Read Part 1 of the story HERE
In the interest of full disclosure, I will say that I am privileged: with a nurturing environment, a family that encourages independence & unpopular opinions, a mother who is an educator, and a father who talks like a politician, mixing sense and nonsense with a poker face. (I kid, I kid! Don’t kill me, pa!) I read a lot as a child – compared to many of my schoolmatesl. My sister is a CMU grad, working as a software engineer, and my brother is studying PPE in The Queen’s College, Oxford. That’s both very encouraging and very pressuring.
Now enough with my yammering and on to the part you’re really interested in.
On the UCAS App
Oxford is not as concerned about your co-curricular activities as they are about how you furthered your interest in your chosen subject. Do relate your activities with your course where possible. I did not do an internship, and if you do it only in interest of increasing your chances to get into Oxbridge, then you probably shouldn’t apply. Make sure you take part in these things because you’re truly interested. Oxbridge has an incredibly heavy workload which you can only appreciate if you like the subject you study. I did do a part-time desk job in college for pocket money and some working experience, which did provide fodder for my PS. I doubt that it was a major factor in consideration of my application, however. My passion and clarity of opinion may have been.
Choosing a college is advisable if there are any particular colleges you don’t want to get. Many people choose colleges for a variety of different reasons – it could be famous for a course, or it may be located nearer to town, or they simply have a good vibe about it. No need to fret too much if you can’t decide: you can make an open application. I did this. It simply means that you will be allocated to a college, which won’t know if you chose it or not (hence, it won’t affect your chances whether your application is open or not).
On the TSA (Thinking Skills Assessment)
People applying for PPE will have to take the TSA – Oxford’s thinking skills assessment. Structurally, it is very similar to the multiple-choice questions (MCQ) exam paper taken by CIE AS level Thinking Skills students, so you can practice those questions on the XtremePapers page to get a feel of it. There are 50 questions, and the only difference is the time given (90 minutes). After the MCQ paper, there will be an essay section: choose one of five essay topics and write about it in 30 minutes. This will not be graded. Interviewers and admissions officers may refer to it, however. Make your essay straight to the point and flesh out your points in a clear manner. Don’t be afraid to say something controversial if you believe in it. Likewise, don’t say something controversial if you don’t believe in it. Sense = necessary. Bombastic = unnecessary. Check the website on the Oxford TSA to find out more. They also have a few sample questions you can glance over.
On The Interview
If you get a good score (for my year, it was 60.05 and above. They grade on a scale. Don’t be alarmed by a 70 – that’s very good! (I got 68.1!) – have a good reference (and grades), and write a good personal statement; you may be shortlisted for interview! Somewhere between half to a third of applicants are interviewed. People who apply for Medicine have to be in Oxford for this – the rest can choose to be interviewed via Skype (find the best connection you can!). There should be no material disadvantage of your chances if you opt for this.
The interviews are held in December over a span of two to six days. The college that you choose, or are allocated to, will interview you at a certain time and date. After that, keep checking the notification board or your email for invitations to other interviews. You may be interviewed by two or more colleges, though your original college has first dibs. I was only interviewed by one college myself.
The best preparation for interviews is to read your personal statement and any written work you submitted, practice voicing your train of thought and argument in a clear way, and basically read about your subject (as you should have been doing all this while). The interviewers look for teachability, passion, and organised thinking. They are not going to quiz you on facts, though you are expected to have at least some degree of general knowledge where your course is concerned. Some people participate in mock interviews. Do that, if you think it will make you feel better. Don’t, if you think the thought will distract you during your actual interview. You don’t have to. I didn’t. (Note: Admissions tutors advise against coaching.)
The interview is purely academic – they don’t judge you based on your background or clothes or accent (though please speak clearly!). They may ask you about your personal statement, a hypothetical scenario, or current affairs. The questions are not meant to stump you completely, but should be unfamiliar enough to show your critical thinking skills rather than memorising skills. Interviews are often said to be like mini-tutorials – you may find that answers need a moment or two of deep thought, and your interviewer will often guide you through that process. It isn’t about the answer – sometimes the question doesn’t even have a right or wrong answer – it’s about how you reach it. They’re generally friendly and want you to be at your ease so that panic doesn’t affect your performance.
My interview was held over Skype. They usually want you to be in your college or school when interviewed, so that college staff can make sure you are uninterrupted – sometimes the interviewers may ask you to show them the room to prove you are alone. I was in Hanoi, on holiday. The line was a bit shaky, so after introducing themselves they switched off their video and just watched mine.
I was interviewed by three people for each component of my course, and each of them had a ten-minute talk with me:
- The first, the politics tutor, asked me about an opinion I gave on democracy in Malaysia, making me explain why I felt it was important, as well as consider and give opinions on the efficacy of autocracy in comparison. The conversation was mostly questions from the tutor, followed by my answer, followed by questions about my answer, etc etc.
- The following bit with the philosophy tutor was more unnerving – he told me a story and asked me what I could infer from it. This ventured into fields of epistemology – the philosophy of what we know and how we know it. (As in, how do I know I am not just having a very vivid dream about the interview?) I felt almost totally lost, and tried to figure my way through it. The tutor tried to help, but I felt his efforts were in vain.
- Finally, the economics tutor led me through a scenario of homogeneous cookie production with a certain number of loyal and fickle customers, asking me how to price my cookies such that I will earn the maximum profit possible. This one in particular made me feel very stupid at the end for giving the wrong answer in the beginning, as well as not knowing what a cartel was. With the tutor’s guidance, I reached the best solution.
- After the last part, they asked me if I had any questions. I asked the philosophy tutor how he would have answered his question – he gave the opposite answer from me but didn’t have time to explain why.
I ended the interview feeling appallingly idiotic, on the verge of both laughter and tears. It felt like I had been terrible at answering all of them, especially the philosophy tutor. I thought I’d failed.
I didn’t let that spoil my holiday, though.
The outcome will usually be announced in January. You’ll get an email and a letter, as will your referee. Unlike Cambridge, the pooling happened during the interview stage, so any offer you receive comes from your college or another college that interviewed you. Otherwise, you will get an open offer, which means that they haven’t decided on your college but you are confirmed a place in one of them.
For PPE, the standard offer now is AAA, with an IELTS score of at least 7.0 overall and for each component (they also accept TOEFL and others, check the page out: http://www.ox.ac.uk/admissions/undergraduate/international-students/english-language-requirements). By the way, acceptance rates overall are about 1 successful applicant for every 6.5 applicants, and 1 to 10 in Malaysia.
If you are of comparable intelligence, can reason well, and love learning about PPE (or indeed any other subjects that Oxford offers), go ahead and apply! Worried about funding? Bear in mind that there are many scholarships available. My brother only received his after holding an unconditional offer for months.
As I write this, I am two days away from receiving my A-levels results. Good luck, and bon courage to the both of us!
Links which you may find useful:
- Oxford Malaysia club: https://www.facebook.com/notes/outreach-oxford-university-malaysia-club/faqs-on-applying-to-oxford/1382102442020174
- Some more detailed advice about Oxford: http://www.thestudentroom.co.uk/showthread.php?t=956112
- How fair is Oxford? http://www.stdominics.org.uk/media/uploads/Oxford%20Fairness.pdf
- And of course, the most important page for PPE applicants: http://www.ppe.ox.ac.uk/
The University of Oxford claims that BNM scholar Tay Weiling is sure to “achieve the required grades and subsequently enjoy” reading PPE there. Meanwhile she dabbles in everything from poetry to parkour to particle physics. You won’t find her easily – the wild Weiling is shy of strangers.