Social Anthropology – What is this all about?

Anthropology is the study of humanity or this is what most definitions of the term say.

However, in and of itself this does not tell you much. At the end of the day, Psychology, Politics, Sociology all centre around humans, their behaviour and social activity. There is indeed much overlap between social anthropology, which is the subfield of anthropology this guide focuses on, and other social science disciplines.

Social Anthropologists study the social and cultural relationships that organise human life including kinship, religion, language and politics but characteristic of the discipline is the tendency to employ a ‘bottom-up’ approach and focus on how particular groups of people create and perceive these relationships themselves.

What do anthropologists do?     

So you study forest people?” Is a response I sometimes get when I say I am an anthropologist. There is a misconception that anthropologists study isolated tribes hidden away in the jungle or nomadic societies in the desert. While in the first half of the 20th century the division between the sociological study of the ‘West’ and anthropological study of the ‘Rest’ did somehow hold, this is absolutely no longer the case. Whereas you are definitely going to read about the Trobiand Islanders, Yamomani and the Nuer in your course, what distinguishes contemporary anthropology from sociology, politics and international relations is a focus on people’s everyday lives and experience rather than the structure of institutions.One term you get to hear a lot when it comes to anthropology is participant observation, which is the discipline’s main research method. Participant observation involves a prolonged period of time spent getting to know a particular population as ‘intimately’ as possible – those can be inhabitants of a single town, an ethnic diaspora, an occupation (e.g sex workers, bankers – see Karen Ho’s Liquidated) and usually results in a written piece called an ethnography.

What Can I do afterwards?

Almost anything! No kidding. Anthropology equips you with cultural sensitivity and critical thinking skills applicable to almost any discipline. My classmates have ended up working in careers as diverse as journalism, business, and filmmaking. A few have further trained to become lawyers or continued studying anthropology at postgraduate level to enter academia.

What if I already have a degree?

There are many reasons to go and study anthropology on top of another degree and most taught masters courses in the UK do not require from you prior experience. Imagine what a skilled and creative architect or urban planner you could become with knowledge of how different groups occupy and relate to space, or how awareness of diverse customs and values could help your law career.

Studying Social Anthropology at the LSE

Anthropology at the London School of Economics dates back to 1904 and its former faculty and students include such big names in the discipline as Bronisław Malinowski, E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Edmund Leach, Jean and Jane Comaroff and Michael Taussig. At the undergraduate level you can either study Social Anthropology on its own or combine it with a degree in Law. As a master you can also choose to focus on learning and cognition, religion, development or China.

As a first year BA student in Social Anthropology you would take a course introducing you to the kind of questions anthropologists deal with, a course on theory starting with anthropology’s sociological foundations (Marx, Durkheim, Weber) and classical anthropological theory (Malinowski, Radcliffe-Brown, Levi-Strauss). You will also take a course on Text and Film, an Outside Option and LSE100 – an interdisciplinary social sciences course for all LSE undergraduates. In your second and third year you will take more in depth compulsory courses in political, economic anthropology, kinship, sex and gender, religion as well as advanced theory and research methods. You will also choose from a wide range of options available each year including area studies and write a dissertation. Most of your courses will be assessed by an exam (70%) and coursework (30%), although the department is increasingly introducing alternative assessment methods.

Studying Anthropology at Other Universities

Anthropology is a very broad subject and what is being taught will largely depend on the faculty’s expertise and departmental tradition. Before applying make sure you throughly study the website to see what kind of courses are on offer and how are they assessed. If you cannot find enough information do not hesitate to contact the department. Choosing the university best suited to your interests and needs is extremely important. For example, unlike LSE, UCL offers a much broader undergraduate degree including courses in biological, material and medical anthropology as well as archeology. At Goldsmiths you can focus on visual anthropology and even combine your degree with media studies or visual practice. Many degrees are also less exam heavy than LSE and will put more emphasis on coursework completed  throughout the year

If you would like to get to know more about the discipline, Discover Anthropology is a website full of resources and includes detailed discussions of specialist areas such as anthropology of art or medical anthropology.

Some Suggested Readings  

Note: This list is by no means exhaustive.  If you are interested in a particular topic say food, fashion, human rights, or the environment there is a pretty good chance that somebody has written an engaging ethnography on it. Googling anthropology of [insert topic] is a good start at finding it.

Astuti, R., Parry, J., Stafford, C. Eds. (2007). Questions of anthropology. Oxford: Berg.

Barley, N. (2011). The Innocent Anthropologist. Notes from a Mud Hut. Eland Books

Bourgois, Philippe (2003). In search of respect: Selling crack in El Barrio. Cambridge University Press

Douglas, M. (1966). Purity and Danger an Analysis of Concept of Pollution and Taboo. Routledge

Graeber, D. (2011) Debt: The First Five Thousand Years. Melville House Publishing

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1976). Witchcraft, Magic and Oracles among the Azande. Oxford: OUP

Ho, K. (2009). Liquidated : An Ethnography of Wall Street . Duke University Press.

Malinowski, B. (1932). Argonauts of the Western Pacific : An account of native enterprise and adventure in the archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea. London: Routledge

Mead, M. (1929). Coming of age in Samoa : A psychological study of primitive youth for western civilisation.London: Cape

Morrison, K. (2001). Marx, Durkheim, Weber : Formations of modern social thought . London: Sage.

Piot, C. (1999). Remotely global : Village modernity in West Africa / Charles Piot. Chicago ; London: University of Chicago Press.

Guide by Kasia Buzanska, 19 Feb 2017

Kasia graduated from the London School of Economics in Social Anthropology in 2015. She is currently an MPhil in Latin American Studies at the University of Cambridge. Her interests broadly include the Andes, linguistic and cognitive anthropology.  If you have any questions for Kasia about studying anthropology email her at

How To Use The Curriculum

What’s the purpose of this knowledge base?

We are creating the most comprehensive and most easily accessible one-stop guide to getting into your dream university on the planet. We want to take you, dear Reader, from being all confused about what studying abroad is or why you should even do it in the first place, to crafting and sending off the perfect application, and all the way to the point where you’ve secured funding and has packed your bags for your adventure.

If it’s still a bit messy around, it’s because it’s still under construction.

Why have we gone through the trouble?

Lack of information and sheer bewilderment is probably the most important factor stopping international students from getting accepted to their dream university. Sometimes it stops people before they even begin, because they don’t know where to start. Sometimes they miss deadlines, because they lose the overview. Sometimes very smart people get rejected because they didn’t prepare in the best possible way. Personally, I never thought of going to Oxford before I was rejected by a Danish university. Randomly, travelling in Kenya in the gap year that followed my rejection, I met an Oxford student while climbing Mt. Kenya, who inspired me to apply and helped me with my application. It really doesn’t have to be that random. We’re here to change that.

This knowledge base is written by experts – students, who have been just as confused as you might be right now and who care deeply about equal access to universities. Their knowledge is structured into three sections:

  • How to choose a university
  • How to get in
  • What to do after you get an offer

Further to the information, we are also collecting personal stories and university profiles written by our mentors, to show you that all of us are just people as well, no need to be scared.

  • University profiles
  • Subject Guides
  • Mentors’ Stories

Most of our content applicable to applicants from any and all countries, but some of it is country specific. We currently have mentor networks in Armenia, Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Italy, The Netherlands, Pakistan, Poland, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Sri Lanka and Sweden. (January 2017)

If you’d like to follow our knowledge base as it grows, sign up to our newsletter, where we’ll provide you with admissions tips, university profiles, stories of students and everything else you need to make your dream reality.

If you have a very general question that others might wonder about too that is not covered by our knowledge base – or you’re a student who would like to write something for us, please email with suggestions for new entries!

Funding for non-EU undergraduate students at Cambridge

As a non-EU student, finding funding for undergraduate study at Cambridge can be a challenge. Cambridge has a number of nationality specific scholarships, therefore, the first place to look for scholarships that you are eligible for is on Cambridge Trust. Key in the course, the college you apply to, and your nationality to shortlist the eligible scholarships.

There is 1 scholarship scheme, Cambridge Trust Undergraduate Scholarship, that is university-wide, for any subject, and any nationality. This article provides some information about the scholarship.

Amount awarded
While you cannot find the amount of funding specified on the website, the common amount awarded is £8000 per annum for the entire duration of your degree.

You can only apply for this scholarship after getting an offer, and can only do so upon reference from the college that offers you a place. My understanding, however, is that every non-EU undergraduate offer holder will be invited to apply for the scholarship.

Application Process and Selection Criteria
You have to write a short personal statement on why the funding will help with your study and provide proof of financial need (usually bank statements)
Awards are given on the basis of merit and financial needs. It is unclear how merit is assessed (whether it is by the college based on your admission materials, exam scores, interview performances, or something else). However, if you are pooled, do not feel that that might affect your chance of getting the scholarship. If you are in need of funding, it is definitely worth applying because the application process is really easy.

My experience
I am from Vietnam. I earned my A level in Singapore and applied to do HSPS.
About 2 weeks after receiving my offer, my college emailed me an invitation to apply for the Cambridge Trust Scholarship (end of January). You are reminded to only apply in the case of financial shortfall. The form is relatively straightforward and asks for the above-mentioned criteria.
The Trust informed me that my application was successful at the end of April.
To get a sense of the number of Trust Scholarship awarded to undergraduates, you can visit the list of scholars here.

In addition to Cambridge Trust Scholarship, there is also the Amy Li Cambridge Scholarship that is available to applicants for undergraduate studies (BA) in Mathematics, Physics, Engineering or Chemical Engineering. The amount awarded is £16,000 per annum for the entire duration of the degree. Application process and selection criteria are similar to Cambridge Trust Scholarship.

Duy Le, 11 Mar 2017

Experiences as a Muslim student at Oxford University

How open do you think Oxford is towards your faith?

From my experience, most of Oxford is an incredibly tolerant environment. You don’t realise exactly how tolerant until you get here. There is so much solidarity and support in the student community, whatever race, religion, orientation, or background you’re from, everyone is welcome and any form of diversity is celebrated. You are never seen as an outsider because of your faith. In my experience, it has also provided an opportunity for my friends in college, some of whom have had very few (if any) Muslim friends, to be inquisitive and learn more about Islam.

Do you think the University and your college facilitate your faith well? For example with Halal food options etc.

The University have been great at providing a designated prayer room for all Muslims in Oxford to use, in a good location. Luckily my department (the Business School) also has a prayer room which is super convenient. Outside of those, I am also able to improvise and use spaces such as empty rooms and single study spaces in libraries if need be.
My college (as well as all other colleges) allow use of the chapel for all religions. I have made regular use of this. All I need to do is to to request the key and it’s open for me to pray in. My college (St Edmund Hall) is also incredibly good at providing food options, all of the chicken is halal and sometimes other meats too, with a Halal dietary option for formals too that takes into account any alcohol/gelatin in the meals too which is otherwise often difficult to figure out.

Do you think that there are ways to help develop your spiritual life at Oxford?

The Islamic Society is the main way for Muslims to develop their spiritual life, which I will discuss further later, but there is also a host of other societies and departments that offer discussion on Islam. The Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies also teaches students more about Islam, although this is often more in an academic context rather than a spiritual one.

I know you’re the President of Oxford University Islamic Society; could you run through the things a Muslim student at Oxford can get involved in, as well as the activities ISoc organises?

The ISoc organises a whole range of activities and is surprisingly active. We host regular socials, such as sports (football, squash, table tennis etc), dinners, and other activities, which provides a platform for Muslims in Oxford to meet each other and socialise in a relaxed setting.
We also hold religious classes for students to learn more about the Qur’an, the Prophet (pbuh), and other aspects of the religion. There are also academic and topical talks, such as social justice, Islamophobia etc.
We do a range of other events too, such as interfaith events with the JSoc, charity events, community events (e.g. feeding the homeless and volunteering), and arranging school visits to improve access for Muslim students.
We also provide free meals for all 30 nights of the month of Ramadan for students and locals to break their fast together.
Many strong friendships have blossomed through the ISoc and it is a very strong community, with many regular members but we always welcome any new members, some people only find ISoc one or two years into their degree!

