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Do you think you know what Oxford and Cambridge are looking for in their Physics students? Read through these applicant profiles, and see if you can tell who would be successful. Work out if you’d be an ideal candidate for Oxbridge Physics!

Applicant 1: Jake, 19

Before his interview: 

  • Jake is currently on a gap year. He achieved A*A*A in his A-Levels, Maths, Physics and Further Maths respectively. 
  • Jake is travelling and working on his gap year, and taking some time off from studying
  • He does some preparation for the PAT, but mostly thinks he will be okay, considering he got a good A* in his Physics A-Level. 
  • He did a lot of preparation and extra study a year and a half ago, when he first wrote his personal statement back in his Upper Sixth, and has re-submitted his original personal statement, which he, and his teachers, thought was strong. 

In his interviews: 

  • In his interviews, Jake manages to complete the basic parts of all the problems, recalling some of the information from his A-Levels. 
  • However, as he has not recently done a lot of interview practice, he struggles as the questions become more developed and veer further from familiar territory. 
  • He tries to bring in some facts and knowledge he accumulated from his A-Levels that he thinks may be relevant, but does not manage to directly apply it to the problems in question
  • When asked about a book he spoke about on his personal statement, he read it a while ago, so he does not manage to talk cohesively about the book’s subject matter.

Applicant 2: Zoe, 17

Before her interview:  

  • Zoe is predicted 2 A*s and 2 As in her A-Levels: Maths, Physics, Biology and Further Maths. 
  • She particularly loves physics and regularly competes in local physics competitions and the Physics Olympiad, in which she always scores well. 
  • She has recently completed work experience in a lab investigating the uses of circular motion in modern engineering. 
  • To prepare for the PAT, she does about 5 past papers, and practices honing her skills by solving other problems she finds, as well as ensuring she is comfortable with all of the content covered. 
  • She does lots of these papers verbally, preparing herself for having to explain her reasoning when it comes to interviews. 

In her interviews: 

  • Zoe has a difficult question in her interviews, about planetary motion, something she is yet to do in depth at A-Level. However, she tries to bring in other skills from different subjects she has read about and studied, and listens to the interviewer’s guidance meaning that, although she doesn’t reach an answer, she gets far into the problem-solving process. 
  • Her mathematics is sound, and she does not struggle with the differentiation problem thrown at her. 
  • She engages her interviewers in discussions, listening to their advice, and taking it on board as best as she can. 

Applicant 3: Curtis, 18

Before her interview:  

  • Curtis is predicted all A*s, and does little extra work to prepare for the PAT, as he is confident in his maths and physics abilities. 
  • He decides to apply to Oxford as all his teachers tell him to, but has little desire to go beyond A-Level work.
  • He reads a couple of books his teachers direct him towards, and writes about them on his personal statement. 
  • He doesn’t prepare that much for interviews, but looks over all his A-Level content, especially maths and physics, the night before. 

In his interviews:

  • In his interviews, Curtis is shocked by how different the problems are to A-Level questions. 
  • Having not done much extra preparation, he stumbles with problems quite early on, and seems to give up hope of solving them very quickly
  • When asked why he applied, he simply answers that he thought he was good enough, and it would have been a shame not to. 

Who is the best candidate? 

Zoe is the best candidate here. She is well prepared and passionate about the subject; a potent cocktail. She is honest throughout the interview, and engages with the interviewers, meaning she becomes an attractive student to teach. 

What did Jake do wrong? 

  • Although Jake’s grades and credentials may seem strong, his gap year has shown a lack of motivation to continue exploring physics. 
  • As his personal statement is recycled material, the admissions’ officers can see that he is not driven to continue exploring the subject. 
  • Furthermore, he did not realise that the PAT requires preparation, independent of whether or not you have completed A-Levels or not.
  • The moral of this story is that, if you are going to take a gap year and reapply, it is really important to continue exploring your subject. You want your gap year to be an opportunity to strengthen your application, not weaken it. 

What did Curtis do wrong? 

  • It was clear to the interviewers that it was more about being able to say he was accepted by Oxford to his friends, than actually studying at Oxford, that was Curtis’ motivation. 
  • An Oxford Physics degree is a lot of work, and you should be engaged and enthralled by the subject if you are thinking of applying. Curtis’ bare minimum preparation did not convey this.
  • Good A-level grades and teachers’ references are not enough. You have to show the interviewers that you have embarked on independent study, and are keen to further your understanding of the subject. 


To be a strong applicant for Oxford Physics, you don’t have to be a perfect student. You just need to show real enthusiasm for and dedication to your subject. For some ideas on how to develop your love for physics, why not check out our physics reading list, or our guide to what to include in your Physics personal statement?

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