Life as a STPM (Physics-Chemistry) Student

STPM

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‘Hello there!’
‘Good morning Mdm. Nancy.’
‘Good day to you sir.’

That was basically the routine for me, every single morning of my life whenever I bumped into a teacher or the principal. Pretty straightforward and ‘old-school’ I would say, however for me, it is a courtesy and doing so is my pleasure. Born and raised in Kuala Lumpur, life could be very boring for the past 5 years. Since the UPSR (Ujian Penilaian Sekolah Rendah), I was admitted into Victoria Institution. For 5 years, I went through the highs and lows of my high school life and now I am in Form 6, taking the STPM (Sijil Tinggi Pelajaran Malaysia) examination in the same school, Victoria Institution. It never hit me to take STPM until my grandfather shed some light on me about the STPM examination. After receiving my SPM (Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia) results, I had three choices to further myself into tertiary education due to my shallow results, the UPU system, STPM examination, or private colleges. I took all three choices seriously. The UPU system is roughly a system whereby it gives SPM graduates choices to study locally either in Diploma or Asasi. The choices given by this system seems somewhat random because you will end up with courses that are not really related to your interest. I did not consider depending on the UPU system at this point. Leaving that behind, I found myself in a crossroad. It was either private colleges or STPM. It took me a month to decide which one was the suitable choice. Coincidentally, the STPM was having a change in format and syllabus. The change in format and syllabus made the older one obsolete. The older format was called the ‘Terminal System’, which was very similar to SPM format. The students were required to study for a year and a half, and by the end of the duration, STPM examination would take place. However in the new and revised format, in a year and a half, the students will undergo three short semesters, where the syllabus for every subject in STPM are separated into three parts. By the end of each semester, a major exam takes place. The average marks for three semester is calculated and that would be your CGPA. At first, this big change in format was a handful to take. But, after letting it to sink in, it made sense. The new format is very similar to the Foundation courses in the private colleges. It took me a while to think about it. I compared the financial cost for STPM and private colleges. I had a hard time comparing those two, checking Mr. Google for experiences in both fields. There was really a major difference in lifestyle, but the outcome was somewhat similar. The only thing is, STPM prepares you generally for almost any degree course. In contrast to that, private colleges offers a wide range of programs that prepares you specifically for the chosen course, resulting a narrow range of degree courses. At this point, I was not really sure of what sort of career that I will be taking, and my mind was kind of fuzzy at that moment. Confused and lost, it took mae one week to decide what kind of career that I am going to pursue. In the end, I choose to take up STPM.

I ended up choosing STPM, and decided to follow the Science stream. There is a lot of combination of subjects in this particular stream, the common one being the “Physics-Chem” and the “Bio-Chem”. The former one requires you to take Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics while the latter requires you to take Biology instead of Physics, plus the other two subjects mentioned after that. Upon making the decision, something hit me in the head. I was not good at Biology at all! So I took the “Physic-Chem” combo. A friend of mine, Lim Yu Wei, took an unorthodox combination which some might consider crazy. He took up Biology, Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics. It is possible to take that kind of combination, however not recommended to the student since there are more than a handful of subjects to juggle. Our school allowed this combination, but it is rarely taken up by the students due its difficulty. Other schools which offers STPM mostly have these three combinations in the Science stream. That basically sums up the Science stream in STPM. When I think about it, the subjects that are offered in the Science stream are quite general, but the depth is quite deep. There is a lot more to be learn in STPM in comparison with ‘Asasi’ or Foundation. I was not quite sure about the reason behind this, however I guess it’s the standard that has to be maintained, even when there is a change in the format. The fact that STPM has a reputation of being tough, rumours arise like bubbles in hot springs and the biggest one is “STPM is going to make you suffer because it is hard.” This is not so true however. STPM is hard but it is totally up to the students to conform and suffer or to rise above that. It is a matter of technique that lets you through this ‘suffering’ examination. Other rumours pretty much revolves around the previous one, saying it is hard and unmanageable for a student at the age of 18 and 19. Personally, I think it would be better off that way because it will give a valuable lesson to those who take up STPM. In other words, you got to prepare yourself for whatever that comes your way. Despite of all the load that takes toll on STPM students, I can proudly say that we are a bunch of happy students. In contrary to common believe, we are happy students at heart simply because it is like high school all over again. Back in our uniform that we are not so fond of, reminds us again that we are still young. Life in the Form 6 is not as mundane as you think it is, very exciting, somewhat weird and sometimes dangerous. Very adventurous I would say, however because of this, the importance of our studies were temporarily stripped away from our brains, until the mock exams come.