Have you had any negative experiences because of your faith or your religion here?

Thankfully I haven’t had any negative experiences, I’ve found Oxford to be incredibly tolerant, more so than other universities from what I’ve heard, which I didn’t expect to be the case seeing as there is relatively little Muslim representation compared to other universities.

Some words to make Muslim students applying feel at ease?

I had the same worries that some of you may have about there being a lack of Muslims in Oxford. While there is no shying away from the fact that there are far less Muslims than many other universities, you may even be the only one in your year in college, I wouldn’t let that put you off from applying. The university and the college will do their utmost to try and make you feel comfortable, and the Islamic Society is a space that many Muslims in Oxford have found to make it easier for them to practice their faith and find others they can share common ground with.

Haseem Shah – Islamic Society President.

We would like to clarify that these are the views of Haseem only and do not presume to represent the experiences of every Muslim at Oxford University.

Tony Liu, 31 Mar 2017

Am I Right For Oxford?

Am I clever enough? Will everyone be cleverer than me? Will the tutors like me?


These are the questions I asked myself over and over again. There is no doubt about it Oxford can seem intimidating.
The stunning architecture, Harry Potter-esque dining halls and world expert tutors are enough to make most prospective applicants feel daunted.
Being nervous is normal but being so stressed that you can’t get your words out in the interview room and burst into floods of tears isn’t the best sign. As much as the interviews are used to test your knowledge, they are also a great way of showing how you react under pressure. They are designed to reflect a mini-tutorial which once at Oxford you will have on aweekly basis. So if you can’t cope with the interview, it’s unlikely you’ll cope with the workload and pressure once you start Oxford.
If you think you can deal with the pressure then ask yourself the next lot of questions:

  • Am I committed to working hard?
  • Do I have the grades?
  • Can I motivate myself to meet deadlines without a teacher pushing me?
  • Am I open to new ideas?
  • Does the tutorial system appeal to me?
  • Am I good at exams?
  • Am I passionate about my subject?
  • Does ‘Oxford Life’ appeal to me?

If you can answer YES to most of these then you really have nothing to lose!

Top Tips

  • Look around Oxford or research it online to see whether the University appeals to you.
  • Research your course, to check you will be happy studying it in minute detail for the next 3-4 years.
  • Self-analyse- ask yourself whether you truly believe you have the qualities to get you through an Oxford degree.
  • Discuss your subject with everyone and anyone who will listen and get them to ask you questions– this is a great way to practice staying calm under pressure.
  • Stop comparing yourself to everyone else – this is difficult but focus on the qualities you have.
  • Don’t pretend to be what you think the tutors are looking for, be true to yourself.
  • BELIEVE – if you really want something you have to believe you can get it and that belief, along with hard work, can go a very long way.


Tutorials – a weekly meeting with your tutor to discuss your week’s work. The tutorial system makes Oxford different from other University. You can’t hide in the back of a lecture theatre, the spotlight is on you!

Matilda is a student and blogger at Oxford. She writes about the application process and student life in her blog and on instagram @thatoxfordgirl!

ThatOxfordGirl, 29 Dec 2016

Oxford University Profile

Life at Oxford University: quirky traditions and facts you didn’t know

University of Oxford is the oldest English-speaking University in the world and has been in existence for over 800 years. And they haven’t been wasting their time: over the course of the last nine centuries, the University of Oxford has built a reputation for achievement and excellence It has become a global brand that people respect, admire and immediately recognise. Oxford is ranked amongst the very best establishments of higher education for the quality of the teaching, and for the numerous discoveries, breakthroughs and research projects that change the world we live in. Check out some of the frontier work done by academics and students at Oxford here.

In this entry, we’ll cover everything from the teaching (what some people are there for, you know), the collegiate system that structures your daily life at Oxford, some quirky Oxford traditions, and, importantly, all the opportunities you have to enjoy yourself beyond academics.

Teaching at Oxford

One of the things that makes the education special at Oxford is the tutorial system (they have a similar system in Cambridge called ‘supervisions’, so not that special, but still). A tutor is Oxford’s name for a member of academic staff, who are all experts in their field, and a tutorial is a chance to get individualised teaching from them. At least once a week in each subject studied, groups of two or three students will spend an hour with their tutor, discussing a topic in depth. This personalised attention means that you will face rigorous academic challenges on a weekly basis, encouraging and facilitating your learning in a way that just isn’t possible in a lecture (which you will of course also have at Oxford). It also means that tutors are immediately aware if you need any extra support with any aspect of your course, so they can help you right away. It’s your job to research and prepare for them – often the discussion will revolve around an essay or a problem set that you’ve completed in advance and explore related ideas.

This may seem daunting, but you really don’t need to be experienced in debating. You just need to be ready to present and substantiate your opinions, accept constructive criticism and learn from your tutor and tutorial partner. You’ll quickly find that it’s both a pleasant experience and a truly uniquely effective way of grasping hard material.

Studying at Oxford – the Collegiate system

Another thing that makes studying at Oxford a special experience is its collegiate system. Oxford consists of 38 Colleges and six private halls. Most colleges have between 300 and 500 students at a time, usually at both undergraduate and graduate level, studying a broad range of subjects. Depending on the size, there could be as few as one or as many as ten students studying the same subject in each year group. Students usually live in college in their first year, and may have the option to do so in later years as well. However, it’s also common to spend at least one year ‘living out’ – renting a property privately with friends.
Your college will shape much of your experience: it is within college walls that you will sleep, eat and have most of your tutorials. Colleges provide a ready-made community, making it easier for new students to settle in and meet those studying other subjects. Lots of social events are based in and around college communities – and intercollegiate rivalry plays a big role in Oxford sports, especially rowing!

The colleges vary in terms of size, age, distance from the city centre, endowment and atmosphere. It can be hard to pick a favourite college when there are so many to choose from – but fear not, a general fact is that most people end up preferring the college they end up at, so the choice is not all that important.
You can find more information on each of the colleges here or rank all colleges according to your preferences here.

Living at Oxford- the city

However, there’s more to life in Oxford than teaching and colleges. The quaint atmosphere of the city comes from its dozens of historic and iconic buildings, including the Bodleian Libraries, Ashmolean Museum, Sheldonian Theatre, the cathedral and the colleges. In the city centre you will find lots of shops, cafés, restaurants, theatres, cinemas, pubs and clubs. There are plenty of green spaces too: riverside walks, England’s oldest botanic garden, the University Parks and college gardens. Despite the building and traditions being so old, Oxford has one of the youngest populations of any city in England with its 40,000 university students from Oxford University and Oxford Brookes. If you ever do get bored, however, London is only 90 minutes away by bus which runs 24 hours a day.
Here are a few links if you want to explore more about accommodation in Oxford or opportunities for student sportdrama and music, and all the other clubs and societies. If you want to go to Oxford to see for yourself, read more here about open days.

Being an international student at Oxford

Many of our readers will be international students – and it’s a lovely place to be just that. I could tell you about my personal experiences, but I’ll spare you. Instead, you can hear dozens of international students tell about their experiences on Oxford’s Wall of Faces.


Formal Hall

Formal hall is essentially a three-course dinner that takes place in the Hogwarts-like college Dining Halls (Christ Church dining hall, as seen above, is in factalso Hogwarts dining hall). Students sit at the long tables, and the college’s fellows preside grandly over the occasion at “High Table”. Some colleges hold Formal Hall almost every night, others only a few times per term – either way they make a great excuse to invite yourself to other colleges until you’ve seen them all. All colleges require that students and fellows wear gowns, and on Sundays the college choir sings grace.


Pennying is a rather bizarre drinking game. It was invented by dons and students at Oxford University during the 14th century. The basic goal of the game is to slip a penny into someone’s drink without them noticing – if you succeed, the person has been ‘pennied’ and has to down their drink in one go. On top of this, there is a maze of rules. For instance, once one has been ‘pennied’, the pennier is asked what the date on the coin was. If they can’t answer correctly, they too have to down their drink. If you penny a drink that has already been pennied, you have to down the drink you pennied.This also works as a sneaky way of getting a free drink! Pennying is often played at another British tradition called crew dates. Check out all the full rules of pennying here.

Sub Fusc

If you’ve ever seen a photo of Oxbridge students swooping around wearing long gowns like Snipe and pressed white shirts, you’ve seen sub fusc. Sub fusc is compulsory dress at certain events in both Oxford and Cambridge. Each person’s sub fusc reveals what degree level they are studying at and whether or not they have a scholarship.
The essentials are black suit, white shirt and white bowtie for men, and women must wear black skirt, black tie and white shirt. Although as of 2012 at Oxford, men and women can wear either gender’s sub fusc. Gowns are differing lengths with differing silk trims according to their status. ‘Commoners’ for instance, ie. basically everyone without a scholarship, wear a shorter gown, DPhil graduates wear a scarlet robe.

Sub fusc is compulsory for matriculation ceremonies, sitting exams, collections (beginning of term tests) and formal hall. During exams, students at Oxford wear a white carnation in their lapel on the first day, then pink, then red on the final day of exams. Cambridge has abolished the requirement to wear gowns during exams.

Life after Oxford

Whatever your degree subject, there’s a huge range of potential employment opportunities after Oxford. Leading employers recruit across our range of subjects, and we’re one of the top five universities targeted by leading graduate recruiters. For example, students from across our range of subjects go on to work in sectors including law, finance, government, media and arts, winning places using the transferable skills from any Oxford degree.
You can expect a well-paid job after graduation: 27% of Oxford’s students take home over £30,000 in the first year after graduation.

Interested in reading more? Make sure to check out:

– Alternative Prospectus [a detailed insider’s description of life at Oxford written by Oxford students]

– Explore the undergraduate courses available at Oxford

– Explore the post-graduate opportunities at Oxford

– What people do after Oxford

Rune Kvist, 18 May 2016

Cambridge University Profile


The University of Cambridge was founded in 1209, making it one of the world’s oldest universities. Although age does not necessarily imply quality, Cambridge has aged like a fine wine, and is to this day still among the absolute best institutions of education in the world. The university is world renowned for its state-of-the art research and teaching, as well as for its beautiful architecture and mythic traditions. When people think of Cambridge University, they often associate it with rigorous academics – and not without reason! The institution is among the world’s absolute best within many fields, and throughout history, 91 Nobel laureates have been affiliated with the university – a European record! Check out the impressive list here.

In this article, we’ll give you an insight into the teaching at Cambridge, but also into the many marvellous opportunities that the university supplies beyond just academics.

Academics- the supervision system

As a student at Cambridge, one of the greatest educational perks is the supervision system. Supervisions are weekly sessions of personalised teaching. At a supervision, you sit down with a supervisor to discuss your essays and topics within your course. Sometimes you’ll be joined by one or two other students, but other times it will just be you and a world expert within your field, discussing your favourite subjects in depth! This style of teaching is an amazing opportunity to grasp foreign concepts, but it also sets certain requirements for you as a student: It’s kind of hard to hide in the back the class playing Tetris, when you are the class. If you want to get an impression of what supervisions are like, take a look at this video by the vlogger Jake Wright, a previous Cambridge student. Although Computer Science might be a foreign language to some, it does give an insight into the value and quality of supervisions as a way of educating. The supervisions are not just generic revisions of subject material, they’re actually focused on your personal work as well. Before supervisions, you will be assigned to write essays, which will be the basis of your discussion with the supervisor, your fellow students and you. If you’re curious as to what kind of super-genius you can become through a Cambridge education, check out this University Challenge match between Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, and Magdalen College, Oxford. Besides all this, there are two very important elements of the Cambridge educational system that characterises studying there: The first is the length of the terms. Terms are 8 weeks, which is much shorter than at most other universities. These short terms mean that there are very frequent and very long breaks, but they also heavily increase the workload during term. Fiercely studying your dream subject will hopefully be very enjoyable, but it is worth noting that Cambridge terms can be truly intense. Secondly, your efforts are only assessed by handwritten examinations by the end of each year. For this reason, it’s a pretty good idea to buy yourself a comfortable pen!

