Changes to the Oxford PAT syllabus

The PAT syllabus comes with the health warning “revised 24 February 2014” at the top. You should be aware of the changes to the syllabus when you are going through the past paper, so that you don’t spend too much time looking at things that aren’t going to get asked in the actual test.

Using the wayback engine it is possible to compare the current syllabus with the old one, to see exactly what has changed. In summary: the Maths syllabus hasn’t changed at all; the Physics syllabus has been slimmed down and made more mathematical.  Areas with relatively increased emphasis, and where you can expect more questions in future, are

  • Mechanics.  The mechanics paragraph itself hasn’t changed much apart from the addition of conservation of momentum (which was always implicitly there anyway). But if you look at the ‘natural world’ paragraph, you can see that it is now dominated by the sentence about circular orbits, which is just applied mechanics.
  • Waves and optics. All the phrases ‘mathematical treatment not required’ have been removed.  This means that there will be more mathematical questions dealing with refractive indices, total internal reflection, and presumably the ‘colour splitting’ effects that result from changes of refractive index with frequency.
  • Electricity and magnetism. The phrase ‘mathematical treatment not required’ has been removed from the section about electrostatic and magnetic forces.  I assume this means that you will need to be able to deal mathematically with the effect of electric and magnetic fields on a moving charge, which is another way of bringing in mechanics into the questions.

These three topics take up the whole syllabus apart from ‘problem solving’, and the rest of the ‘natural world’ topic (atomic structure; structure of the solar system; phases of the moon and eclipses; satellites; geostationary and polar orbits).

Areas that have been removed are:

  • Everything to do with nuclear physics and radioactive decay.
  • Everything to do with thermal properties of matter (e.g. gas laws, heat capacity, expansion).

If you want the full details, below we have the 2015 syllabus with the additions since 2012 in bold and the deleted sections since 2012 in strikethrough.

Syllabus for Part A of the aptitude test (mathematics for physics)

Elementary mathematics: knowledge of elementary mathematics, in particular topics in arithmetic, geometry including coordinate geometry, and probability, will be assumed.

Algebra: properties of polynomials, including the solution of quadratics. Graph sketching and transformations of variables. Inequalities and their solution. Elementary trigonometry including relationships between sin, cos and tan (sum and difference formulae will be stated if required). Properties of logarithms and exponentials. Arithmetic and geometric progressions and the binomial expansion.

Calculus: differentiation and integration of polynomials including fractional and negative powers. Differentiation as finding the slope of a curve, and the location of maxima, minima and points of inflection. Integration as the reverse of differentiation and as finding the area under a curve. Simplifying integrals by symmetry arguments.

Physics: knowledge of elementary physics will be assumed. Questions may require the manipulation of mathematical expressions in a physical context.

Syllabus for Part B of the aptitude test (physics)

Mechanics: distance, velocity, speed, acceleration, and the relationships between them. Interpretation of graphs. Response to forces; Newton’s laws of motion; weight and mass; addition of forces; circular motion. Friction, air resistance, and terminal velocity. Levers, pulleys and other elementary machines. Springs and Hooke’s law. Kinetic and potential energy and their inter-conversion; other forms of energy; conservation of energy and momentum; power and work.

Waves and optics: longitudinal and transverse waves; amplitude, frequency, period, wavelength and speed, and the relationships between them. Basic properties of the electromagnetic spectrum. Reflection at plane mirrors. Refraction and elementary properties of prisms and lenses including total internal reflection (mathematical treatment not required). Elementary understanding of interference and diffraction (mathematical treatment not required).

Electricity and magnetism: current, voltage (potential difference), charge, resistance; relationships between them and links to energy and power. Elementary circuits including batteries, wires, resistors, filament lamps, diodes, capacitors, light dependent resistors and thermistors; series and parallel circuits. Elementary electrostatic forces and magnetism (mathematical treatment not required). Links between electricity and magnetism; electromagnets, motors, generators and transformers. Current as a flow of electrons; thermionic emission and energy of accelerated electron beams.

Natural world: atomic and nuclear structure; properties of alpha, beta and gamma radiation; half lives. Nuclear fission. Structure of the solar system. Phases of the moon and eclipses. Elementary treatment of circular orbits under gravity including orbital speed, radius, period, centripetal acceleration, and gravitational centripetal force. Satellites; geostationary and polar orbits. Elementary properties of solids, liquids and gases including responses to pressure and temperature.

Mathematics: knowledge of elementary mathematics will be assumed. Questions may require the manipulation of mathematical expressions in a physical context.

Problem solving: problems may be set which require problem solving based on information provided rather than knowledge about a topic.


32 thoughts on “Changes to the Oxford PAT syllabus

  1. Hey, whats your gut feeling towards the questions that are going to be asked this year? More questions related to possibly what topic? And last, will there still be questions where they give you like 5 facts about ants and you have to find their masses.

    1. Integration by substitution
      Graph sketching
      Archimedes principle
      Five multiple choice questions, all about the solar system
      Circular motion
      Plane mirrors
      Chain rule
      Collision between two satellites, one in a geostationary orbit, and one in a polar orbit

      Yes I am joking, sorry. I’m afraid I literally haven’t a clue what subjects will come up. But not to worry, if you are familiar with the material covered in previous papers and you keep calm and think carefully, then you’ll do fine.

