The Physics Admissions Test (PAT) is an entrance exam used by the University of Oxford to assess applicants for several of their science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) undergraduate degrees.
The PAT is known for being highly challenging, so thorough preparation is crucial for students hoping to achieve the scores needed to progress to the interview stage.
This guide provides an overview of the PAT exam, from what it tests to how to register, when it takes place and, most importantly, how to best prepare for this difficult Oxford admissions test.
What is the PAT?
The Physics Admissions Test, commonly referred to as the PAT, is an aptitude test used by the University of Oxford as part of the admissions process for a number of their STEM undergraduate courses.
Previously known as the Physics Aptitude Test, the PAT aims to assess a candidate’s problem-solving abilities, mathematical skills and physics knowledge.
The PAT is administered by Oxford’s Department of Physics and is sat by applicants for courses including Physics, Physics and Philosophy, Engineering Science, and Materials Science.
The exam is designed to be challenging for all candidates and is used by Oxford to differentiate between the academic abilities of applicants to determine who will be invited for an interview.
A strong performance in the PAT is therefore crucial for prospective Oxford students to progress through the competitive application process. Due to the low Oxford acceptance rate, chances are even lower if you don’t score a good PAT result.
Key Dates for the PAT
The PAT takes place annually in November.
For entry in October 2023, the key dates for PAT are:
- September 2023 – Registration opens on the 1st and closes on the 29th of September for PAT 2023
- October 2023 – The test date for PAT is 20th October 2023
- November 2023 – Results of the Physics Admission Test will be published during November 2023
Candidates will receive their candidate entry number as proof of registration by the 29th September deadline. This allows time for test centres to order papers and makes arrangements for sitting the test in mid-October.
Results are typically released to candidates in November. The scores are considered by Oxford alongside your other admissions materials like grades, references and admissions tests.
What Does the PAT Test?
The PAT tests a broad range of mathematics and physics topics from GCSE level through to A-Level standard.
The exam is designed to stretch candidates to the limits of their understanding and assess their grasp of fundamental mathematical and physics concepts.
The PAT assessments a student’s skill in the following areas:
- Mathematics – including algebra, geometry, coordinate geometry, trigonometry, calculus and statistics.
- Mechanics – kinematics, dynamics, energy, momentum, fluids, oscillations and special relativity.
- Waves – progressive waves, interference, diffraction, standing waves, refraction, Doppler effect, ray optics, wave optics.
- Electricity and Magnetism – electrostatics, circuits, electromagnetism and Maxwell’s equations.
- Thermodynamics – ideal gases, kinetic theory, laws of thermodynamics, engines and entropy.
- Natural World – physical constants, solar system, stellar parameters, nuclear physics.
- Problem-Solving Skills – applying physical concepts, mathematical modelling, estimations, interpretations and evaluations.
Why is the PAT Used?
The PAT is used by Oxford admissions tutors to evaluate an applicant’s suitability for the university’s demanding science and engineering degrees.
Specifically, the PAT provides admissions tutors with a standardised measure of a candidate’s academic potential in physics and mathematics.
When used alongside other admissions criteria such as GCSE grades, and A-Levels, the PAT score allows tutors to assess both current academic achievement as well as aptitude for undergraduate study in physics-related disciplines.
If you are applying to Oxford be aware that candidates first take the PAT, and then based on their test results, the university decides who to invite for an interview.
The PAT, therefore, acts as an initial academic screening and means that tutors can interview candidates who have already demonstrated strong skills in maths and physics.
What Courses Require the PAT?
The PAT is required for all applicants to the following undergraduate courses at the University of Oxford:
- Physics (3 and 4-year programmes)
- Physics and Philosophy
- Materials Science
Additionally, students applying for any joint honours course involving Physics or Engineering Science will need to sit the PAT as part of their application.
In total, around 1,500 prospective students sit the PAT each year for entry to Oxford. Competition is high, with on average 5-6 applicants for every available place across these PAT-requiring courses.
What is in the PAT Exam?
The PAT is a 2-hour written exam typically consisting of 24-26 questions adding up to a total of 100 marks.
The paper is divided into two sections:
- Section 1 consists of multiple choice questions worth 2 marks each. There are usually 10-12 multiple-choice questions in this section.
- Section 2 consists of longer, free-response questions worth between 2-10 marks each. This section contains around 14-16 questions.
Marks are assigned based on both the final answers as well as the method and work shown. Candidates are therefore advised to demonstrate their work for each question attempted.
Are calculators allowed for the PAT exam?
Starting in October 2023, the online interface for the PAT will feature a built-in digital calculator.
Candidates are required to use this calculator and are strictly prohibited from bringing their own calculators to the exam.
How many marks is the PAT out of?
The PAT Exam is made up of 100 marks and divided into two sections, as described in previous paragraphs.
How Difficult is the PAT?
The PAT is intentionally very challenging, designed to thoroughly test candidates’ grasp of A-Level Maths and Physics.
Questions require not just recall knowledge but strategic thinking and applied problem-solving.
To give an idea of the difficulty, in the 2020 PAT, the highest score was 97/100 while the lowest was 46/100. The average PAT total score was 49/100.
According to Oxford, prospective engineering candidates should aim for a score of at least 60/100 to be competitive for an interview place. However, the threshold score varies from year to year depending on the cohort.
