Applying to Balliol College - Oxford University

Founded in 1263, Balliol is one of Oxford University’s oldest colleges; the oldest academic institution in the English-speaking world still on its original site; and almost certainly the oldest co-founded by a woman anywhere. Balliol is also one of Oxford’s largest colleges. Led by the Master, the Balliol community consists of about 70 Fellows. Many of these are Tutorial Fellows who, with the College Lecturers, teach around 370 undergraduate students; about the same number of students read for graduate degrees. There are also about 120 non-academic staff. The College is run by those Fellows who form its Governing Body, through a system of committees composed of Fellows, students and staff.

Why did you choose Balliol?

For my subject (Law), I had the impression that Oxford had a better reputation and record of results. In addition, after visiting Oxford I found I liked the atmosphere of the city and university. Looking at the information available for the various colleges, and decided what I was looking for (old or new college? large or small? etc). After that, I felt Balliol suited me best. I had heard that applying to a specific college doesn't negatively affect your chances and so I thought it best to make a choice, rather than submit an open application and leave it to fate. (Profile 799)

I made a list of colleges and looked at the following criteria: location [OK, so it may seem superficial - but who wants to be miles away from civilization in LMH?]; number of tutors for my course [more tutors means more tuition can be done in college - more convenient]; number of places [wouldn't like to be the only person doing my course]; applications per place [no point in making things unnecessarily hard; case in point is Keble, which (since it's right next to the Maths Institute) has a stupidly high ratio, totally undeserved by the college as a whole]; size of college [personally, I'd avoid the very small ones]; library [size and opening hours - nothing more frustrating than starting an essay at night and being unable to get the books out]; accommodation [how many years can you live in college? living out can be a hassle (and more expensive, too)].

Having considered all that lot, Balliol emerged at the top. It's great for Philosophy (we have 3 people doing Maths & Philosophy, 5 doing Physics & Philosophy, and many many PPE-ists - about 13, I think.) I have, of course, since found out that Balliol just /is/ the best college. (Profile 472)

I stayed here during the week of the open days. My maths teacher went to Balliol and on my work experience I spoke to the physics tutors and to some students, one in particular who went to my school, he was loving it there and recommended it to me. (Profile 447)

Has the reputation for being the best at PPE and among the top few academically - also has excellent facilities (although the state of the website last year nearly scared me off! Thankfully they've changed it...a bit.) (Profile 114)

What was your general impression of Balliol and any other colleges you visited?

The colleges were very pretty and quaint and I loved the cozy feel of the town. My [mom] dropped me off for my interviews as I'm an international student, and she roamed around the stores while I socialized and interviewed. There were lots of nice coffee shops, some fast food chains and a small shopping centre. Balliol and Hertford are both very close to each other, located right in the centre of Oxford. Balliol was about 100 metres from what seemed to be the main shopping district. (Profile 1044)

Balliol is a good looking college - not as beautiful as Magdalen or Christ Church, but attractive in its own way. The people are very friendly, and there's a nice feeling that just sort of permeates the place. (Profile 114)

A really strange experience being right in the heart of the city, being able to hear the bustle of the street, but being completely blocked from it until you step out the college gate. In general, lovely. Nice comfy JCR, tasty food, big open grassy areas. (Profile 820)

It was a lot more friendly and less intimidating than I had expected. It wasn't cliquey or formal and the atmosphere was pleasant without being condescending. (Profile 799)

Balliol is really cool, JCR is nice and the layout of the grounds is different from most colleges. Balliol is in a great place, really central. Other colleges I liked were Queens and Exeter (Profile 447)

Describe the day-to-day aspects of living in the college. If you stayed in college, how was the accommodation? How about the food?

- Accommodation: My room at Balliol was quite big, but basic. It had a large desk, a book case, wardrobe, handbasin, bed, a couple of chairs and a notice board. The shower was on the same floor. Balliol doesn't make you pay for your meals up front, which is good if you're on a tight budget (as most students are!) (Profile 183)

- Food: Canteen service at meal times. Everyone ate together in the big hall (like Harry Potter!). (Profile 820)

- Accomodation: My room was comfortable with a desk, chair and bed - a bit bigger than my room at school and with a sink. There was a shower and loo up the corridor. (Profile 1082)

- Accommodation: From talking to people, it seems that it varied quite a lot. The room I stayed in was slightly larger than an average hotel room, and wasn't en suite but had a wash basin. The bathroom was shared with out five other rooms, and there was also a shared pantry. Some of the other rooms are apparently quite a bit better, and worse. There was a modern canteen next to the main hall, which had a number of choices for every meal, including a vegetarian option. 

- Food: food there was very good. In the Junior Common Room there was another 'pantry' which was open for most of the day. (Profile 799)

- Accommodation: Freshers are mostly housed on the 3 staircases in the crappy-looking 60s-built addition to the college (to make room for which they demolished a Victorian part of the college, methinks). Rooms there are OK, but nothing to write home about. Facilities: the JCR and TV room are being entirely refurbished this Easter at a cost of about £20K, so they should be excellent when that's done. There are three washing machines and three tumble dryers, which doesn't sound like a lot but is actually enough. Our bar is one of, if not the, best in Oxford. It's student-run, so it's not run by tight money-grabbing bar stewards [groan...] like many other college bars are. (Profile 472)

- Food: Apparently it's quite expensive to eat in the halls.. and if you’re like me and you dont think money grows on trees it might be worthwhile to think about other catering choices. (Profile 447)

Any thoughts on the tutors/students at Balliol?

- Tutors: All of the interviewers were very welcoming, eager to listen to my ideas, and supportive in case I wasn't sure how to approach a question.

