Any questions?

Sample interview questions

The University of Oxford has released some sample Oxford interview questions – direct from the tutors who conduct the interviews – to provoke thought and help explain the reasoning behind even the most strange-sounding questions.

Students applying to study music might be asked what kind of musical instrument they would invent, potential biological science students are asked to describe a living cactus in as much detail as possible, and applicants looking to study English literature might be asked why Coronation Street’s 50th anniversary would be of interest to a literary scholar.

‘We want to show what it’s really like having an admissions interview at Oxford, as they are such a unique and important part of our admissions process,’ says Mike Nicholson, Director of Undergraduate Admissions. ‘The interviews are designed to assess academic ability and potential. While this sounds intimidating, their aim is to get candidates to use their knowledge and apply their minds to new problems while allowing them to shine.

‘There are many myths surrounding Oxford interviews, and they can be the most anxiety-provoking part of the Oxford application process for students. These questions show that the interviews are not designed to see how quickly students get the ‘right’ answer or show off specialist knowledge, but to gauge how they respond to new ideas. Each subject will have its own selection criteria, and interviews are structured to look for evidence of academic ability and potential in those areas.

‘The interview itself takes the form of an academic conversation in the chosen subject area between the tutors and candidate, and is meant to replicate the tutorial system itself. As with Oxford students in their tutorials, the interviews are aimed at pushing students to think, not recite specific facts or answers. They may start with familiar territory and then move into areas students have not studied before, introducing new material or ideas. They are entirely academic in focus, and will not focus on things such as hobbies or sports achievements.

‘We aren’t trying to catch candidates out with trick questions,’ says Dr Nicholas Owen, an admissions tutor for the Department of Politics and International Relations. ‘We want to find out how they think when they encounter challenging ideas.

‘For example, we might give them a passage to read rather than a short question. There may well be no simple ‘right answer’.  They might agree with all of the argument, part of it, or none of it. We’re interested in what they think, and in the reasons they can give to explain why they think it. It’s about trying to think carefully and express yourself clearly, not being ready with a snappy answer.’ 

‘We hope that these example questions will be helpful for candidates preparing for admissions interviews,’ adds Mike Nicholson. ‘Contrary to what people might think, we’re not trying to surprise them, or keep secret the way our admissions decisions are made. They might even find that as an introduction to the tutorial process the interviews are quite stimulating.’

Interviews for undergraduate places are just one part of a very rigorous selection process, where academic ability and potential is assessed through a range of measures: at least two interviews; aptitude tests (in most subjects); written work (in many subjects); predicted grades; attained grades; and references.