Frequently Asked Questions – Undergraduate
Below are many of the Frequently Asked Questions we receive at our Open Days. If you have any other questions not answered here, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.
Studying Earth Sciences
How is Earth Sciences different to Geography?
Earth Sciences places a stronger emphasis on maths, quantitative skills and the science underlying processes on Earth, hence our course requirements for maths and one of physics/chemistry. Our course spans across many topics related to scientific understanding of the Earth and other planets, including climate, geology, the atmosphere, oceans, volcanic processes, palaeontology, natural resources and many others. This overlaps with some areas of physical geography and biogeography only.
I am interested in reading around the subject, can you recommend any books?
If you’re interested in reading more about Earth Sciences, that’s great and there are lots of interesting, accessible and available resources out there. We have a list of suggested further reading that you can access here. Please note, you are not expected to have read any of these prior to applying or attending an interview – they are for reference and interest only and you won’t be quizzed on them! There are also lots of good resources you can find through the Geological Society of London’s website and on also on Staircase 12, an online hub of digital resources for students thinking of applying to University. They have a Reading Bank and a page specifically for Earth Sciences.
I am particularly interested in one aspect of Earth Sciences, can I specialise in this on the undergraduate course?
Absolutely! You will spend the first and second year of your course learning the fundamentals and key principals across a broad range of topics in Earth Sciences, but have the option to really hone in on your areas of interest in your third and second years, when you can choose the course modules you would like to study. This may be oceanography and climate, tectonics and geophysics, computational earth sciences, palaeobiology or solid earth (volcanoes and earthquakes). In your fourth year, students undertake and independent research project of your choice. This offers the opportunity to carry out real, cutting edge research alongside academic staff. Depending on your area of interest and project choice, this may be research carried out through field work, laboratory experiments or using sophisticated modelling or computational software.
How is the course taught?
The undergraduate course is a blend of lectures, practical classes, tutorials and field trips. Lectures and practicals all take place within the Earth Sciences Building. You can take a virtual tour of the building by watching the video here.
Lectures are taught by faculty (professors) and usually last one hour. Each lecture course has associated practical classes, which take place in our teaching labs and often involve a variety of activities: studying rock or fossils specimens, using microscopes for petrographic study, analysing or drawing geological maps, or carrying out computational exercises. Some classes may also take place in the Computer lab. Practical classes are led by lecturers, but supported by postgraduate demonstrators who are on hand throughout the sessions to answer your questions and provide support. Alongside your lectures and practicals, you will have small group teaching within your college groups (2 – 4 students) in the form of ‘tutorials’.
What are tutorials like?
Tutorials are small group teaching sessions, with your college group. They typically involve you meeting up about once a week with your college tutor and the other Earth Sciences students within your college year group (2 – 5 students). Tutorials offer the opportunity to ask your tutor questions about the course material and to discuss topics that go beyond your lecture material. They are designed to both challenge you intellectually but most importantly support you through the learning process. Tutorials are fairly unique to Oxford and a really great system as they allow you to get to grips with your course and further your understanding in a way that you might not be able to on your own or in a big class environment. You can find out more about tutorials from some of our Tutors in the video below:
Will choosing a certain college affect the education I receive?
No. The education you receive is not college-dependent. All of the Earth Sciences teaching is coordinated by the department. All students receive lectures and practicals together. Although you will have many of your tutorials (small group teaching sessions) with your college tutors in your 1st and 2nd year, there is a high degree of coordination on subject teaching between tutorial staff. As you progress into more specialised topics in your 2nd and 3rd years, tutorials may move outside of your colleges, to be taught by staff or researchers from these expert fields.
Which colleges can I apply to for Earth Sciences?
Seven colleges offer places in Earth Sciences – Exeter; St. Annes; St. Edmund Hall; St. Hughs; St. Peters; University College; Worcester College.
Does college choice affect your chances of getting in?
No. You will need to specify a choice of college when you apply, but our admissions process in Earth Sciences is ‘college-blind.’ This means that when you are interviewed, none of the Earth Sciences tutors involved in admissions will know which college you have applied to, so your college choice (or the number of spaces available at that college) has no influence over you application; your chance of receiving an offer is the same. If candidates are accepted onto the Earth Sciences course, only then will the admissions team look at your college preference and try to match you to your college of choice. It is not always possible to allocate students to their preferred college, but if you are offered a place on a course, you will have a place in one of the 7 colleges… and they are all great!
Do I need to visit the college before the interview in order to familiarise myself?
Our department runs a centralised admissions process that is college blind. Thus, if successful in your application and interview, we admit you to the course regardless of which college you select. We try to honour your college choice, and thus if you think it would help you to visit a college before you choose it, please do so! However it is by no means essential. The best times to visit are on University Open Days (note these are currently online virtual events) but you can also find a lot of information on the college websites.
How do I choose a college?