Living at Cambridge – the collegiate system:

When you’re a student at Cambridge, you’re not just part of the university, you’re also part of a college. Colleges are the places you live and spend most of your time, but they’re more than just accommodation. Think of them like the houses at Hogwarts, only there’s 31 instead of 4. Don’t worry about ending up at Slytherin, since everyone ends up being really happy about their specific college. The colleges have their own rules, traditions and societies, and they develop a great sense of community in their students. You will still study and hang out with people from all the other colleges, but your college is a great place to find a family away from home. Cambridge even has a “college-marriage” system, where students are “married”, and take care of two freshers together – their “children”. Since the colleges are fairly autonomous with regards to many logistical arrangements, the styles of accommodation vary greatly between the various colleges. Some places might have you live with a roommate, while other colleges generally arrange for solo accommodation.
When choosing a college, you have to decide: Do I want to live at a place that looks like it’s Hogwarts, or do I want heated floors and modern facilities?

Life beyond academics:

Cambridge is obviously a great place to study, but any student will tell you that you’re doing it wrong if that’s all you came to do. The university holds countless activities and a seriously impressive selection of student societies – in fact there are more than 700 of them! One of them is the Cambridge Union, a 200 year old debating society, where speakers like the Dalai Lama, president Ronald Reagan and Winston Churchill have spoken. It’s hardly an overstatement to say that there’s a society at Cambridge for every imaginable activity, but in the unlikely case that you find that a society is missing, the resources and enthusiastic students are yours to seize!

Sports at Cambridge:

Among all the bookworms and geniuses at Cambridge, there are of course plenty of people who enjoy sports and athletics. At the university, it’s possible to do all sorts of sports, and at various levels of skill. You can of course play casually with friends, but there’s also the option to compete with the other colleges. Once a year, however, the entire university comes together for the most intense sports events at Cambridge: The varsity matches against Oxford. The stakes are high, and the Oxbridge rivalry is at its very best during these matches. Check out these two videos if you want to learn more about sports at Cambridge University.


– Formals: Formal halls or formal meals are dinner that take place in the college’s gorgeous dining halls. Each college have their own traditions and norms related to the formals, including various dress codes and frequencies. While some colleges may have dinners much more frequently than others, they in turn have “Superhalls”, which are occasional excuses to dress up in black tie and enjoy a delightful meal with fellow members of college. Under different circumstances, it is allowed to invite friends from other colleges to join your college’s formal, and it is a widely held goal to attend a formal at least once at each possible college, although not everyone get to cross of every college from the list. For the pre-arranged meals, the colleges do of course consider various dietary requirements such as vegetarianism or food allergies.

– Relations to Oxford (aka “The other place”): Cambridge University was originally founded by a group of scholars who were seeking refuge from hostile townsmen in Oxford. Ever since, there has been an ongoing rivalry between England’s two most famous universities, although there is also a sense of mutual respect between the two institutions – most of the time! Many Cambridge students insist to refer to Oxford as “The Other Place”, kind of like in Harry Potter, where it is forbidden to mention Voldemo… I mean, “You-know-who” by his name. Many of the university’s traditions, norms and internal jokes refer to this age-old British rivalry.

– May balls: A highlight at the Cambridge colleges are the May Balls. (Ball as in a fancy dance party, not a round object used for play) Ironically held in the month of June, the May Balls are extravagant parties with strict dress codes and fabulous entertainment. While the parties vary a great deal from college to college, they’re all known to be incredible fun.

More links:

– – Insiders’ view at life at Cambridge, written by students.. Prospectus’ for specific colleges can also be found online.
– – Undergraduate courses
– – Graduate courses
– – a more informal source of impressions of Cambridge
– Jake Wright youtube channel – Vlogs of the life as a Cambridge student. (British Computer Science student)

Joshua Teperowski Monrad, 18 May 2016

University College London Profile

Life at UCL – vibrant, international community

UCL, otherwise known as University College London, was founded in 1826 as a secular institution to accept students regardless of class, race, religion and gender. Traditionally, prestigious universities such as the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge accepted students based on wealth and religion.

The founders, particularly Henry Brougham and James Mill, were strongly inspired by the Utilitarian ideas of philosopher and jurist, Jeremy Bentham. Although Jeremy Bentham was not directly involved in its establishment, he is widely regarded as the “spiritual father” of UCL due to the influence of his reformist ideas.

In his will, Bentham asked for his body to be dissected, and then preserved as an “auto-icon” for public display. This display can be found in the Main Wilkins Building at UCL, and to this day, creates much fascination. It can also be viewed virtually here.

London’s “global” university

UCL’s status of having a global outlook definitely lives up to its claim. With approximately 41% of the student community being international, there are many opportunities to work with people from many countries. From establishing a campus in Qatar as well as the prospective development of an Olympic Park Campus, the lists of opportunities are endless. UCL’s annual “Global Citizenship Scheme”, a summer school designed to equip students with entrepreneurial thinking, global outlooks, team building and problem solving have proved a success in providing a foundation for UCL students as active global citizens. From role-playing development projects in Dar es Salaam to understanding the urbanisation of East London, there are projects to take part in for everyone. Not surprisingly, many universities look to UCL for inspiration when developing programmes that exhibit these values.


UCL’s campus is located in the historic heart of London in Bloomsbury, around Gower Street. Much of UCL’s departments are based here; such as the Medical School, Engineering, Geography, History, Chemistry and Mathematics Departments, as well as many others. The Bloomsbury campus is a short walking distance from many notable institutions such as the British Library, the British Museum, the British Medical Association, RADA and London Business School. University of London’s Birkbeck, SOAS, LSE and Kings are only a few moments away. Its proximity to both London Euston Station and Kings Cross St Pancras means other cities in the UK and Europe are accessible.

Student life: Non-academic

Social life: With over 30,000 students, UCL has an extremely vibrant social life and hosts the largest number of international students in the UK. Founded in 1893, UCL Union is one of the oldest students’ unions in England. The diversity of students is reflected in the 230+ clubs and societies available; from the Baltic Society to the Bhangra Society, Harry Potter Society to the Horse Riding Society; there is definitely something to fit everyone’s interests. Societies are a great source of cultural enrichment, entertainment, socialising and gaining professional experience.

Entertainment: The Bloomsbury Theatre, owned by UCL, is a quality West End theatre with bargain tickets. Typical West End theatres in Leicester Square can be rather expensive, and so The Bloomsbury Theatre is a great on-campus alternative. From Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” to stand-up comedy by the likes of Omid Djalili; there is a lot on offer.

Another (more obvious) form of entertainment is just BEING in London. This bustling metropolis attracts people from all over the world for its rich cultural heritage and things to do. From free museums in South Kensington to beautiful parks, historical attractions to mega sporting events; London has a lot on offer for just about anyone. There are always new people to meet and new things to experience!

Clubbing: UCLU have 4 café’s and 3 bars on campus with great student deals throughout the year, however exclusive club events at premium London venues such as Ministry of Sound and Koko prove extremely popular. Whether on or off campus, Christmas & Easter balls organised by societies are also premium events that sell out fast at 5-star hotels such as the Dorchester. The UCL Summer Ball held in the UCL Quad (in the Bloomsbury Campus) is also a great post-exam event.

Networking: Being surrounded by numerous other universities such as LSE, Kings and Imperial provides plentiful opportunities. Building large networks with other students enables collaboration, friendships, and can act as an aid in the future. With Cambridge and Oxford University students regularly engaging with London universities, the opportunities to engage with like-minded people are endless. There is no other city in the UK which enables such a teeming network of students.


Student life: Academic

Career opportunities: Living in London and studying at a powerhouse such as UCL means career opportunities are endless. There are lots of networking events hosted throughout the year by various societies, as well as multiple careers fairs for recruiters to visit campus. Aside from the standard careers fairs, brand ambassadors make regular trips to the UCL Campus to actively reach out to students and potential employees. UCL Careers organise sector themed ‘weeks’ such as Government and Policy Week, Media Week and Museums and Cultural Heritage Week (as well as a host of others). Typical events can include one-to-one CV sessions and coaching with industry professionals, as well as wider networking. The Banking & Finance and Consulting Fairs prove to be particularly popular amongst UCL students.

Aside from the keen recruiters, UCL Careers have well-equipped Consultants and Application Advisers to give CV guidance, practice interviews, and can give important advice for your future after graduation.

Multi-disciplinary approach: As UCL is an incredibly large university, teaching style’s vary from department to department. From individual experience, social science based courses are, as expected, taught with fewer contact hours and more reading time. Tutorial sessions are common and students are encouraged to engage in discussion and take a collaborative approach in their learning. This is largely shaped by the ‘global’ and ‘multi-disciplinary’ approach undertaken by the University.

Furthermore, tutors are assigned to small groups of students to mentor them throughout their time at UCL. This can range from personal, academic and professional mentoring and general advice.


For first years, UCL offers accommodation ranging from Halls of Residence (catered, close to Bloomsbury campus) to Student Houses (self catered, a shorter distance away e.g. in Camden or Kings Cross) to Intercollegiate Halls (available to all students in London). There is a lot on offer to suit everyone’s preference, such as en-suite rooms or catered.

After first year, students tend to rent flats in groups, as rent in London is not cheap!  Most students relocate to nearby locations such as Camden and Kings Cross. Private accommodation providers are also widely available and come with their own amenities. Popular choices include UNITE (St Pancras Way) and Nido.


Rivalry with Kings: Traditionally, UCL has always had a strong, albeit friendly, rivalry with Kings College London; running over two centuries. The London Varsity Series is an annual sporting event where KCL’s sports teams (hockey, tennis, rugby, netball etc) take on UCL’s teams. Scores are often very close, making for tense and nail-biting matches!

Did you know?

UCL has been a popular location for many film directors due to its beautiful architecture. The scenes depicting the British Museum in the The Mummy 2 (2001) were, in fact, shot in UCL’s Quad, whilst the Gustave Tuck Lecture Theatre was used as a backdrop in the hit film Inception (2010).

Sarah Marghoob, 24 Jul 2016

How to ace Oxbridge interviews: insider’s tips

There is one component more dreaded than all other in the application process to some of the English universities: the Oxbridge interviews. While there are some very good reasons to be nervous, interviews are in reality a quite pleasant shadow of the mythical and terror-inducing experiences often talked about. That being said, it’s gooto know a thing or two about them. In this guide, we will go through what can be expected from an interview at Oxbridge, and how to best approach them. First we’ll have a look at some of basic things to know about interviews, and what they’re about. After this we’ll discuss some things to keep in mind to perform at your very best.

What are interviews?

First things first; what are we talking about? Interviews are a component of the application process to some universities in the UK, Oxford and Cambridge specifically. (It is beyond the author’s knowledge whether they are practices by any other institutions, and whether they would be similar. This guide focuses on interviews at Oxbridge). If invited to an interview, you will receive the invitation a few weeks before they take place, but you might not be given much notice (~10 days is not uncommon). Some international students are given the option to perform the interview via videolink if they are unable to attend, though we recommend to attend in person if at all possible. You will then be invited to stay in the college which summoned you for a few days, during which the interviews take place.