Putting aside our happy yet silly lives, lets focus on what STPM is comprised of, the subjects. As a Science student, I took the ‘Physics-Chem’ subject combo and therefore I had to study Physics, Mathematics, Chemistry and the General Paper. STPM is well known for its dense syllabus for each subject and with the new modular format, students were required to learn at a very fast rate. In the new format, the old syllabus is split into three parts to accommodate for each semester. This applies to every subject in both Science and Arts stream. Hence, we will not be referring to the materials that had been learnt in the previous semester. More like a take-and-throw routine, things that has been learnt in first semester would not be brought up in the second semester. Even if there is a relationship between the topics, it would be negligible. As I took up Elementary Physics, it is split up into three parts, Motion & Thermodynamics, Electromagnetism & Optics, and Nuclear Physics & Quantum Mechanics. So I would have done those three separately and I can tell you that each one is very dense and requires you to swallow it up within six months. A daunting task lies ahead of me and I was unsure if I can pull it off by the time the final examination claims me. Pretty much the same for Maths, Chemistry and General Paper. Talking about the final examination, the format for the final examination is very new to me as each subject has only one paper. Unlike SPM, each subject may contain several papers to sit, and each subject differs in the number of papers to take. The Science subjects in STPM, Physics, Biology and Chemistry has a common format. The paper is divided into three section, Multiple Choice Question Section, Subjective Questions Section and Essay Question Section. All three must be done within an hour and a half. This seemed very crazy, but if you focus and persevere, it is possible. By the end of the exams, our hands would be worn out since we are writing fast to save time. Because of this, I have to change the way I’m studying. Instead of focussing on the vast content of each subject, I focused more on the important formulas and the frequently asked questions. STPM may overwhelm you with the vast content, but don’t be disheartened. My advice is do 50 questions from each subject daily and time yourself. Consistency is the key. Be consistent and you’ll find yourself some space to breathe in the end. Sometimes, we are taken aback by the difficulty that we are facing and try to run away from it. Instead, face the truth, be determined and have the will to go on. Taking tuitions outside is advisable, but do not depend too much on it. Study often and you’ll get through. Sounds like it is going to be mundane, but the fact it is not. Don’t bend yourself to the books solely and lock yourself from the world for good. Be resourceful and smart, find questions from different platforms like A-levels, Foundation programs and Matriculations. From there, you will get a wide array of questions and answers. Use the internet and find papers from different states. That is how you could study in STPM, for the Science stream as well as the Arts stream. Honestly, the teachers are not going to feed you with the knowledge needed so you need to find your own way out of the mess. Do not neglect them however, because sometimes you need their help. I used to ask teachers for papers from other schools because it is in their field of knowledge. Utilise things around you to aid you in quest for success.

Up until now, I still feel that the Form 6 in schools in Malaysia is detached from the school organisation. Back in the 1950’s to the 1980’s, the Form Six were considered the eldest among the high schoolers. However now, it just seems like a far cry as the Form 5 is considered the eldest and the Form 6 is a separate institution. In Victoria Institution, the efforts of putting the Form 6 back into the school organisation is fruitful, events that were organised by the Form 6 were openly accepted and celebrated. During sports day, the Form 6 and the Form 5 are placed in a single category. The Form 6 integrated well with the school in Victoria Institution. Apparently, the Form 5 do not have a proper student council or a student body. Only the Form 6 does. From time to time, representatives from the Form 6 student council discuss about yearly events with the Form 5. However, due to the density of STPM, the Form 6 students rarely participate in Form 5’s huge event. The Form 6 students are often reminded to study rather than getting involved with the school activities. We are not forced to become bookworms, but to prepare ourselves for whatever is coming. This preparation and constant reminder kept us alive and will forever teach us a valuable lesson, which is to be matured. STPM graduates would normally end up doing a degree course in a private university instead of a public university simply because the chances to get into public university is very low. Appealing to them would be futile. Even if we got the offer to attend public university, the courses offered are always not related to us or our interests. Private colleges became our option in the end. Whether it be the private colleges or the public university that I end up in, the support from several dedicated teachers that I received is what I really like. Even though you are supposed to be on your own, some teachers would really help and push you till the very end. These teachers are selfless and would do anything in their power to help us students achieve a high CGPA in STPM. I would like to thank them and I am very grateful to have them as my teachers. Then again, even having such people to help us, the STPM exam papers needs to be revised. With the current format, the questions asked are very objective and requires you to read a lot. None of them piqued my interest in Physics, Chemistry or even Math. Everything asked was based on facts and nothing were subjective or opinion based. The “Subjective Questions” section in our papers does not prove its purpose and instead asked more factual question. With a little bit of opinion based questions in STPM, it would give us a little room for us to breathe and would probably spark our interest in our respective subjects learnt. I would be happy if they would do that.

Here I am, typing this essay on a laptop, expressing how I feel. To be honest, I feel grateful and happy to have done STPM. A lot of memories were made along the way and not to mention, the amount of silly things we did back then. It was a journey for me to reassure myself about what I was going to do next. STPM made me think maturely and it certainly did taught me one important lesson, to persevere and have determination towards your goal. Here is a thing to those who have made it to the last passage of my essay, do not underestimate luck and when you have it, use it to your fullest because that may be the last bit of luck you can ever get. I am not asking you to rely on it, rather make use of it when it comes. Always put effort into anything you do and seize the chance if you see it and don’t let it go! Think of this essay as guide to peer into and hopefully, it had helped to clear out a bit of things. I wish you all good lives and have fun along the way.


 

Abdul Aziz

Abdul Aziz bin Azman is currently a foundation student en route for a Oil & Gas Process Degree at UniKL. Hailing from the famed SKBD and Victoria Institution, Aziz claims that he might just be one of those “DotArds”, spending much of his holidays on DotA 2 and Warcraft 3 of top of the chess and reading that he does in between. Sparked by reading Stephen Hawking in fifth form, Aziz’s love for physics has now become unquenchable.

