Oxford Demystified – Physics and Philosophy

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petrolhead008
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For context, I've just finished my third year studying Physics and Philosophy (PhysPhil) so whilst I'm not an incoming fresher hopefully the advice below is still helpful!

Why did you want to study your subject?

I’d always been interested in maths and physics and science more generally and I was pretty certain I wanted to study something along those lines. In the summer after GCSEs I read an introductory philosophy book (Think by Simon Blackburn) having not really known much about it before. I can’t remember why I decided to read it, but it got me interested in the subject as philosophy seemed to tackle questions which were clearly unanswerable by science but still important: questions like “what is justice” or “what is the right thing to do” or “what does it mean to know something”. I was particularly interested in ethics, which is the study of morality – what is right and what is wrong – and I began to read a bit more around it.

I then found out about the possibility of studying Physics and Philosophy at university and realised that there were other areas of philosophy as well. I read into the philosophy of science and found it fascinating that you could take science – the thing I had always been interested by – and start to philosophise about it. What makes science successful? What makes something science? What do scientists mean when they talk of “electrons” and “magnetic fields” – are both of these as real as each other? Do the laws of nature control how things behave, and if so, how do they do that? These kinds of questions really drew me in.

And then I also started to read into what the philosophy of physics was all about, and it seemed like this was the course for me. Not only would I get to study physics, but I’d be able to philosophise about it! I’d be able to tackle questions like “what is the most viable interpretation of quantum mechanics” and “is spacetime structure fundamentally real or just a representation of the properties of the laws of nature” which sounded cool even if I didn’t fully understand them.

Why Oxford?

Once I had decided I wanted to study Physics and Philosophy, it was clear that Oxford was the top place to study it in the UK.

Did any of your teachers inspire you? Or anyone else?

I remember watching a lengthy interview with Richard Feynman as part of a BBC Horizon documentary. I really enjoyed listening to him speak and started reading a couple of books by him. I already enjoyed physics by that point but he got me more excited by it all. For me it was always various documentaries on TV (e.g. The Sky at Night on the BBC) which drew me into physics, whereas for philosophy it was the reading I did which got me more interested in the subject.

However, what probably really inspired me physics-wise were YouTube channels. YouTube was starting to get big whilst I was growing up, and to this day I still get excited when a Sixty Symbols, Numberphile, DeepSkyVideos, 3Blue1Brown or Veritasium video gets released (and I've probably forgotten a lot more!). Sixty Symbols probably had the most impact on me, because it gives you the opportunity to hear scientists talk about their own research and about all other aspects of physics, and you can really see the passion come through and you can tell they love what they do.

Which resources did you use? Which books/journals did you read? Which did you like best, and why? What did they teach you?

For preparing for physics, I primarily used Isaac Physics. It’s a great resource for practising physics problems and Oxford still recommend it for applicants. The British Physics Olympiad is also a great resource for more challenging questions which really stretch you.

As mentioned before, for philosophy I read Think by Simon Blackburn. I also read The Problems of Philosophy by Bertrand Russell, Cycles of Time and Shadows of the Mind by Roger Penrose, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn and Against Method by Paul Feyerabend. Of those a good introductory philosophy book like Think is really important to make sure you know what philosophy is and to confirm that you really are interested in the general questions philosophy tries to tackle. Other introductory philosophy books to look at if you don’t like the ones above are Philosophy: The Basics by Nigel Warburton and What Does It All Mean? by Thomas Nagel. Kuhn’s book is a classic in the philosophy of science: it’s where the term paradigm-shift comes from! I also read a few sections of Understanding Philosophy of Science by James Ladyman which give me an introduction into the philosophy of science and its different issues.

On the physics side, I read Six Easy Pieces, Six Not So Easy Pieces and Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman by Richard Feynman, as well as It’s Not Rocket Science by Ben Miller and others. I also liked reading the magazine New Scientist. For physics it really isn’t that important what you read, so long as you read about what you’re interested in.

Here are some more links which you might find helpful:

http://www.ox.ac.uk/admissions/under...-and-resources
https://www.balliol.ox.ac.uk/admissi...y-reading-list
http://podcasts.ox.ac.uk/physics-and...y-introduction

Did you attend any lectures, or take part in any competitions? If so, would you recommend them, and why?

I would definitely recommend taking part in the Physics Olympiad if you can. Don’t worry if you find it difficult – the point isn’t to do well (though it’s nice if you do) but to get yourself used to tackling challenging problems. I also attended any public lectures on physics given by my local university, and I’d recommend this only if you want to. There’s no need to do this but it was another thing I could put on my personal statement.

Did you have any work experience? If so, how did you find it?

I was lucky enough to have a week’s work experience at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy. I really enjoyed it and it gave me a good insight into life as a scientist working at Culham. I spent the week learning how to code some basic projectile motion in Python, but what I did isn’t really important. Instead, I learnt that I could see myself in that kind of environment and I found the research they were doing exciting and interesting.

Did you have a specialist subject/EPQ? What was it? How did you go about your research?

I did the IB, so I had to do a 4000-word Extended Essay (EE). I did mine on the philosophy of science; in particular, I looked at Feyerabend’s Against Method and examined his view that there is no scientific method. In terms of going about my research, I tried to read widely (including Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic, Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and Popper’s The Logic of Scientific Discovery) and spent a lot of time planning before starting to write. I had a supervisor (my physics teacher who also had an interest in the philosophy of science) who guided me and I found this helpful.

What did you mention in your personal statement and why?

It’s worth saying that for physics at Oxford, the personal statement is not that important. The main things they care about is how you do on the Physisc Aptitude Test (PAT) and how you do at interview. It might be slightly more important for philosophy, but I wasn’t asked about it at interview.

