Politics, Philosophy, and Economics (PPE) is one of the most popular, and best-known, courses that you can read at Oxford.
It has been offered since 1921, and it’s rooted in the view that it’s helpful to approach problems in society from the perspectives of several complementary disciplines and frameworks.
PPE course is highly flexible—you study all three disciplines in the first year, but, after that, you can choose what interests you, and go into more depth there.
It also spans very different types of subjects. It includes philosophy as a basis for all your rigorous, logical thinking on different subjects, along with a source of reflections about ethics. You'll study politics as a way of understanding the institutions that govern us in society, and to help resolve problems associated with collective action. And economics gives you a way of understanding the contexts for political decisions.
You’ll study these three disciplines in two tutorials a week, where you present an essay and then intensively explore your arguments and their implications. These tutorials will be either one-on-one with your tutor, or with at most one or two other students. They are backed up by “labs” sessions that teach students the methodology of applied and computational statistics.
There also are lectures, too, which help you get a broader understanding of topics in the papers you are studying—and a great deal of reading and writing.
You have the option of dropping one of these three subjects in your second and third year (most people actually will do this)—or you can continue with all three. Of course, if you drop either politics or philosophy in your final year, you’ll be able to tell all your friends you managed to study PE at Oxford.
It’s useful to take maths as an A-level subject. In fact, in 2017, 95 per cent of successful applicants (who had done A-levels) had done maths to A-level.
Maths is helpful for the economics papers, for the first-year logic course in philosophy, and also for understanding data in politics.
Economics A-level is popular, too, with 54 per cent of successful applicants taking it. So is history, which 26 per cent of successful applicants had studied.
But international applicants, many of whom will apply with very different exams, have also done well—in fact, 60 of the 272 successful applicants in 2017 came from outside the EU.
Whether or not these are your particular A-level subjects, you might want to spend time doing extra reading and work in them.
There are sample interview questions for PPE here. Practise discussing these, and questions like them, both with friends with similar interests and in more formal practice interviews. Some applicants join debate societies, and others might work with tutors, but in any case you should be reading serious newspapers, including ones you don’t agree with.
The Thinking Skills Assessment (TSA)
Once you have actually submitted an application to read PPE, you will need to take an exam called the Thinking Skills Assessment—the TSA—at the end of October.
Oxford first introduced this test as the PPE exam, though now a number of courses use it.
It has two halves. You will do both.
The first paper is 90 minutes, and consists of 50 multiple-choice questions, testing your critical thinking and mathematical problem-solving skills. You get points for each correct answer, and don’t lose points for incorrect ones—so do answer everything.
One type of question in this section asks you to read a short passage, of around five sentences, then identify which of the sentences expresses the main conclusion of the extract. Other questions will ask you to identify flaws or central assumptions in a short argument. And there will be questions which engage your numerical and logical reasoning skills.
The second half of the TSA is a short writing exercise, where you will choose one of four essay questions, and show you can organise your ideas clearly and communicate them effectively. You have a half hour to write, and will only have these two pages available to you – so the premium is on clear, concise engagement with only the most important of the various issues you might discuss in a longer essay.
Recent questions in this essay sections have included whether humanism is a religion; if journalists should only be allowed to follow their profession if licensed to do so, like medical doctors; if government should impose a legal maximum ratio between the highest and lowest pay of individuals in companies; and if non-human animals have opinions, or beliefs.
The people reading your answers will want to see how well you have understood the question and what it demands of you. They will want to see if you can consider what an opponent might say, with a different point of view—and respond to that, in the context of the answer you’ve chosen. Take a side: waffles are for breakfast. And if you do answer ‘maybe’, you’ll want to give a strong answer for why the answer is highly contextual.
It’s important to practise both halves. Practising all the past papers, and under time pressure, is vital for earning as good a score on the day as you can.
(They are here, on the Cambridge Assessment website. Don’t worry about the name; you won’t accidentally be made to go to Cambridge.)
The TSA is important in gaining an interview. The other things Oxford takes most into consideration here are your GCSEs (which are assessed relative to your school—so have you underperformed or overperformed relative to your classmates), and your predicted A-levels.
If your score is high (71.7 or above in 2018), you will likely be asked for interview. If your score is between 69.2 and 71.6, you might be called for an interview. Under 69.1, and you probably only will receive an interview if there are special considerations of other factors.
It’s both a difficult exam—it’s designed to stretch you—and one where, as you can see, fairly tiny differences matter.
In recent years, about one in three (actually 36%) PPE applicants will get interviewed, and of those, one in three will be offered a place. So the odds are basically one in nine (though actually a little better, 1:8.5).
What you want to show in your interviews is that you understand the course, that you have a passion for the subjects involved, and that you are well suited to Oxford’s very unique tutorial style of teaching.
Your interviews will give you chances to show each of these things. Demonstrating that you’ve read (and thought about) beyond what was academically required of you because of your personal curiosity is a strong way to show that you’ve read and thought about the subjects you want to study.
Likewise, the tutors interviewing you will give you exercises, and possibly feed you new concepts, to give you a chance to demonstrate that you are teachable. Which means, of course, that you shouldn’t go in with an attitude that you already know everything there is to learn about your subjects—if so, why would you waste three years studying them at Oxford?
Similarly, try to be able to explain why reading politics, philosophy, and economics appeals to you. Don’t make them sound more important than they actually are—but show you understand the course and be able to give good reasons for why you want to study it. It would be a good idea to be able to explain, for instance, why you’d rather read PPE at Oxford than just philosophy or just economics at Cambridge.
You will want to show three things most of all, for PPE.
First, that you can be an independent and reflective student—this shows your motivation, interest, and your ability for sustained study.
Second, that you can reason well—that you can construct arguments and critically assess them, that you can be flexible in considering alternative views, and that you can assess what’s relevant in analysing a problem.
There normally isn’t a right or wrong answer to many of the questions you’ll be asked at interview, but the dons will be interested in how you justify yourself. And then how you handle the parameters of the questions changing, or being pushed to consider other cases. Stay focused on the question you’re asked.
Last is communication—that you can listen, take account of counter-arguments and new information, give considered responses, and express your ideas effectively both on paper and orally.
Basically, your interview is a mini-tutorial, and the people interviewing you will be very interested to learn how you think, and rather less interested to find out what you know.
Spend time working through the sample TSA papers, to get familiar with the format.
You’ll definitely get better at it with practice, and you’ll come across the same sorts of questions in each—and make sure you spend time, too, understanding where you’ve not got the correct answer the first time.
No matter what your route to prepare is, make sure you’re reading very broadly, and practising making arguments and defending yourself.
And above all, try to have fun. Challenging yourself, amazingly, is good fun, and you will do your best work when you are enjoying yourself. Good luck!