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Everyone finds their Oxbridge interview at least a little intimidating. But the first thing to do is congratulate yourself – you got this far! Not everyone gets invited to interview, and they’ve chosen to interview you for a reason. And don’t worry – there’s plenty you can do to prepare, and put yourself in the best possible position for your Materials Science interview.

What will I be expected to know in my Materials Science interview?

An Oxford Materials Science interview is likely to have a split between mathematical and materials concepts. The materials concepts are likely to have a basis in A-Level Physics, and the interviewers will want to see how capable you are at applying the knowledge and understanding you have gained from A-Level Physics to new content. 

In my first Oxford Materials Science interview, I was greeted with a few pages on phase diagrams (something I did not know about before this) and was asked to read and digest it for five minutes before coming in for the interview. The first question was then based on the sheet I’d been given and involved deriving an equation for the fractions of different phases. I found this a struggle and the question took me around half an hour to do.

Inigo H., Materials Science, Oxford

The key thing to remember while doing these types of questions is that the interviewer does not expect you to know everything about the topic. They are not expecting you to come to the interview with an extensive or complete understanding of materials science. They just want to see how you apply your skill-set to the content, and whether or not you have the potential to succeed at the degree. 

Materials science is very broad, and the topic covered could be anything from stress strain curves to nanomaterials. What they want is for you to approach the problem in a clear and methodical way and apply what science you do know.

Which maths skills will I need to have?

You are also likely to get some mathematical questions. These will probably be preliminary questions that lead into a more developed application to science. The sort of thing you can expect is:

  • Graph drawing. You may have to draw a complicated graph and then apply it to analyse the results of an experiment. 
  • Differentiation and integration. You might be asked to differentiate or integrate a complicated expression, applying skills from your A-Level course. 
  • Trigonometry. You could be asked to solve a trigonometric equation, or derive one from a given triangle. 

What sort of science knowledge will I be expected to have?

The bulk of the interview, however, will consist of science-based questions, drawing upon the elements of the Physics syllabus that are closely linked to materials science. As well as the graph interpretation question above, other types of questions that you may come across in your interview include:

  • Analysing a piece of material presented to you, i.e. what material is it, how do you know, how could you test that, how could you make that?
  • A maths problem involving mechanics, function sketching or some 3-D geometry. For example, how many hexagons are there in a buckyball?

Although you will not be expected to come to your interview with a comprehensive understanding of materials science, here are some things recommended by Oxford materials scientists that you could investigate before your interview in order to really shine: 

Approximate numbers of physical values

Learning some numbers can really help you out in an interview, even if it’s just the order of magnitude. It is useful to learn: 

Youngs’ Modulus: Values will be on the order of 1-1000 GPa, and you should try to gain a rough sense of which materials have a larger Youngs’ Modulus and which a smaller.

Yield Stress and Ultimate Tensile Strength: These values fall more on the order of 10-1000 MPa. 

Just knowing these orders of magnitudes will really help you out in the interview, and if you can get a sense of the properties of materials that lead to greater Youngs’ Modulus and Yield Stresses, and those that lead to smaller values, you will really impress the interviewer. 

A few processing techniques

You don’t need to memorise all the processes before interviews, but just get an idea of what things you might need to think about when processing different materials. This is something you will probably not have come across at A-Level, and can seem confusing at first. However, if you explore processing techniques a bit (sand casting or additive manufacturing are good places to start), then you will find that the underlying concepts are simple.

In your interviews, you’re likely to get some stock questions, either as a warm-up or to finish off proceedings. For example, you may be asked: 

Why Materials Science?

As long as your answer is reasonable in response to this, it doesn’t matter too much what you say. These are not the things that will stick in the interviewer’s mind; it is the technical questions and problem solving that they are really interested in. However, it is definitely good to have a strong answer, and also to think about this yourself – you are going to be spending four years studying this subject! 

Topics mentioned in your personal statement: 

If you talk about a materials concept in your personal statement, make sure you actually know about that topic. The interviewers think they are doing you a favour by giving you questions about those topics, so don’t shoot yourself in the foot here!

I wrote about high temperature super conductors in my personal statement. In my interview at St Catherine’s College, I was then interviewed by a world expert in that exact subject!

Inigo H., Materials Science, Oxford 

There is no point lying about anything on your personal statement; if you get caught out, it will be not only embarrassing for you but also jeopardise your chances of success. 

How can I prepare?

As with all Oxbridge subjects, mock interviews are an invaluable way to prepare for Materials Sciences. Just talking through concepts will really help solidify them in your mind, and honing your communication skills is essential. 

You need to practice talking through your thoughts when problem solving, as this is what the interviewer wants to see. Try solving PAT questions out loud, either on your own or with your teacher giving you hints and asking you extension questions. Also, it is useful to read through your personal statement and develop every sentence: give an explanation as to what you meant, and why you wrote it. 

Before your interviews, it is also worth making sure you are confident with all the maths and physics content up to this point. The interviewers will not expect you to have read far ahead into the syllabus or to have grasped everything so far, but a good understanding of what you have studied is vital. 

Conclusion

Remember: don’t panic. The admissions tutors aren’t looking to make you fail, or to trip you up. They want to see you at your best. If you keep calm, and really engage with what the interviewers are saying, rather than panicking and reeling off prepared answers, you might find you enjoy the experience!

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