Oxford is one of the most historic universities in the world, and in this interview with Kriti, we'll shed some light on what it is like to study there.
SnapRevise: What did you study at A-level?
Kriti: I studied Physics, Maths, Further Maths and Art - I wanted to have a bit of a creative balance!
SR: What drew you to studying Physics at University?
K: Back when I was in school I felt that Physics was asking the biggest questions: how the universe formed, why it formed this way, and that curiosity really drove me to pursue it at a higher level. When I graduated I realised that studying a subject at university isn't really so much about the material that you learn, but more how you learn how to think. If you find the material interesting then that's great because you're going to enjoy your time there even more, but now I've graduated I've realised now that the lasting thing has been the way that I go about thinking about things now. With Physics that's very much a problem-solving approach and testing the assumptions that you hold. So I think when it comes to choosing what you want to study, you should consider how you like to think about things.
SR: How did you go about deciding where to go to University?
K: I knew that I wanted to go to Oxford over my other choices because I wanted to study Physics in an isolated context. Because I didn't do Chemistry at A-level, the Natural Science courses at some other universities wouldn't have allowed me to have much flexibility with the modules that I chose. But with Oxford specifically, I was wandering around on the open day and came across a Physics discussion. It was really conversational, very relaxed, and at the beginning, the professor said let's just talk about Physics. And this was a lot like what tutorials went on to be, and I really enjoyed that session and I became quite attached on coming to Oxford. The feel of the place is really nice, it's got a lot of character, and the city has a lot of personalities. It feels like a proper town but it's also quite intimate because of the colleges.
SR: What was the application process like?
K: You have to write a personal statement like anywhere else, but with Oxford they don't put too much emphasis on that, most of the effort goes towards the admissions test. It's not that similar to A-level, the kind of questions they ask you are quite conceptual and present you with weird situations where you have to fall back on fundamental principles to understand them. You then get invited to interviews and you stay in Oxford for three days which helps you get into the mentality. I had three interviews, and they were very similar kind of questions to the admissions test, very conceptual, there's no small talk. It was just here's a problem, solve it. And if that's successful you find out in January.
SR: How is Physics different at University compared to A-level?
K: I think anytime you move forward in the academic route, even between GCSEs and A-levels, there's going to be a step up, and there was definitely a step up between school and university. But I think more notably it was actually more first principles-based, it was a lot more thinking about why this law is a law, why does it work in the real world. How did it logically make sense to the people that discovered it? I think that sort of thing prepares you better for more conceptually difficult things. That's what they're trying to get you to do, to start with Maths and first principles. So I found that my Maths and Further Maths A-levels prepared me way more for studying Physics at university, which I wasn't really expecting.
SR: What is a typical day in the life of an Oxford student?
K: We'd start the day quite early with lectures, I think scientists have the morning slot for lectures, so that would be the morning. If you're a fourth-year your lectures are later, but in the first year it's 8am or 9am. You might then have one tutorial a week and then you'd spend the rest of your time doing problem sheets during the day, and then in the evening there is so much to do, there's lots of pubs and bars, but also lots of extracurricular activities in terms of societies to do.
SR: What extracurricular activities did you get involved in?
K: I was a member of the Oxford Union for a bit, which is a debating society that also invites high profile people to come and speak. That took up a lot of my time in my earlier years because there was a lot of organisation, from inviting guests and managing their experience, thinking about guests that would resonate with students. We had George Foreman come in at one point, and so we extended invitations to the boxing society. So that was really fun and I really enjoyed that because I like debating and public speaking. But there are also sports teams and lots of other things to do.
SR: How are you assessed?
K: Throughout the year, there isn't any contribution to your final marks that year. For my first year, I didn't even get percentages for the work I did for problem sheets. I think that does vary amongst colleges, but in my tutorials, we didn't really focus on the answer and whether something was right or wrong, but it was more a general discussion around the topics and whether you understood what this topic was trying to get you to think about.
SR: How does the college system work at Oxford?
K: You select a college to apply to. I think initially when you're looking around Oxford, it can seem that all of the colleges are the same, and initially, they tell you that it doesn't really matter which college you go to. It is very subject-specific though, and if you're studying humanities it does make sense to check which professors are at which college and what they specialise in. But for science, it is a bit more generalised across the colleges, so you pick the one that you like. I literally picked the first one I went into, which was the one where this Physics open day was happening, and I liked the feel of the place. So factors that matter are how big the college is, where it's located, the professors there. The best way to figure that out is to reach out to someone who is already there and to check out the specific college websites.
SR: What advice would you give to A-level or GCSE students?
K: General advice for revising is to not spend too much time on notes - and I am a huge culprit of this! I spend ages making sure all my highlighters are lined up... For essay subjects, I think that is a good tactic for organising notes, but for Physics specifically, and for subjects similar including Maths, it's all about practice. You need to do questions and answer problems. One of my Physics tutors gave me an analogy that was you wouldn't read a whole theory book on knowing how to drive a car and then be ready to get in the car and hit the road. You have to actually practise driving the car before you can do it confidently, and the same thing applies to Physics. More generally, while learning always question why something is the case. Why is this the law? Why does this make sense? Training your brain to think like that rather than memorising what's written is a more enjoyable way of engaging with the material, and it's more likely that things later will come more naturally to you because you spent the time to understand the fundamentals behind what's going on.
You can watch the full interview here: https://youtu.be/1RuIt4wre14