Students hoping for a place at Oxford University may cram their minds full of knowledge to cope with intellectually searching interviews. When the questions come, though, they can be left baffled for a response.
This year has been no exception, with interview teasers including “Why do animals have stripes?”, “Why do human beings have two eyes?” and “Does poetry have to be difficult?”
Potential history undergraduates were asked: “Imagine we had no records about the past at all except everything to do with sport – how much of the past could we find out about?”
Or try: “Why are strawberries and ladybirds both red?” The point, according to Mike Nicholson, director of undergraduate admissions at Oxford, is that there are no right or wrong answers to the questions.
“The interviews are an academic conversation in a subject area between tutors and candidate, similar to an undergraduate tutorial,” he said. “And, like tutorials, the interviews are designed to push students to think, not recite specific facts or answers.” At St Anne’s College, Martin Speight, who asked science students about animal stripes, added: “I’m just interested in candidates’ speculations about the advantages of having stripes.”
Lucinda Rumsey, of Mansfield College, defended asking potential English students – in the wake of JK Rowling’s new novel for adults – what the differences were between writing for children and for adults.
“I worry that not all candidates might have the same access to a wide range of literature. If I asked that question about Shakespeare some candidates might have a view of his literary output but many wouldn’t. If I start with Harry Potter, everyone at least has a starting point of recognition.
“And I think Rowling deserves a mention as I am sure that there are many people applying to study English at university this year who became avid readers because of her books.”
Oxford’s decision to lift the lid on interview questions comes as the deadline for applying for some of its most prestigious courses in medicine and veterinary science expires this weekend.Reuse content