Accepted to Oxford University Part I

20 Oct 2015

October 2009 I put in my application for Oxford and received my offer on Christmas Eve December 24th.

Very different to US application process and applying along with many talented friends, I wasn't expecting much but was very happy to hear the news. With this acceptance news, I would like to write a post about the general Oxford admissions process.

An applicant can only apply to either of Oxford or Cambridge. I wanted to go to Oxford from long time ago so picked Oxford.

UK universities look at academic abilities more than extracurricular achievements. In CollegeApp (US university application form), we can put up to 10 extracurricular activities. These are also written in much details including, activity duration, activity description, the role of applicant during the activity, if the applicant can carry on with the activity after graduation. In UCAS (UK university application form), we cannot put activities other than employment. We can tell the difference between the qualities each country looks for in their applicants. I think it is fair to say if US universities assess an applicant from a broad perspective, UK universities primarily assess an applicant's academic potential.

Such difference is reflected in the university application essays for UK and US. US college essays is often for showing an applicant's character, background, how the applicant overcame any difficulty in life and the personal aspects, Oxford personal statement is for illustrating why the applicant wants to major the particular degree subject, how he/she became interested in the subject, what books have been read to develop the subject interests, what has been learnt from those books and thus really showing whether the applicant has the potential and ability to excel in the applied course. It can almost feel like showing off.

One more difference! In the US, some subjects like Medicine and Law are only available after completion of bachelors whereas in the UK, all subjects are available from bachelors. After admissions, transfers are very difficult.

UK university application procedure

UCAS application begins from 1st of September and ends by 15th of October. However, Oxford, Cambridge and medicine applicants have to submit their applications by 15th of October.

Oxford University is a union of 38 colleges and therefore a specific college needs to be chosen when applying. Most applicants will be spending the next 3, 4 years in one of these colleges for residence and cuisine as well as the weekly 'tutorial' with the college subject professor during which students discuss the essays they wrote typical in groups of 2 to 4 students. Lectures take place in the department participated by different college students.

There are professors that live inside college just like students while doing their university work and teaching. Colleges do not have professors for every subject which means the subjects offered by each college can be different. Each college has distinct atmosphere and differs in its architecture, building facilities and location.

University has a special day called 'Open Day' where prospective applicants can freely visit colleges, get to meet current students and, if lucky, even professors. I was lucky to be in Oxford for the Open Day where I could have a chat with my college professor who taught me for the next 4 years during my visit. Yes, I chose this college after the open day.

However, the experiences and learning from Oxford University will be very similar regardless of which college you go to. So if you don't have any specific preference for college, you can submit 'Open Application' and let the university assign you to a college.

However, even if you apply for a specific college, there is a chance you may not end up in that college for reasons I'll explain later.

After the application submission, the university will send interview invitations to applicants they are interested in. These interviews take place in Oxford or Skype for international applicants that cannot come to Oxford around early, middle December. Although I didn't have to take admissions tests, applications for Mathematics, Engineering and more, have to take subject specific admissions tests on 4th of November. These results are used by the university in giving out interview invitations. Therefore, typically a large percentage (80-90%) of applicants for subjects that do not require admissions tests are invited to the interviews while subjects that require admissions tests give out interview invitations to a smaller percentage (55-65%).

Interviews in Oxford (not Skype)

Interviews in Oxford last for 2 or 3 days during which accommodation and dining are provided by the college for free. Interview dates are near Christmas meaning flights are difficult to book. Therefore a lot of international students choose to Skype interview. However, I recommend applicants to take interviews in Oxford to get to know the university better.

I was at an A-Level school not far from Oxford. I got up at 6am in the morning to take the first train to Oxford. Although there were friends applying to Oxford, we all had different interview dates so I went there on my own.

It took me about 15 minutes to get from the train station to Oriel by walk. It was right in the center and behind the big Christ Church College. Oriel is one of the oldest colleges of Oxford established in 1300s therefore the buildings are very pretty almost like an art work. This is the front gate. Really looks like a castle right?

(Copy and paste into browser)

(Copy and paste into browser)

I was told to check in to my room first and then go to the Junior Common Room. It was just past 9am when I arrived at JCR and there were loads of interviewees like me some lingering by the interview timesheet and others chatting with each other. There were also subject student helpers in blue hoodies who were telling applicants out with directions. More importantly, there was the biochemistry timeslot sheet stuck on the wall and other subjects too.

This is how I found out what time and in which rooms my interviews were. It turned out that my first one was at 10am at St Hugh's and 2nd one at 4pm at Oriel. I was surprised that both my interviews were on the same day because I was told by my school that I will have the two interviews over two days.

I got hold of the Biochemistry helper (typically a second year) who was very friendly. She even took me all the way to St Hugh's saying that St Hugh's was very far away and easy to get lost. It took us about 25 minutes to arrive at St Hugh's and I remember half of what she said was not to be nervous that it will all be fine if I just remember the basics and speak logically.

First Interview

I remember waiting for 20 minutes past my scheduled interview time. I guess the previous interview ran late and because of this I was more nervous than I would have been. While waiting, I saw a terrible mistake an Engineering applicant made that I felt sorry for. I saw a fellow Asian student dressed up in a suit coming out and shaking hands with the professor saying good bye. After about 10 minutes the professor went back with the next applicant, the applicant in suit came back and knocked on the door and went into the room while interview was in progress. Ouch! When I was finally called into the room, I saw one male interviewer about 60 years old greeting me with a smile in a very large, bright room with tall ceiling.

After the first interview

The first interview went really well, almost too easy compared to what I expected. Just A-Level standard with no particularly challenging ones (I must have been very lucky). I was very happy with my performance because even I kept thinking back of the answers I gave, I couldn't think of anything wrong in what I said. My school friends and I met up in the town center for lunch. We went to eat Burritos which later turned out to be where I went to pretty much every week.

My friends were complaining that the interview questions were very difficult and they feel they didn't do very well. One friend was a chemist and he told me a question that I thought was very challenging and shared with me the answer too.

When I came back to Oriel JCR, I saw some playing ping pong and 'socialising' between applicants. Back then, I didn't understand how they could not revise and brainstorm for the next one. I went to check in my room. It was quite a big room.