What is the format of an interview in Oxbridge? Unfortunately there is no single response. It depends on subject, college and what your interviewer feels like doing. In general, however, a candidate has 2-4 interviews during her stay, each being 15-30 minutes long, with one or more professors attending. The interview is meant to be very similar to a tutorial, which is the personal teaching sessions which are considered unique to Oxbridge. The interview consists largely of the professors asking questions within the subject, allowing you to respond, and then asking you to elaborate on some aspect. When answering questions you will experience a queasy feeling of being stupid, thinking all your responses are wrong. Don’t worry however, all candidates share this fear, and most likely you’ll be doing better than you think.

What is it like?

To paint a more concrete picture I will give a quick account of my own interviews. I applied to Philosophy, Politics and Economics, and had one interviews of 15 minutes in each of the topics. In my philosophy interview I was asked about how philosophy relates to economics and politics, answering something about morality which didn’t particularly seem to impress my interviewer. I was then given a problem to judge whether certain propositions where implied by others (if X then Y; X is the case, is Y the case?). Other candidates were asked ‘do you know that your suitcase is currently in your room’? While thinking about the problem my interviewer told me I had 15 seconds to respond, whereby I panicked and blurted out answers, to which she said ‘ok, now you have to go’.

The day after I had interviews in politics and economics. In the politics interview I was asked to look at some statistics and explain what they indicated. After this we discussed democracy, and some of its problems. In my economics interview I was amongst other things asked about the value of gold, and whether one should smelt gold coins and sell the raw material if the value of gold increased or decreased in different ways relative to the monetary value of the coin. To each of my responses my interviewer looked sharply at me with a blank expression and slowly said ‘ok’, with a terrifying effect. These examples are mine, and experiences vary immensely between colleges, interviewers and candidates.

Some candidates might be invited to attend interviews at other colleges. When this happens, applicants usually cannot help but speculate in the reasons behind such invitations, which is rarely of any use. This is because the reasons vary a lot, from the feared I’m-not-good-enough-for-the college-I-applied-to-so-they-want-to-ship-me-over-somewhere-else, to logistics due to some professor who really wanted to get home early to watch football. Therefore, better not to speculate and spend one’s time worrying about better things.

What are they looking for?

So far so good, but now to what you’re really reading this post for: what are the interviewers looking for in candidates? The simple answer is that they are looking for academic potential. Unlike the typical American university, Oxbridge doesn’t care if you’re active or lazy, timid or sociable; they care only about how well you would do in the field you’re applying to. In an interview a professor is trying to figure out whether they could make you flourish as a student of their field, and your job is to convince them that you have the potential and desire to do so. If there is anything you need to know about interviews it’s this, all that follows are just effective ways to do this.

Before progressing to some advice on how you’ll be able to project your awesomeness, let’s consider an interview from the perspective of a professor. Firstly, professors have lives, in which they partly live like most of us but also do research and sometimes take time to explain to undergraduates why they’re wrong. Once a year they set all that aside to conduct interviews and find new students to join the institution. The reason this is good to remember is this: every time you start speculating in what the true intention of your interviewer is (Is this a trick question?; I think I missed her hint to change topic; Oh my god, why is he staring at me like that?), remember that the truth is that they simply have better things to do than to plot elaborate schemes of how to question you. What they really want is to effectively understand your potential, and try to figure out whether they would want you as a student.

How can you convince them that you’re their ideal student?

It is difficult to give any clear cut responses, but some general advice can be given.

Make sure you respond to the questions being asked. It’s very easy to turn a question in a way that allows you to answer it in a way you know well, or might have prepared in advance. This will only frustrate the interviewer, who wants to find your potential to understand new concepts, not hear what you already know. Therefore, though it’s a bit scarier, it’s a lot better to listen to the question being asked, take some time to think and really engage with it on the spot.

Be nice and demonstrate your enthusiasm. Your interviewer will effectively be choosing her students for three years to come, and will prefer someone they tolerate. The best way not to annoy professors is by being humble, and listen and think about what they’re saying. A very good practice is to seriously consider counterarguments to your position in their strongest form. Furthermore, professors like engaged students. If you are able to effectively show your interest in the topic, this will likely make a better impression than if you were to only show an aptness but indifference to it. This brings us to the last point.

Enjoy the experience. It’s very easy to get bogged down in strategies of how to approach an interview and purport yourself in them. Like a date, the best way to make an interview worse than it could have been is by thinking too much about how you’re doing. Instead, take the occasion for what it is: a chat about some field of mutual interest between two people, namely you and the interviewer. If you can think of an interview as nothing more than a chance at an interesting conversation, you’re well on your way to be accepted.

Wrapping up

Let’s review some of the points we’ve brought up here:

  • Interviews are components of the application process to Oxford and Cambridge
  • Interviewers aim to discover your capacity and enthusiasm for the subject you’re applying for
  • Focus on the topic and questions being asked, don’t worry about any hidden intentions from your interviewers
  • Be humble and demonstrate your enthusiasm
  • Enjoy the experience

In the end there’s only one other thing that needs remarking. If you’re invited to an interview, that means you have the personal capacity to be accepted, otherwise you wouldn’t have been invited. So don’t worry and enjoy the interview experience, because you can feel confident that you’re good enough to be there.


Below you will find a quick FAQ of some of the questions which haven’t been handled in the guide above:

Q: How much should I prepare for my interview?

This depends, and the recommendation varies with subjects. Some subjects don’t allow for much preparation that you could have use of in an interview. I recommend to prepare enough that you (1) you feel confident in your subject and (2) you are ‘in the mindset’ when you enter your interview. For a topic like Mathematics, or Economics, it’s definitely advantageous to have all the base concepts clearly in your mind so you don’t have to infer the definition of calculus in your interview. For others, like English or Philosophy, there isn’t too much preparation you can do, and the risk of preparing too much is that you’ll have a bunch of clever responses you really want to mention though they don’t necessarily fit the question. This might ruin your interview. Therefore, the best thing is to prepare so that you have all the basic knowledge in the subject necessary to think on our feet and tackle any question thrown at you.

Q: How should I dress for my interview?

Many candidates worry about this. The truth is that it really doesn’t matter. The reason is not (only) the immense tolerance of the professors, but rather – as mentioned above – that they have so many better things to think about than your sense of style. The only recommendation I would give is not to give them a reason to think about it either. In other words, don’t dress in a way that might make them distracted from what you’re saying (e.g. military outfit, Pikachu outfit or underwear are less recommended). In my interviews I wore trousers with a jacket, while my friend who has just flown in from a hitchhike in Uzbekistan wore sandy jeans with big holes in them, and we both got in.


Paul De Font-Roux, 18 May 2016

Deconstructing the Personal Statement

DisclaimerThis is meant as an illustration of what a personal statement could look like as well as a few do’s and dont’s to consider in the process. This is by no means an exhaustive or authoritative account of writing the personal statement. For your own sake, please don’t copy this statement and don’t recycle phrases you like. UCAS use software to check for plagiarism and do it well: A BBC article from 2007(!) reveals that many applicants try to cheat and are easily caught.

I have thought about the concept of “freedom” for some time now and studied it up close via the triumvirate of philosophy, politics and economics.

There are many ways to start a statement. Usually, you want to avoid the clichés:

  • Opening with a quote (interestingly, Oscar Wilde is apparently the most quoted person in these statements)
  • “I have always been fascinated with X” (which is almost surely false – I have never seen a toddler fascinated with mechanical engineering)

This example is quite innocent. It could be more bold. It also mentions philosophy, politics, and economics, which makes it a lot harder to apply to similar degrees at other universities (e.g. philosophy and economics), but this is more a matter of preference than style.

For instance, I attended a Quran lesson out of interest and became involved in a discussion with the Imam about “free will”. Having read Simon Blackburn’s “Think” and Nigel Warburton’s “Philosophy: The Classics”, I knew philosophy offered many interpretations of the nature of the mind and, in particular, I remembered the Locke vs. Leibniz dispute on Cartesian Dualism. According to the Imam, however, “God alone knows our destiny”. In other words: We suffer from the delusion that our will is free, when really it is not. Although his “argument” was only a conclusion, I found it intriguing nevertheless. Chaos theory stipulates that any complex iterative model is no better than a wild guess. Given the intricacy of the human brain, free will may just be illusory, albeit persuasive. Could the Imam be right, I wonder?

In the first paragraph, this example jumps straight to discussing an aspect of their interest in this subject. That’s a key point throughout the statement: You want to demonstrate your interest rather than just state it. It’s the difference between saying “I have always been fascinated with mechanical engineering” to telling a story about how you once took apart a car engine, because you were curious.

This paragraph does not use too many “big words”, although words like “intruiging” stick out (on the other hand, it’s role in this sentence could be defended). If you can find a simpler word, use it. The tutors who read the statement are not impressed with flowery language.

Philosophical inquiries did not, however, satisfy my desire to comprehend the concept of freedom. Therefore, I began to look at freedom as a type of currency: something to be stored, borrowed and traded. Reflecting on my wider readings from this perspective, I discovered that, for instance, Orwell’s “1984” exemplifies communism where freedom is centralized and only parcelled out to the population in small, equal amounts. Hobbes’ “Leviathan” warns of anarchy and the “state of nature” in which, ironically, the pursuit for total freedom would deplenish our “freedom purse” entirely. In “The Undercover Economist”, Tim Harford analyses Cameroon, a country in which income distribution is highly skewed. I realised that increasing the freedom of the wealthiest – economically, politically or socially – would not serve the interest of the greater good. Nor would it noticeably impact the aggregate freedom of the country, because income follows a Pareto distribution, rather than a Gaussian distribution. All of this tell me that freedom is multifaceted, slippery and heavily contextual. Yet, I hope to model it as a currency and subject it to the rigours of mathematics.

A criticism of this paragraph is the tendency to name-drop as many titles as possible (in this case: Orwell, Hobbes, and Harford). As mentioned before, you want to demonstrate your knowledge and drawing on material you’ve studied outside school is excellent for this purpose. As a rule of thumb, you want to mention at least two items. This could be books, article, podcasts, TED talks, movies, or documentaries. This paragraph could do better by focusing more on each item and mentioning fewer.

During a case study of Enron in English class, I discovered Malcolm Gladwell’s article “Open Secrets”. It made think about how lack of transparency and imperfect markets limit the freedom of the many, who are then left out or disadvantaged. From Enron to Lehman Brothers, I enjoyed reading Michael Lewis’ “The Big Short” and watching “The Inside Job” by Charles Ferguson. They opened my eyes to the prospect of bad incentives and overly complex financial schemes conspiring to derail the economy. This led me to write my Specialised Study Project on the reliability of economic models. Writing this paper intensified my interests, specifically the application of mathematics in economics, but it also made me consider the links between economics, politics and mathematics. The processes of researching for my paper, reading books in my spare time and reflecting on my findings supplemented each other. Likewise, I have also realised that philosophy, politics and economics not only overlap, but also fuel one another.

This paragraph also suffers from name-dropping too much. It also uses the verb “intensified” which is heavily over-used (of course, not as much as “passionate”), so try to refrain from this.

The latter half of the paragraph comes of a bit too much as “telling” rather than “showing”.

In my gap year, I have been given the unique opportunity to work full-time in [a large bank] and experience first-hand the world of banking. In my spare time, I own and run a micro-business. I have always managed to find time for leisure activities as I consider myself an efficient time manager. As such I feel well-equipped for university studies and would feel privileged to be able to devote all my time to the subjects about which I truly care: politics, economics and philosophy.

This is the final paragraph which is meant to wrap up and perhaps add some information about the extra-curricular activities of the applicant. As a general rule, admissions officers only care about your academic potential (unlike US universities), so any extra-curricular activities you add will have to support this, which is usually done by saying that doing X has improved your time-management skills. Aim to use maximum 20% of the statement should on extra-curricular activities and a minimum of 80% on demonstrating your academic interests.