Having said that, I mentioned the books I’d read, my work experience and my EE, before going onto talk about extracurricular stuff I did. Why? Because, as far as I understood, that’s what a personal statement was there for: for you to demonstrate the reading and other things you’d done because you’re genuinely interested in studying the course you’re applying for.

Which techniques did you use for the entrance test?

I went through all the past papers on the website and looked for example solutions online and compared my answers to those (though my teachers agreed to mark a couple of papers I did). I also did a few Physics Olympiad papers and worked through a lot of Isaac Physics problems.

How did you choose your college? Did you go to an open day and if so, did it help you to decide?

I was initially going to apply to Balliol as they have the biggest PhysPhil cohort. However, on the open day I was in the Physics department and a fourth-year PhysPhil recommended Brasenose. So I went to Brasenose and immediately loved the friendly atmosphere, the location and the views. So how did I choose? I went to the open day and picked the college I liked the best.

How did you find the interview process?

Interviews aside, the few days you get to stay at Oxford is a really fun experience. You get to meet other people applying both for your course and a load of others and you get to experience life in an Oxford college for a few days. Physics is always in the last week of interviews which means the Christmas markets are up and it’s a wonderful time to be in Oxford.

As for the actual interviews: I had four (one Maths, one Physics and one Philosophy at Brasenose and one combined Physics and Philosophy at Balliol). Like I’ve said, I had virtually no questions about my personal statement (I mentioned something about particle physics so I had a quick question asking me about my interest in that but nothing else). For the Maths and Physics ones, although the format may vary from college to college, it essentially boils down to them asking you questions which may be challenging or which you have no idea how to solve, and then seeing how you progress as they help you through.

If you answer a question without any help, that’s great and will certainly look good. But in my opinion, the interview only really starts when they ask you something which you have no idea how to tackle. Then they give you a few hints and they want to see how you use them. They want to see how teachable you are, how you react to help, whether when you’re stuck you know why you’re stuck (e.g. what piece of information might you need to solve this problem?).

For Philosophy I talked about nothing I had read or in my personal statement. Instead I was asked open-ended questions which started a discussion. As you might expect, whatever I replied with they always challenged me to see if I could think on my feet.

Any interview tips?

Physics: practise talking aloud through problems so that doing so in the interview doesn’t throw you off. Although there’s no requirement to speak out loud during an interview, it really helps the interviewers know if you’re starting to go down the wrong path. They’re there to help you, after all, and they’ll stop you if they realise you’re making a mistake. Speaking out loud means you keep the dialogue going and they can see how you think and how you’re tackling the problem. Don’t worry if you think they’ve gone badly: after all, they want to push you until you don’t know how to solve a question, and then they’ll see how you react to the hints and help they give. You might also find the following link helpful:

http://apply.oxfordsu.org/courses/physics/interviews/

Philosophy: practise talking about issues out loud with others. It’s hard to recommend what issues exactly because they can ask you about anything – but ultimately it doesn’t matter what you practise talking about as long as you practise getting your point across clearly. For example, you could take a recent news article and discuss it with a friend: what do you think about it? Who does this affect? You could find a contentious issue and practise arguing both for and against it out loud. It’s important to have an idea of what philosophy is and you could practise talking about philosophical issues if you’d like, but they won’t expect you to know any philosophy. That is, they won’t expect you to be able to quote Sartre or discuss Popper in detail, unless you’ve talked about them on your personal statement (but even then, as I’ve said above, they might not ask you about anything on your personal statement!). You might also find the following link helpful:

https://www.ox.ac.uk/sites/files/oxf...202019_WEB.pdf

Did you socialise during interview week? If so, what did you do?

Absolutely – I think that was the best part! The college held a lot of events throughout my time there. There were trips to the local ice cream shop and Christmas market and there were films, Mario Kart, FIFA and lots of board games/pool in the Junior Common Room (JCR). Ultimately I just ended up chatting to a lot of people before and after my interview. Even though some of the people I made friends with didn’t get in, we still keep in touch. I definitely think it’s worth socialising instead of spending most of your time locked up in your room.

On the first day, the Head Tutor for Physics told us that it’s unlikely we’d be able to learn anything new before our interviews, so the best thing to do would be to try and relax and enjoy our time in Oxford. Although it may be worth brushing up on the basics, I’d largely agree, so I’d recommend trying to have fun when you can!

How did you feel after interviews?

Mixed. I thought one of them had gone well but the rest not so well, with one of them going disastrously. However I had really enjoyed my time during interviews getting to know the other applicants and just roaming around the place.

Where were you when you got your offer? How did you react?

I was at home and had just got back from school. I don’t think it sunk in until my first day at Oxford, but at the time I was really happy: I knew I was lucky enough to study something which really interested me in a place which so many dream about, and I couldn’t wait to get started.

Are you looking forward to coming up to Oxford?

Absolutely! Oxford is a great place to be a student and I can’t wait to make the most of my final year starting in October.

Thank you Oxford Mum for letting me be part of this!
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Mona123456
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(Original post by petrolhead008)
For context, I've just finished my third year studying Physics and Philosophy (PhysPhil) so whilst I'm not an incoming fresher hopefully the advice below is still helpful!

Why did you want to study your subject?

I’d always been interested in maths and physics and science more generally and I was pretty certain I wanted to study something along those lines. In the summer after GCSEs I read an introductory philosophy book (Think by Simon Blackburn) having not really known much about it before. I can’t remember why I decided to read it, but it got me interested in the subject as philosophy seemed to tackle questions which were clearly unanswerable by science but still important: questions like “what is justice” or “what is the right thing to do” or “what does it mean to know something”. I was particularly interested in ethics, which is the study of morality – what is right and what is wrong – and I began to read a bit more around it.

