A Beginner’s Guide to the Physics Aptitude Test

The Physics Aptitude Test (or ‘PAT’) is a test of maths and physics ability which applicants to physics and engineering courses at Oxford take as part of their application.

If you’ve never met anyone who took the PAT, went to Oxford, or studied physics before it can seem almost impossible to know where to start.

A man wearing a blue labcoat and red bow tie (Bill Nigh the Science Guy) gestures at a sphere which is on fire. The caption reads “This is an actual crisis”.

But don’t worry! Everything you need to know before you even think about preparing for the PAT is here — so let’s dive in to the who, what, when, where and why of the PAT…

The “What”

There are no prizes for guessing that the Physics Aptitude Test is, well, a test… for physics. It takes 2 hours, includes multiple choice questions and longer answer questions, and is based on the first year of A-level (although sometimes more advanced topics sneak in — so be careful!).

The PAT is written by lecturers and academics in the University of Oxford Physics & Engineering departments to test applicants on their ability to problem solve, as well as their maths & physics skills.

The specification is a couple of pages long without even beginning to look at what it means, what the questions look like, or what you should do to prepare. So I go into that in a lot more detail in other articles, you can start here, once you’re ready.

The “Who”

Everyone applying to physics, physics and philosophy, engineering science, or materials science at Oxford.

There’s only one test though, so whichever course you’re applying to you’ll do the same test on the same day. The pass mark you need to get an interview might be different for different courses.

The “When”

The PAT is usually on the first Wednesday in November.

In 2021, it’s actually the first Thursday because of covid — so that’s the 4th of November (and one extra day for you to prepare!).

There is one other important date for you to know about though:
You must have sent off your UCAS application AND your test centre (normally your school) must have registered you to sit the PAT by 6pm on October 15th

The “Where”

For most students, your school or college will be a test centre and you’ll be able to sit the PAT at school, just like you do for other exams.

If your school or college isn’t a test centre, or if you are studying independently, you can search for test centres nearby where you can sit the test here.

The “Why”

The biggest tip for success in your University Application (and beyond) is that you won’t do your best work unless you start by understanding why you’re doing it.

The short answer to ‘why do I have to sit the Physics Aptitude Test?’ is ‘because Oxford say it’s compulsory’. But, if you don’t look any deeper than this, you risk wasting key preparation time by being inefficient — which you want to avoid!

Throughout your application you should be seeking to understand why the Admissions Tutors you’re trying to impress want you to do each step. I call this “Wearing your Admissions Tutor cap” with my students — and you can read more about it here.

If the PAT was just testing your maths and physics A-level ability, then the Admissions Tutors wouldn’t learn anything from it that they couldn’t find out from your exams. There must be something they can learn from the PAT which they couldn’t find out any other way, otherwise why they would spend their time writing and marking your tests?

In short, the answer is:
Most students who apply to Oxford have a strong academic background, meaning they all have relatively similar grades in their application. The PAT aims to take the these students (who are normally scoring 80–90% on exams) and challenge them, so that they ‘stretch’ the grades out over a full 0–100% scale.
In other words, it helps them tell the difference between an ‘85% student’ and an ‘86% student’.

The PAT also requires you to think in a more creative way about the maths and physics techniques you know. This helps admissions tutors figure out whether you really understand the key principles behind topics such as differentiation, and can apply them to problems you’ve never seen before, or whether you’ve just memorised them but don’t really know how they work.

So, What Now?

The whirlwind tour of the PAT is over! Hopefully, its clear now that it really is just a physics test. A slightly unusual physics test for sure, but just a physics test.

You’re still not quite ready to start preparing yet though! Now, its a good idea to take a look at the ins and outs of the specification for the test — what do they want you to know about? That way, you can make sure you know everything you need to before you go on to practicing papers.

You can find my article explaining the PAT syllabus from start to finish here.

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Exam Cosmos is run by experienced admissions consultants, tutors, and published authors from the University of Oxford. Get in touch!

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Exam Cosmos

Exam Cosmos

Exam Cosmos is run by experienced admissions consultants, tutors, and published authors from the University of Oxford. Get in touch!

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