Computer Science at Oxford
Frequently asked questions
From Computer Science at Oxford
What topics are covered in your degree courses?
See the overviews of the Computer Science, the Mathematics and Computer Science and Computer Science and Philosophy degrees, and click on the links in the chart to discover more about the topics in each year.
What programming languages do you teach?
In your first year, you will learn Haskell, a 'purely functional' language that makes it simpler to reason mathematically about programs, and Scala, a modern object-oriented language. We believe that by sticking to a small number of languages at first, students are better able to master the underlying principles.
In later years of the course, you will continue to use these languages, but you also might learn other languages including Java, Prolog, C, C++, Objective CAML... as part of studying a particular area of Computer Science. You will also have opportunities to study the princples behind programming languages and compilers. In your project, you have an almost free choice of language to program in or to implement.
However, as explained in the open days talks on this site, a particular programming language provides no more than a vehicle for expressing deeper Computer Science ideas. By the time you leave Oxford, you will be able to pick up a new language in half a day and (with a good manual) begin to use it productively straight away.
Why do you award a BA degree rather than a BSc?
That's just the way it is in Oxford: all three-year first degree courses lead to a BA, even in science, and there are no BSc degrees awarded in Oxford. Employers of our graduates all know this, so it never causes any practical difficulty.
What is your standard conditional offer?
We will normally make an offer of A*AA on three A levels including at least an A in Maths. For Computer Science, and Computer Science & Philosophy students the A* must be in Maths, Further Maths, Physics or Computing. For Maths & Computer Science students the A* must be in Maths or Further Maths.
For those doing Advanced Highers or the IB will normally make offers as follows:
- Advanced Highers: AA/AAB
- IB: 39 points, including core points
Candidates are expected to have Mathematics to Advanced Higher (A grade) or Higher Level in the IB (score 7.) Further Mathematics or another Science would also be highly recommended.
For those under the American education system, the standard offer is outlined here. Appropriate subjects for the Advanced Placement Tests include Biology, Calculus, Chemistry, Computer Science, Physics, Statistics. For the SAT Subject Tests option we'd want at least two to be Maths 1/Maths 2/Physics and the third, an additional science/maths option. We don't make offers based on a GPA score, but if you wanted to include this additional information please ask your referee to mention it in the reference.
I am not doing A levels but instead the EB / French Bac / German Abitur ... Can I still get a conditional offer?
Yes, of course. There is a page on the University admissions site that gives a good guide to the grades we would look for, comparable in each case to A*AA A-levels. In addition, the University maintains a central list of post-16 qualifications in all countries of the world, together with our recent experience of making offers to candidates from each country. So with a little consultation, any tutor will be able to work out what would be a fair set of conditions for you. All non-native English-speaking applicants must satisfy the University's English Language requirements.
I'm doing a vocational qualification, such as a BTEC National Diploma. Can I still get a conditional offer?
Competition for places at Oxford University is extremely strong, and all courses are academic in nature. Although Computer Science might suggest a more vocational style of learning, the courses are strongly academic in their focus. Academic qualifications such as A-Levels, the International Baccalaureate or any other academic equivalent are strongly recommended as the best preparation for any course of study at Oxford. However, we also recognise the achievements of students who hold vocational, professional or other qualifications, and these will be taken in to account during the admissions procedure
For students taking the BTEC National Extended Diploma in IT, a conditional offer will normally be either:
- D*DD in the Diploma, or
- DDD in the Diploma and an A* at A Level in either Maths, Further Maths, Physics or Computing,
and in both cases at least A in Maths A Level.
Do you use STEP papers when making offers?
Do I need to have done Computer Studies or Information Technology at A level?
No. Though these subjects are relevant, the way Computer Science is studied at University level is quite different from the way it is studied at school.
Also relevant are the A level Maths modules in Discrete Maths or Decision Maths; but again, the way we study these topics at University level goes far beyond what you will have done at school, so it's no particular advantage to have done these modules. On the other hand, if the sort of questions raised by these topics excite your interest, then perhaps Computer Science is the subject for you.
Do I need Further Maths?