I then found out about the possibility of studying Physics and Philosophy at university and realised that there were other areas of philosophy as well. I read into the philosophy of science and found it fascinating that you could take science – the thing I had always been interested by – and start to philosophise about it. What makes science successful? What makes something science? What do scientists mean when they talk of “electrons” and “magnetic fields” – are both of these as real as each other? Do the laws of nature control how things behave, and if so, how do they do that? These kinds of questions really drew me in.

And then I also started to read into what the philosophy of physics was all about, and it seemed like this was the course for me. Not only would I get to study physics, but I’d be able to philosophise about it! I’d be able to tackle questions like “what is the most viable interpretation of quantum mechanics” and “is spacetime structure fundamentally real or just a representation of the properties of the laws of nature” which sounded cool even if I didn’t fully understand them.

Why Oxford?

Once I had decided I wanted to study Physics and Philosophy, it was clear that Oxford was the top place to study it in the UK.

Did any of your teachers inspire you? Or anyone else?

I remember watching a lengthy interview with Richard Feynman as part of a BBC Horizon documentary. I really enjoyed listening to him speak and started reading a couple of books by him. I already enjoyed physics by that point but he got me more excited by it all. For me it was always various documentaries on TV (e.g. The Sky at Night on the BBC) which drew me into physics, whereas for philosophy it was the reading I did which got me more interested in the subject.

However, what probably really inspired me physics-wise were YouTube channels. YouTube was starting to get big whilst I was growing up, and to this day I still get excited when a Sixty Symbols, Numberphile, DeepSkyVideos, 3Blue1Brown or Veritasium video gets released (and I've probably forgotten a lot more!). Sixty Symbols probably had the most impact on me, because it gives you the opportunity to hear scientists talk about their own research and about all other aspects of physics, and you can really see the passion come through and you can tell they love what they do.

Which resources did you use? Which books/journals did you read? Which did you like best, and why? What did they teach you?

For preparing for physics, I primarily used Isaac Physics. It’s a great resource for practising physics problems and Oxford still recommend it for applicants. The British Physics Olympiad is also a great resource for more challenging questions which really stretch you.

As mentioned before, for philosophy I read Think by Simon Blackburn. I also read The Problems of Philosophy by Bertrand Russell, Cycles of Time and Shadows of the Mind by Roger Penrose, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn and Against Method by Paul Feyerabend. Of those a good introductory philosophy book like Think is really important to make sure you know what philosophy is and to confirm that you really are interested in the general questions philosophy tries to tackle. Other introductory philosophy books to look at if you don’t like the ones above are Philosophy: The Basics by Nigel Warburton and What Does It All Mean? by Thomas Nagel. Kuhn’s book is a classic in the philosophy of science: it’s where the term paradigm-shift comes from! I also read a few sections of Understanding Philosophy of Science by James Ladyman which give me an introduction into the philosophy of science and its different issues.

On the physics side, I read Six Easy Pieces, Six Not So Easy Pieces and Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman by Richard Feynman, as well as It’s Not Rocket Science by Ben Miller and others. I also liked reading the magazine New Scientist. For physics it really isn’t that important what you read, so long as you read about what you’re interested in.

Here are some more links which you might find helpful:

http://www.ox.ac.uk/admissions/under...-and-resources
https://www.balliol.ox.ac.uk/admissi...y-reading-list
http://podcasts.ox.ac.uk/physics-and...y-introduction

Did you attend any lectures, or take part in any competitions? If so, would you recommend them, and why?

I would definitely recommend taking part in the Physics Olympiad if you can. Don’t worry if you find it difficult – the point isn’t to do well (though it’s nice if you do) but to get yourself used to tackling challenging problems. I also attended any public lectures on physics given by my local university, and I’d recommend this only if you want to. There’s no need to do this but it was another thing I could put on my personal statement.

Did you have any work experience? If so, how did you find it?

I was lucky enough to have a week’s work experience at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy. I really enjoyed it and it gave me a good insight into life as a scientist working at Culham. I spent the week learning how to code some basic projectile motion in Python, but what I did isn’t really important. Instead, I learnt that I could see myself in that kind of environment and I found the research they were doing exciting and interesting.

Did you have a specialist subject/EPQ? What was it? How did you go about your research?

I did the IB, so I had to do a 4000-word Extended Essay (EE). I did mine on the philosophy of science; in particular, I looked at Feyerabend’s Against Method and examined his view that there is no scientific method. In terms of going about my research, I tried to read widely (including Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic, Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and Popper’s The Logic of Scientific Discovery) and spent a lot of time planning before starting to write. I had a supervisor (my physics teacher who also had an interest in the philosophy of science) who guided me and I found this helpful.

What did you mention in your personal statement and why?

It’s worth saying that for physics at Oxford, the personal statement is not that important. The main things they care about is how you do on the Physisc Aptitude Test (PAT) and how you do at interview. It might be slightly more important for philosophy, but I wasn’t asked about it at interview.

Having said that, I mentioned the books I’d read, my work experience and my EE, before going onto talk about extracurricular stuff I did. Why? Because, as far as I understood, that’s what a personal statement was there for: for you to demonstrate the reading and other things you’d done because you’re genuinely interested in studying the course you’re applying for.

Which techniques did you use for the entrance test?

I went through all the past papers on the website and looked for example solutions online and compared my answers to those (though my teachers agreed to mark a couple of papers I did). I also did a few Physics Olympiad papers and worked through a lot of Isaac Physics problems.

How did you choose your college? Did you go to an open day and if so, did it help you to decide?

I was initially going to apply to Balliol as they have the biggest PhysPhil cohort. However, on the open day I was in the Physics department and a fourth-year PhysPhil recommended Brasenose. So I went to Brasenose and immediately loved the friendly atmosphere, the location and the views. So how did I choose? I went to the open day and picked the college I liked the best.

How did you find the interview process?