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Pre-U Subject Choices for UK-Bound Students

Earlier this year, the Russell Group published their 2015/16 “Informed Choice” pamphlet, accompanied by a video, explaining the value and importance of taking facilitating subjects as a dominant part of a student’s Pre-U subject choices. These facilitating subjects, e.g. the sciences, history, maths, further maths, languages, English Literature and geography, as the lobbying group for the 24 research-intensive universities characterised, open up a wide range of options for university entries and career choices. Indeed, across the Russell Group universities and more specifically the top echelon of this group e.g. Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, facilitating subjects go far more than mere “opening up wide options”. Their “preferred subjects” reflect their umbrella group’s facilitating subjects, albeit with more restrictions and are seen as subjects to rigorously formulate the skills necessary for different courses at their universities. LSE and certain colleges of Oxford and Cambridge openly publish a list of preferred and non-preferred subjects. Generally, non-traditional ones such as accounting, business studies, sociology fall into the latter group. Indeed, reading the Russell Group’s “Informed Choice” pamphlet and watching their videos will immediately kick this question into your mind – “Why does this seem so aloof of the Malaysian context?” Very clearly, “Informed Choice” is meant for the British audience. Malaysian schools/colleges are shaped very differently, likewise the subjects they offer and the normative biases that parents, peers and teachers tend to have.

 

Where should I start?

Generally, you will have to consider three things – the prerequisite subjects that your preferred courses have, the preferences your universities/courses have and whether or not you will be able immerse yourself into the joyous journey of learning the subject. While the first two are technically important criteria that you should never forsake, the last one tend to be underrated. I cannot stress how important that is, given that you will be spending more than a year studying that subject, dedicating your soul to the devil just to go to university. You might as well just murder yourself over a subject that you will enjoy.

Let’s deal with the bits where you’re faced with a Hobson’s choice i.e. the first two criteria are relatively simple to fulfil. Go on to the websites of the courses that you are applying to and take note of the required and suggested subjects. For instance, Physics at Oxford requires applicants to have studied Maths and Physics at Pre-University level and likewise, Medicine at Edinburgh will require Chemistry and Biology. In the “Informed Choice” pamphlet, though insufficient and inadequate, there is a generalised list of prerequisites for commonly applied courses. These are essential subjects that you must take to be considered by your prospective universities.

Figuring out which subjects are not preferred by your course also follows a similar approach. Though most universities will not make it explicitly clear that they don’t prefer certain subjects, Cambridge and LSE definitely publishes their own non-exhaustive list. Nonetheless, their list generally applies to the other Russell Group universities, having all collectively expressed that they prefer at least 2 facilitative subjects before releasing their first series of “Informed Choice” guidelines. There are, however, caveats regarding this. The most competitive courses and universities tend to prefer applicants not to have any “soft” subjects e.g. media studies, accounting (even for accounting applicants), law (yes, for law applicants as well) at all. Keep in mind that while not all non-facilitative subjects are soft subjects, all soft subjects are non-facilitative. Indeed, there is hardly any strict definitions of what soft and hard subjects are but the generic implication is that hard subjects formulate the core skills that are useful in undergraduate study rather than specific skills that soft subjects tend to train. Another generalisation that you can take note of is that traditional subjects such as economics, the hard sciences, maths and the ones in the list of facilitative subjects are also considered to be hard subjects. Moreover, there are some statistical backing to this preference. In 2008, Durham University ran a study on the relative difficulty of different A-level subjects and there was an obvious trend that across all 5 statistical models used, “traditional” and facilitative subjects tend to be harder than otherwise. Though more than half a decade ago, deviations hardly were significant across years.

The last bit is fairly straightforward at face value, choose the subjects that you will actually enjoy. Of course, if you’re eyeing on the more competitive universities e.g. Oxbridge, LSE, Imperial, look only at the traditional/hard subjects. However, considering the different circumstances UK-bound Malaysians can be in – being enrolled in a college/school with limited, bundled subject choices, restricted by IBDP requirements or simply limited by the choices available via STPM/Matrikulasi, this is a tricky question to answer.

 

In the foreseeable future, accessible Malaysian schools/colleges are probably not going to teach subjects like Latin, politics, geography, history and classical studies. And you have just told me that I shouldn’t take accounting, business studies, law and a whole lot of subjects that are bundled together. Just what subjects should I take?

Indeed, unless you have the luck and privilege of being admitted to the more resourceful schools such as KTJ, KYUEM or ISKL, your choices of subjects will be restricted. For one, elite schools like these offer almost every traditional subjects there is, including A-level Geography, Music, History and IB French, German etc. If you are in schools of this sort, you don’t have any problems. Just choose the traditional subjects that you will enjoy and are related to the course that you want to further your studies in. Elsewhere across the board, the hard sciences and maths are often bundled together in for A-level, Matrikulasi colleges and STPM schools. The problem begins for students who wish to take on the social sciences/humanities in competitive universities. Often, traditional humanities/social sciences are bundled together with non-traditional ones e.g. “English Literature, Sociology, Law”, “Economics, Maths, Accounting, Business Studies” for A level, “General Studies, Accounting, Economics and Maths” for STPM.