As explained in the open day talks, Computing is a mathematical subject, especially in the way we approach it at Oxford. So you will need to know some mathematics, and more importantly, to have developed your ability in mathematical thinking. We think doing both Maths and Further Maths to A2 is the best way of doing this, but we recognise that some schools are unable to offer this combination, and we recognise too that some candidates come late to the realisation that Mathematics at a more advanced level is a rich and fascinating way of viewing the world, too late to change subject choices they have already made.
So whilst double Maths is a good combination of A levels for us, we are more than willing to consider applications from people with a single Maths A level, with or without Further Maths to AS level. However, if candidates are studying Further Maths to AS or A2 level, then we will expect them to do well in them.
We can't accept applications from people who are not taking at least Mathematics to A2 level, but for those who are not taking Further Mathematics to A2, there are resources to help with the transition from school to university Mathematics.
I haven’t previously studied Philosophy or Computer Science – do I stand a chance of getting onto the joint degree?
Computer Science and Philosophy can be studied at Oxford without requiring any previous qualifications in either subject. Students who like the idea of doing Philosophy with a broadly scientific focus can apply, even if they have never previously studied either discipline.
Candidates are expected to have Mathematics to A-level (A grade), Advanced Higher (A grade), or Higher Level in the IB (score 7) or another equivalent. Further Mathematics and/or a science would also be highly recommended. Recent experience of writing essays, though by no means essential, would be helpful. See further information on conditional offers above, and the Faculty of Philosophy's admissions information.
Are my GCSEs good enough?
We have no minimum standard for GCSEs. Successful candidates average about five A*s, but some have fewer: a few even have no A*s (although such candidates will need to persuade us that they're better than their results suggest).
The application process
I'd like to find out a bit more about Computer Science. Can you suggest anything?
We encourage you to read any relevant materials that you find interesting. Some suggestions are provided to get you started.
Where can I find out about the cost of doing a degree, any scholarships available, etc?
The University’s main website provides information and advice to prospective students from both the UK and overseas about fees payable for University tuition, and to the college, living costs, and sources of funding at the University of Oxford. There is also a useful YouTube video on the subject.
The cost of studying is an increasingly important consideration when applying to university. In October 2010 “Securing a sustainable future for higher education” was published. This report, also known as the Browne Review, recommended changes to the way all universities in the UK are funded. Following the release of this publication and the government’s comprehensive spending review, we are envisaging significant changes to the funding arrangements for all universities in the UK.
Information on fees and funding can be found on the central admissions website. If you have any questions about funding that aren’t answered in these pages please contact email@example.com You can also find details of student funding arrangements on the government website.
Irrespective of the financial arrangements, the University of Oxford remains committed to ensuring that UK students with the talent and academic ability to obtain a place are able to attend Oxford regardless of their background.
Which colleges offer Computer Science? Which should I choose?
Is there anything my headteacher should mention in his or her reference?
Where results achieved at examination in the past are at variance with a candidate's potential or with estimated grades (especially where AS grades do not agree with estimates for A2), it is very helpful if referees can comment on this; otherwise, we will have difficulty in deciding how much weight to give to the estimates.
UCAS provides some helpful guidance on what should be included in the reference.
Is the Aptitude Test for Computer Science important?
The MAT is useful to us in selecting the candidates with the best ability, but (especially for Computer Science) it is not the last word. Broadly speaking, a very good result on the test helps us to be sure that you have the mathematical ability you need to make a success of the Oxford course in Computer Science; a middle-ranking result doesn't have much significance one way or the other; and a very poor result tends to confirm other evidence we will have that your Maths is weaker than other candidates. So in all cases, we use the Aptitude Test to confirm the conclusions we have reached from other sources.
Although the MAT test (sometimes called the Maths Test or Aptitude Test or Admissions Test) covers only the common core of all Maths A level syllabuses, we recognise that different candidates will have covered different parts of their syllabus by the time they take the test, and that candidates studying only one Maths A level will be at a disadvantage compared to those who are taking Further Maths.
Tutors have access to the scripts and the marks for individual questions. We know that even the best students can make the odd slip under pressure. For example, if a student showed insight in answering a question; taking their workings in the right direction, but not ultimately getting the correct answer, both the markers and tutor reviewing the application would want to give credit for that. For borderline students, the test scripts can be quite revealing, and can tip the balance in either direction.
Don't forget: you need to register with The Admissions Testing Service in order to sit the MAT. This is a separate process from submitting a UCAS application form. But the deadline is the same for both.