Interviews aside, the few days you get to stay at Oxford is a really fun experience. You get to meet other people applying both for your course and a load of others and you get to experience life in an Oxford college for a few days. Physics is always in the last week of interviews which means the Christmas markets are up and it’s a wonderful time to be in Oxford.

As for the actual interviews: I had four (one Maths, one Physics and one Philosophy at Brasenose and one combined Physics and Philosophy at Balliol). Like I’ve said, I had virtually no questions about my personal statement (I mentioned something about particle physics so I had a quick question asking me about my interest in that but nothing else). For the Maths and Physics ones, although the format may vary from college to college, it essentially boils down to them asking you questions which may be challenging or which you have no idea how to solve, and then seeing how you progress as they help you through.

If you answer a question without any help, that’s great and will certainly look good. But in my opinion, the interview only really starts when they ask you something which you have no idea how to tackle. Then they give you a few hints and they want to see how you use them. They want to see how teachable you are, how you react to help, whether when you’re stuck you know why you’re stuck (e.g. what piece of information might you need to solve this problem?).

For Philosophy I talked about nothing I had read or in my personal statement. Instead I was asked open-ended questions which started a discussion. As you might expect, whatever I replied with they always challenged me to see if I could think on my feet.

Any interview tips?

Physics: practise talking aloud through problems so that doing so in the interview doesn’t throw you off. Although there’s no requirement to speak out loud during an interview, it really helps the interviewers know if you’re starting to go down the wrong path. They’re there to help you, after all, and they’ll stop you if they realise you’re making a mistake. Speaking out loud means you keep the dialogue going and they can see how you think and how you’re tackling the problem. Don’t worry if you think they’ve gone badly: after all, they want to push you until you don’t know how to solve a question, and then they’ll see how you react to the hints and help they give. You might also find the following link helpful:

http://apply.oxfordsu.org/courses/physics/interviews/

Philosophy: practise talking about issues out loud with others. It’s hard to recommend what issues exactly because they can ask you about anything – but ultimately it doesn’t matter what you practise talking about as long as you practise getting your point across clearly. For example, you could take a recent news article and discuss it with a friend: what do you think about it? Who does this affect? You could find a contentious issue and practise arguing both for and against it out loud. It’s important to have an idea of what philosophy is and you could practise talking about philosophical issues if you’d like, but they won’t expect you to know any philosophy. That is, they won’t expect you to be able to quote Sartre or discuss Popper in detail, unless you’ve talked about them on your personal statement (but even then, as I’ve said above, they might not ask you about anything on your personal statement!). You might also find the following link helpful:

https://www.ox.ac.uk/sites/files/oxf...202019_WEB.pdf

Did you socialise during interview week? If so, what did you do?

Absolutely – I think that was the best part! The college held a lot of events throughout my time there. There were trips to the local ice cream shop and Christmas market and there were films, Mario Kart, FIFA and lots of board games/pool in the Junior Common Room (JCR). Ultimately I just ended up chatting to a lot of people before and after my interview. Even though some of the people I made friends with didn’t get in, we still keep in touch. I definitely think it’s worth socialising instead of spending most of your time locked up in your room.

On the first day, the Head Tutor for Physics told us that it’s unlikely we’d be able to learn anything new before our interviews, so the best thing to do would be to try and relax and enjoy our time in Oxford. Although it may be worth brushing up on the basics, I’d largely agree, so I’d recommend trying to have fun when you can!

How did you feel after interviews?

Mixed. I thought one of them had gone well but the rest not so well, with one of them going disastrously. However I had really enjoyed my time during interviews getting to know the other applicants and just roaming around the place.

Where were you when you got your offer? How did you react?

I was at home and had just got back from school. I don’t think it sunk in until my first day at Oxford, but at the time I was really happy: I knew I was lucky enough to study something which really interested me in a place which so many dream about, and I couldn’t wait to get started.

Are you looking forward to coming up to Oxford?

Absolutely! Oxford is a great place to be a student and I can’t wait to make the most of my final year starting in October.

Thank you Oxford Mum for letting me be part of this!
What a fantastic addition to Oxford Demystified! It’s so interesting to hear about why you picked the course you did; Physics and Philosophy sounds like such a fascinating degree, and although it initially sounds like an unusual combination, I now definitely see why they go well together. Best of luck with your last year and thank you for this chapter - I’m sure many applicants will find it helpful!
Last edited by Mona123456; 3 weeks ago
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Oxford Mum
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Here are some extra resources:

https://www2.physics.ox.ac.uk/study-...and-philosophy

https://stepmaths.co.uk/physical-sci...nd-philosophy/

Interview questions

http://www.oxfordinterviewquestions....tions/physics/

(plus extra reading)

http://www.thedurkweb.com/oxford-phy...s-and-answers/

Philosophy interview questions:

http://www.oxfordinterviewquestions....ns/philosophy/

Physics and philosophy interviews youtube

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ZV9Uw8nvbs

Physics

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oBwNyEDVQGw

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dpi6-23PTYg

Philosophy

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IcCEJ0Li4z8
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Oxford Mum
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Don't apologise for not being a fresher, petrolhead008! We readers are all dying to know about Oxford!

Do please answer the following questions:

How did it feel coming up to Oxford? Was it daunting/friendly?
What did it feel like, living in college after living at home?
Was the course how you imagined it to be?
Would you recommend your course/Oxford to others, and why?
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I can see how inspiration is the key to your interest in this very unusual course.

You started off by reading a book called "Think" by Simon Blackburn (also a favourite of my younger son's, to be honest). You didn't even know what made you read the book, but it seems to be the start of everything! Read the other chapters in Oxford Demystified, and there seems to be a strong thread of fate running through them like a stick of rock. So if you are in a book shop and fancy reading something, do it! It may be the start of an exciting academic journey.