Under these restrictions, it is important to recall that the social sciences and humanities often don’t require a stringent traditional social sciences/humanities subject combination at pre-university. History degrees don’t even need history as a prerequisite and would see English Literature as an indication of having the sufficient skills to cope with such a reading and writing-heavy subject. Likewise, economics only required maths. Given that, it is perfectly fine filling up the rest of your subject spots with the sciences or any other available traditional subject. Keep in mind that if you are not eyeing at the most difficult universities, it is alright to take the bare minimum of 2 traditional and/or facilitative subjects that the Russell Group universities collectively prefer. Given that, a subject combination such as “Economics, Maths, Further Math, Physics” will work for economics, accounting and similar subjects while “Maths, Chemistry, Biology, English Literature” seems adequate for law, history and accounting.  It is unlikely for IB students to face this problem, making it almost uniquely one for A-level, Matrikulasi and STPM students.

For the latter, where schools tend to be inflexible and under-resourced in terms of subject choices, it is perfectly fine writing to the universities themselves when applying, explaining the restrictive circumstances you are in. Of course, it is unreasonable to make someone who wants to apply for a history course to take a full “Sejarah, English Literature, Ekonomi” combination where that combination is unlikely to exist except in the more resourced urban schools. Likewise, expecting a Matrikulasi student to take that subject combination is also unreasonable given that it doesn’t exist. On top of explaining about the circumstances you are in to the universities, your UCAS personal statement should then be able to immensely display your academic potential in the course that you are applying. In that case, just take whatever that’s available to you e.g. “Science Stream” or “Accounting Stream”; it’s another Hobson’s choice.

 

Wait, just to be clear, you’re saying that even if I want to be a lawyer, accountant or business manager, I shouldn’t be taking law, accounting and/or business studies if possible? What about taking economics and business studies together?

The short and perhaps, grim, answers are yes and no respectively.

As explained earlier, the three subjects listed in the first question i.e. law, accounting and business studies are soft subjects. They should only be taken, at best, an additional subject. For applicants to the most competitive universities, just avoid them. Lawyers don’t need to do law at A-level (I doubt this subject is an option for other examinations). In fact, building the core analytical and writing skills via a mixture of essay subjects e.g. Literature, History, the social sciences and/or the hard sciences tend to be more preferable at university. Likewise, building up the quantitative, analytical and thinking skills via a mixture of traditional social sciences, mathematics and hard sciences would be more preferable and helpful.

For the second question, economics and business studies are considered to be overlapping subjects. However, economics is a traditional subject while business studies isn’t. Given that, you should either take economics and ditch business studies or take business studies as an additional subject and ditch economics. Generally, however, where economics is available as an option at your school/college, taking business studies isn’t a wise option. For instance, LSE explicitly has this preference.

 

Just what if I have no idea what do I want to study at university?

That then depends on the extent of uncertainty that you have. We will use a scale with 3 spectrums here – “I can’t decide between studying course A and B”, “I know that I want to study something in, per se, the humanities but I have yet to settle on a particular course” and “I have absolutely no idea”. Notice that this is a more in depth dilemma for A-level students given the immense options that they have. For IBDP, STPM and Matrikulasi students, choosing your subjects along these principles will do.

For the first one on the scale – “I can’t decide between studying course A and B”, it shouldn’t be highly difficult to take up subjects that fulfil the needs of both courses. Of course, this is under the assumption that there are some significant differences between them e.g. PPE and Medicine. Notice that these two are rather extreme but it is not impossible to take up, for instance, Biology, Chemistry, Maths and also History; of course, taking physics as well would be good and it is unlikely that your uncertainty will persist for more than 3 months, whereby thereafter you can drop the more unrelated subject. For more similar choices such as PPE and Economics or Chemical Engineering and Physics, incorporating the needs of both subjects won’t be difficult e.g. English Lit/History, Economics, Maths and Further Maths fulfil the former while a standard Physics, Chemistry, Maths, Further Maths combination works for the latter.

Moving up the scale and we find ourselves in a situation where a student only managed to narrow down to one particular field. The key idea then is to take up traditional and facilitating subjects within that particular field. It is perfectly fine going cross-disciplinary e.g. a mixture of social science, humanities and sciences as long as the field that you wish to be in is reflected in your subject choices. Applicants who might be set on the social sciences but unsure of which particular course to further their studies in might be interested in taking a quantitatively analytical subject e.g. maths and economics, coupled with another more qualitative one e.g. geography to cater for the less quantitative-centric social science courses. On the contrary, while it is generally normal alright to apply for the more maths intensive science subjects e.g. Physics, Engineering with a full natural science with maths combination, that is hardly optimal. The best solution is to decide as soon as possible, preferably within a 3-month period.

Lastly, for the “I have absolute no idea what I want to further my studies in” students who will have a seriously difficult time figuring out which subject combination will be best. The issue with most standardised qualifications is that your options are generally restricted. As per mentioned earlier, you should be deciding as soon as possible before finalising your subject choices, optimally within a 3-month period of starting your course, so that you will be able to catch up with the work done by your possibly new classmates. Generally, in terms of subjects, the idea is to have a mixture of subjects from different fields. Although conventional wisdom is that taking a pure natural science plus maths combination opens up all doors, that isn’t necessarily the case. Most of the humanities and some social science courses will want to see indication of academic writing and reading capability, from which subjects like English Literature, History and the Languages can indicate. Given that, start off with a mixture and then narrow down your course choices and Pre-U subject choices as soon as possible.

