Preparing for a Physics Degree
It’s a strange time for everyone at the moment but if you were about to be sitting your A level exams in a month or so, I can’t imagine how much of a shock to the system it must have been to have them cancelled. You might now be worried that without them and with such a long break between Easter and the start of university at the end of September you need some way to keep up with your studies without the motivation of preparing for a big exam. In the summer before I started university, I had a similar concern so tried to do some things to stay on top of my academic progress before starting this new challenge so I thought it might be worth sharing my advice on what’s best to be doing now, specifically if you’re hoping to be studying physics at Warwick next year.
I’ll admit that it’s not easy to keep going with physics without the structure of a course to follow. That being said, there are online courses that you could be doing during this time and many of them are free. When I was at sixth form I would always check the FutureLearn website and I liked the look of a lot of their courses but never felt I had the time to do them. Well now a lot of people have nothing but time so I would suggest checking them out as well as other similar sites and consider taking a course at your own pace in this long break from education.
In physics we don’t get a reading week because, frankly, we’re not expected to read in quite the same way as other subjects are. However, while modern popular science books may skip over some of the details or mathematics of certain topics in physics to make it more accessible to a wider audience, I always found that reading these kinds of book about physics got me excited for the things I might learn at university and also helped me just to wrap my head around an idea before trying to learn it formally.
At school I did a project on the potential habitability of Mars and loved The Case for Mars by Robert Zubrin. This is more of an engineering book but it made me want to know everything about space and our Solar System in particular which lead nicely into this years Solar System module (PX279). My strongest recommendation would be The Feynman Lectures on Physics. Richard Feynman’s explanations can often make the most advance topics seem accessible and this is also a great introduction to a lecture based style of learning. I still consult the Feynman Lectures now and they haven’t let me down yet.
I don’t know if a teacher or lecturer would suggest this necessarily but I’d say that even reading science fiction can keep your interest in science alive and keep your mind curious about new ideas. There are ways to remain interested even away from the academic path.
Then I would suggest looking over certain areas of your A level studies before university. The first problems we had set for us in physics were questions on complex numbers. If you haven’t come across or aren’t so confident with using complex numbers, now would be a good time to get ahead on that. They come up all the time in physics.
The other area of maths that is worth considering in my opinion would be integration. I found that at sixth form I could do integration well enough to get through my exams but didn’t really understand what it was I was doing all the time. Often when you go into more detail on a subject during first year, I found that adding integration into the problem to go through it more formally was one of the biggest challenges.
More on the physics side there isn’t one area in particular that I would suggest needs more attention than any others. The first year gives you quite a broad overview of a range of areas in physics so it’s great as an introduction to university learning. If you can motivate yourself, it might not sound like the most exciting thing but going through A level past papers regardless of not having to sit the exam would still be a worthwhile investment of time in my opinion.
It is amazing these days how much you can discover in physics just from looking at youtube videos. It might not sound like the sort of advice you’d expect but I’d say that just going though random physics related videos on youtube can really get you fired up for a degree in the same way that reading an inspiring book could. If you are less of a reader then this might be something to look into. Just search a topic of interest and see where it leads you.
Really I would say that the most important thing right now is keeping your enthusiasm alive and remembering why you applied to university. It’s definitely helpful to do the occasional maths problem just to keep your head in the game but as long as your passion can survive this break you should be fine at university. In fact, with this long break you might find yourself desperate to learn in September and keen to get back to it so don’t give up on your subject just because school aren’t forcing you to look over it. and good luck.