All of the colleges are slightly different in location, age, and architecture. Some will may have different student societies or facilities. If you’re unsure which college you might like to apply to, we would recommend that you have a close look on each of their websites and if you can, attend one of the University Open Days (for 2020, these are all online virtual events but still provide an opportunity to ask students and tutors live questions). Choosing a college can be exciting and even a little daunting, but it’s important to remember that it will not affect your application. If you are successful through the Earth Sciences admissions process, you will be awarded a place in one of the 7 colleges. We try to take into account your college preference but it’s not always possible to allocate all candidates to their college choice. However college loyalty develops pretty quickly and most students find themselves very much at home and happy within their eventual college.
Admissions and Applications
What do you look for on a personal statement?
Good question! Before you try to write anything, reflect on what aspects of Earth Sciences excite you. What sort of science news articles draw your attention? What is it about those aspects of the Earth Sciences that inspire your interest? Perhaps the answer lies in an experience you had, or in a broader part of your character. If you can connect the dots of specific interests to personal experiences or qualities, this gives a clear picture of your motivation. Anyone can use the word “enthusiastic” but a compelling narrative is difficult to write if you don’t feel it deeply.
There is no ‘right’ way to write a Personal Statement, but honesty and a genuine motivation to study science are important. Don’t write about books you haven’t read, or activities you haven’t done, as this will quickly become apparent if you are asked in interview. We put the most weight on your motivation for wanting to study Earth Sciences, rather than on lists of your achievements, extracurricular activities, or travel plans.
It can be tough to get started with writing your personal statement but if you’re struggling, try to start by writing a list of bullet points about what you’re interested in and why. Once you’ve got a draft, it’s good to get a second pair of eyes on it, so if you can, ask someone else to read it who can give you some feedback – maybe a teacher, or parent. There are also a lot of good resources online with advice on writing your personal statement, but you can check out the Oxford guidance here: https://www.ox.ac.uk/admissions/undergraduate/applying-to-oxford/guide/ucas-application?wssl=1#content-tab–2
You can watch our video on Personal Statements below:
What grades do I need in order to apply to Earth Sciences?
Our standard offers are A*AA for those taking 3 A-levels, but we also offer AAAA as an alternative for those taking 4 A-levels. We never offer on more than 4 A-levels.
I’ve not taken all my A-levels in the same year, does this matter for my application / offer?
Our preference is to see all of the A levels taken in the same sitting, but to have a good A level in the bank in year 11 will be regarded favourably.
What is the admissions process for Earth Sciences at Oxford?
Unlike many other science departments at the University of Oxford, there is no admissions test for Earth Sciences. Once we have received all of the applications to the undergraduate course, these will be reviewed. We try to invite to interview everyone who has the predicted minimum entry grades for our course. Typically >80% of applicants are called to interview. We use the interviews as one part of the assessment process, but we take account of applicants’ track record, predicted grades and other relevant circumstances as well when we make offers.
I’m worried my education has been disrupted by COVID-19. Are you making any allowances for this in admissions?
We are well aware of the issues surrounding the predictions of GCSE and A-level results this year (and indeed for next year). Our assessment of applications uses GCSE results in addition to the personal statement, predicted grades, and interview performance! So we have a balance of measures that we use to make short-listing and admissions decisions.
Will interviews be face to face or online this year?
Our interviews will take the same format as normal, but will be online this year
How can I prepare for interview?
There is no need to revise specifically but interview questions will be based loosely around your A level course, so a good familiarity with what you have already covered would be good! Make sure you know what you have written in your personal statement and that you have a good understanding of the course that you are applying to and why you want to do it.
What are the interviews like?
You will receive two interviews. These are typically around 30 minutes each and may be on the same day, or across two days. Each interview will be conducted by two members of academic staff. One interview may be more qualitative and the other more quantitative. We know these can seem very daunting but the interviews are not designed to try and catch you out or to assess what you know. They aim is to try and get to know you as a person. The interviewers are interested to see how you approach scientific problems and whether you have the flexibility to work through them.
Generally, the interview questions involve applying your A-level knowledge to new scenarios in Earth Sciences. These are often big picture questions or tasks, such as interpreting a rock’s history based on your understanding of physics and chemistry or estimating the rise in sea level change from the melting of Antarctic ice using algebra. You might be asked to estimate how long a raindrop stays in the atmosphere for, and then go on to further discuss how water is circulated around the planet and the timescales and spatial scales involved. On the face of it, these might seem like impossible questions, but you’ll be given data or information to help you work through this. It’s best if you vocalise your thought processes (much like showing your working in a maths problem); the professors will gently guide you towards the right answer!
Do I need any prior knowledge of geology?
No. We don’t assume any knowledge of Geology in your interview- our questions will be based on your A level course but are designed to see how you think through problems rather than testing your knowledge per se.