 

So is this the holy book that I must follow?

No, this article is entirely advisory and based on the team’s research, experience and access to various sources of information.


Written by: The CollegeLAH Team

A Coffee Enthusiast’s Application to Oxford for Physics

Oxford JX

Applying to Oxford for Physics (Not my Dad’s)

If you’re reading this, you just might possibly be considering the thought of maybe perhaps APPLYING FOR PHYSICS at Oxford.

Do it.

My dad (whose physics application advice is also on this website) and I are the only Malaysian physicists here and we’d love for you all to join the *cough* fun.

Brian’s Journey to Oxford (Part 1)

Brian’s Journey to Oxford (Part 2)

No. He’s not my real dad.

I’ll have more information concerning my interview than anything else, because that’s the most memorable part, and dad’s article sums up all the good tips for everything else already.

Here we go!

 

FIRSTLY, THE PAT

I honestly cannot remember much from my sitting of the PAT.  Nevertheless, my checklist for preparing for it was along the lines of:

[] Read through the PAT Syllabus ( https://www2.physics.ox.ac.uk/study-here/undergraduates/applications/physics-aptitude-test-pat/pat-syllabus ) and note down any topics which your Sixth Form course has not covered

[] Read through AS-level and IGCSE physics

[] Brief research of eclipses and astronomy (which my A-level studies did not cover)

[] ALL the past year PAT papers from http://www.physicsandmathstutor.com/pat/ . This here website is your new best friend. Don’t forget to check with its model answers

[] A few servings BPho (British Physics Olympiad, not the Vietnamese noodle soup) from http://www.physics.ox.ac.uk/olympiad/PastPapers.html#BPhOP1 . Again, these have marking schemes and, as dad said, they do in fact resemble the PAT questions

When it gets to the PAT, keep calm and just show them what you know! Very few people can complete every single question with confidence. I remember blanking out for a few math concepts I had not used for months but give everything a good shot and cross your fingers for…

 

THE INTERVIEW

Hehe. I remember getting my interview email in the middle of Lumut’s jungles covered in soil and sweat on my teacher’s iPad. I was in the middle of KTJ’s Outward Bound School trip for Sixth-Form students and frustrated that books were forbidden during the course. Good times…

I had two interviews over Skype: the first with Oriel and the second with Pembroke (obviously, the Pembrokian tutors who interviewed me and are now tutoring me are nicer 🙂 )

The link to the interview questions and solutions are at the end of this paragraph. I urge you to not look at the answers and instead give the questions a worthy go before checking your attempt with my answers.

JX Physics Interview and Solutions

Preparing for the interview

  1. Do lots of Fermi Problems
  2. Do lots of Puzzles
  3. Chill
  4. Drink coffee
  5. Read and practice from the following list

Book recommendations: These are just some books that I read or read excerpts from that were very interesting or helpful to the interview.

Jearl Walker – The Flying Circus of Physics

This book, although incredibly elusive, is a treasure trove of physics brainteasers with awesome explanations.

Conservation of Momentum blog

https://conversationofmomentum.wordpress.com/

Lots of physics interview questions and puzzles.

Richard Feynman – QED ; 6 easy pieces ; Tips on Physics ; Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman

Great look at an unconventional perspective of physics. The last book isn’t really about physics but it’s the only biography I have ever enjoyed reading.

George Gamow – Mr Tompkins in Paperback

A pretty fun exploration of physics you should be interested in. You can find these (legally) free online.

Quantum: Einstein, Bohr, and the Great Debate About the Nature of Reality – Manjit Kumar

A nice historical overview of modern physics.

 

All in all, I hope you have a great time applying for and studying Physics (if you’re here not for the physics, good luck with whatever you’re doing anyway!). I hope the advice here helps. I know it’s short, but it’s so that you have more time to practice which is what will really matter.

All the best! Hi Mum and dad (Oxford and in real life)!


fullsizerender

Jiaxen Lau, full time physicist, coffee connoisseur, photographer, videographer, fashionista, poet, cryptoanalyst, is currently reading Physics in Pembroke College, Oxford University. Indeed, he may have forgotten lunch but he will never forget about coffee. Make no mistake, this man is not a Victorian dandy but, with certainty, a Victorian gentleman who, as rumour has it, seems to have a girlfriend. Shame on him if that’s true, he’s supposed to love physics and coffee and only physics and coffee.

My Journey to Oxford (Part 2)

Brian Khor will read Physics in University of Oxford- the city of dreaming spires

Brian Khor will read Physics in the University of Oxford – the city of dreaming spires.

 

Read Part 1 of this story here.

