Oxford University reveals how to answer some of its most difficult interview questions

Pupils hoping for a place at the UK's top university next year can expect to answer some slightly unusual questions during the interview process

Rachael Pells
Education Correspondent
Wednesday 12 October 2016 16:39 BST
Christ Church College, Oxford University
Christ Church College, Oxford University (iStock)

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Louise Thomas

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With application deadlines looming, many of the UK’s brightest students are beginning their preparations for Oxford University’s notoriously tough interview process.

But in bid to debunk the mystery that surrounds their undergraduate interviews, the top-ranking institution has released a set of sample questions to help applicants – and those who are simply curious – gain insight as to what they can expect.

The interviews vary of course depending on subject, but student hopefuls can expect questions to be cryptic, and deliberately open so as to encourage debate.

Oxford admissions officers admit the interview sessions will be an entirely new experience for many, and can be incredibly daunting even for those with the most confidence in their own abilities.

“We want to underscore that every question asked by our tutors has a purpose, and that purpose is to assess how students think about their subject and respond to new information or unfamiliar ideas,” says Samina Khan, Director of Admissions and Outreach at Oxford.

“No matter what kind of educational background or opportunities you have had, the interview should be an opportunity to show off your interest and ability in your chosen subject, since they are not about reciting what you already know”.

Indeed, the purpose of the interviews is as much about encouraging academic discussion and seeking out candidates with a logical mind as a test of the subject itself.

Dr Khan adds: ‘It’s important to remember that most interviews build on material students will have encountered in their studies or touch on areas candidates mention in their personal statements.

"Most commonly tutors will provide candidates with material to prompt discussion – for example a piece of text, an image, or a sample experiment whose results they are asked to consider.

"It is often best to start responding by making very obvious observations and build up discussion from there – solving the problem quickly is less important than showing how you use information and analysis to get there."

Here are the five example questions provided by the interviewers themselves – and the best ways to respond.

Q: What makes a novel or play ‘political’?

Subject: Modern Foreign Languages

According to Helen Swift, an interviewer from St Hilda’s College, this is the sort of question that could emerge from a student’s personal statement based on their engagement with literature and culture.

If they state a keen interest in a French play, for example, they might be asked about its political values.

The interviewer is then likely to test the extent of their intellectual curiosity by broadening the question and inviting the candidate to make comparisons between other works they’ve read or seen.

“So, in posing the overall question ‘what makes this political?’ we’d want the candidate to start thinking about what one means in applying the label: what aspects of a work does it evoke?” says Ms Swift.

“A strong candidate would show ready willingness and very good ability to engage and develop their ideas in conversation.

“It would be perfectly fine for someone to change their mind in the course of the discussion or come up with a thought that contradicted something they’d said before — we want people to think flexibly and be willing to consider different perspectives.”

Q. About 1 in 4 deaths in the UK is due to some form of cancer, yet in the Philippines the figure is only around 1 in 10. What factors might underlie this difference?

Subject: Medicine

This question, posed by Chris Norbury from the Queen’s College, is a typically open question with no single correct answer.

The discussion could take any one of a number of directions, according to the candidate’s personal interests, he says.

“Some candidates will ask useful clarifying questions, such as ‘Where do these data come from, and how reliable are they?’, or ‘What is the average life expectancy in these parts of the world?’,” says Mr Norbury.

“Some candidates will seize on the idea that various aspects of the typical lifestyle in the UK are inherently unhealthy, which can make for an interesting discussion in itself.

“This probes selection criteria including problem-solving, critical thinking, intellectual curiosity, communication skills, ability to listen and compatibility with the tutorial format.”

Q: What exactly do you think is involved in blaming someone?

Subject: PPE (and other philosophy courses)

“Questions like this help draw out a candidate’s ability to think carefully and precisely about a familiar concept, evaluating proposals, coming up with counter-examples, disentangling considerations, and being creative in proposing alternative approaches,” explains Ian Phillips, an interviewer for St Anne’s College.

Once again, the question does not require one “correct” answer, but rather provides a platform to test whether the candidate can be creative in coming up with examples and suggestions.

“So, for example,” says Mr Phillips, “many candidates start out by suggesting that for A to blame B, A would have to think that B had done something wrong.

“Many also make the point that B needn’t actually have done anything wrong. We can use this opening suggestion to consider a simple theory of blame: blame is just thinking that someone has done something wrong.

“When this is put to candidates, most recognize that blame seems to involve more than this.

“Good interviews will often generate all kinds of interesting and revealing discussions that show a candidate’s ability for analytical thought: for example about self-blame, cases of blame where the blamer knew the blamed had done nothing wrong, and indeed cases of blaming something inanimate (such as a faulty printer or phone).”

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Q: Imagine a ladder leaning against a vertical wall with its feet on the ground. The middle rung of the ladder has been painted a different colour on the side, so that we can see it when we look at the ladder from the side on. What shape does that middle rung trace out as the ladder falls to the floor?

Subject: Maths

According to Rebecca Cotton-Barrat of Christ Church college, this perhaps unusal question is actually a very good test of whether the candidate can think like a mathematician, for example by abstracting away unimportant information and using maths to represent what is really going on.

She says: “I’d initially ask the candidate what shape they think will be formed, and then ask them how they can test this hypothesis.

“They might initially try sketching the ladder at different stages – this is fine, but ultimately what we want is something that we can generalise and that is accurate.

"You can’t be sure that your drawing is that accurate, particularly when you’re making a sketch on a whiteboard and don’t have a ruler. So eventually they will fall back on maths, and try to model the situation using equations.

“This is a fun question because the answer is typically the opposite of what they expect because they think about the shape the ladder makes when it falls,” says Ms Cotton-Barrat.

For the record, the ladder would make a series of tangents to a curve centered away from the wall and the floor.

“A nice extension is what happens when we look at a point 1/3 or 2/3 up the ladder,” she adds.

Q: A large study appears to show that older siblings consistently score higher than younger siblings on IQ tests. Why would this be?

Subject: Experimental Psychology

This question, posed by Kate Watkins of St Anne’s College, asks students to think about several different aspects to psychology.

“We guide students when discussing it to think about both scientific factors such as maternal age (mothers are older when younger siblings are born - could that play a role?) and observational analysis about how birth order might affect behaviour and therefore performance on IQ tests,” explains Ms Watkins.

“It’s a great question because students begin from the point they are most comfortable with, and we gradually add more information to see how they respond.

“What we are interested in is the kinds of reasoning students use and the questions they ask about the study - what it takes into account, what it might not – that tells us about their suitability for the course.

“And of course it doesn’t matter if you have a sibling or not - though depending on family dynamics, that can add an interesting twist to the conversation.

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