I hold an offer for physics at Oxford starting this October, and to help future applicants, here are some useful information about applying from my own research. Let me know if there's anything wrong. (A lot of information here is taken from this video by Alexander Lvovsky, a professor from Oxford University at Keble https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GxhfWL8yfJM)
Does it matter which college I apply to? The chances of being admitted for physics does not depend on the college you applied to, nor whether you made an open offer: everyone is judged equally throughout the whole process, and if a college receives a lot more successful applicants, the extra ones will be distributed to other colleges. Once you’re in Oxford though, the college does kind of matter:
1. How far is it from the Physics lecture theatres? Last year a friend of mine made an open offer and was allocated at St Hilda’s, a mile away from the Clarendon laboratory! Great if you’re a keen cyclist I guess. 2. Facilities: Does the college guarantee a room for the duration of your course? Cost of accomodation? Does it normally have enough room for vacation staying? Library? Gym? Accessibility for some disabilities? (You know better than me what facilities you want out of the college.) 3. How rich is the college? Although if you're a UK applicant with a disadvantaged background there are a number of bursaries for you that is university-wide, richer colleges tend to have some more grants for field trips and awards kind of things. 4. Faculty members: you have a decent chance of being tutored by a professor in your college, and if you’re a huge fanboy/fangirl for Stephen Blundell, perhaps you can apply to Mansfield college and hope for the best. Just remember though, as my physics teacher said, the teaching part of being a professor is what professors hate the most, so don’t get your hopes up (some professors love teaching and are very good at it, some not so much. Being smart doesn't always translate to being very good at explaining). You may also be tutored by a graduate student, or be tutored at another college, as tutors are modules-specific.
Shortlisting for interview process After you send your UCAS application, you’ll need to do the PAT. Oxford will then assign an R-score to you, which is (PAT score) + 10 x (contextualised GCSE, or cGCSE for short). The PAT is out of 100, and the cGCSE score “is expressed as the number of standard deviations the applicant is away from their ‘expected’ number of A*/9/8 grades [compared to the average GCSE score at their school]. It will typically be in the range -3 to +3, expressed to 2 decimal places.” It doesn’t apply to international students, so it’s like a small added advantage for UK applicants if your GCSEs are above average. [Note that the 2021-22 and 2022-23 admissions cycle did not use the cGCSE score, due to grade inflation in the Covid pandemic.]
As an example, mandatory shortlisting for interview looks like this in 2020: PAT ≥ 71, R-score ≥ 66.9 for Band C and D, 60.4 for Band B, 56.8 for Band A. This criteria shortlists 400 candidates. Oxford also ‘rescued’ 83 other candidates which did not satisfy these criteria but showed evidence of excellence or mitigating circumstances. In total, about 500 applicants were shortlisted for interview out of ~2000 applicants.
After Interview Shortlisted candidates will get two 20-25 minute interviews at their allocated college and one 40 minute interview at another college (each scored from 0 to 10, where most candidates will get 6 and ~1% of interviews will get a score of 10). [Edit: interviews in 2023 will still be held online.]
The R-score after the 3 interviews is: (PAT score) + 10 x (cGCSE score) + 6 x (1st interview score) + 6 x (2nd interview score) + 8 x (3rd interview score)
Candidates will be ranked by this R-score. Even though Oxford only admit around 200 applicants, it does not mean that they will admit the 200th ranked candidate and reject the 201st candidate. Rather, often times the difference in R-score between, say, roughly the 150th candidate and the 250th candidate will only be about 20 points or less. (Oxford considers +-10 points in R-scores as random errors.) Around this cutoff R-score region, disadvantaged students and those that show mitigating circumstances will be given priority, even those ranked below 200 but show potential in thriving in an academic setting at Oxford. More socioeconomically advantaged students will have to get an R-score significantly higher than this threshold to have a solid chance.
PAT exam techniques The PAT is a 2 hour long exam where you need to answer all questions, regardless if you're doing physics, engineering or material science. Since 2018, you’re allowed a calculator within some restrictions given in the website, there are ~12 multiple choice questions [2 marks each] and ~11 or 12 long questions [anywhere from 5 to 13/14 marks I think], and the maths and physics questions are mixed together. Partial marks are given for relevant working in both the MCQ and long questions section. So if you want a solid 80%, it should look like 1 mark a minute, and a final 10-20 minutes of checking.
In preparing for the PAT, I find that going through the syllabus on Oxford's PAT website and filling in the gaps in my knowledge was super helpful, as some things like a quantitative Bohr model and even/odd functions weren't found in the exam board I did. I also practiced the past PAT tests from 2012, 2015-2021. I'll perhaps make a separate post on extra resources for the PAT because it will perhaps contain a lot of stuff, but suffice to say for now that as long as you have your basic understanding firmly in your head, you wouldn't go wrong.