to get a sense of the diversity of engineering and be fully prepared for whatever you may be asked. The book encourages you to "play with” the problems such as through trying different methods and reading about similar problems online, which can develop the kind of lateral thinking Oxford want to see.

IWantToStudyEngineering (iWTSE) this fantastic free site, funded by Cambridge, contains over 200 interview-style questions with a wide range of topics. I particularly like the thorough video explanations which mean if you get stuck you have a guided explanation of the entire problem; I found this meant I could use them as guidance for individual parts of the question I was stuck on, then carry on trying to reach the solution independently. All the questions are multiple-choice leading to an easy to use website, though the mobile optimization could be better. I completed every interview style problem on the site before my interview which helped give me awareness of both some classic puzzles and uniquely engineering problems. I’d highly recommend creating an account to track your progress, ensuring you don’t repeat problems unintentionally and giving you an idea which areas you have practiced least the problem generator is also useful for more variety in your questions.

PhysicsLab Questions quirky, quick questions focused on logic and new applications of concepts, but less structured and numerical than iWTSE. Answers to the questions are on the page, though I encourage struggling a bit before turning to the answer. The questions are grouped into different topics for ease of use, so it's easy to have variety in which topics you attempt. This free website is definitely worth checking out!

Isaac Physics another good free resource with a wealth of physics questions. Isaac Physics tends to focus on numerical questions to be completed with a calculator. The difficulty can range from easy to very hard, with the site recommending level 4-5 problems for interview preparation. In some questions the guided hints explain from the start to the answer, whereas in others the hints do not fully explain the question; this is more of a problem with trickier questions, meaning I sometimes found myself struggling to find exactly where I had gone wrong and unable to find the true solution. Additionally, the significant figures within a question can cause the system to flag a correct answer as wrong beware! However, looking past this, Isaac can be a valuable tool for Oxford and A-Level physics preparation.

engNRICH this useful website, by Cambridge, offers around 20 engineering puzzles to complete. Each problem includes hints under “getting started” and a comprehensive solution. The problems on engNRICH are similar to iWTSE, albeit without a video solution. engNRICH is part of a wider stemNRICH website with content including physics, chemistry and scientific maths which may also be of interest for engineering or to extend your A-Level studies in these subjects. I would personally complete the problems on iWTSE first then start trying those on engNRICH.

University College Website Univ provide a useful online hub to help with super-curricular activities and your application. If you enjoy reading, Staircase 12 and its reading bank section can help inspire you with potential books, each with a review to help you decide if the book interests you. The Resource Hub collates many videos, podcasts and websites that may be of interest. Engineering content comes under “Mathematical, Physical and Life Sciences”, maths or physics content is equally relevant. The “explore your subject” section also provides useful general tips about applying for Oxford.

Cambridge Recommended Reading unlike Oxford, Cambridge do have a recommended reading list for engineering. This includes over 30 engineering specific book suggestions which you may wish to read. I suggest reading online reviews to help decide which of them interest you most before acquiring any books.

How To Get Into Oxbridge I received this book as a present from a relative; it proved surprisingly interesting. This is a more generic guide to getting into Oxbridge, but there’s some engineering specific content included. I found this book most useful for interview preparation it has examples of past interview questions, a good section about the type of questions you may be asked as well as tips to navigate the interview process.

Resource Recommendations Links:

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(edited 3 years ago)
If you want some of this information in a more interactive format, I've now got a video on super-curricular out on the Oxcentric YouTube channel:

I hope to do a video on resources in the near future.
this is super helpful, thanks!!

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