Does everyone who applies to do one of the undergraduate Oxford Computer Science courses sit the Aptitude Test? Do I need to fill out any extra paper work, in addition to the UCAS form?
Everyone who applies sits the MAT. (It's sometimes called the Aptitude Test, Maths Admissions Test or the Maths Test.) You do need to register for it directly with The Admissions Testing Service who administer the test for us, in addition to filling out an application form via UCAS. You need to register to sit the Aptitude Test by October 15 - the same deadline as for the UCAS form. See this Cambridge Assessment page for details.
Are extra-curriuclar activities important?
Tutors make the admissions decisions based on your academic abilities and potential alone: extra-curricular activities do not form part of the selection criteria in any subject. But that's not to say we don't want to hear about your computing- and maths-related experiences. They can help us build an overall picture about you.
Having climbed Mount Kilimanjaro for your Duke of Edinburgh will undoubtedly make you a more interesting person, but it probably isn't going to make you a better (potential) computer scientist. It's extremely unlikely that having this on your CV would make the difference between you gaining a place or not. However, if you are achieving excellent grades in relevant subjects,and you have the time to excel in something else on the side, we will notice your ability to balance your time between studies and other activities.
Use the Personal Statement on your UCAS form to tell us why you are committed to studying your chosen subject at university. We aren't looking for any specific computing knowledge, but we are looking for people with a genuine interest in the subject. Use something(s) related to maths or computing that you have done to demonstrate your passion for the subject, and help convince us of your commitment. We don't have a checklist of things we want you to have completed: we'd rather hear about what you've chosen to do, and what excited you about it. It doesn't have to be earth-shatteringly original, but aim to make us remember your application even after we have read a pile of others: then we'll be looking forward to meeting you at the interview.
Having said this, your UCAS form is read by all the Universities that you apply to, and some of them will put considerably more emphasis on your extra-curricular activities that we do, and we will be aware of that when we read your form.
The University's prospectus says I need to submit written work to apply to the Philosophy and Computer Science course. This website says I don't. Which one is correct?
We have simplified the admissions process for this course. Contrary to what was published in the University prospectus, students applying for Philosophy and Computer Science will not need to submit written work.
You will need to undertake the Aptitude Test for Computer Science.
I'm at an FE college: can I apply?
Yes! We don't mind what kind of school or college you are attending when you apply. Oxford tutors tend to talk about 'schools' when they should say 'schools or colleges' – that's just because the majority of our applications do (as it happens) come from people attending schools rather than colleges, so it's easy for us to slip into that way of talking. Also, the word 'college' means something different to us, because we so often talk about the colleges that make up the university here. Please don't be offended, or think that we're trying to exclude you.
All that matters to us in assessing an application is whether the candidate would do well if they came to Oxford. That means we're looking for highly motivated, able people with a lot of potential. Ability has to be developed by having studied in a way that is a suitable preparation for university-level academic work, but it encompasses the ability to work in an organised and independent way just as much as narrow ability in specific subjects.
Do you have any resources for international students thinking about applying?
The University's main website contains lots of useful information specifically for international students covering everything from visas to finance.
Can I transfer to Oxford from another university?
Our undergraduate courses last three or four years, and we normally only admit new students into the first year. Direct entry into the second year is possible only in exceptional circumstances, for example, when the candidate has already completed a degree from another university. This is referred to as senior status
I've been offered a place. Is there anything preparatory work I can do over the summer?
Yes, we've got some recommended reading that you could do during the summer break, before starting an Oxford Computer Science course. You do not necessarily need to purchase these – your local library can probably help, and there will be copies available in your College library once you get to Oxford.
What are tutors looking for?
In three words: ability, potential and commitment.
We are not looking for candidates with any specific knowledge about computers.
We do look for an interest in computing and a curiosity about the way computers and computer programs work that will support you through your three or four years of study. Most people nowadays have opportunities to work with computers at home or school, and we expect you to have taken these opportunities and to be able to talk enthusiastically about your experiences.
For those applying for the joint course with Philosophy, Philosophy interviews are often orientated by the student's interest (e.g. what they've said on the personal statement). You will also need to demonstrate a critical and analytical approach to abstract questions, the ability to defend a viewpoint by reasoned argument, and a desire to delve deeper into the way we think about things. For further information see the Faculty of Philosophy website
How do you select the successful applicants?