Interviews

The Specific Details of my Interviews

1st Oxford Physics Skype Interview (Conducted by Physics tutors from University College, Oxford)

I applied to University College (informally known as ‘Univ’) at the University of Oxford. And as part of Oxford Physics Department admission process, I was interviewed twice, once by Univ and another interview by a second randomly assigned college (for my case, Pembroke College). Unlike the University of Cambridge (where interviews can be conducted in Malaysia or in Cambridge itself), Malaysian applicants to Oxford can only choose to either fly there for the interviews, or have their interviews through Skype. I opted for Skype interviews. My Univ interview lasted for about 45 minutes, and revolved around interesting problems and phenomena about Physics and Mathematics.

An integration problem with a nice clever trick.

After receiving this math problem, I thought of the standard substitution method, and told my interviewers about how it works. Unfortunately, while working through the question using the substitution method, I realized that the steps were longer than expected. Out of my curiosity, I asked my interviewers for hints whether there were other approaches to this problem, and I was shocked at how elegant and simple my interviewers would have otherwise solved it. Here’s the hint (spoiler alert for people who is trying to solve this!):

I was awestruck at how simple this hidden pattern is! This approach was much shorter and more beautiful.

I was awestruck at how simple this hidden pattern is! This approach was much shorter and more beautiful.

In case you haven’t realized it, the integrand (which is the thing you’re supposed to integrate) simply has (1/x) as the numerator, and the differentiated form of (1/x) which is (ln x) as denominator. When you have integrands in the form of f’(x) / f(x), the integral (result of integration) will be ln ( f(x) ). Don’t worry if you don’t quite get this. It is actually in the Cambridge A Level A2 Maths syllabus.

After several Maths problems, the interviewers moved on to a Physics phenomenon: moving charge in a magnetic field. The interviewers didn’t just ask about the issues and problems that could be found in the A-Level syllabus; they went beyond and tested me on how much I could adapt and solve the unknown. The interviewers started with the standard A Level magnetic field case, where the moving charge is moving perpendicularly to the magnetic field, in a circular pattern. Then they moved on to moving charges moving at an angle (not perpendicular as in the first case) inside a uniform magnetic field. It’s not covered in the A-Level syllabus but if you break down the velocity into its horizontal and vertical components, you will realise that the component perpendicular to the field will move in a circular motion while the parallel component will move with constant velocity, which results in a helical motion. Then came the tough bit, the last interview question that I spent almost 10 minutes struggling to understand:

Predicting motion of positive moving charges

Predicting the motion of moving positive charges in a converging field

The problem was about predicting the motion of positive moving charges coming at an angle inside a converging field. In the previous 2 cases, I only dealt with uniform magnetic field, and now I was asked about what would  happen to the motion and trajectory of a moving charge coming at an angle to a converging magnetic field (see pic above). This was a rather strange physical phenomenon where I had never thought about it before and found it  interesting to speculate the motion of the moving charge. First, I stated that the  magnetic field strength is increasing (since the field is converging) but I struggled (in a rather unfruitful direction) for the first five minutes on this problem. Finally, I asked for a hint, and it’s this one hint, that led the way to understand and solve this problem. The hint was: The Lorentz force acting on the positive moving charge, in real mathematical form, is the cross product of qv and B ( F = qv x B). While this hint was obvious to me, I never thought that it would be useful in handling this problem. Then, I came out with a sketch of my solution while explaining verbally what was  going on (see pic below):

The hint that led him to solve the complicated problem

The hint that led Brian to solve the complicated problem

This is on why the hint was useful: Interview B field question

As you can see, the cross product will change the component of the velocity perpendicular to the magnetic field, and since the field strength is increasing, it will “attract” the vector of the velocity towards its perpendicular component. But the cross product constraint will require the magnitude of the velocity to stay the same and hence it results in a rather weird helical motion which will eventually result in a circular path that stops going forward. See following 2 paragraphs for further explanation. Spiral motion

  • As the converging magnetic field implies that the magnetic force (which acts in the direction perpendicular to both magnetic field lines and velocity) is increasing, this will thus increase the Lorentz force on the component of velocity perpendicular to the field lines. The direction of Lorentz force (which is always perpendicular to velocity) will have some complicated change in direction due to the change in velocity and increase in magnitude of the force, so I will not show the details here but just the big picture. This perpendicular Lorentz force is like centripetal force acting perpendicularly on velocity – stronger centripetal force will cause the moving charge to move in a spiral. This is because stronger force leads to higher acceleration, which leads to greater change in the perpendicular component of velocity.
  • If the spiral motion was in only 2-D, the magnitude of velocity increases due to increasing centripetal force (centripetal acceleration = rw2, so while circular radius, r, decreases, w needs to increase more than r in order to account for increasing centripetal acceleration. This leads to increase in perpendicular component of the motion of charged particle in converging magnetic field). But in this case which is 3-D, the Lorentz force is cross product of velocity and field line, plus, magnitude of speed needs to be constant. In order to accommodate the increasing perpendicular velocity component, the horizontal component of velocity needs to be reduced to keep the magnitude constant.

I spent around 10 minutes speaking out my thought process, assumptions and reasoning to the interviewers on this problem and realized that I enjoyed the experience and learnt new physics along the way! (For those who are interested to further understand the mathematical details of this phenomenon, it’s called Magnetic Mirror and you can find out more by googling.)


