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Oxford University Releases Interview Questions. Could You Get In?

17/10/2014 13:13 BST | Updated 17/10/2014 16:59 BST
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Think you could make it into Oxford University? Now's your time to prove it.

The institution, which is notoriously tricky to be accepted into, has released some of its infamously difficult interview questions.

Tutors stressed that there are no real right or wrong answers and claim that while thousands of interviews are packed into just two weeks it is rare to have a similar conversations twice.

Oxford’s interview process has long been shrouded in mystery and has been criticized for it’s over-dependence on them. It was hoped that encouraging admissions tutors to open up might help demystify new students.

According to Oxford’s official interview guide, tutors "want you to feel able to be yourself in the interview, and to allow you to demonstrate your skills and abilities".

One student who experienced the interview but wasn’t successful said: "I was asked lots of random questions about stuff I had no idea about and had never come across before.

"I had no idea what to expect and wasn’t prepared for it at all. I was just grilled by two people in a room for half an hour and they made me feel like an idiot. I still felt like crying three days after!"

In December the university will spend two weeks interviewing around 10,000 hopefuls, admitting only around a third of applicants.

Here are some of the questions - and answers:

Biological Sciences:

Why do some habitats support higher biodiversity than others?

This question encourages students to think about what high-diversity habitats such as rainforests and coral reefs 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. Do new species evolve more frequently there, or go extinct less frequently? Once students have come up with a plausible theory, I'd follow up by asking them how they would go about testing their idea. What sort of data would they need?

If you could save either the rainforests or the coral reefs, which would you choose?

I'd expect students to be able to use their general knowledge plus their common sense to come up with an answer – no detailed knowledge is required. Students might then be asked about the importance of natural features, such as biodiversity and rare species, and human interests, such as the fuel and food, ecotourism and medicines we get from rainforests or reefs. Finally there are impacts to consider from climate change, soil erosion, pollution, logging, biofuel replacement, overfishing, etc. The final answer doesn't matter – both reefs and rainforests must be managed sustainably to balance conservation and human needs.

Is it easier for organisms to live in the sea or on land?

Firstly candidates should define 'easier' – does it mean less complexity, less energy expenditure, less highly evolved, less likely to be eaten etc? Then candidates could think of problems caused by living in the sea, such as high salinity, high pressure, lack of light etc. Problems living on land include extra support for the body, avoiding desiccation, the need for more complex locomotory systems (legs, wings etc) and hence better sensory and nervous systems etc. Then ask in which of the two ecosystems have animals and plants been more successful? So now they have to define 'successful'...

English Literature:

Why do you think an English student might be interested in the fact that Coronation Street has been runing for 50 years?

First and foremost this brings popular culture into the mix and also shows that techniques of literary analysis can be applied to other media. It could also open up discussion about things such as techniques of storytelling; mixing humorous and serious storylines/ characters; how a writer might keep viewers or readers engaged; collaborative writing; the use of serialisation, and how writers/texts might move from being perceived as 'popular' (like Dickens, say) to be 'canonical'.

Geography:

If I were to visit the area where you live, what would I be interested in?

The question gives candidates an opportunity to apply concepts from their A level geography course to their home area. They might discuss urban planning and regeneration, ethnic segregation and migration, or issues of environmental management. The question probes whether they are able to apply ‘geographical thinking' to the everyday landscapes around them. It reveals the extent to which they have a curiosity about the world around them. By asking specifically about their home area the question eliminates any advantage gained by those who are more widely travelled and have more experience of a variety of geographical contexts.

History:

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?

I would say this to a candidate who had mentioned an interest in sport on their personal statement, though it could equally be applied to an interest in something else – like film, drama, or music. What I would be looking for is to see how the candidate might use their imagination, building on something they know about (probably much more than I do) to tackle questions of historical research.

Answers could relate to the racial/class/gender relations in society (who played the sports, and which sports, at any given time); international politics/empire (which countries were involved, did groups of countries play the same sport); economic development (the technological development of sports, how sport was watched); the values within a society (bloodthirsty sports to more genteel sports); health (participation rates); or many other issues – the list is long. I would usually ask supplementary questions, to push the students further – and often, I would have no answer in my mind, but would simply be interested in seeing how far the student could push their analysis.

Law:

What does it mean for someone to 'take' another's car?

There is no right answer to this question. For example, can you take a car without driving it, or even without moving it? Our focus is on the candidate's reasoning – how he or she formulates an initial definition, and how he or she then applies and refines that initial definition in response to hypothetical examples provided by the interviewers. One example might be: 'I am walking along the street when it starts to rain. I open the door of an unlocked car and sit there for 15 minutes until the rain passes. Have I ‘taken' the car?' The aim of the interview is to give the candidate a chance to show his or her application, reasoning ability, and communication skills.

Material Science:

How hot does the air have to be in a hot air balloon if I wanted to use it to lift an elephant?

When I actually used this question in interviews, no-one actually got as far as an actual 'X degrees C' answer in the ten minutes or so we allowed for it, nor did we expect them to. We use this sort of question to try to find how applicants think about problems, and how they might operate within a tutorial.

We make this clear to interviewees before even giving them questions of this type. Things we are looking for include how readily they can see into the core of a problem (what's the essential physics in this? – what concepts and equations might be useful?); how they respond to hints and suggestions from us (can they take a hint or two and run with it, or do they have to be dragged through every step?); their approach to basic concepts (how does a hot air balloon work, anyway? What else operates like one?); estimates (typical size of balloon, weight of elephant) and sorting out what's important (what about the weight of the balloon itself?); and how they use 'rough maths' to get a quick idea of the likely sort of answer, using sensible approximations in working through formulae, and keeping track of units.

Modern languages:

What is language?

Although I would never launch this question at a candidate on its own, it might grow out of a discussion. Students sometimes say they like studying Spanish, for example, because they 'love the language'. In order to get a student thinking critically and analytically, the question would get them to consider what constitutes the language they enjoy – is it defined by particular features or by function (what it does)? How does form relate to meaning? And so on.

Music:

If you could invent a new musical instrument, what kind of sound would it make?

This question is really very open-ended, and I'm interested in answers which demonstrate a critical imagination at work--what kinds of sounds do instruments/voices make now, and how might these be imaginatively extended/developed? Are there new ways of producing sound (digital media) which have transformed the way we listen or understand sound? Is the idea of an 'instrument' somehow outdated these days, and can we imagine more symbiotic/hybrid ways of generating/experiencing musical sound? It's by no means limited to classical music – I'd welcome answers which deal with musical styles and tastes of all kinds (and which are produced/consumed in all places).

Psychology:

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

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.

The interview is structured so that further hints and guidance are provided if the student doesn't immediately see this problem with the design of the experiment described in the problem sheet. This basic question can then lead to interesting discussion about the role of language in other cognitive abilities, such as memory or maths. This question is meant to be deliberately provocative, in that I hope that it engages candidates' intuitions that Welsh people aren't simply less clever than English people!