Marcus Henglein, 03 Jun 2016

How to write a convincing Personal Statement (UK)

The personal statement is the part of the UCAS application that many prospective students find most nerve-wracking. It’s just a brief introduction of yourself and your interests. Follow the steps in this guide and you’ll be well on your way to success.

Does it even matter?

Will the universities even read it, or is just a trivial UCAS requirement that people stress unnecessarily about? Our experience is that some universities, such as Oxford and Cambridge, place an emphasis on the pre-interview tests and use the personal statement primarily as an inspiration for interview questions. Universities that rely on fewer inputs may place a greater emphasis on the statement, because it helps to signal your interest in the subject and your command of English.


Don’t leave the personal statement to the last minute. In his book “On Writing”, Stephen King recommends budding authors to leave their manuscript in a drawer for at least six weeks before they edit it.

“With six weeks’ worth of recuperation time, you’ll also be able to see any glaring holes in the plot or character development. And listen–if you spot a few of these big holes, you are forbidden to feel depressed about them or to beat up on yourself. Screw-ups happen to the best of us.”

Six weeks is a bit excessive for something as short as a one-page reflection on your interests, but we recommend that you allow yourself enough time to let the statement sit in your drawer for about two weeks before having a second look. With the deadline for Oxford, Cambridge, medicine, and veterinary medicine on the 15th of October, aim to have the first draft done before the 1st of October.

From the other point of view, don’t start your statement too early. You’ll end up going through 20 drafts with minor differences that no one but you will appreciate. If you live by Parkinson’s Law, you’ll recall that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”: If you have two weeks to complete an assignment, you’ll manage in two weeks. If it’s due tonight, then by some mystical force of nature, you’ll get it done in a matter of hours. The point is not to leave the statement for the last minute, but to realise that you can produce a high-quality statement in a short period time through the power – and fear – of the clear and imminent of deadline.


Before you start writing, get a blank piece of paper to flesh out some ideas as to what you want to include in your statement. The UCAS “mindmap” can be a good place to start, although with the minor edit that work history is not relevant for the academically focused universities, so don’t worry about it, unless it has some relevance to the subject you’re applying for.

In particular, focus on the material you’ve studied outside school that’s relevant to the course you’re applying for: Books, articles, documentaries, and the like. If you’re wondering “what kind of books?”, don’t think it has to be heavy-duty academic textbooks. If you’re applying for economics, don’t list Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” but something simple and inviting that you’ve enjoyed: Tim Harford’s “The Undercover Economist”, Levitt & Dubner’s “Freakonomics”, or an article you read in the Economist. Don’t judge too much in this process: Just dump everything onto the paper.


Start with a strong opening sentence. No cliches like “I’ve always wanted to study biochemistry” (no, you haven’t), a quotes like “Stephen Hawking once said ‘Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.'”, or a sweeping statement like “Philosophy is the study of choice” (it isn’t)

In the first paragraph, explain your interest in the subject. Maybe you’ve studied physics for most of your secondary education and only recently acquired an interest in English literature?

Then, as soon as it makes sense in your statement, start providing evidence for your interest. You’ll often hear the advice “Show, don’t tell” and it’s worth being repeated many times. It’s the difference between walking up to someone on the street and telling them “I am a rock star” versus showing up on a stage with a guitar and actually being a rock star — only one will truly impress.

Don’t say that you’ve read a book by Bernanke or Krugman and that you liked it or that it resonated with you. Point to specific arguments that you liked or disagreed with: “Krugman argues that X, which I found curious because I read in the Economist that Y, which made me think that … “, implicitly showing that you care about these issues and can think in those terms.

You’re also welcome to draw on specific examples from your school work, as long as you can show that it’s something you’ve given extra thought.

As a rule of thumb, you want to provide a minimum of two examples of your interest in the course. It’s okay to put down clicheed examples — the pop books you’ll find in an airport — as long as you include some original thoughts in your commentary.

Aim to keep at least 80% of the statement focused on the academic aspects and no more than 20% on so-called extracurricular activities. The 20% would, ideally, show that you have skills that are indirectly useful for studying, such as good time mangement skills.

Finish strong, but don’t feel the need to wrap up (“In summary, I’ve read X, Y, and Z”)

Tips and tricks

  • The statement can only be 4000 characters or 47 lines of text (including spaces and blank lines). This is roughly 600 words long, so keep the content relevant and the style short and simple.
  • Don’t copy from other’s statements. UCAS uses plagiariasm software and can be quite diabolical in turning down applications based on this. A 2011 Telegraph article shows, with some humour, why you really would want to keep it original.
  • Avoid big and fancy words: Put your statement through the Hemingway web app and force yourself to write as minimalistically as possible.
  • Don’t write anything cringy. No deeply personal stories — keep it relevant

Further reading

Marcus Henglein, 18 May 2016

Applying to top UK universities: tips for a successful application

Your first steps to studying at UK’s best universities

Studying abroad is a great adventure and a once-in-a-lifetime experience that will widen your horizons and grant you thousands of new possibilities. Here, we will outline the very basics of applying to study in the United Kingdom, in particular its top universities, so you can learn what the overall process looks like.

What universities are out there?

You must have heard of Oxford and Cambridge, the most renowned universities in the UK and Europe. While they may sound mythical at first, they are actually in your reach and would always devote a lot of time to assess your application, no matter what your background is. They view each candidate as a separate case and care a lot about your academic potential, far more than about other things such as grades or qualifications. If you are a naturally curious person with a lively interest in your subject, then you have a very good shot!

Oxford and Cambridge share a lot of similarities. They use the famous tutorial system so that each student is assigned a tutor that guides and mentors him on a very individual basis. They are both stunningly beautiful and permeated with bizarre traditions. They use the college system so that each student is assigned to their ‘house’, just like in Harry Potter, in which they live, eat and sleep, becoming a part of a family-like community. They are both crazy about their sports, most notably rowing, and would meet each year to compete in countless disciplines. And, most importantly, they are both amazing places to spend your initial years of adolescence while having great fun, meeting inspirational people and developing yourself academically, all at once.


If you prefer the atmosphere of a great, vibrant metropolis, studying in London may be your thing. Here, you may be considering London School of Economics or University College London, depending on the course you are interested in. The experience will be much different, less mythical and more urban than in Oxford or Cambridge – but it doesn’t mean it will be less exciting!

How the application system works

The whole application process is centralized and officially hosted by UCAS platform. You need to register by filling in a couple of forms and then you are good to go!. Everything you do regarding your application will be processed by UCAS. After you have registered, you can start selecting universities and courses. Up to five can be chosen, but Oxford and Cambridge cannot be picked at the same time – so you’ll have to make up your mind! It is generally a good idea to apply to more than one university, as they all receive the same application pack – it is a very small fuss for a higher chance of success.

Then, you will have to write a personal statement, which is a 4.000 characters long letter describing your motivations and key achievements. The purpose of the personal statement is to articulate to your university that you are the perfect candidate with lots of academic potential and to assure them that you will not squander the chance if you are successful. . You will also need to ask your teacher for your predicted grades and for a reference letter.

Once your PS is written, referee contacted and grades’ predictions uploaded around early October, it is the time to wait. For some universities (like LSE or UCL) that would be the end of the journey – for Oxford and Cambridge, however, this is just the beginning, so you will have many more opportunities to prove your academic potential in the subsequent steps of the process.

Next in line would be the aptitude tests, for Oxford usually written in November. Their purpose is to check your ability to think on your feet and solve problems you have not encountered before – but with proper preparation they should not be a problem. Many social sciences subjects would take the famous TSA test, but each course may have its own exam. The test result has a considerable impact regarding getting to further stages, but is not that important later on.

After the test comes the invitation to the interview – so that means you are flying to the UK! This is easily the most exciting part of the recruitment process and usually happens in early December. You will get to meet your tutors and show them in person that they would actually enjoy teaching you for the upcoming three years. You will get to see your dream university over a few days of fully funded accommodation, meet like-minded peers and dine in straight-from-Harry-Potter dining hall for free! Interviews are a great experience, but can seem stressful beforehand – make sure you come prepared! Most candidates have one to three 30-minute interviews and spend about 3-5 days enjoying their future colleges.

You will get your offers from Oxford or Cambridge around early January. The system here may be different than in your home country: Once you get an offer, you are not automatically a student. The offer will give you certain conditions that you have to meet to be enrolled – usually sitting a language certificate and achieving a proper A-Levels/IB/national exam score, based on what they think you are capable of achieving. The point of this is not to keep you idle and complacent once you have secured a place at a world best university, so make sure that you do not fail the final sprint – the vast majority of people don’t, so no need to worry.

The journey is long but exciting and rewarding! For your convenience, this is the timeline of all the important deadlines

Jakub Labun, 18 May 2016

Economics & Management – interview with Haseem Shah at Oxford

Can you give us a short introduction about yourself?

I’m Haseem Shah, a second year E&M student at St Edmund Hall (Teddy Hall). I’m from East London (Ilford) and attended a selective grammar school there; Ilford County High School. I studied Maths, Economics and Geography at A-Level. I took a gap year in between finishing my A-Levels and starting university where I did an 8-month internship at Deloitte.

How do you find studying Economics and Management? E&M has a reputation of being easier than other degrees.

I’m constantly reminded of the “Easy & Manageable” reputation of E&M, and granted, it probably has a lighter workload than some of the other science subjects, but you have to remember it is all relative to the Oxford standard. It still requires a great amount of work and commitment if you want to perform well. We generally get set an essay and a problem sheet or two problem sheets a week. I really enjoy my degree and am very glad I chose to study it, it has a great balance of quantitative and qualitative reasoning, with a mix of maths and essays, and you can balance your options to tailor the course to what suits you best, whether you love to write or love to do maths.

How do you think a humanities subject compares to a science?

The main difference is less contact hours. We have an average of 7 hours of lectures a week and 3 hours of tutorials, whereas many science students have packed timetables of labs, lectures, practicals, tutorials etc. Humanities are more of a self study kind of degree with lots of readings and textbook work. There is also the essay writing aspect that you don’t get in science subjects.

Could you tell us more about your course, the content and the structure?

It’s generally split into three areas; Economics, General Management and Financial Management, which are the three modules you cover in first year. Economics starts off with just Micro and Macro, then a whole range of specific options open up in 2nd and 3rd year, from Monetary Policy to Behavioural Economics, Game Theory and British Economic History etc. There are 3 compulsory courses for finalists; Micro, Macro and Quantitative Economics. You then have to choose at least 2 management options, which can be financial (Accounting or Finance) or general (e.g. Strategy, Marketing etc.). It’s important to note that we don’t have 2nd year exams, so you start your “finals” modules in 2nd year, and there are 8 modules you have to do (the 3 core econ ones and 5 options, of which at least 2 have to be management).

What’s your favourite thing about studying here so far?

The Oxford vibe and culture is probably my favourite thing, I love the traditions such as formals, wearing sub fusc, and generally the grand, old nature of the town, the buildings, the libraries. It’s all so Harry Potter, and you really feel a sense of history and achievement here.

least favourite thing?

The workload, although I do E&M, it is still a lot of work and probably more than most other universities. There is a huge emphasis on academic excellence here and you can’t afford to slack for a couple of days, you’d just be playing catch up.

Did you have any expectations about Oxford before you came here?

Lots of work, lots of incredibly smart, interesting people, and an institution steeped in tradition. I also expected everyone to be really posh.

How does the real thing compare?

It’s as I expected except for the preconception of what the people would be like, there are so many down to earth people here, and although there are lots of “posh” people too, generally they’re all incredibly nice and you can get on with nearly everyone here.

Do you have any advice for prospective applicants?