I love the way you link philosophy with science, even though at first they seem to be total opposites.

Similarly I highly recommend watching TV documentaries. You watched Horizon and were so fascinated by what Richard Feynman (presenter) had to say, you went off and read another couple of books by him. Oxford (and Cambridge) love this "one thing leads to another" approach. It shows that you are keen to pursue a certain area of thought and are not just sitting there, passively taking in the TV programme.

Ditto the youtube videos. I never knew there was so much material out there for science applicants. They will be well worth looking at.
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Competitions such as the British Physics Olympiad and the essay competitions are always worth applying for, even if you do not get placed, or get a gold award. It's all about the challenge and the going off and doing extra research.

I would also highly recommend going to university lectures (as OP does) if you live near a university. I know our local uni (Sheffield) offered these and you could go along to any subject. My son used to like going the the diamond building for the engineering lectures.

Entrance test: none of the chapter writers of Oxford Demystified went into the test without having practiced first. Not only did they do past papers, but they developed their own techniques. Order and method, as my literary hero, Hercule Poirot, says.
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Choosing a college - I would agree that it is really a little about falling in love. I can recall my younger son watching a medical programme featuring his favourite presenter, Michael Mosley. He was standing in the most beautiful library you had ever seen. Even the quad outside looked gorgeous.

"Find where that library is", said my son. Being the type of Mum who is always up for a challenge, I looked around and soon found out it was Oriel. It also helped that he loved the brain and there were a couple of brain specialists there as well. He ended up applying there and spending the next three years there too.

Personal statement: The tutors often end up choosing ideas for a couple of ice breakers from personal statements but then using the same challenging, unfamiliar questions for the rest of the interview. Yes, the tutors will prompt you if you are not sure. My younger son said he needed a lot of prompting but it was how he responded to it that helped. It does not mean you are a failure. He also said that after the ice breaker questions "I then proceeded to make a fool of myself". Yes, probably in his eyes, but the tutors saw potential in him. That is why you should never give up.

Philosophy - My son's best friend was applying to Oxford for philosophy, and my son, having read the "Think" book and the Bertrand Russell one, was pretty keen on it too. They would spend hours and hours debating and loving every minute of it. The friend also ended up reading philosophy at Oxford (just graduating), and I bet he would also recommend the "discussion with others" approach.

Interviews - Do get out there and socialise. It will help you relax, and how much more can you take in anyway, when you are nervous and have interviews the next day! Yes, there may be people you meet and like, whom you never see again, but if you do see them in September/October it's a great feeling to know both of you made it to Oxford.

I wish you the best of luck, OP, for when you graduate and and I hope that Oxford will help you to a fulfilling, interesting career.
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(Original post by Oxford Mum)
Don't apologise for not being a fresher, petrolhead008! We readers are all dying to know about Oxford!

Do please answer the following questions:

How did it feel coming up to Oxford? Was it daunting/friendly?
What did it feel like, living in college after living at home?
Was the course how you imagined it to be?
Would you recommend your course/Oxford to others, and why?
I'm glad I could help!

It was definitely a bit daunting coming up to Oxford, but I think that was more to do with moving away from home for the first time and going into first year of university as opposed to me being intimidated by Oxford specifically. All the stereotypes I had associated with Oxford had already been broken down after I'd visited on the Open Day and during interviews, so I was nervous but excited to get going. As I'm sure all colleges do, there were a lot of events put on by Brasenose during Freshers' Week so I got to know a lot of people and it really wasn't very long before I felt at ease and had made a lot of friends.

I remember waking up after the first night at Oxford and walking to the dining hall for breakfast. I paused to look at the view of the Radcliffe Camera (the dome-shaped library on Radcliffe Square) and couldn't believe that this place would be my home for the next few years. I loved living in college and once I'd made friends I loved living away from home. Of course I missed my family and they'd visit or I'd visit them maybe once or twice a term, but it didn't take long for me to really enjoy the university experience.

I think the course is what I imagined it to be. I had a good idea of what philosophy and the philosophy of science were, but it's harder to appreciate just what the philosophy of physics entails without first knowing some undergraduate physics. It is (as you might expect) quite theoretical but I loved it and it's definitely one of my favourite parts of the entire degree. I loved tackling physics problem sets and working through maths lectures one day but reading in the library and writing essays on free will the next. The variety is perfect for someone who enjoys both reading/writing and also tackling maths problems.

I would absolutely recommend the course to anyone who was interested in it. I realise I didn't talk a lot about 'Why Oxford?' in my original post, so I'll elaborate here. I knew Oxford was going to be competitive and of course I was scared I wasn't going to be good enough, but you absolutely shouldn't let that put you off. At the very least, the process of preparing yourself for applying to Oxford (e.g. preparing for the PAT and the extra reading you might do) will stand you in great stead wherever you end up. I thought it was worth a shot so I went for it. But more importantly, don't let the low admission rates put you off. PhysPhil is often painted as one of the hardest courses to get into, and whilst statistically this might be the case, this happens for one very important reason.

People who have read a couple of popular science books apply to PhysPhil thinking it is a way to learn physics on a superficial level, without any maths, whilst also doing a bit of philosophy. That is, a lot of people apply to PhysPhil thinking it's a wishy-washy physics degree, and so many of these people do horrendously either in the PAT or at interview. Let me say this loud and clear: PhysPhil is *NOT* a Physics-lite degree! In fact, in order to be admitted to PhysPhil you must first be admitted into Physics by the Physics department, and only then will the Philosophy department decide if they want you. Don't let this put you off though: a fair number of PhysPhil applicants get offered Physics places instead if they don't perform as well in the philosophy components of the application.

So to recap: the low admission rates are because a lot of applications are from people who simply don't understand what the course is.