Will I be expected to know A-level Chemistry/Physics/Biology if I am not taking all of them at A-level?
No! We do not expect you to know the A-level course for all the sciences, but interviewers will assume you are familiar with the subjects that you are currently studying at A-level. There is no need to revise for interviews, but questions will be based loosely around your A level choices, so a familiarity with what you have already studied at school would be good!
Is it ok if I don’t know how to answer a question at interview?
Yes! The aim of the interviews is to see how you approach a problem, not whether you know the answer straight away. These are conversations, not tests. If you are unsure about something being discussed, or if you have questions about the course or any topic of Earth Sciences, you can ask your interviewers – it’s a two-way process! If you are struggling to answer a question, the interviewers help you along with gentle guidance or by providing additional information to steer your thought processes. They also understand that interviews can be daunting and that you may be nervous, so don’t worry!
How many places are offered each year?
There are typically around 40 places offered on the Earth Sciences course each year and there are usually around 3-4 applications for every place available.
Where are the field trips to?
Lots of places! You can find out more about field trip locations and what’s involved here: https://www.earth.ox.ac.uk/teaching/undergraduates/field-courses/ and we encourage you to watch our field work video by Prof. Stuart Robinson below:
Are the residential field trips covered in the tuition fee or would we have to pay for them separate?
The Department covers all the costs of field courses. We pay for everything, including food, transport and accommodation.
I am worried about the costs of field equipment, is there financial support available for this?
Throughout your course, your fieldwork will take you to a variety of terrain and weather conditions; it is therefore essential that you have suitable outdoor clothing for all eventualities. Relatively inexpensive, good quality clothing can be purchased from specialist outdoor retailers who can also provide useful advice e.g. Cotswold Outdoors, Mountain Warehouse, Blacks, GO Outdoors, Decathlon or independent retailers. While some of our students may already have these items, many will be purchasing them for the first time, ahead of starting the course and we recognise that this is an additional financial outlay. The Department has negotiated a discount code for use at Cotswold Outdoors, but remember that not all kit has to be bought new. Second hand items that have been well looked after can be just as good! It’s worth exploring all options: websites such as Gumtree and eBay are often a good source for bargains, or even your local charity shop could be worth a look. Discount retailers such as TK Maxx and Sports Direct also sell outdoor clothing at reduced prices. Just remember, it’s important that you try the kit on before starting the course, particularly walking boots or shoes, to check that they fit comfortably!
if you have financial concerns about purchasing outdoor clothing, please get in touch with us or your college. Many colleges have hardship funds available which can support with the purchase of kit.
Will COVID-19 limit the places where we can do fieldwork?
In the near-term sadly the answer is yes. The University of Oxford is committed to ensuring the safety and well-being of students and staff, by following all government advice. This means that residential field courses are currently suspended. However, the department have taken steps to ensure this does not negatively impact your learning experience. We have, over the summer months, invested in the creation and recording of a series of virtual field trips to UK locations. These have involved professional film crews (including Michael Pitts, one of the key cameramen who worked on the David Attenborough series Blue Planet) accompanying our academics into the field to record the sites that you would have seen in person. These exceptionally high quality resources will be made available to all students, until such time as in-person field trips can be resumed safely.
What level of fitness is needed to carry out the fieldwork? Is there lots of hiking/climbing involved?
Our students have a range of different fitness levels. When constructing the field courses we have thought carefully about how to accommodate this, and while a very basic level of fitness is ideal, we always take into account the requirements of individual students on a day-to-day basis, depending on the planned activities. We don’t put our students in a position where they have to climb any outcrops. If at any point prior to or during the field trip, students have any concerns, we actively encourage them to speak to the trip leader of our friendly team in the academic office.
Earth Sciences and Careers
What kind of job can I get with a degree in Earth Sciences?
A degree in Earth Sciences can lead you almost anywhere! Some of the most highly valued skills that Earth Science graduates develop during the course of their degree are critical thinking, the ability to work independently and as part of a team, to analyse data at a planetary and microscopic scale and to know how to apply knowledge from other sciences, particularly in a numerate way, in order to problem solve. These skills are highly valued by employers from a wide range of sectors and our graduates go on to successful careers in the environmental, resource exploration, finance, risk management, research and teaching sectors, amongst many others.
You can check out our webpage on Geoscience Careers here: https://www.earth.ox.ac.uk/teaching/careers/ this includes links to a whole host of other sites and information available too.
Will I need another degree to get a practical geoscience career?
This depends entirely on your choice of career and many of our graduates go on to careers in applied geosciences without additional degrees. For some jobs in for example, geotechnical engineering, it can be helpful to complete a further master’s degree in your specialist field, although bear in mind that many companies also offer graduate training programmes where you would receive this equivalent training on the job. If you know which sector you might be interested in pursuing a career, you can find out more about the entry level requirements through the University Careers Service website: http://www.careers.ox.ac.uk/