Don’t put too much pressure on yourself, try and enjoy the process, especially if you get to the interview stage. Go for a walk, explore Oxford, make friends and try and stay relaxed.

Anything else you want to say?

Good luck with your applications!

Haseem Shah, Economics and Management at Oxford University

Tony Liu, 24 Feb 2017


A year abroad, perspectives from an Oxford modern languages student

Can you quickly introduce yourself?

I am a French citizen of Bulgarian origin and I am *usually* a student at Lincoln College, Oxford, reading Spanish and Russian ab initio, but I am currently on my year abroad in Yaroslavl, Russia, as part of the second year of my course.

Why did you choose to apply to Oxford over any universities at home? And why for your course?
Oxford offered teaching from the most brilliant professors in the field, the modules that were of greatest interest to me, and the richest resources, which easily put the university as my top choice for this degree. The teaching system in Oxford, renowned for its tutorial scheme, was what most appealed to me in comparison to other universities. Furthermore, this specific course was offered neither in France, nor in Bulgaria, which made my application a very straight-forward path.

Was it difficult applying as an overseas student? 
Undoubtedly, the application process is more difficult for a foreigner than it is for a British student – but definitely not impossible.

The obvious drawbacks are having less guidance, advice and preparation than the home students in relation to the application process itself, whether it was for the Personal Statement, the interview or the resources in preparation for the course.

Nevertheless, these hindrances are of less significance if you are passionate about your course, which is all that the tutors are looking for in an ideal candidate. Whatever your background, if you can prove your interest in the subject, you have an equal chance of getting a place as any other student.

Could you run through some of your application process?
Apart from the Personal Statement, which everyone has to write, I had to submit an essay in English in order to show my level of literary analysis and one piece of work in Spanish. Both needed to be drawn from my ongoing course and needed to be graded.

I also had three interviews. One for Spanish, which consisted of an analysis in English of a Spanish poem that I had been given 15 minutes prior to the interview, a short conversation in Spanish and questions about books and experiences I had mentioned in my Personal Statement. The format for the interview related to the Russian part of the course was of very similar format, only the poem I was given to analyse was in English because this course is ab initio. Due to that fact, and the general recognition that it is a more complex course than ab initio courses of Latin languages, we also had an extra compulsory interview of a different nature. It was less academic and more psychological in a way, as the questions revolved around the reasons behind choosing this course in particular, our work ethic, our commitment to it and to the year abroad program, (which, unlike other Modern Languages courses is chosen by the university, not the student). We were also given linguistics exercises in English which we had to work through on the spot. Re-reading this, I realise it sounds very daunting, but that comes primarily from the fact that you only know that there will be ‘a poem’ to analyse, without actually seeing the paper in front of you – and trust me, once you do, you realise that it is the same thing you have done a hundred times over in class; it is perfectly doable and not an inhumanly difficult task. The interview process is in fact a highly enjoyable intellectual challenge in itself, so make the most of it.

I know you currently on your year abroad, before we get to that I’d like to ask you about your experiences in the UK. What was the biggest culture shock when you first moved to the UK?
Bake Off – to this day, I struggle to comprehend how people can reach such levels of excitement over cake on TV. Apart from that, I was prepared for being confronted with cultural clashes prior to moving in Oxford, because I had already moved to a different country once before in my life. I think the most important thing is not to get too upset upon realising those differences and to keep in mind that it is circumstantial, rather than it being a problem in you. Every international student will get these nostalgic moments once in a while, when they will reminisce over how easy and effortless it was to live in an environment where people had the same behavioural standards, social dynamics, language, mentality and morals as you. But as chlichéd as it sounds, stepping out of that familiar space is highly enriching and eye-opening and it is definitely worth all the struggles. Learn how to treasure what makes you different, all while adopting the new and you will get double the benefits.

Did you have any ideas about life in the UK or Oxford before you came here?
It is hard not to have any expectations, so inevitably I had a very vivid idea of what life in the UK and in Oxford would be like. And as always, it was completely wrong, apart from the anticipation of incessant rainy days and an abnormal obsession with tea – if anything, I was surprised how true those were.

I thought Oxford was going to be a daunting place of genius minds that would undermine me for days on end, that I would be swamped in work, would forget the concept of sleep, would live in a library for six days of the week, would be an antisocial and friendless nerd and that everyone was going to mock me for not being posh and pretentious enough. As you can tell, I was a very pessimistic person and I could not have been further from the truth.

How has the actual things compared to your expectations?
I now treat Oxford as my third home and I had one of the best weeks of my life when I returned there recently on holiday from my year abroad. Ironic, is it not? To go on holiday *from* a year abroad *to* Oxford – it sounds absolutely insane, but it was one of the best decisions I have made as an adult in the making.

The phrase ‘studying in Oxford is a unique and enriching opportunity’ could not sound more generic and fake to you, but I cannot stress how true it is. One of the features of the university I was particularly impressed by was its diversity of students, societies, clubs, talks and campaigns. There are opportunities for everyone to pursue any interest they might have, accompanied by equally enthusiastic like-minded people. The support system is phenomenal – there are people constantly pioneering for the best interests of others and the chances of anyone feeling discriminated, left out or mistreated are minimal. There are also extremely elaborate systems in college and across the university that make sure students get the most sophisticated and tailored help if it is ever needed, so as to ensure that everyone is having the best time they can in the universally-recognised ‘best years of our lives’.

As for the academic side of it, the workload is more than manageable. At the end of the day, everyone has a different work ethic and approach to tasks, but the structure of each course is free enough for everyone to be able to adapt to it in their own way. The first term is a process of trial and error to find out what works best for you, so it is essential to regard it as an adaptational period, and not get too flustered over obstacles along the way. The tutorial system is fantastic – rather than being terrified of sharing a tight space with a professor a million times more experienced than you, see it as a golden opportunity to discuss what you are passionate about with a world expert and genius in that field.

Describe Lincoln College in 3 words
Family, excitement, passion.

Could you tell us more about your course, the content and the structure?
Every Modern Languages course last for four years – the standard three in Oxford and one year abroad, usually in the third year of studies. In very few cases, such as for courses of Japanese and Russian ab initio, students do their year abroad in the second, rather than their third year, and their destination and occupation are decided by the university, rather than being left to the choice of the student themselves.

The Spanish side of the first year of my course was dedicated to the study of different genres across a range of periods and movements in preparation for the Preliminary examinations at the end of that year. Most importantly, this vast array of study was meant to give us an idea of the period we would be most interested in specialising in as part of the Finalist course (the options being Medieval, Golden Age and Modern). The teaching for this is based on four lectures on the set texts and one tutorial (with a correspondent essay) per week, which seems negligible, but the secondary reading one is expected to do in order to produce a decent essay is highly time-consuming. We spend just two to three weeks on each text, i.e. just 2-3h discussing it with the tutors, so it is essential to make the most out of them and do sufficient work by yourself. The language side of the course involves one hour of grammar in classes of 6-8 people every week and one tutorial dedicated to a translation of an extract per week, as well as just one hour of speaking in groups of 6-8 once every two weeks.

As for the other half of the course, the Latin ab initio languages would be learning the language at the same time as they would be studying the literature, so it would be structured like my Spanish course, only with more language classes of course. Nevertheless, for more ‘obscure’ languages like Russian or Japanese, the first year does not involve any literature classes, apart from an introductory class for one hour a week during the second term, with no relation to the Preliminary examinations at the end of that year and no tests. Thus, the entirety of the course revolves around 8 hours of grammar, one dictation, one vocabulary test and one grammar test every week.

The second year is thus a year abroad in Yaroslavl, Russia, which is compulsory for everyone. In the third and fourth years of the course, each student needs to choose which period they will specialise in for both languages, as well as modules, topics and authors they would like to study in depth.

What is your favourite thing about studying in the UK?
How diverse it is, compared to the universities in my home country and my country of residence. This applies to the number of internationals from every corner of the world, the variety of races, religions and sexualities. There is, without exaggeration, something for everyone here and I am very pleased with how accepting the locals are towards this diversity. The effects of globalisation and open-mindedness are most striking in such a brilliant place as Oxford and it is a real blessing to be able to live in the heart of that.

Least favourite thing?
The weather. It can be challenging to sustain an upbeat attitude when it is too gloomy outside, but as mentioned above, there are millions of reasons why not to succumb to that. Jokes aside, I am genuinely very impressed and pleased with my experience in a British university, so I am happy to say that there is nothing that has significantly deteriorated my opinion of it.

So now let’s move on to your year abroad, could you tell us a little bit about how it is structured. Where are you, do places differ between courses (ab initio etc.) and how much flexibility do you have to choose where to go?
My year abroad in Yaroslavl lasts from mid-September to mid-April, with a three-week vacation in the middle for the Christmas break. We also have one week off in the middle of each of the two terms, but people usually spend those ‘exploring’ the rest of Russia. As mentioned before, we were given no choice for the destination, nor for our occupation there.

Students are obliged to go to classes at the local university every day from 9h30 until 13h15. These are tailored specifically for Oxford students, according to a program set by the tutors. Thus, they are not mixed with the Russians attending classes and lectures at the university, nor with the other British students from UCL, St Andrew’s, Queen’s, Durham, etc, equally on their year abroad in Yaroslavl. The structure of the teaching is nothing like that in Oxford and it is about as relaxed as kindergarten, but it is useful for polishing up your language skills. The classes are on grammar, literature, translation, speaking and social media studies.
None of this applies to Oxford students studying Russian post-A-level, who get to pick from a selection of places and are free to organise their year as they wish, as long as they are engaged with activities that are beneficial for their language skills.

If you could give any advice to international students thinking of applying, what would it be?
Do not feel intimidated by all those British students who have lived and breathed that educational system, culture, language, mannerisms and morals all their lives – you already have your life back home and that will never change, so why not give it a go at something new, something more challenging that will make you grow more than any one of those home students? Because at the end of the day, you are juggling emigrational adaptation with a degree in one of the most prestigious universities, which will undoubtedly be highly regarded and admired. You are obviously not doing it for the reputation, but it is a favourable added bonus to the fact that you would be a more well-rounded person, with an exceptional flexibility and acute social understanding and adaptational skills.

Things may get tough, you may occasionally feel like an outsider when a conversation about an essential element of British pop culture you are entirely oblivious about takes place for too long, but that is too superficial to be of any major importance. If anything, you will be more interesting to people because you bring in something new and exciting that they are not used to, and that brings in a lot more points than being excited with them about ‘The Great British bake-off’. At the end of your experience, you would have enjoyed the benefits of two separate ways of life, which can only ever be an asset to your personal, social and professional growth.

Ana Yovtcheva, a Russian and Spanish student on her year abroad in Russia.

Tony Liu, 21 Feb 2017

Physics, an interview with an Oxford Student

Can you give a short introduction about yourself? 
I’m a second year Physics student at Corpus Christi, originally from Manchester!

What’s it like studying Physics at Corpus Christi? 
The work is difficult, as you would expect, but Corpus Physics is a very close-knit group and so I know that they’re always happy to help out on any particularly hard questions. Especially when you have to spend the entire day together in labs – it’s definitely a strong bond that gets formed.

How do STEM subjects compare to humanities? 
STEM compared to Humanities in general have a very different set of workload – the difference between problem sets and essays (although some STEM subjects also have essays) means that we work in different ways. From an application point of view – there’s also more of an expectation of prior knowledge of your subject for STEM, whereas it would be relatively normal to apply for a humanities subject, like Law, without having formally studied it.

Could you tell us more about your course, the content and the structure? 
Physics is timetabled so that there are lectures in the morning, tutorials in the afternoon with lab days kept clear. This means that there is a built-in level of structure to your week and day, making it relatively easy to find a working time after your lectures or tutorial. In first year, the course offers a good grounding in maths – with half the courses being focused on mathematical methods. The other topics cover electromagnetism, optics and a choice of short courses. In second year, we cover Electromagnetism and Optics in more depth, Quantum Mechanics and Thermodynamics.