I also know a few people who study Physics at Oxford who wanted to apply to PhysPhil but their teachers told them not to because "PhysPhils don't learn basic physics like thermodynamics" and "you can't be a physicist after studying PhysPhil." This is nonsense. The only physics you miss out on are labs, some circuit theory, optics and second-year electromagnetism (EM). Of these EM is probably the most important, and the bits of EM you need in the third and fourth years are reviewed anyway. Whilst it's true that if you wanted to become an experimental physicist PhysPhil is probably not the degree for you, PhysPhil is an excellent degree if you wanted to become a theoretical or computational physicist. (But having said that, if you chose to do more labs and applied for a couple of research projects over the summer in a lab, there's no reason why you couldn't become an experimental physicist if you really wanted. It's just that doing a Physics degree instead might make life easier for you.) And a fair share of PhysPhils go on to graduate study in Physics (this might be the exact path I'm heading towards!) so you definitely can be a physicist after studying PhysPhil.

I hope that clears a lot of things up!
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Oxford Mum
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A really enlightening answer. I am very glad I asked now. You will help to either encourage or deter people who would like to apply. petrolhead008
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turna127
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This was so helpful! I'm writing my personal statement at the moment and I kept doubting myself at some points but this really comforted me knowing I'm choosing the right subject. I'm particularly excited about the fact that I can do both essays and maths questions - I hate the exhaustion that comes with doing only one of them for ages Wherever I go, I am excited to do physphil! Thank you
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Go to applying for uni tab on tsr then personal statements- there may be some physphil personal statements there ( don’t plagiarise though!)

What I love most about these chapters is that you do get to speak to real students like petrolhead who can answer your specialised questions and get you all enthusiastic about the course. I am so pleased you are excited about applying and raring to go!
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(Original post by petrolhead008)
For context, I've just finished my third year studying Physics and Philosophy (PhysPhil) so whilst I'm not an incoming fresher hopefully the advice below is still helpful!

Why did you want to study your subject?

I’d always been interested in maths and physics and science more generally and I was pretty certain I wanted to study something along those lines. In the summer after GCSEs I read an introductory philosophy book (Think by Simon Blackburn) having not really known much about it before. I can’t remember why I decided to read it, but it got me interested in the subject as philosophy seemed to tackle questions which were clearly unanswerable by science but still important: questions like “what is justice” or “what is the right thing to do” or “what does it mean to know something”. I was particularly interested in ethics, which is the study of morality – what is right and what is wrong – and I began to read a bit more around it.

I then found out about the possibility of studying Physics and Philosophy at university and realised that there were other areas of philosophy as well. I read into the philosophy of science and found it fascinating that you could take science – the thing I had always been interested by – and start to philosophise about it. What makes science successful? What makes something science? What do scientists mean when they talk of “electrons” and “magnetic fields” – are both of these as real as each other? Do the laws of nature control how things behave, and if so, how do they do that? These kinds of questions really drew me in.

And then I also started to read into what the philosophy of physics was all about, and it seemed like this was the course for me. Not only would I get to study physics, but I’d be able to philosophise about it! I’d be able to tackle questions like “what is the most viable interpretation of quantum mechanics” and “is spacetime structure fundamentally real or just a representation of the properties of the laws of nature” which sounded cool even if I didn’t fully understand them.

Why Oxford?

Once I had decided I wanted to study Physics and Philosophy, it was clear that Oxford was the top place to study it in the UK.

Did any of your teachers inspire you? Or anyone else?

I remember watching a lengthy interview with Richard Feynman as part of a BBC Horizon documentary. I really enjoyed listening to him speak and started reading a couple of books by him. I already enjoyed physics by that point but he got me more excited by it all. For me it was always various documentaries on TV (e.g. The Sky at Night on the BBC) which drew me into physics, whereas for philosophy it was the reading I did which got me more interested in the subject.

However, what probably really inspired me physics-wise were YouTube channels. YouTube was starting to get big whilst I was growing up, and to this day I still get excited when a Sixty Symbols, Numberphile, DeepSkyVideos, 3Blue1Brown or Veritasium video gets released (and I've probably forgotten a lot more!). Sixty Symbols probably had the most impact on me, because it gives you the opportunity to hear scientists talk about their own research and about all other aspects of physics, and you can really see the passion come through and you can tell they love what they do.

Which resources did you use? Which books/journals did you read? Which did you like best, and why? What did they teach you?

For preparing for physics, I primarily used Isaac Physics. It’s a great resource for practising physics problems and Oxford still recommend it for applicants. The British Physics Olympiad is also a great resource for more challenging questions which really stretch you.

As mentioned before, for philosophy I read Think by Simon Blackburn. I also read The Problems of Philosophy by Bertrand Russell, Cycles of Time and Shadows of the Mind by Roger Penrose, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn and Against Method by Paul Feyerabend. Of those a good introductory philosophy book like Think is really important to make sure you know what philosophy is and to confirm that you really are interested in the general questions philosophy tries to tackle. Other introductory philosophy books to look at if you don’t like the ones above are Philosophy: The Basics by Nigel Warburton and What Does It All Mean? by Thomas Nagel. Kuhn’s book is a classic in the philosophy of science: it’s where the term paradigm-shift comes from! I also read a few sections of Understanding Philosophy of Science by James Ladyman which give me an introduction into the philosophy of science and its different issues.

On the physics side, I read Six Easy Pieces, Six Not So Easy Pieces and Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman by Richard Feynman, as well as It’s Not Rocket Science by Ben Miller and others. I also liked reading the magazine New Scientist. For physics it really isn’t that important what you read, so long as you read about what you’re interested in.

