Hi there! I’m Jamie, and I study PPE at Lincoln College, Oxford. This blog is a bit of a whistle-stop tour of the application process for PPE at Oxford – if there’s anything you want to know that I haven’t covered, please contact us and we will try to answer you in full.
Before that, though: why PPE? I chose it because it was the most varied degree of anything I could imagine – and my first year experience definitely reflected that. It’s a hugely interesting degree, stretching your mind in so many different directions. There aren’t many courses out there where you find yourself hopping from a question about monopolies in the UK to an essay on what would happen if you split your brain in half! Of course, the flip side of this is that you won’t enjoy absolutely everything in your first year. That isn’t a bad thing, though – it helps you discover what it is that you really enjoy, and you can focus on those things when choosing your options for second and third year. In fact, you can drop an entire branch of the course entirely (like I have, with economics).
The other important decision I had to make was on my college. Anybody you ask at Oxford will tell you that their college is the best one (I’m no different!) – ultimately, you’ll enjoy wherever you end up. I chose Lincoln because it offers accommodation for all three years, has great food, is ridiculously central and wasn’t too big; I wanted a close-knit community rather than a large one. Your choice of college has no impact on whether or not you get into the university – they reallocate people from colleges with too many applicants to ensure that there’s the same candidates-to-places ratio across the board.
Now for the scary stuff – applications. I did Maths, Physics, Spanish and Government & Politics for A-Level, and Computing to AS-Level. Don’t worry about doing four A-Levels – your offer will only be for three A grades. The university says that Maths and History are both “suggested” subjects; from my experience of first year, I’d say that Maths is definitely the more important of the two. According to this page on the Oxford PPE website, 90% of candidates offered a place to study PPE had studied Maths to at least AS-Level. Economics is very maths-based – you basically redo Maths AS-Level alongside the microeconomics part of the course, so it’s a big advantage to have done it already.
Don’t feel as though you need to take one of Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at A-Level, though – from my experience, studying them at school is very different to studying them at university (to the extent that they can feel like different subjects!).
There’s one other exam which I need to mention – the Thinking Skills Assessment (TSA). All PPE candidates need to take this paper, and it’s used to decide (alongside your UCAS application) whether or not to offer you an interview. This paper is made up of two sections.
• Section 1 is made up of 50 multiple-choice questions, to be answered in 90 minutes; this is made up of 25 critical thinking questions and 25 problem solving questions. This paper gets scored using a complicated mathematical distribution – click here for more information about it. To put it simply, you need at least a score of 60 to secure an interview; the number of raw marks needed for this varies year-on-year.
• Section 2 is a 30-minute essay, with a catch – you have two sides of paper to write it on, and you can’t ask for any more paper. You get a choice of 3-4 questions, which have huge variety; they could be about anything from patent laws to moral philosophy. They don’t get marked; instead, they’re read by an admissions tutor, who is looking for precision and clarity in your answer. The TSA normally takes place at the start of November. Make sure you’ve practised past papers and that you’re up to date with current affairs for it.
It’s very difficult to gauge how important personal statements are for Oxford. On the one hand, it has to show your keen interest in the subject; on the other, they claim that “personal statements do not play a significant role in our shortlisting decisions”. My advice is to err on the side of caution, and do the absolute best that you can to show your interest in the entire degree. Of course, you will have to focus on one or two if you are applying for single- or joint-honours degrees elsewhere. An Oxford personal statement isn’t so much a letter telling tutors how great you’d be at their university, but almost a short essay where you cram in your thoughts on a variety of books to show your interest in the subject. This means, of course, that you need to do some reading!
My general advice would be to read books like “Freakonomics” (Dubner & Levitt) and “Think” (Blackburn) thoroughly, but don’t explore them in loads of depth in your personal statement – tutors have heard it all before. Instead, try to find some slightly more unusual PPE books. Tom Bingham’s “The Rule of Law” is an interesting look at legal philosophy; Michael Sandel’s “Justice” (and the accompanying series of lectures which can be found on YouTube) is another good read. I also used “Britain Votes 2010” (Geddes & Tonge). Reading the classic books in politics and philosophy – Utilitarianism by Mill, The Communist Manifesto by Marx, et al – can show intellectual capability, but can also be like wading through treacle. It might be a good idea instead to find a book summarising those texts in clearer English, and giving you thoughts to ponder – it’s not cheating, you’re told to read them on our reading lists! The two biggest pieces of advice I can give for your reading is this:
• Make sure you read around, and mention, all three subjects. Tutors want to see that you’re interested in everything, and that you’re not just taking PPE because a vanilla philosophy/politics/economics degree isn’t offered.
• Make notes on everything that you read. If you manage to get an interview, you don’t want to be re-reading everything that you mentioned in your personal statement. Write yourself some notes to refresh your memory.
If you do well enough in the TSA, you’ll get an interview (45.9% of people get this far). The massively important thing to remember here is that they aren’t interviewing you to find out what you know, but to find out how easy you are to teach. Do you grasp new concepts quickly? Are you openminded to other opinions? Are you willing to accept when you are wrong? The tutors that are interviewing you could be teaching you for three years, so they want somebody that makes tutorials and classes a pleasure rather than a chore.
The best way to prepare for the interview is to keep reading. One of the best ways to keep abreast of current affairs is by reading The Economist, The Spectator, and/or a quality broadsheet. A great way of exposing yourself to differing opinions is to read different newspapers. If you read the DailyMail and the Guardian, for example, you’ll see how widely they can differ – and it helps you to keep an open mind.
Interviews are, naturally, scary. You’ll have 2-3 interviews, lasting 15-20 minutes each; you spend about three days in Oxford, with an interview a day (don’t worry – your accommodation is paid for). Sometimes, you’ll be asked to attend interviews at other colleges. This doesn’t mean anything – it might be that another college liked the look of your application, or that they don’t have enough quality candidates to fill their places, or there might be too many at your own college. Either way, it doesn’t make you any more or less likely to get in; I know of two people in my year (out of nine) who were interviewed elsewhere, and one who started at another college and ended up at Lincoln.
If you’re nervous before or after the interview, it’s a good sign – it shows you care, and is completely natural! If you feel that your interview didn’t go well, don’t worry about it. The tutors are trying their hardest to push you out of your comfort zone – basically, it’s their job to give you things you won’t necessarily understand and see how your mind works. Often, the worse you feel, the better it went!
I hope this gave you a rough idea of how the PPE application process works. I would definitely encourage anyone to apply – it’s one of the most exciting, relevant courses out there, and the freedom you get over your second and third year choices mean that no two people will ever do the same degree. Best of luck with your university applications!
Jamie is one of the Oxbridge Humanities PPE representatives