Preparing students for Oxbridge assessments

Whenever I’m thinking of writing a blog, I always think whether or not there is already something similar posted. If there is, I probably don’t write one…but this is a topic where I’ve really not seen anything out there.

I’m moving to a new school in September, and a big part of my role is going to be getting students through the Oxbridge application process. Now, this is not something I’ve done before & (probably because of this) I was a bit nervous about taking this on.

I started thinking about this process in June, when I posted the below tweet. There are a lot of excellent replies to this (thanks Twitter!) & if you’re interested in the topic of this blog then I’d recommend reading through the replies.

The main summary of the replies seemed to be:

  • Practise a lot of past papers.
  • Practise similar questions in books (e.g. Professor Povey’s perplexing problems).
  • Mathematical fluency and speed in answering questions are vital.

Now I started by having a look at past PAT/ENGAA/NSAA assessments; and the first difficulty became clear. The assessments are *very* different. PAT seems more mathematical in ways (much more calculus/geometric series/binomial expansion/logs etc), while the Cambridge entrance exams seem more physics-based (and they don’t allow calculators, so students have to be quick of thought while doing calculations).

I was initially concerned about teaching three different syllabi. The PAT syllabus is brief, vague and not very detailed. Whereas (for example) the ENGAA syllabus is very detailed & it’d be impossible to cover fully in the 7 weeks from September to the assessment date.

As I’ll be preparing one group of students, I decided to look at detail at the past papers of each assessment and try to draw together some common “themes” that’d be useful to students sitting any of the exams. I did this methodically by allocating questions into a theme/area and then looked at which topics came up most frequently. This is shown in the picture below for PAT (and in case it’s of use, there’s also a downloadable spreadsheet that includes PAT, ENGAA & NSAA). Please note that this is not perfect as I did this quickly, and some questions didn’t neatly fit into my topics (and as such got left out). I have also saved the 2019 PAT paper, to keep the possibility of a “mock” open.

Now as can be seen above (and indeed for ENGAA & NSAA), the papers are quite mechanics heavy. This is presumably because the papers aim to assess both physics & mathematical ability and this topic neatly sits within both camps. I also noted that electricity and waves featured quite heavily (as well as certain areas of mathematics). From this, I drew up a “teaching rota” to help prepare students as best as possible (I will have these students for one hour each week to prepare for this). This rota goes as follow:

  • Week 1 – Mechanics
  • Week 2 – Electricity
  • Week 3 – Area/volume of shapes
  • Week 4 – Waves
  • Week 5 – Differentiation/Integration/Series
  • Week 6 – Gas laws & nuclear physics
  • Week 7 – General maths (logs, binomial, trig).

If I’d just given students past papers to work through, then I imagine this would have been quite intimidating for some students (as various questions have a very high level of challenge & across a large array of topics). Instead, my plan (similar to my KS4 resources) is to select questions from each area from PAT/ENGAA/NSAA papers and “ramp” the questions in order of difficulty.

Ramping allows for the early questions to be accessible & for students to build confidence (and fits in neatly with one of Rosenshine’s principles – obtain a high success rate). Hopefully the early questions “scaffold” students into the harder questions & they can work towards mastery of that topic/area. Confidence is a crucial factor here, as the papers are hard. Really hard. While I’ll be emphasising the importance of resilience, it’d be quite easy to become disheartened by sitting full papers. Hopefully breaking the papers down in this way will help.

I’ve shared the first example (week 1 – mechanics) of the work that I’ve put together for the students. Hopefully this is helpful. Over time, I’ll add an “Oxbridge” page to the site & collate these resources in one place.

Once the assessment date has passed, I’ll have a think about how best to prepare students for interview. I’d be interested in thoughts on this.


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