Posts in Subject Guides
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

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