Oxford University interview questions (and how to answer them)

How much of the past can you count?

8 questions you could face at an Oxford interview

Oxford University has released some sample interview questions to mark its admissions deadline closing this week.

Rather than having definitive answers, the questions are designed to see how applicants think and respond to new ideas and concepts, and how they draw from their previous educational experience to do so.

As Oxford's admissions chief, Dr Samina Khan, puts it: "We know there are still lots of myths about the Oxford interview, so we put as much information as possible out there to allow students to see behind the hype to the reality of the process."

With that in mind, here are some sample questions - and how to answer them...

1. History: How much of the past can you count?

Interviewer Stephen Tuck of Pembroke College says this question is designed to make applicants think about historical evidence and is geared towards those who have studied maths.

"In this case, the question gets at all sorts of issues relating to historical evidence. For which periods and places and aspects of the past is data readily available? When it's not, can it be collected, or at least estimated (and if so, how)? When it is available, is that data trustworthy? Is it sufficient? How might it be misleading (intentionally or unintentionally)? We might then probe the value of numerical evidence in a particular subject they have studied, for example agricultural yields in medieval Europe, crime rates in industrial England, or the profitability of American slavery -- and think about what other sources would be needed to make sense of the past," he said.

2. Biology: Why do some habitats support higher biodiversity than others?

Interviewer Owen Lewis of Brasenose College says this question is designed to make people think about nature and what different habitats have in common.

" In many cases, patterns or correlations can help us to identify the underlying mechanisms. For example, a student might point out that both rainforests and coral reefs are found in hot countries and near the equator. The best answers will attempt to unravel exactly what it is about being hot or near the equator that might allow numerous types of plant and animal to arise, persist and coexist," he says.

3. Experimental Psychology: An experiment appears to suggest Welsh speakers are worse at remembering phone numbers than English speakers. Why?

Interviewer Nick Yeung of University College says this question would not be given out of context but as part of a discussion of a psychology experiment.

Nick: This would never be given as a one-line question out of context -- it is one of a set of questions I ask students after showing them a psychology experiment case study with data about short-term memory in English and Welsh speakers.

"The key point is that numbers are spelled differently and are longer in Welsh than in English, and it turns out that memory (and arithmetic) depend on how easily pronounced the words are. I would hope the student would pick out this connection between memory and how easy to spell or pronounce a word is, and how that relates to spelling and pronunciation in Welsh versus in English," Yeung said.

4. Art History: Do you recognise this image?

Interviewer Geraldine Johnson of Christ Church says the correct answer is 'no' - they want students to look at new paintings and examine them.

"We want our candidates, many of whom have never studied Art History, to show us how they would begin to approach an image they have not previously encountered. We want to find out what questions a candidate would ask about a particular image: what is it made of? what is being depicted? What size might it be? For what purpose might it have originally been made? How could we try to figure out when it might have been produced, and by whom?," she said.

"We are less interested in hearing a "correct" answer than in seeing the thought process a candidate goes through in trying to analyze something he or she has never seen before."

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