2nd Oxford Physics Skype Interview (conducted by Physics tutors from Pembroke College, Oxford)

My 2nd Skype interview was held 2 days after my first interview. In comparison with my first interview, I would say that this interview was much ‘quirkier’ in a sense that the questions were rather open-ended and required general mathematical aptitude rather than specific mathematical techniques. Of course, in this section, I’ve handpicked interesting problems as well to present my interview experience. Here’s one of the weirdest interview questions:

Interview distance question

There’s a 4.8m shadow in London and none in Paris. What’s the distance between London & Paris?

At first, this problem appeared to be too broad and I thought of too many approaches (that didn’t work out that well, somehow). I didn’t know where to get myself started so I made some assumptions. I clarified that the sunlight shines at some small angle to London while it’s directly above Paris and assumed that the distance between the city is just a tiny minor arc of the earth surface (and can be approximated as a straight line) and the interviewers immediately corrected me on these 2 faulty assumptions. So, my corrected assumptions are as below:

  1. Sunlight is assumed to come in parallel straight line
  2. Earth is perfectly spherical and 2 cities are located at 2 points on the minor arc (see pic below)
Interview distance question

The solution

After being corrected on my assumptions, I was immediately enlightened about the right approach to this problem. By utilizing the general geometry principles about parallel line, I could work out the length of the arc (which is the distance between London and Paris).

Brian’s second problem at his second Skype interview

This is a big problem with 4 sub problems, but I have only selected the interesting pieces to discuss here (2 of the 4 sub problems). While I was unsure about the term ‘Flux’ in the context of the problems, the interviewers clarified it and in a more mathematical language, it was simply the rate of change of volume (flow rate). After clarifying the word ‘flux’, I went on to solve this problem by modeling it using differential equation. In case you are interested in how h(t) can be obtained, here’s the solution:


brian diff eqn sol

Integrating it:

Screen Shot 2014-08-04 at 10.36.51 PM

After solving it, I immediately realized  that it was a  negative exponential function and went on to solve the 2 subsequent sub-problems during the interview. The interviewers’ final question (arguably one of the toughest) was:

Sketch the HEIGHT OF WATER against TIME for the 2nd Jar.

I was asked to sketch the height of water against time for the 2nd jar. While I struggled to imagine the general picture of the curve, the interviewer once again enlightened me by asking me 2 questions:

  1. What happened to the beginning of the curve and how it should look like?
  2. When almost all water from the 1st Jar has been transferred to the 2nd jar, how should the water level on the 2nd jar drop?

For the first part, I figured out that it would look almost like some sort of increasing exponential shape and for the second part I figured that it would look almost like a negative exponential graph (not exactly because while water is filling up the 2nd jar, water is flowing out at the same time so the exact curve shape and equation will be different) and here’s my sketch (of course, my assumption was that when water level is falling exponentially it will come to a point where it can be approximated as 0):

The soulution

The soulution

After sketching the graph, 30 minutes had passed and the interviewer ended the interview. In general, I love the kind of intellectual conversation going on in both interviews and I couldn’t wait to see myself engage in this kind of conversation in my next 3 to 4 years in the Oxford tutorial system. These problems, once again, broadened my problem solving perspective and I must say that I love it.

Conclusion

I will advise and say that the best form of preparations to get into Oxford are:

  1. Not being afraid to explore and think about new ideas and issues
  2. Learn to communicate clearly and clarify your thoughts during the interview
  3. Mostly important, apply to the course you’re really passionate about! As the famous saying goes “Love what you do, or leave.” I believe this doesn’t apply just to scientists but also to all of us in general.

And, all the best!  Give yourself a try, and you might not know some of your best efforts will pay off. Links which you may find useful: 

  1. Integrating f’(x) / f(x) types: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1j2rwuz909o
  2. Magnetic Lorentz force: http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/magnetic/magfor.html
  3. Motion of moving charge in a magnetic field: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=slmV2IlluAM
  4. Differential equations & exponential function: http://www.mathsrevision.net/advanced-level-maths-revision/pure-maths/calculus/differential-equations 

 


Brian KhorBrian Khor Jia Jiunn, a National Scholarship holder and an aspiring physicist is one step to achieving his dreams by pursuing Physics in the University of Oxford (did you know that Stephen Hawking was from Oxford too?). With his immeasurable passion, he will definitely go far in the field and be part of ground-breaking findings.

My Journey to Oxford (Part 1)

Brian Khor will read Physics in University of Oxford- the city of dreaming spires

Brian Khor will read Physics in University of Oxford- the city of dreaming spires

UCAS Personal Statement

For my personal statement, I mainly wrote about my passion in Physics and what the aspects in physics that excite me are. I think the most important message for prospective applicants to include in their personal statements is to demonstrate their interest for the course they are applying to. Do take note that literally writing down “I’m interested in Physics” and demonstrating passion in your personal statement can be two different things.

Read around your subject and discuss them in your personal statement

Read around your subject and discuss them in your personal statement

My personal statement utilized a few aspects to demonstrate my passion and aptitude for Physics. I wrote about how my interest in Physics started when I watched MIT Physics lectures and how those counter-intuitive and cool demos by Professor Walter Lewin challenged my intuition and imagination about the world around me. (You’ll probably want to watch his demos as they are simply mind blowing!)