We use everything we know about you. That includes:
- your performance across a range of subjects at GCSE (or equivalent),
- your AS level or module results if you have any,
- your personal statement on the UCAS form,
- the confidential reference (and estimated grades for future exams) on the UCAS form,
- your performance in the Aptitude Test,
- your performance in the interviews at your college of first choice and at a second college.
We are trying to reach a self-consistent picture of your ability, so we are always willing to ignore one or more factors in which you have performed badly, provided we can convince ourselves that other factors give a fairer impression of what you can do. That means, for example, that a bad Aptitude Test or a disastrous interview won't rule your application out of court.
The formal admissions criteria for Computer Science and for Mathematics and Computer Science (with other subjects in the Mathematical Sciences Group) are specified on a separate page.
What kind of questions do you ask at the interview?
Our interviews are always a kind of mini-tutorial, where the tutor and (potential) student discuss a problem and try together to find a way of solving it. There's a list of sample interview problems on this site, together with a sample interview that shows the kind of dialogue we hope to have with you.
In common with most science subjects, we don't use general interviews about the books you have read or items in the news: experience tells us that that kind of interview does not help us to select the candidates who will do best at Oxford.
How can I prepare for the interview?
Pick any topic in Maths, Computing or Science; arrange to meet with a friend or an older person -- a parent or teacher -- for half an hour, and explain the topic to them. Be ready to answer their questions at the end, or to explain something again if it wasn't clear the first time. This will get you used to explaining technical ideas using the spoken word. In some ways, it's best if your partner doesn't know very much about the subject you are talking about, because that will force you to be clear in your explanations. It's also good to do this with someone you don't know very well, because that will get you used to explaining things to strangers.
If you have the chance to do a worked example on the board during a Maths lesson, then do that too. It's disorienting at first to stand at the board and present your solution in front of an audience, and you might loose the thread, but it will get you used to staying calm in an unfamiliar situation.
Why do I have interviews in two different colleges?
Different colleges offer different numbers of places for each subject, and they get different numbers of applications through random fluctuations. We aim to ensure that each applicant has an equal chance of a place at Oxford, no matter which college they have chosen or been allocated following an 'open' application. To this end, each candidate is allocated a list of three colleges who will consider their application; this is done in such a way as to even out the number of applicants for each place.
Typically, you will have two interviews in your host college on Monday or Tuesday of the admissions week, and you will be invited to go to another college for an interview on the Tuesday (though these timings can vary depending on individual interviewing schedules). Grades and comments from the interviews, together with test scores and an assessment of your UCAS form, are entered into a central list. Tutors who have settled on particular candidates mark this fact on the list, and other tutors use the list to identify candidates who have done well in the interviews but are not yet settled. You will certainly be seen by a second college, but tutors from your third or even a fourth college may ask to see you on Tuesday or Wednesday morning.
Being invited to these extra interviews is a good sign: it shows that you have done well enough in the process so far to be seriously considered for a place. On the other hand, having interviews at just two colleges is not a bad sign: if the tutor at your host college has indicated that you will certainly be offered a place there, then tutors at other colleges will not want to see you.
I’m applying for a joint degree - will I get separate interviews for Computer Science and Philosophy/Maths?
The situation differs slightly between colleges, and can vary from one interview to another. You may have single-subject interviews, so that it is obvious which is ‘the Philosophy interview’ and which is ‘the Computer Science interview’. Or there may be an interview with tutors from both disciplines. It is not entirely unknown for candidates to have two interviews in each of two or more colleges. Think of them as additional opportunities to show what you can do. Interviews may be with two or three tutors, who may be from the same or different subjects; but occasionally, interviews may be with one tutor.
Reputation and size
How does Oxford perform in the league tables?
Oxford consistently scores amongst the very best Computer Science departments in the world, for both teaching and research.
- Oxford tops the Sunday Times University Guide for Computer Science (website behind a paywall.)
- The Complete University Guide (formerly known as The Good University Guide) places Oxford second (97.4/100) for Computer Science in 2013.
- The latest Times Good University Guide places Oxford third. (The data is behind a paywall.)
- We are recognised as the best Computer Science institution in Europe in the Academic Ranking of World Universities
At a university-wide level, in 2012 Oxford topped the theTimes university league table.