What are your most and least favourite things about studying here so far? 
Best thing so far is having those rare eureka moments and working as a group, worst has to be some of the labs.

Did you have any expectations about Oxford before you came here? 
I reckon I had a typical set of expectations of Oxford – that everyone would be ridiculously intelligent, rich, from Eton or somewhere in the South, and so I wouldn’t fit in

How does the real thing compare?
When I first got here I was still terrified but the more I spoke to everyone, it soon became clear that your background was irrelevant and essentially never came up in conversation. Although there are inevitably people who are intelligent, and who did go to Eton – that didn’t define them and makes them no different from everyone else. Everyone was in the same situation of trying to fit in, find friends and figure out the usual stuff like laundry and cooking.

Teneeka Mai is a physics student at Corpus Christi College, Oxford

Tony Liu, 21 Feb 2017


HSPS at Cambridge

Tell us about yourself

I’m Duy, 2nd year HSPS student at Cambridge. I did my A-levels in Singapore.

What is HSPS – Human, Social and Political Sciences?

The course is designed to be broad in your first year so that you can try out subjects you might not have taken before and becomes more focused in your second and third year.

In your first year, you take 4 papers, choosing from: Politics, International Relations, Social Anthropology, Biological Anthropology and Sociology. You can replace 1 paper with an archeology or psychological and behavioural sciences paper.

In your second year, you choose to specialise in 1 of the 3 tracks: Politics and International Relations, Social Anthropology, or Sociology. You also have the option of doing a joint track Politics and Sociology; Politics and Social Anthropology, or Social Anthropology and Sociology. There is an optional statistics paper you can take in your 2nd or 3rd year if you want to develop some quantitative skills.

I applied to HSPS, not having done any of the subjects before (I did Maths, Chemistry, Biology, and History for my A-level). I intended to specialise in politics, but now I am doing social anthropology. One of the strengths of HSPS is that it allows you to try different disciplines at university level before deciding to commit to any one of them.

What is the content of your course?

In my first year, I took politics, international relations, sociology and social anthropology. You don’t need any prerequisite knowledge. In fact, I did not take any of these subjects before. All of the papers are designed with the assumption that you have no prior knowledge. All 1st year papers, thus, contain an eclectic mix of many subfields within them. Social Anthropology, for instance, has anthropological theory, anthropology of kinship, of religion, of economics, and of politics. The purpose is not for you to go in depth, although you have considerable room to choose to do so if one particular area interests you, but to sample the breadth of the discipline. Below I give a bit more details of each paper, but please go to the hsps website for a more detailed paper guide.


Political philosophy (Hobbes, Weber, Marx, Hayek, etc) – you will find little discussion of contemporary political issues, and a lot of the things discussed do not seem relevant today immediately. But don’t let that put you off. It is a critical foundation that more contemporary theorists keep coming back to. I found this part of the paper quite challenging, but also gratifying when you manage to understand the philosopher in his own term (yes, his. Most people covered are dead, white men)

Democracy: a combination of classic work (Tocqueville) and more contemporary stuff. Does democracy work? Does democracy bring about better material wealth? Does democracy bring about more equality/inequality? and more questions like these. If you abhor the philosophical, you will find this interesting for its immediate relevance.

International Relations

Theories of international relations, causes of war, the workings of international institutions, international economy, etc. For international relations, it is a mixture of both theories (most of which were formulated not long ago – 1940s onwards, unlike politics), and contemporary issues (environment, nuclear proliferation, war, etc).


Classical theorists: Marx (capitalism, industrialisation, class struggle, communism),  Weber (rationality, bureaucracy, religion and modernity), Durkheim (positivist methodology of social sciences, using statistics in sociology, division of labour in society, social solidarity).

Contemporary sociological topics: class, gender, ethnicity, race, nationalism, welfare states

Social Anthropology

The subject matter overlaps quite significantly with sociology, split broadly into identity and differences (kinship, ethnicity, nationality, gender, class, race), economic anthropology (gift exchange,  how money works,  capitalist economy and pre-capitalist economy), political anthropology (nationalism, state, conflicts) and symbolic anthropology.

Anthropological theories (structural-functionalism, structuralism, interpretivism, practice theories)

Here’s a whole other article about Social Anthropology.

How are you taught and what is the workload like?

Most papers are taught through lectures and supervisions. Usually you have about 2 hours of lecture every week for each paper, so about 8 hours a week in your first year.

You will also have about 2 supervisions a week (so 2 2000-word essays a week) on average, although this varies week to week. There are weeks with no supervision, and there are weeks with three. There are usually 2-4 students in a supervision in your 1st year; and 2 from your 2nd year onwards.

The majority of your time will be self-study. There are a lot of readings to cover. I spent on average 6 hours a day in the library in my 1st year.

How did you prepare for your application?

You do not need to have any prior knowledge of any of the subjects. I did not know the difference between social anthropology and sociology at the time I applied.

I was really interested in politics and contemporary issues, and read a lot of Economists. I also found my A-level History knowledge particularly helpful. My interview and essay thus focused on contemporary issues and not the philosophical or theoretical aspects of social sciences. Focus your preparation on what interests you by reading and thinking a lot about it.

You certainly don’t have to prepare for all the subjects HSPS covers. Read whatever interests you really. You can take a look at the paper guides to see what the suggested readings for first year students are, but don’t feel restricted to this list.

The assessment is not a test of your knowledge, but your ability to think, and construct an argument (even from a point of ignorance). It is to see how you respond to cue, help, challenge, probe from the interviewers so that they know whether the supervision system is suitable for you. You can’t possibly predict the topics you will be asked, and you can’t cover all of them, so focus on a few that interests you and try to apply them flexibly to answer different questions.

Mock interview helps. Ask your mentor to give you one.


Links for further references

Politics and International Relations


Social Anthropology

Alternative Prospectus on HSPS

Duy Le, 26 Feb 2017


Biochemistry at Oxford

What is Biochemistry?

Biochemistry is the study of life at a molecular and cellular level. This involves using chemical, biological and some physical techniques to understand the different processes occurring in a biological system. You will be looking at how individual atoms interact with each other all the way to the dynamics between populations of complex cellular organisms.

Course Structure

First Year:
The first year of the course is designed to provide students with the fundamental theory and techniques required to understand the underpinnings of a biological system. There are five courses that are taught throughout the entire year.

Molecular Cell Biology (MCB)
Biophysical Chemistry
Organic Chemistry
Biological Chemistry
Math & Statistics

1. MCB for short, is simply the study of cells on a molecular level – this course forms the foundation of the rest of the degree which is built upon in the following years. The three main topics of this course are genetics, cell biology, and metabolism. These are really just extensions of the what was taught in A level / IB biology. For example, genetics comprises of how genetic information is conserved through its structure (DNA & RNA) and the processes involved in expressing this information to produce proteins (through transcription/translation). Similarly, metabolism involves looking at the metabolic processes taught at A level (glycolysis, citric acid cycle, electron transport chain, etc) but in a lot more detail.

2. Biophysical Chemistry, whilst sounding very daunting at first, is essentially the theory of the physical techniques you will need for the course. The three main branches are quantum mechanics, thermodynamics, and kinetics. Quantum mechanics is infamous for being the most complicated topic – it doesn’t help that it’s the first lectures series of the year too. It forms the basis of understanding the structure of atomic orbitals and how they interact with each other. Contrastingly, the questions asked in problem sheets / exams are usually quite straightforward and the math is often the simplest of all the topics (no calculus required!). Thermodynamics (Gibbs free energy) and kinetics (rate constants) are really extensions of A level theory, just with a lot more manipulation of the mathematics behind it.

3. Organic Chemistry. The subject people either love or hate. Unlike A levels, it is a lot harder to do well in this subject through memorization of reactions. The key difference at University is being able to appropriately select the most important factors that drive a reaction – a lot of this involves thinking about molecules interacting with each other in 3-dimensional space (similar to thinking about orbital shapes back in high school). You’ll learn significantly more types of reactions but they ultimately follow the same fundamental laws. By focusing on understanding these underlying concepts most of the problems thrown at you are definitely doable.

4. Biological Chemistry is somewhere in-between MCB and Organic Chemistry. A major portion of the course is devoted to studying the properties of key biological molecules such as proteins, polysaccharides, nucleic acids and lipids. A lot of the mechanisms and theory learnt concurrently in biophysical and organic chemistry is applied to this course, making it very satisfying to see how everything synchronizes together.

5. Math – the bane of most biochemists. Whilst there is an assumption of no prior knowledge, A level Maths certainly makes the course a lot easier. The course goes by very quickly and the few that have not done math since GCSE may struggle (begins with quadratic equations in 1st week to differential equations by 8th week). The course is split into Math & Statistics and apart from one or two concepts do not go beyond the A level syllabus. The Math section is predominantly focused on calculus and its applications to biological systems – virtually all the long answer questions in problem sheets and exams are linked to a theoretical experiment. Similarly, the statistics section places emphasis on the applications of significance testing, normal distributions, and linear regression in a biochemical setting.

Second & Third Years:
The 2nd & 3rd years are organized into four courses:

Macromolecular Structure and Function
Bioenergetics and Metabolism
Genetics and Molecular Biology
Cell Biology and the Integration of Function

All four are compulsory although there is some choice about which material to cover. These courses stem from the MCB and Biological Chemistry topics taught in first year with a lot of the concepts built upon the application of theories from Biophysical and Organic Chemistry.

Fourth Year:
The fourth year is research focused, including a 20-week research project followed by studying two options from a list of advanced topics.

Type of work?
The difficulty of the course isn’t that the concepts are extremely hard to grasp but rather due to the sheer amount of information thrown at you. Most science subjects at University are either essay based (Biology) or numeric based (Chemistry/Physics). Biochemistry is unique for first year as it is pretty much split down the middle – work is set as a mixture of essays and problem sheets both quantitative (Math, Biophysical chemistry) and qualitative (Biological chemistry). Most tutorials set by your college will be essays predominantly on topics regarding MCB. These tutorials are either solo or with another student and involve a discussion with your tutor (usually a professor) on the topic of your essay. This is a great way to get into the nitty gritty details of the subject and to clarify any misconceptions you may have.

Work set in the following years is almost completely essay based with tutorials revolving around a topic from one of the four courses above.

At the end of first year, students are required to take an exam known as prelims on each of the five courses studied. Thankfully, these exams do not count towards your degree but do require a pass on each paper (of around 40%) for you to proceed to the second year.

The only assessments that count are in your 3rd and 4th year. At the end of third year you sit 6 papers – 4 of which are the main topics studied in 2nd and 3rd year and the remaining two being the general paper (a combination of the main topics learnt throughout the course) and a data handling exam.

Apart from the data handling paper the other five exams are purely essay writing, with each exam being three hours in length and requiring three essays to be written. These papers count for an overall 60% of your degree.

The remaining 40% is in fourth year which consists of a combination of your research project and coursework on selected advanced topics.

N.B. As with most subjects at Oxford, students are required to take informal exams known as collections at the beginning of every term (don’t worry they don’t count for anything).

Typical week (1st year):
2-3 hours of lectures a day
A tutorial (requires writing an essay of about 1200 – 2000 words beforehand)
An organic chemistry tutorial (problem sheet taking 5-6 hours due beforehand)
A biophysical or biological chemistry class (problem sheet taking 5-6 hours due beforehand)
A math/statistics class (problem sheet taking a few hours due beforehand)
A practical that lasts 3-6 hours

Oxford Biochemistry course:

More resources regarding the course:

Mark Yu Xiang, 02 Apr 2017

Mathematics, what you need to know

Do you enjoy solving mathematical problems and puzzles? Are you thrilled by the perspective of exploring the infinite possibilities of mathematics? Are you looking for a subject that will open to you a wide range of career paths? If so, choosing mathematics at university is your best bet. Here are a few things you need to consider before you make your choice.