I went on to write a bit more about my leisure readings related to Physics outside of standard school syllabus, and discussed a bit on “The Fabric of the Cosmos” (semi-academic book by Brian Greene, intended to spread ideas like quantum mechanics to the layman audience) and how this book stirred my curiosity and led me to keep questioning everything around me.

The next thing I wrote about was my involvement in Science and Maths-related activities and achievements, and how these experiences convinced me that Physics is the right thing for me to pursue at the Undergraduate level and beyond (I aspire to be a research physicist one day). I mentioned Mathematics competitions, and how solving those “unusual” problems compared to problems in standard school curriculum sharpened my creativity, and changed my perspective about problem-solving in general.  My involvements in the Math Club and peer tutoring programs were my channels to spread my passion and love for Physics and Mathematics to peers around me.

While I think this is optional, applicants perhaps can include activities not related to their intended major, but care must be given not to write too much about, say, your achievements in football, to the extent that it strays from original purpose of the statement, which is to demonstrate passion for the course you are applying for.

To sum up, the UCAS personal statement is about one thing: showing your passion.

Admission Test

I wrote this part exclusively for application to Oxford. For most UK universities, submitting the UCAS online application is sufficient, but Oxbridge has written tests and interviews as part of their selection process. Engineering, Material Science and Physics applicants to Oxford will need to sit for the PAT (Physics Aptitude Test).

I sat for PAT in early November 2013. In preparation for it, my advice is somewhat generic: practice PAT-style problems (from past PAT papers or British Physics Olympiad (BPhO) AS Challenge Problems)

*Note: Just a bit of extra info, the Oxford Physics Department is responsible for selecting British students to represent the country for IPhO at the international level. Thus, they set national level Physics Olympiad problems and the ‘flavor’ of BPhO AS Challenge problems are very similar to what you’ll expect for PAT*

As for the level of physics you need, I will advise those who have not attained enough prerequisite knowledge to do some self study before the test (sufficient level of preparation for physics is up to core syllabus of A2 Physics for Cambridge A Level). For the maths part of PAT, you need to know your AS level Mathematics as well as how to solve some probably unusual problems.

So, the best way to prepare is: practice.

Interviews

Here comes the part of the application process that I enjoyed the most: the Oxford Physics Interviews (and probably the most important part in your application).

For those who have achieved a passing score for PAT (Oxford shortlists from over 1100+ physics applicants to about 500 applicants for interview, and you can refer to Oxford Physics admission statistics for further info), you’ll be emailed and called for interview(s). For those who have arrived in this stage, well done, and reward yourself with some cookies!

Here are some general interview advice for Oxford interviews. I will also be pinning down the details of my personal experience for Oxford interviews.

General Interview Tips

Here are a few personal qualities that are important:

Demonstrating passion and clarity of thoughts. Essentially, you will need to show that you’re really excited about the course that you’ll be studying at university. While the personal statement is a way to show passion, I think it’s also important to show that you love your course and to show that you’ll be able to think critically about your subject through the interview. During the interview, a great way to break the awkward silence is by thinking aloud, presenting your thought process, why you are arguing in the particular way, and how you arrive at the conclusion. Ultimately, the interviewers are not interested whether you arrive at the correct solutions. Instead, they are more interested in your thought process, and the way you build up your arguments and reasoning. Also, speak out any assumptions that you’ve made in your reasoning.

Potential. During the interview, it’s much more important for you to show your potential than to tell them your achievements thus far (you’ve probably included your achievements in your personal statement so it’s best probably not to duplicate information while wasting your interview time). The tutors and interviewers are more concerned about how much you can grow and learn from them than how much you have achieved, which leads me to the next point.

Being teachable is really, really important. The interview is actually very similar to how tutorials are conducted at Oxford, so the tutors are essentially choosing the students they will love to teach for the next 3 or 4 years. If you enjoy the interview, you will probably enjoy the next 3 to 4 years of intellectual conversations with your tutor at Oxford. I treated my Oxford interview as an opportunity to learn Physics from world class physicists, and that alleviated my nerves and kept me excited before the interview. Of course, you must be able to communicate your ideas clearly, and don’t be shy to ask for hints in the case that you’re stuck.

Don’t freak out if you are unable to answer interview questions. Oxford interviews are meant to push students beyond their limits and boundaries, so that the tutors can assess the potential of the students and to what extent students can be stretched. This is what the tutors actually aim to do, to see how far students can handle unfamiliar scenarios.

Read Part 2 of this story here

Links which you may find useful: 

  1. Professor Walter Lewin videos: http://video.mit.edu/channel/walter-lewin/
  2. Get “The Fabric of the Cosmos”: http://www.amazon.com/The-Fabric-Cosmos-Texture-Reality/dp/0375727205
  3. Physics Aptitude Test (PAT): http://www.admissionstestingservice.org/for-test-takers/pat/about-pat/
  4. Admissions procedures for Physics courses at Oxford: https://www2.physics.ox.ac.uk/study-here/undergraduates/applications/admissions-procedures-for-physics

Brian KhorBrian Khor Jia Jiunn, a National Scholarship holder and an aspiring physicist is one step to achieving his dreams by pursuing Physics in the University of Oxford (did you know that Stephen Hawking was from Oxford too?). With his immeasurable passion, he will definitely go far in the field and be part of ground-breaking findings.