I decided to study Biological Sciences because Biology was my favourite subject at school. The thing I enjoy most about my subject is the lab work. You get to use more sophisticated laboratory equipment than you did in sixth form and so the experiments tend to be a lot more interesting. For example, in first year you collect DNA samples from many different species and then sequence their genomes and try to use the information to construct a phylogeny. My best experience was probably when I started to be able to write computer code (which actually worked) by myself. It’s hard not to feel like a god when you write a chunk of code and the computer runs it without any cryptic error messages.
I decided to study Biological Sciences because I’ve always found that sciences get more and more interesting the further you study them. I hoped that’d hold true at degree level, and it definitely did. Plus Biology’s quite a useful subject (environment, diseases etc.). What I enjoy about my course is the fact that it’s very varied; first year especially is a whistle-stop tour of everything from the biochemistry of cell metabolism to viruses, from starfish to the dynamics determining an ecosystem structure. Biology’s also very sociable – you have lots of lectures and labs, and it’s hard not to be friends with someone after getting very confused about how to dissect your shark together. What has my best experience been? All the first year biologists go on a week-long ecology field course in Wales. You spend three days on the beach and three in the woods. It’s so much fun and a good chance to get to know everyone better.
My interest in the natural world attracted me to study Biology; it is, to me, one of the most relevant degrees for the 21st century. I chose to study Biology at Oxford partly due to the close-knit collegiate system and partly because the department is one of the strongest in the country for both the course and for research. Also, the broad structure of the first year appealed to me as I wasn’t sure which area I wanted to specialise in, since there was so much we never came across at school (sea slug mating, anyone?). The workload is manageable and even leaves time for extra-curriculars; this year, I’m in the college musical!
So far, the highlight for me was the visit to the University Museum of Natural History. We were given a behind the scenes tour of specimens both live and dead, handling millipedes, tarantulas, scorpions, and a rather cute preying mantis. The researcher who took us round spends his time in Indonesia investigating dung beetles.
The first-year course modules give you a solid background for more specialised study in the later years: Cells and Genes, Organisms, Quantitative Methods (which, sadly, means statistics), and Ecology. The first year draws to a close with a fantastic weeklong field trip to the Welsh coast where you get to know people from other colleges. Lectures are twice daily, and twice a week you have a practical lesson sandwiched in between them. You usually have one essay each week for a tutorial with your college tutor (who is also an active researcher) or with other academics, who are experts in the field. In second year, Evolution and Quantitative Methods (again) are compulsory, but you also choose options based on your interests. Third year is even more specialise, and you can travel to Tenerife or Borneo for exciting field courses. Second-year exams, a research project, two course assignments and final exams count towards the degree.
The tutorials help you to go beyond the simple regurgitation of textbooks that you would have done previously; you can develop your own ideas, and fine-tine your ability to critically review the scientific literature you read. Secondly, the university has an unparalleled range of libraries, museums, and reference collections: the Radcliffe Science Library, the Oxford University Farm, the Botanic Gardens, Wytham Woods and the Museum of Natural History to name a few, which prove invaluable for your studies.
The New Scientist - magazine containing all the most exciting recent advances in science. Shows you the projects you could work on if you pursue a career in science.
Any of Richard Dawkins' science books. Also Genome: The Autobiography of a Species In 23 Chapters by Matt Ridley.
Life Ascending by Nick Lane – it’s 10 chapters on (what he thinks are) 10 of the most important evolutionary developments in the history of time. It’s very accessible but in depth, and does a great job of conveying the awe of quite how extraordinary life is.
The interviews were much less stressful and more enjoyable than I expected. The tutors tried to make me as comfortable as possible - because they want to see you at your best. At my first interview I was asked to interpret some graphs, shown a picture of fossils that I could ask three questions on to learn as much as possible about them and asked a series of short questions. These included: why are ladybirds red and black, why do birds sing, and why do birds have warning calls?
At my second interview they asked a little on what I had put on my personal statement and asked to design some experiments to test certain hypotheses.
My advice to future applicants would be to stay calm, think before you answer a question and talk through your thoughts. Also be confident - you have an interview because the tutors think you have the potential to study at Oxford, so you should believe it too!
Applicants that might be offered a place are invited for interview in December. See Biology interviews for more information.
Make sure you read the official prospectus entry for the course which contains entry requirements, full course structure, additional interesting resources and full details of the application process.
If you're going to apply, you'll want to check which Oxford colleges offer this course.