Wednesday, December 16, 2009


The undergraduate admissions process here is interesting. To begin with, the faculty does the admissions directly, rather than some centralized admissions office. If you apply to Oxford to “Read” physics, you are interviewed by the Physics faculty who would be teaching you, were you to be admitted. This gives the faculty a chance to choose their own mistakes.

In the UK it is a strict rule that you can only apply to Oxford OR Cambridge, not both. Given this, Oxford gets a bit over 1000 applicants for roughly 180 Physics places. Actually, that is pretty good odds for the students, as in some other subjects the ratio is much worse. Incidentally, admission here is like Early Decision in the states where it is understood that you will attend if you are accepted. A few alternates are chosen in case someone bails out, but this is pretty rare.

The students send the usual transcripts, recommendation letter (just one from their school), and short essay. They then are asked to “sit” a pretty hard entrance exam. The exam was instituted in a truly organized way only a few years ago, so the clever prep-schools are just beginning to be able to train their students for the exam. Up to this point, however, the entrance exam has been the best indicator of future success at Oxford. So the exam is now taken pretty seriously. (Perhaps once Stanley Kaplan and Princeton Review start giving courses to help people game the system on this exam, its validity as an indicator will drop).

The students who perform above a cutoff on the exam are “summoned” for interviews (this does not involve flue-powder). Those that do not make the cutoff are “de-summoned”. In a few cases, a student may be “rescued” from below the cutoff for one reason or another – for example, if their school does not even teach physics and they had to learn everything on their own. If you score way up near the top on the entrance exam (top 50 or so) you are virtually guaranteed a place unless you do so badly on the interview that you are suspected of cheating on your exam. In all, roughly half the students are summoned for interviews. So that means roughly 2.5 students will be interviewed for one place.

When the students are summoned for interviews, they are asked to come to Oxford for several days – during which they stay in the dorms and mostly seem to roam around and get nervous about their interviews. During that time they are given at least three interviews. Interviews are typically done in teams of at least two interviewers to one student. Whichever college is the student’s first choice college interviews the student twice (two teams of two interviewers), and their second choice college interviews them once. Sometimes a student declares a first choice college, but that college has too many applicants so the student is assigned a new first choice college. If you are a phys/phil (physics and philosophy) candidate you are interviewed these three times by physicists and then at least twice by philosophers as well. Some of the overseas candidates are interviewed by telephone, and one has to assume that these interviews have bigger error bars. We have a fair number of overseas applicants, but I'm surprised we do not have more from the US. (Even including travel costs, Oxford is still less expensive than most elite US colleges I think).

Each interview results in a grade from 1 to 10. All of the interview scores are uploaded to a central database, which all the faculty can examine. All of the student's information (including grades, tests, interviews, etc etc) are posted and also amalgamated into one overall score and everything is listed in a systematic and organized way. Each college is listed along with how many slots they need to fill (usually 6 or 7 per each of about 30 colleges) and all the data about all the students they interviewed is listed too. (Hogwarts college is also listed in this file – I’m not making this up, I think it represents stray unaffiliated interviews, unaffiliated students, or something like that). Once all this data is posted, then the drafting and horse-trading begins.

If a student has an amalgamated score in the top 100, they are essentially assured a place – and almost always in the college they designate as their first choice. Even if their first choice college does not want to take a high scoring student for some reason, these students will be snapped up by the second choice college or by other colleges who did not get enough good applicants. Almost all of the arguing and finagling is to allocate the last 80 places in the class. Essentially we have to pick 80 students of roughly the next 200 highest scorers at this point (and defend the decisions).

If a student scores worse than 300th, they are almost certain to be rejected. In a few rare cases, a student will mathematically land worse than 300th, but will be rescued because of extenuating circumstances – like if they come from a particularly poor school, or difficult family situation, and they had to work like crazy even just to get this far (which is often a good indicator that they will still be able to do well by continuing to work like crazy). In these cases, the colleges that decide to take students who score lower, must stand up and make the case of why they are not taking better scoring students… and sometimes they are even requested to report years later on the progress of such rescued students to reaffirm that this philosophy of breaking the rules is actually a good one.

This year I won’t be taking part in the horse trading meeting (the other physics fellow from Somerville is in charge this year… I’ll get my chance next year). The meeting sounds a bit like the NFL draft, where everything happens in real time and every decision is publicly announced with great fanfare – and objections may be raised at any time and the drafting team must defend its decision. The college representatives (the faculty) have several objectives --- both to draft a good "team" for their own college, but also to make sure that any student they think is worthy is taken by some college, even if their own particular college does not have a place for them.

This year I think Somerville will do very well in the draft. While, not having any super-super-stars, a number of strong candidates listed Somerville as their first choices – and we will be very happy to have them. We need to recruit about 6 students and we have most of them nailed down before the draft starts. I’m optimistic that this will be a reasonably good class!

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