- Students: Very relaxed and welcoming. Happy to chill and have a chat with you. (Profile 1044)

- Tutors: I think the Balliol interviewers (one main tutor along with two lecturers) did everything they could to make the interview process as painless as possible. They were friendly and engaging and were kind enough to be encouraging throughout the interviews. I asked to be reminded of particular passages I couldn't recall immediately and, though I was embarrassed, they were understanding and did not dwell on my mistakes.

- Students: Helpful and informative. (Profile 1082)

- Tutors: Really friendly and easy to get on with. Obviously very enthusiastic about their subject, as all Oxbridge tutors will be! 

- Students: They seemed friendly, although I didn't really see a lot of them. They were all happy to help, or answer any questions. (Profile 183)

- Tutors: Friendly when you saw them around the college and friendly at the beginning and end of the interview, but as soon as we started talking economics, it got serious! 

- Students: Chatty and fun. A real mixture of people. (Profile 820)

Did you have to sit any pre-interview exams?

[Medicine] Yes, BMAT. Any questions I didn't know, I guessed, I ticked all of the ones I didn't know as A, or B etc (even though some of them have more options than others) I think it's better to do that as opposed to randomly ticking boxes, as you're more likely to get some of them right (probability wise). You won't have time to go back to consider any questions you missed out properly so work efficiently and move on if you can't answer a question. Also, do a plan for your essay as you only get one sheet of paper and I ended up filling mine with lots of crossing out! (Profile 882)

[Mathematics and Philosophy] I had to send in two pieces of work, so I gave an essay on Book 1 of Plato's Republic (which I wrote specifically for my application) and an essay I'd written for Greek on the Battle of Thermopylae. I was going on the assumption that my Maths would be OK, and that I needed to show them that I could think and write too. I have since learnt that they admit or reject joint schools Maths people on the basis of their Maths, because you can always change from (say) Maths & Philosophy to straight Maths if you can't hack the Philosophy. But I'd still recommend a couple of decent essays rather than a Maths coursework, so the Philosophy tutor puts in a good word for you. (Profile 472)

[Law] LNAT (National Admissions Test for Law) (Profile 799)

What questions were you asked during your interview(s)?

[Medicine] I had 4 interviews in total, and on the whole, I thought they had gone ok. This might sound sad, but the interviews are actually really fun, especially problem solving questions. I found my interviews at Balliol a lot more enjoyable and relaxed. They were more 'hands on', giving me graphs to analyse and instruments to look at and play with. My interviews at Worcester (randomly allocated college) were more formal and "interview-style".

I was asked questions to do with respiratory system (Balliol tutor Piers Nye is doing research into things involving respiration) and it involved analysing ECGs and graphs. I was also asked about X rays and how they work. At my second college, there were a few questions about genetics related diseases (tutor specialised in genetics and molecular biology, i think) and about the different types of diabetes and how you might increase your chances of getting it. In terms of ethics, there was a question about whether the NHS should operate on fat people, and what would I say to a patient who needed an operation but was overweight. (Profile 882)

[Biological Science] At Balliol I was questioned as to my favourite area of biology and the discussion centred around that, so I was fortunate in being able to lead the discussion into an area I knew a lot about. I was also given an article the previous night - in the interview I had to sum up the main points of the article. At Keble I was given electron microscope pictures to look at and was questioned on recently featured areas of biology such as BSE. (Profile 183)

[Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE)] Asked about I book I had read and something I wrote on my ps. Politics, my interests based. Second one was about the economic crisis. (Profile 1004)

Do you have any advice for future Balliol applicants in terms of preparation?

[Mathematics & Philosophy] Maths: Know your A-Level stuff. Be prepared to work things through in the interview - don't be afraid to write or say something because you think it might be wrong, because they want to see your thought processes: they want to see that you can go about problem-solving. They will handhold you a fair bit, and this doesn't mean they think you're an idiot. And do something outside the curriculum. Perhaps the easiest thing to do would be to find a first-year textbook on Analysis from a library and work through a couple of proofs in it. Make sure you know them thoroughly, so that when it comes to interview you can produce them - but don't, for God's sake, just memorize them. They want to see you /thinking/ as you do it. (The one I happened to have done is the convergence of (1 + 1/2 + 1/3 + 1/4 +... + 1/n) - ln n to 'gamma', which is about 0.577 IIRC.)

Philosophy: Do whatever you like. If you've done Philosophy A-level, they /will/ ask you specific questions (as happened to a friend of mine). If you haven't, just do some reading (Descartes is very readable, as is Plato's Republic (don't try to read it all; it'd be a waste of time)) to show that you have an interest. ["But," the cynic sneers, "surely if you're that interested in the subject you'll read books on it anyway?" Well, quite.] (Profile 472)

[Law] Look up all deadlines and course requirements well in advance, and comply with them as soon as possible.

If possible, arrange a mock interview with someone you don't know well personally, perhaps a head of Sixth Form. This will prepare you for the format of the interview and should make it easier to deal with the real thing. Unless your mock interviewer has specific knowledge of the Oxbridge admissions system, the actual questions will probably be nothing like the real thing, but it should get you into the right mindset.

Before the interview: Set generous margins for error in all travel arrangements to avoid panic. If you have a long journey it may be best to travel the day before and stay overnight.

Don't worry too much about doing reading in preparation. From my experience, the interviewers don't expect any specific subject knowledge (although this may only apply to subjects like Law that are not commonly done at A-Level) and you won't get much of a chance to use it. Try to relax so you can think clearly.

Have answers ready for 'stock' questions like "Why do you want to study ____?" These are normally asked at the start to put you at your ease, and won't make or break you, but giving a good answer will help calm you down and do better.

For the interview itself: Don't rush. Always allow yourself a little time to think about what you're going to say.

On the other hand, don't be so afraid of being 'wrong' that you don't say anything! You're allowed to change your mind. (Profile 799)