Here are some more links which you might find helpful:

http://www.ox.ac.uk/admissions/under...-and-resources
https://www.balliol.ox.ac.uk/admissi...y-reading-list
http://podcasts.ox.ac.uk/physics-and...y-introduction

Did you attend any lectures, or take part in any competitions? If so, would you recommend them, and why?

I would definitely recommend taking part in the Physics Olympiad if you can. Don’t worry if you find it difficult – the point isn’t to do well (though it’s nice if you do) but to get yourself used to tackling challenging problems. I also attended any public lectures on physics given by my local university, and I’d recommend this only if you want to. There’s no need to do this but it was another thing I could put on my personal statement.

Did you have any work experience? If so, how did you find it?

I was lucky enough to have a week’s work experience at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy. I really enjoyed it and it gave me a good insight into life as a scientist working at Culham. I spent the week learning how to code some basic projectile motion in Python, but what I did isn’t really important. Instead, I learnt that I could see myself in that kind of environment and I found the research they were doing exciting and interesting.

Did you have a specialist subject/EPQ? What was it? How did you go about your research?

I did the IB, so I had to do a 4000-word Extended Essay (EE). I did mine on the philosophy of science; in particular, I looked at Feyerabend’s Against Method and examined his view that there is no scientific method. In terms of going about my research, I tried to read widely (including Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic, Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and Popper’s The Logic of Scientific Discovery) and spent a lot of time planning before starting to write. I had a supervisor (my physics teacher who also had an interest in the philosophy of science) who guided me and I found this helpful.

What did you mention in your personal statement and why?

It’s worth saying that for physics at Oxford, the personal statement is not that important. The main things they care about is how you do on the Physisc Aptitude Test (PAT) and how you do at interview. It might be slightly more important for philosophy, but I wasn’t asked about it at interview.

Having said that, I mentioned the books I’d read, my work experience and my EE, before going onto talk about extracurricular stuff I did. Why? Because, as far as I understood, that’s what a personal statement was there for: for you to demonstrate the reading and other things you’d done because you’re genuinely interested in studying the course you’re applying for.

Which techniques did you use for the entrance test?

I went through all the past papers on the website and looked for example solutions online and compared my answers to those (though my teachers agreed to mark a couple of papers I did). I also did a few Physics Olympiad papers and worked through a lot of Isaac Physics problems.

How did you choose your college? Did you go to an open day and if so, did it help you to decide?

I was initially going to apply to Balliol as they have the biggest PhysPhil cohort. However, on the open day I was in the Physics department and a fourth-year PhysPhil recommended Brasenose. So I went to Brasenose and immediately loved the friendly atmosphere, the location and the views. So how did I choose? I went to the open day and picked the college I liked the best.

How did you find the interview process?

Interviews aside, the few days you get to stay at Oxford is a really fun experience. You get to meet other people applying both for your course and a load of others and you get to experience life in an Oxford college for a few days. Physics is always in the last week of interviews which means the Christmas markets are up and it’s a wonderful time to be in Oxford.

As for the actual interviews: I had four (one Maths, one Physics and one Philosophy at Brasenose and one combined Physics and Philosophy at Balliol). Like I’ve said, I had virtually no questions about my personal statement (I mentioned something about particle physics so I had a quick question asking me about my interest in that but nothing else). For the Maths and Physics ones, although the format may vary from college to college, it essentially boils down to them asking you questions which may be challenging or which you have no idea how to solve, and then seeing how you progress as they help you through.

If you answer a question without any help, that’s great and will certainly look good. But in my opinion, the interview only really starts when they ask you something which you have no idea how to tackle. Then they give you a few hints and they want to see how you use them. They want to see how teachable you are, how you react to help, whether when you’re stuck you know why you’re stuck (e.g. what piece of information might you need to solve this problem?).

For Philosophy I talked about nothing I had read or in my personal statement. Instead I was asked open-ended questions which started a discussion. As you might expect, whatever I replied with they always challenged me to see if I could think on my feet.

Any interview tips?

Physics: practise talking aloud through problems so that doing so in the interview doesn’t throw you off. Although there’s no requirement to speak out loud during an interview, it really helps the interviewers know if you’re starting to go down the wrong path. They’re there to help you, after all, and they’ll stop you if they realise you’re making a mistake. Speaking out loud means you keep the dialogue going and they can see how you think and how you’re tackling the problem. Don’t worry if you think they’ve gone badly: after all, they want to push you until you don’t know how to solve a question, and then they’ll see how you react to the hints and help they give. You might also find the following link helpful:

http://apply.oxfordsu.org/courses/physics/interviews/

Philosophy: practise talking about issues out loud with others. It’s hard to recommend what issues exactly because they can ask you about anything – but ultimately it doesn’t matter what you practise talking about as long as you practise getting your point across clearly. For example, you could take a recent news article and discuss it with a friend: what do you think about it? Who does this affect? You could find a contentious issue and practise arguing both for and against it out loud. It’s important to have an idea of what philosophy is and you could practise talking about philosophical issues if you’d like, but they won’t expect you to know any philosophy. That is, they won’t expect you to be able to quote Sartre or discuss Popper in detail, unless you’ve talked about them on your personal statement (but even then, as I’ve said above, they might not ask you about anything on your personal statement!). You might also find the following link helpful:

https://www.ox.ac.uk/sites/files/oxf...e 2019_WEB.pdf

Did you socialise during interview week? If so, what did you do?

Absolutely – I think that was the best part! The college held a lot of events throughout my time there. There were trips to the local ice cream shop and Christmas market and there were films, Mario Kart, FIFA and lots of board games/pool in the Junior Common Room (JCR). Ultimately I just ended up chatting to a lot of people before and after my interview. Even though some of the people I made friends with didn’t get in, we still keep in touch. I definitely think it’s worth socialising instead of spending most of your time locked up in your room.