The first thing you should know about maths at university, is that it’s quite different from high-school maths, both on a structural level, and in terms of work approach and content.

There are usually two types of classes at Mathematics departments: Lectures and tutorials/workshops. Simply put, lectures are one, two or three hours long classes where the lecturer will go through chapters of the course, laying out proofs and working out examples. Tutorials are usually one hour long sessions, given by a postgraduate student, with the aim of correcting a problem sheet given a week before, in a small class. These tutorials present an opportunity to ask more precise questions and discuss particular parts of the course more informally. While it certainly takes time to get accustomed to lectures and their sometimes impersonal nature, a student coming from high school will surely find the format of tutorials and workshops to be familiar enough.  Adding up time spent in class comes to about 13 to 20 hours a week of taught classes. This might seem like a relatively small number if you’re coming from a demanding high school programme, but you will notice that the time spent at the library, catching up on lectures and preparing yourself for incoming class tests and problem sheets quickly compensates…

Another fundamental difference between high-school and university maths, is the work approach and the amount of time you’ll spend studying outside of class, figuring out that one proof that the lecturer chose not to cover because of its “trivial” nature.

You’ll also notice that apart from a few modules in your first year, the emphasis will be on proofs and reasoning based on brand new concepts, instead of methods and applications. But enough about the technical details, what is better than feedback from current maths students, to get a better idea of what studying maths at different universities in the UK is like?

Interview 1: Mamoune, Mathematics with Management and Finance, King’s College London

Mamoune has agreed to give us an insight about his experience as a Maths student at King’s College London.

-Could you first give us a quick introduction about yourself?

My name is Mamoune Chaoui. I’m a second year Mathematics with Management and Finance student from Morocco.

-Why have you chosen this particular programme?

I have always loved playing with numbers and functions, solving limits and integrals, but I was also seduced by the many possible ways in which maths could be applied in our everyday life. When I learnt about this programme, I immediately made it my firm choice.

-Could you now tell us about a typical day?

I have 15 hours of class per week with 2 to 5 hours per day. So far, I have had a combination of 3 maths modules and one management/finance module each semester. In terms of classes, each maths module is taught in three hour lectures and one hour tutorials where you can ask the tutor any question related to the module. On the other hand, management and finance modules are taught in two hour lectures and one hour workshops/tutorials.

During a normal day, I wake up around 8am, have my breakfast and get ready for uni. Once the first class is finished, I either have lunch at home or at one of the restaurants at my university, depending on how long is the gap between the two classes is. After I have finished all my classes, I go to the gym for about one and a half hours, take a shower and go for a drink with friends. I usually spend my weekends at the library to catch up on any classes or lessons I missed, work on examples that were shown in class and go through parts of the course I don’t fully understand yet.

After my studies I would like to get work experience in investment banking for a few years before going back to my home country and have my own company.

Interview 2: James, Mathematics, Queens’ College, University of Cambridge

To put this into perspective and to get a better idea of how maths might be differently addressed at another university, I have asked James, a former maths student at Queen’s College, Cambridge, a few questions.

-How is your course structured?

In first year, you have 12 lectures per week (10-12 Mon-Sat) covering all areas of pure and applied maths. The majority of your time is spent doing sheets of maths problems (called “example sheets”) – there is one sheet per 6 lectures. Then for every example sheet, you have a supervision (thus about two supervisions per week). This is where a maths fellow/postdoc/PhD student goes through the example sheet questions, showing how the questions are ideally tackled and answering any questions. At some colleges (e.g. Queens’) you may also have example classes. In later years, you have a wider choice of courses and more flexibility to how many courses you take.

-Which modules do you find to be the most engaging?

Personally, I found the applied courses more interesting and I was also better at them. In my second year, I concentrated on the applied and probability/statistics courses, and in my third year I did mostly theoretical physics. My favourite courses were General Relativity (Einstein’s theory of gravity, where mass causes space and time to be curved) and Statistical Physics (how large scale phenomena such as ferromagnetism, phase transitions etc. in 10^23 particles can be derived by considering individual particle interactions and the applying statistical arguments). However, the year seems to split fairly evenly among pure/applied/stats courses, so your interest may take you anywhere! It’s worth saying that what is called “pure” maths at school is actually considered applied maths at university: university pure maths is all about rigorously defining mathematical concepts and proving theorems about them.

-How many hours do you spend studying outside class?

This is a tough one. In my final year, I think I was studying more than 40 hours a week in addition to all my supervisions and lectures. In my first year I worked hard, but not very consistently and did a lot of extra curricular activities and social events so it’s hard to estimate how many hours I actually did!

Studying Mathematics at university doesn’t mean you will spend most of your time performing dull, repetitive, obscure tasks on your own, day and night, without clear purpose. You will improve your communication skills, your creativity and of course your analytical skills while being surrounded by passionate, highly skilled, like-minded individuals. Mathematical studies at university level are as diverse as any other academic path, ranging from “straight maths”, to mathematics and philosophy, and mathematics and finance. So if you are up for the challenge, hesitate no more!

Ali El Bedraoui, 19 Feb 2017

How to study for your English Certificate

If you are a non-native speaker and are planning on applying to a University in the UK or US, you will most likely have to submit a language certification as part of your application.

 TOEFL, IELTS, CAE, CPE, they are all quite similar: They consist of a set of standardised questions and tasks that you have to complete, so regardless of which exam you take. It goes without saying that you need a good level of English, but here are a few tips to help you prepare:

  1. Start early
    Give yourself the time to prepare well. Start with a practice test to see where you stand and which areas you need to work on most.
  2. Practice
    There is no secret recipe for doing well in these exams. After doing a number of past exams and exercises in books, you will start to recognise that there are only a handful types of questions and you will become familiar with the way they are phrased. This is crucial. I worked through my entire book and did every exercise, checked it and took notes of words or idioms I was unfamiliar with.
  3. Master time management
    You have a limited amount of time to complete all the exercises, so whenever you practice do it under exam conditions. That means timing yourself, strictly not using your phone or computer to look something up and learn to find around things that you just cannot remember.
  4. Go above and beyond
    Learning a language is a lengthy process, you will need to invest a lot of time into it, but it should be fun! Reading helps tremendously, you can also listen to audiobooks or the news to soak up the intonation and come to grips with accents. The internet is your friend.

Don’t worry if that sounds stressful, many people have done it before and if you are well organised and practice, get exposure and keep your head cool during the exam, you should not have to worry.

Good luck!

Hannah Niese, 02 Mar 2017

English language requirements: IELTS, TOEFL, CAE or CPE, which one to take?

Prepare your English for university

Naturally, all universities in the English-speaking world expect their candidates to have an excellent level of English. But please don’t freak out – this doesn’t mean you need to write and speak like a native, especially if you never really had a chance to have English as your language of instruction at school at any stage.

This article doesn’t discuss language requirements for GCSEs, International Baccalaureate (IB), or European Baccalaureate (EB). All these diplomas are not language certificates per se and are usually fully taught in English. For instance, if you studied at a British school or did an IB programme for at least 2 years prior to the start date of your university course, you wouldn’t be obliged to sit language certificates. In order to be sure about your language waiver, you should always double check specific language requirements on your chosen university’s website.

This article will give you a brief overview of the most popular language testing systems available: IELTS, TOEFL (in its online and paper forms), and Cambridge English exams (CAE and CPE). We also prepared a table of minimal requirements for English at the best universities in the UK and some study tips.



By and large, it is the most popular standardised test of English. IELTS stands for International English Language Testing System and is jointly run by the British Council, IDP: IELTS Australia, and Cambridge English Language Assessment. There are two main types of IELTS: Academic and General Training. For those who apply for higher education the IELTS Academic exam is a must.

Format: IELTS is very straightforward. Total time is less than less than 4 hours. You sit in four main language parts: listening (4 recordings in 30 min), reading (40 questions in 60 min), writing (2 tasks in 60 min), and speaking (11-14 min with an examiner). In contrast to TOEFL, the speaking part is conducted face-to-face with a certified examiner.

Scoring: IELTS results are reported on a 9-band scale with 1 (which literally means no user of language) to 9 (an expert user of language, an equivalent of the C2 level).

Results: IELTS guarantees the evaluation within 13 days. You can view the results online.

Our advice: Please set up the exam dates in advance so you don’t miss a chance to sit the exam before or during the summer prior to the start of your course. We’d suggest not leaving it to the last minute. What if you missed your condition and have no other time to re-sit the exam?

Being a natural selection for students applying to UK universities, it is very likely you can enrol for the IELTS certificate with a local branch of British Council in your country. They organise IELTS examination dates a couple of times per year (depending on the branch).

For more details consult the IELTS website.


TOEFL is offered as an internet-based test (TOEFL IBT) taken in numerous centres all around the globe. It stands for Test of English as a Foreign Language. It is a trademark exam of a private non-profit from the US: Educational Testing Service (ETS).

Format: The exam takes approx. 4 hours and consists of 4 components (reading, listening, speaking, writing). During the whole test you only interact with a computer; you read and hear texts and respond to multiple-choice questions. In the speaking part, your voice is recorded and sent to a marker. There is also a paper version of the same test but the internet-based test is far more popular among students.

Scoring: Each of the 4 components is graded with up to 30 points. The total number of points is – Sherlock Holmes found it out for us – 120!

Results: It takes several weeks after the test for the results to arrive.

Our advice: TOEFL is more popular amongst those applying to the US colleges. EF, a company that specialises in language courses all around the globe, points out that TOEFL is a more logical option for students who want to pursue their studies in the US or Canada.

For more details consult the TOEFL website.



Both exams are organised by Cambridge English Language Assessment (formerly known as the University of Cambridge ESOL Examinations). The Certificate in Advanced English (CAE) is set at a high C1-C2 level (=IELTS 6.5-8.0). The Certificate of Proficiency in English (CPE) is the most advanced exam and is ranked at C2 (well above the TOEFL scale and equivalent to IELTS >8.0). In contrast to many other certificates, the Cambridge certificates do not expire.

Format: The tests are structured in a similar way to IELTS and TOEFL: writing, listening, speaking, and reading, though an important aspect of these certificates is the use of English and a focus on grammar. The first (reading and use of English) and second parts (writing) take 1h 30 minutes each, listening lasts 40min, and speaking 15min. Interestingly, the updated speaking test is taken face to face, with 2 candidates and 2 examiners to make sure the conversation measures a natural ability of communicating in English.

Scoring: The scale illustrates performance across a wide range of language ability. In CAE and CPE, scoring between 200-210 refers to a grade A (C2 level). A candidate whose score is between 193 and 199 receives a grade B. A grade C (which is still considered as Level C1) is given to scores between 180 and 192.

Results: The statement is released online, approximately 4-6 weeks after the paper-based exam and 2-3 weeks for computer-based exams.

Our advice: Both tests are very well recognised and, unlike others, do not expire which makes them particularly prestigious qualifications. But you should rethink sitting these tests in case you don’t plan to apply for the UK, as these exams really require a lot of preparation of your side. Also, unless you feel very confident in your English (and we’re talking about close-to-native skills), you should not take CPE without serious preparation.


Minimum requirements at UK universities

We’ve gone through language requirements of the most competitive universities in the UK. The table below summarises the minimum requirements for non-native speakers of English. Please consult the chosen department as some courses might slightly differ. For instance, we expect that language requirements for studying English Literature or History are higher than Engineering.


Other universities might have similar or lower expectations. For your convenience we’ve attached the links to language requirements at some selected universities:

Michal Ratynski, 02 Mar 2017