How To Get An Oxford Engineering Offer: Chapter 4 - The Admissions Test (PAT)

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If you are applying to Oxford for engineering, you will be sitting the Physics Admissions Test (PAT) in late October/early November. From inception in 2006 to its present version, the PAT format has changed multiple times. As of 2018, the test includes a mixture of maths and physics questions; calculators are permitted but are only helpful on some questions. Multiple choice questions are currently included and the maths and physics questions are now mixed instead of grouped into sections. The test aims to measure your ability to apply known physics knowledge to unfamiliar contexts, combined with demonstrating strong mathematical skills.

The early PAT papers start with moderate difficulty but are increasingly more difficult from around 2013, with this trend continuing to 2019 (the hardest paper yet).

Mark schemes:
Oxford do not release an official PAT mark scheme; therefore, you need to find solutions on your own. I’d recommend the helpful free handwritten solutions by Physics&MathsTutor for a variety of the past PAT papers and ENGAA papers. If you want a more formalized mark scheme, I’d suggest Matthew French’s Oxford PAT guides - ensure you are buying the most recent version though, as he releases a new one each year with the previous year’s answers in. However, I have personally published my solutions to the 2019 paper, so you don’t have to spend anything to get access to the most recent solutions.

Calculators are allowed for the paper as of 2018. Many questions on the PAT are designed so they cannot be completed with a calculator, however when the situation arises you should use the calculator and save time for other questions. When practicing older PATs (pre-calculator) I would complete them as such; improving your mental maths will be beneficial and your result will be easier to compare with the averages from the paper. More details on the calculators allowed can be found on the website.

My PAT Revision Strategy:
Before the exam, I would aim to attempt every paper at least once. I advise that you sit at least 3 PAT papers under exam conditions and mark them; whilst this is hard work it gives you an idea of how the exam will feel. Marking them yourself is the best way to become aware of your mistakes and how to fix them.

I personally attempted every PAT paper twice before the exam. I first did them all except the 2018 paper under non-exam conditions over a period before the Summer, then returned to them in September and did every paper from 2006 to 2018 under exam conditions before the real exam. I would recommend starting with the oldest papers, as they are generally easier, then working your way towards the present. By the time you reach the harder papers you will be better practiced on the skills you require. I found marking and recording the scores was a good way to track progress. Don’t be alarmed if your score goes down as you get closer to the 2019 paper – mine did - the papers get harder, and Oxford know this!

I also completed all the past and sample Cambridge Engineering Admissions Assessments (ENGAA) before my PAT exam. The ENGAA papers require a different skillset than the PAT papers which makes them interesting to try. The questions tend to split into pure maths, physics and logic puzzles. For example, compared to the PAT, I found mechanics and purely calculational questions more common in the ENGAA. Currently, the ENGAA is entirely multiple choice with simpler questions but a much greater volume than the PAT – I found the challenge lies primarily within time management and quick thinking. The ENGAA requires you look at a problem then rapidly identify a path to a solution, or simply guess the answer and move on to attempt questions you have a better chance on. The PAT focuses more on the application of unfamiliar and complex physical concepts within longer questions under less time pressure. Both offer the opportunity to develop applicable skills.

Outside of the past papers, questions from my recommended resources like Isaac Physics and iWTSE can help reinforce your understanding of the Physics content required.

The Physics Aptitude Test syllabus can be found online. Any content within this syllabus may appear on your paper, so ensure you have covered and revised it before exam day. The paper may include any content from AS/Year 1 Maths and Physics as well as select parts of the A-Level only courses. For Physics, this includes capacitors, circular motion, electric fields. For Maths this includes sequences, exponentials, natural logarithms and integration.

Surveying a PAT question:
PAT questions vary immensely so it is hard to give a method for a generic approach. When attempting a PAT question, read the question then first consider the kind of physics concepts you could apply that may be relevant. This may require some calm thinking; you can’t let an unfamiliar scenario deter you! Keywords and content should guide you – for example, if a ray diagram is featured it is the question may be related to refraction and hence to total internal reflection. Once you establish what may be required you can start to answer the question.

Types of PAT question:
These are some of the broad categories of question I observed when doing past papers. This is not an exhaustive list but helps introduce the types of questions you may encounter, including an example of each from the 2019 and 2018 papers.
  • Multi-choice. Approximately the first 12 questions are multi-choice. They are the shortest full questions, worth 2 marks each, requiring less thought and including some of the easiest marks on the paper. Don’t rush this section but refrain from spending too long on particularly tricky individual questions as they represent few marks.
  • Standard mathematical. Standard mathematical questions are the kind you would find on an A-Level Maths paper. They may require knowledge of core skills (e.g. differentiation, sequences, solving quadratics) but are some of the easiest questions for students with strong mathematical instincts. Example: Q18 from 2019, which uses knowledge of natural logarithms and quadratic solving.
  • Unusual mathematical. These are questions which, at their core, test a mathematical concept but include a basis within a real-life scenario or another unusual twist. These require you to analyse the question, decide what Maths is needed, then execute it. Example: Q23 from 2019 which contextualizes a geometric sequences problem.
  • Geometric. Usually, there is at least one major geometric question each year, worth around 6-7 marks. Geometric questions use your knowledge of shapes to find areas, lengths and angles. They are often based on a geometric situation using triangles, circles or regular polygons. The cosine rule, sine rule, right angle triangles (Pythagoras) and circle theorems frequently appear in these questions. Example: Q17 from 2019.
  • Standard physics. Similar to the standard Maths, these involve the application of a physics skill in a way you may already be familiar with in an A-Level question style. Example: Q11 from 2019, a resistor networks question (a commonly recurring genre of this question).
  • Unusual physics. Making up most of the physics content, these questions present you with new formulae and concepts. They rely on being able to find what you know in a question, as they will be constructed from familiar concepts. Example: Q15 from 2019.
  • Dimensional analysis. Dimensional analysis involves looking at the units (dimensions) of inputs and outputs to ensure they match. This usually is in multi-choice as a 1 marker or can be a small part of a longer question. Example: Q3 from 2018. This question requires you to simplify these formulae down into SI units to see which is the odd one out – to do this, you can use the formulae for the quantities with the given measurements.

PAT Conclusion:
The PAT remains an unpredictable exam, however with plenty of past papers and practice you can develop the thinking skills that will help you gain a strong score. 2019’s PAT was the hardest on record, with a mean mark of 41.9%. The paper is not treated like an A-Level exam; marking is less rigid, and a seemingly modest score can still distinguish your application.

If you have just completed the PAT and found it hard, do not be worried! Public domain statistics indicate that Oxford require higher scores on the PAT from physics applicants than engineering. Whilst it is still important, engineering applicants have greater room for error on the paper.

Personally, I walked out of my PAT in an awful state of mind. I felt my performance to be at best below average despite my large volume of preparation and was concerned it might jeopardize my chances. Yet, I was still able to obtain an offer. In conclusion, whilst a good PAT score is a great way to boost your application, it’s not the only part of your application.

Admissions Test links:

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Last edited by NemesisRider; 2 years ago
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