On the first day, the Head Tutor for Physics told us that it’s unlikely we’d be able to learn anything new before our interviews, so the best thing to do would be to try and relax and enjoy our time in Oxford. Although it may be worth brushing up on the basics, I’d largely agree, so I’d recommend trying to have fun when you can!

How did you feel after interviews?

Mixed. I thought one of them had gone well but the rest not so well, with one of them going disastrously. However I had really enjoyed my time during interviews getting to know the other applicants and just roaming around the place.

Where were you when you got your offer? How did you react?

I was at home and had just got back from school. I don’t think it sunk in until my first day at Oxford, but at the time I was really happy: I knew I was lucky enough to study something which really interested me in a place which so many dream about, and I couldn’t wait to get started.

Are you looking forward to coming up to Oxford?

Absolutely! Oxford is a great place to be a student and I can’t wait to make the most of my final year starting in October.

Thank you Oxford Mum for letting me be part of this!
This was so helpful to read thanks so much.
Last edited by Tj1120; 3 weeks ago
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turna127
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(Original post by Oxford Mum)
turna127
Go to applying for uni tab on tsr then personal statements- there may be some physphil personal statements there ( don’t plagiarise though!)

What I love most about these chapters is that you do get to speak to real students like petrolhead who can answer your specialised questions and get you all enthusiastic about the course. I am so pleased you are excited about applying and raring to go!
yes, it's particularly helpful for these courses which aren't as common, because it's hard to find students who are doing it! Thanks petrolhead008
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kenxa
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I'm in y11 and I want to study this at uni, and I already love philosophy so I want to take it at A-Level. Do you think i would have a stronger application by studying philosophy or further maths??
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I’m no expert but I would say philosophy will come in particularly useful if you had to choose between the two
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(Original post by kenxa)
I'm in y11 and I want to study this at uni, and I already love philosophy so I want to take it at A-Level. Do you think i would have a stronger application by studying philosophy or further maths??
Hmm, this is a tough one. Great to hear you want to study it at uni! If by "stronger application" you mean which will look best to Oxford, it honestly doesn't matter. As long as you (a) take Maths and Physics at A-Level (b) do well in the admissions test and (c) do well at interview, you can study whatever else you like and you'll still get a place!

Having said that, there are two points to bear in mind:

1. Studying some philosophy at A-Level will give you the opportunity to explore some philosophical issues which can only be a good thing. It's also an essay subject which, although not necessary to apply, can be helpful

2. Although you don't need the content of Further Maths to apply, doing more maths can only be a good thing. Especially since the way Oxford judge you is by your performance on the Physics Aptitude Test (PAT) and at interview, both of which involve doing maths, the more exposure to maths you get the better

It sounds like you really enjoy philosophy and would probably regret not doing it at A-Level. I for one didn't do Further Maths but did do Philosophy (as part of the IB) and it all turned out ok! Especially since Oxford tell you which bits of the Further Maths course are useful and gave me an optional online course to work through to get me up to speed before I joined. I'd say go for Philosophy, just don't let your maths skills suffer as a result (I assume doing both isn't an option?)

In short: follow your heart!
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(Original post by petrolhead008)
Hmm, this is a tough one. Great to hear you want to study it at uni! If by "stronger application" you mean which will look best to Oxford, it honestly doesn't matter. As long as you (a) take Maths and Physics at A-Level (b) do well in the admissions test and (c) do well at interview, you can study whatever else you like and you'll still get a place!

Having said that, there are two points to bear in mind:

1. Studying some philosophy at A-Level will give you the opportunity to explore some philosophical issues which can only be a good thing. It's also an essay subject which, although not necessary to apply, can be helpful

2. Although you don't need the content of Further Maths to apply, doing more maths can only be a good thing. Especially since the way Oxford judge you is by your performance on the Physics Aptitude Test (PAT) and at interview, both of which involve doing maths, the more exposure to maths you get the better

It sounds like you really enjoy philosophy and would probably regret not doing it at A-Level. I for one didn't do Further Maths but did do Philosophy (as part of the IB) and it all turned out ok! Especially since Oxford tell you which bits of the Further Maths course are useful and gave me an optional online course to work through to get me up to speed before I joined. I'd say go for Philosophy, just don't let your maths skills suffer as a result (I assume doing both isn't an option?)

In short: follow your heart!
Great advice. I bet philosophy A level is super interesting.
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kenxa
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(Original post by petrolhead008)
Hmm, this is a tough one. Great to hear you want to study it at uni! If by "stronger application" you mean which will look best to Oxford, it honestly doesn't matter. As long as you (a) take Maths and Physics at A-Level (b) do well in the admissions test and (c) do well at interview, you can study whatever else you like and you'll still get a place!

Having said that, there are two points to bear in mind:

1. Studying some philosophy at A-Level will give you the opportunity to explore some philosophical issues which can only be a good thing. It's also an essay subject which, although not necessary to apply, can be helpful

2. Although you don't need the content of Further Maths to apply, doing more maths can only be a good thing. Especially since the way Oxford judge you is by your performance on the Physics Aptitude Test (PAT) and at interview, both of which involve doing maths, the more exposure to maths you get the better

It sounds like you really enjoy philosophy and would probably regret not doing it at A-Level. I for one didn't do Further Maths but did do Philosophy (as part of the IB) and it all turned out ok! Especially since Oxford tell you which bits of the Further Maths course are useful and gave me an optional online course to work through to get me up to speed before I joined. I'd say go for Philosophy, just don't let your maths skills suffer as a result (I assume doing both isn't an option?)

In short: follow your heart!
Thank you so much! I will probably study some of the further maths content over year 12 and the summer to prepare for the PAT, I have a friend who is in her first year studying physics and she's offered to help me study for the exam! My college won't let me take four a levels unfortunately but thank you for your answer.
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