The Times Higher Education World Rankings for 2011-12, puts Oxford second in the UK, seventh in the world for Engineering & Technology. That's up one place on last year.
What do the current students think of the courses?
We consistently receive positive feedback from our students and they tell us we’re improving all the time. But don’t just take our word for it. The National Student Survey is an independent census of students in the final year of a course leading to undergraduate credits or qualifications at universities across the UK. These are some of the latest scores from Oxford Computer Science students:
- Overall score for course teaching of 96% - up from 92% last year.
- 96% of students felt the staff made the subject interesting and are enthusiastic about what they are teaching.
- 100% found the course intellectually stimulating.
- 96% received sufficient advice and support with their studies, and had been able to contact staff when they needed to.
- 100% said the library resource and services were enough for their needs, and that they had been able to access IT resources and specialised equipment, facilities and rooms when they needed to.
How big is the Department?
There are currently around 140 undergraduates, split roughly equally between the Computer Science and the Mathematics and Computer Science degrees. The first students in a new undergraduate degree in Computer Science and Philosophy will start in 2012.
There are two full-time taught postgraduate courses: the MSc in Computer Science (approx 50 students) and the MSc in Mathematics and the Foundations of Computer Science (approx 15 students). Two part-time postgraduate programmes for professionals are also offered: the MSc in Software Engineering (approx 240 students) and the MSc in Software and Systems Security (approx 45 students).
The Department's doctoral programme has over 140 research students (studying for a DPhil - the Oxford term for a PhD) working across a wide range of subjects in Computer Science and Software Engineering. The Department is also home to around 145 academic and research staff. You can find out more about our people and our history on the main Department website.
Employment prospects and industry experience
What would my employment prospects be like with an Oxford Computer Science degree?
Our graduate and postgraduate employment rates are excellent. A 2010 survey of Oxford computer science graduates by the Careers Service showed that:
- 70% of 2007/8 graduates had gone on to work; 9% to a combination of work and study; and 17% to further academic pursuits. No Department of Computer Science undergraduates or postgraduates went to non-graduate occupations
- Oxford Computer Science students mostly became software professionals, computer programmers, entered the finance sector, or embarked on academic/research careers
- The average annual salary of graduates of the Department of Computer Science (or the Computing Laboratory as it was known then) who finished their studies in the 2007/8 academic year was £31,000. (The average across the whole University was £26,100.)
The Computer Science and Philosophy degree is new for 2012, but graduates of this degree will have highly marketable skills. Computer Science teaches you how to program computers, and how to design processes that are effective and efficient. Philosophy teaches you how to analyse complex concepts and the interconnections between them and - crucially - how to express this analysis, elegantly and precisely, in written form. Graduates of this degree will be able to program, to reason logically and formally, to analyse complex issues both technical and discursive, and to write clear and coherent prose. They will have the intellectual equipment needed for technical leadership and high-level positions in today's highly complex world.
Will I get industry experience and make useful contacts?
We don’t offer an industrial placement year as part of an Oxford Computer Science degree. However, if you're looking to get experience of industry or to make industry contacts, than you are exceptionally well-placed to do so at Oxford. For example:
- As a student here, you will regularly hear about all sorts of job and internship opportunities and many of our students spend the summer vacation in industrial placements, which the Department can often help to facilitate. We have a dedicated Industry Liaison website where companies post their relevant vacancies.
- The Careers Service offers events throughout the year featuring relevant companies, and for the first time in February 2011, we ran a dedicated IT careers fair here in the department. The event attracted around 30 employers, all wanting to recruit our students for internships or graduate opportunities. We are currently planning the 2012 event. We also regularly host career and IT-related talks by industrial representatives – Sophos and Google are recent examples.
- Various companies sponsor our annual student prizes. For the first time in 2011, 2nd year students had the opportunity to work on a practical group project, which was supported by IBM, Microsoft, Samsung and Ocado.
- The Computer Science Department is home to a wide variety of research projects – many of them being carried out in conjunction with industry partners. Example collaborations include with: Intel, BT, Microsoft, Yahoo!, Google, Boeing, Fujitsu, Philips, NASA and Airbus.
- We run an annual "industry event" where industry representatives come in to meet staff and students and find out what areas the Department is working on.