  2. Hi,

    Thank you very much for the website! It is extremely helpful to me.
    I noticed that on the oxford physics site it says :Refraction and elementary properties of prisms and optical fibres including total internal reflection. Does this mean that lenses are not in the syllabus anymore?

    1. Hi — thanks very much for your comment; it’s really useful. You are absolutely right — when the syllabus changed, “lenses” was changed to “optical fibres”, so you don’t have to know about lenses. What this really mean, I think, is that you need to have a good understanding of Snell’s law — if you do then the behaviour of prisms and optical fibres is easy to derive.

    1. I can’t recall a PAT question that requires integration by parts. Also, it generally takes quite a lot of practice to spot when it’s best to use this technique, so if I were you I wouldn’t bother: for the sake of a couple of marks (and probably no marks at all) you would need to do a lot of learning and practice.

  3. Hey thank you for your information in term of preparation for PAT.

    I just want to know how much do we need to know about eclipse and phase of moons. Since they are not usually at Alevel spec. E.g.2009 question 15.

    1. You should know all the phases of the moon and have knowledge of eclipses e.g. familiar with terms umbra, penumbra etc. As you’ve pointed out there have been questions on it and it is possible they will appear again. Although it is a very small part of the syllabus so no need to stress

  4. Hey thank you for your site! It is really helpful for me in term of preparation for PAT.

    How much do you think we need to know about electrostatic force,magnetism, electromagent, generator and motor? This is because we haven’t get a chance to cover it all yet at school.

    1. Good question. If you look at the ‘Questions abut Electricity’ section you’ll see there have been very few questions that touch on electromagnets, generators, motors and magnetism. There have been questions that refer to the fact that the force between two charges is proportional to Q1Q2/R², but even then you are generally given the equation. So I would not worry too much if you haven’t covered these subjects.

      In general, I wouldn’t worry about trying to learn bits of syllabus that you haven’t covered, apart from the ones related to mechanics (especially circular motion, which I’ve added some material on already).

  5. Hey

    Do you think we need to know about self inductance? I always have a bit of trouble understanding that concept

  6. According to you, what’s the best method to find tangents from a point to a circle? This is assuming only the equation of the circle and the point itself are known. Could you use calculus here or what?

    1. I tend to like using geometric methods because they sometimes work out very cleanly, but if you want a completely general method you should construct two equations (one for the circle, and one for a line going through the point) and combine them to generate a single quadratic equation. Then you can find the conditions for the discriminant of the quadratic to be zero, and substitute the values back in to the line equation.

      For example, the equation of a line going through a known point (X,Y) is (y-Y) = m(x-X), where m is the unknown gradient. The equation of a circle centred at a known point (A,B), with a known radius R is (x-A)² + (y-B)² = R². From the line equation you can see that y-B = m(x-X) + Y – B, so therefore (x-A)² + (m(x-X) + Y – B)² = R². Rearrange this to the form of ax² + bx + c = 0, and find the conditions when b² – 4ac = 0. This will give you another quadratic equation which you can solve for m. Substitute each value of m back into the line equation, and you will get the equations of the two lines that meet the circle at a tangent. Notice that if your point is inside the circle, you’ll get no solutions for m in the second quadratic, if the point is on the circle you’ll get one, and if the point is outside the circle you’ll get two.

      1. Dear Anonymous

        Thank you ever so much for your amazingly helpful website. I also seem to struggle with finding the tangents to a circle from a point, and while your explanation is relatively simple, I don’t quite understand how you got y-B = m(x-X) + Y – B from the two equations? Could you please help at all?



        1. It’s a pleasure — I’m glad it’s useful.

          I didn’t actually get y-B = m(x-X) + Y – B from the two equations. It just follows from the equation of the line. We’ve established that the equation of a line going through a known point (X,Y) is (y-Y) = m(x-X), where m is the unknown gradient. Now, if we add (Y-B) to both sides, we get (y-Y)+(Y-B) = m(x-X) + (Y-B), and therefore y – B = m(x-X) + Y – B. It’s just some algebraic fiddling around so that we can substitute for y – B in the circle equation.

          1. That makes sense now! I don’t know how I didn’t see that before. I got really confused with the upper and lowercase Ys!

            Thank you for the super quick reply and your time.


    1. I don’t really know, but to be honest I don’t know those equations off the top of my head.

      It’s best really to focus on problem solving rather than remembering equations. You should understand what diffraction is and how interference works, and given that knowledge you should be able to derive any results that you need relating to slit systems.

  7. Hi, do you think any knowledge on stationary waves is necessary? Also thank you very much for this website, I have found it extremely useful in preparing for the PAT!

    1. I don’t think you need to understand anything in particular about stationary waves. I guess it’s useful to know that the wavelengths of possible stationary waves are determined by the length of the string (or tube), but I think you’ll probably be able to work out anything like that from first principles in the test.

    1. I think that if you do all those then you will probably have done enough practice. If you feel you need to do some more revision on specific subjects then try using A2 physics questions about the relevant topic. Just search for ‘physics A2 past papers’, but only bother if you feel you need to improve your understanding of some topics.

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