What is a Good Score on the PAT?
There is no official passing score for the PAT. Oxford tutors use the test to differentiate between candidates and the score thresholds for shortlisting change annually based on the applicant cohort.
That said, based on previous years’ data, the following approximate scores represent a “good” PAT performance for the following undergraduate courses:
- Physics – 63/100 or higher
- Engineering – 60/100 or higher
- Materials Science – 58/100 or higher
Scoring above these benchmarks indicates a strong aptitude for Oxford-level study in physics-related disciplines. However, admission depends on all parts of the application, not just the PAT score alone.
In 2020, the average PAT score was 49/100, with a standard deviation of 14.4.
Below is the table showing the percentage of applicants with 60 or above scores in PAT from 2019 to 2022, based on the Oxford Physics Department reports.
|Year||% Applicants with PAT 60+ score|
We can agree that a good score for PAT is something around 60 or above, to have a chance for an interview.
Can I Resit the PAT?
Candidates can only sit the PAT once each admissions cycle. There is no option to resit the test in the same year to improve scores. Start your preparation on time, and be confident and motivated for success.
If a candidate feels they underperformed due to illness or other mitigating circumstances, their test centre can submit a request for special consideration on their behalf. This must be submitted within 5 days of the test date.
Otherwise, it is possible to retake the PAT in a subsequent year as part of a fresh Oxford application. However, candidates can only apply to Oxford a maximum of twice.
How to Prepare for the PAT
Preparing thoroughly for the PAT is crucial to achieving a competitive score.
Here are some tips:
- Work through the syllabus – Ensure you have covered all the required maths and physics topics. Use the PAT specification on Oxford’s website to guide your studies.
- Take practice tests – Complete past PAT papers under timed conditions to familiarise yourself with the exam format and pace yourself effectively.
- Attempt practice problems – Work through problem-solving questions from a range of textbooks and online sources to build applied skills.
- Learn formulas and constants – Memorise essential equations, formulas and data values in advance as these cannot be looked up during the test.
- Analyse past PAT scores – Review previous years’ score requirements to better understand what makes a competitive PAT performance.
- Seek expert guidance – Consider enlisting an experienced tutor to provide personalised PAT preparation and marking of practice tests.
Thorough practice and guidance in the months and weeks before the test will help maximise your PAT score.
Is the PAT an Online Test?
No, the PAT is a traditional pen-and-paper exam rather than an online test. This allows examiners to easily view and assess candidates’ working out and calculations.
Candidates must take the PAT at an authorised test centre, usually their school or college. Some open or independent test centres may also offer the PAT exam.
The test itself is conducted according to standard exam conditions. Candidates indicate their answers on a provided answer sheet and show all workings in the exam booklet.
While the PAT has not yet made the transition to computer-based testing, some universities have introduced online admissions tests, so it is possible that the PAT could change the format in future.
For now, though, candidates should prepare for a handwritten exam.
Where Can I Find Practice PAT Tests and Past Papers?
The easiest way to access practice materials for the PAT is through the University of Oxford website. Here are the links:
On the Physics PAT page, Oxford publishes copies of past papers dating back to 2006. These can be downloaded along with examiner reports detailing the prior year’s grade boundaries and average scores.
Working through past PAT papers under timed conditions is one of the best ways to practice and familiarise yourself with the difficulty and style of the real exam.
In addition to official past papers, Oxford has also published two PAT preparation books titled “Test of Mathematics for University Admission” and “Test of Physics for University Admission”. These provide abundant additional practice questions for all areas of the syllabus. Here you can find more books for PAT preparation.
Various third-party books and online resources also offer PAT practice tests and problem sets. Your school may also have copies of practice materials.
Watch PAT Webinar
Learn more about how to prepare for the PAT test from the Oxford PAT webinar below.
Physics Admission Test Results 2022
According to the Physics Department report, here is an overview of the 2022 results for the PAT test.
- The Physics Admission Test (PAT) continues to be a consistent predictor of performance. The mean PAT score was 51.2%, higher thanin 2021, likely due to a return to more normal school conditions.
- The top PAT scorers continue to be disproportionately non-UK educated. Only around a quarter of the top 100 PAT scorers had all their secondary schooling in the UK system.
- 307 applicants were automatically shortlisted based on their PAT score alone. An additional 164 applicants were shortlisted despite lower PAT scores, due to mitigating circumstances or other evidence of excellence.
What Does the PAT Cost?
The test itself does not cost anything for candidates registering through their school or college.
However, some open test centres that are not attached to a school may charge an administration fee. This tends to be around £50-80 to cover costs such as staffing and facilities.
There are also optional paid services that can support PAT preparation, such as tutoring, preparation books and online courses. While helpful, these are not mandatory to sit the PAT.
The Physics Admissions Test is a challenging exam used by Oxford to assess candidates for its physics and engineering degrees. Thorough preparation and practice will help applicants demonstrate their full academic potential and achieve the competitive score needed to progress to the interview.
By understanding the PAT format, timing, content and difficulty, students can tailor their revision to master the mathematical and scientific skills required.
A combination of consolidating knowledge, honing exam techniques and seeking expert guidance provides the best foundations for PAT success.