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'Does poetry have to be difficult?' Behind Oxford interviews
12 Oct 12
The University of Oxford has released some sample Oxford interview questions – direct from the tutors who conduct the interviews – to help explain the reasoning behind even the most strange-sounding questions.
Students applying to study biological sciences might be asked why animals have stripes, potential English students might discuss JK Rowling's transition to writing for adults, and applicants looking to study history might be asked to imagine piecing together the past based only on historical records of sport.
'The interview is only one part of the Oxford admissions process, but for many students it is the part that makes them the most anxious,' says Mike Nicholson, Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Oxford. 'We know most students won't have experienced this sort of academic interview before, so as much as possible we want to show students what they are really like so they aren’t put off by what they might have heard.
'The interviews are meant to give candidates the chance to show their real ability and potential – which means they will be pushed to use their knowledge and apply their thinking to new problems in ways that will both challenge them and allow them to shine. The interviews are an academic conversation in a subject area between tutors and candidate, similar to an undergraduate tutorial. And like tutorials, the interviews are designed to push students to think, not recite specific facts or answers.
'Most interviews don’t involve strange or irrelevant-sounding questions at all – they might include a logic problem to solve for a subject like Maths, or a new text to read and discuss for English. They may start with familiar territory and then move into areas students have not studied before, introducing new material or ideas, and they are entirely academic in focus.
'We will often provide candidates with material to prompt discussion – for example a piece of text, an item to examine, or an image. It is often best to start responding by making very obvious observations and build up discussion from there, rather than assuming that there is a hidden meaning or a highly complicated answer you have to jump to immediately.
'We hope that seeing some of the less obvious questions will reassure students that tutors aren't trying to see how quickly students get the "right" answer or demonstrate their specialist knowledge, but how they respond to new ideas. 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. We now have mock interviews online, video diaries made by admissions tutors during the interview process, and lots of example questions to help students to familiarise themselves with what the process is – and isn't – about.'
Dr Dave Leal, an admissions tutor for Politics, notes: 'Interviews are an opportunity for candidates to experience something of the style of our teaching and are usually more in the style of a conversation than a pure "question-and-answer" format. The content of the interview will often start from something the candidate has studied which is of relevance for the course. Where the subject of the degree is not one the candidate has studied yet in any formal way, an interviewer may pick up on something from the UCAS personal statement and start there.
'Almost all interviews will move quickly to questions and material that will be stretching and demanding, in a way appropriate to the course the student has applied for. We are not using the interview to find out what a candidate knows, but to investigate their capacity for independent and self-critical thought.'
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.
Interviewer: Stephen Tuck, Pembroke College
Q: 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?
Stephen: 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.
Dr Dave Leal
We are not using the interview to find out what a candidate knows, but to investigate their capacity for independent and self-critical thought.
Interviewer: Lucinda Rumsey, Mansfield College
Q: JK Rowling has just published a book for adults after the hugely successful Harry Potter series. In what ways do you think that writing for children is different to writing for adults?
Lucinda: Candidates who have grown up on Harry Potter might have read Rowling’s new book and have thought both about Rowling's change of audience and their own change as readers from child to adult. But even without knowing Rowling's work at all candidates could say something about themselves as readers, and how as readers they approach different kinds of books, and how writers develop a body of work and write for different audiences.
Mainly I always want to know that whatever they are reading, candidates are reading thoughtfully and self-consciously, and are able to think as literary critics about all the books they read. I worry that not all candidates might have the same access to a wide range of literature, and I am careful to judge them on what they know, not on what they don't know. 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.
Subject: Experimental Psychology
Interviewer: David Popplewell, Brasenose College
Q: Why do human beings have two eyes?
David: This question may result from a more general discussion about the human senses, and can develop in a number of different directions, partly depending upon the knowledge and expertise of the interviewee. For example, two eyes are important for three dimensional (3D) vision. Why is that we can still see in 3D when only looking through one eye? What determines the optimum position and distance between the two eyes? Why is it that we see a stable view of the world even though we are constantly moving our head? How can an understanding of mathematics, physics and biology help us explain 3D vision?
The discussion may develop in to a consideration of the different senses and the role they play in us interacting in our environment, including interacting with other people, and the nature of perceptual experience.
Subject: Modern Languages
Interviewer: Helen Swift, St Hilda’s College
Q: Should poetry be difficult to understand?
Helen: This question arose out of discussion of a few poems that a candidate said he had read, and we were talking through how these poems were conveying meaning (through things such as tone and the imagery they used). We wanted to push the candidate into more conceptual thinking to test his intellectual curiosity and how he would handle moving from familiar particulars (the poems he knew) to less familiar ways of approaching them.
What's important for candidates to realise is that we don't expect a single correct answer to such a question; it's a starting point for a new direction of discussion: what sorts of 'difficulties' might we have in mind? Are these specific to poetry or do they also feature in other types of writing? And so on.
What most interests us is that candidates are willing to venture down a new path, however uncertain this may feel: to have a go and show that they have the potential to develop their thinking further – and thus thrive on the sort of course we offer. Literature forms an important part of a Modern Languages degree at Oxford, but we know that most candidates won't have studied literature formally before in the language for which they're applying. What we want to know isn't that they've read a certain number of texts to prove their interest, but that they have the aptitude for studying texts: that they're able to think carefully and imaginatively about whatever they've have chance to read (poems, prose, drama) that's interested them, in any language.
Subject: Biological Sciences
Interviewer: Martin Speight, St Anne's College
Q: Why do many animals have stripes?
Martin: The main aim of the question is to get applicants to think about biological topics and put them in the context of successful adaptations to life on earth. So I might expect students to start by thinking of some stripey animals, then move on to thinking about categories of striped animals – for example those that are dangerous (such as wasps, tigers, and snakes), those that have stripes for camouflage (such as zebras but also tigers), and those whose stripes are harmless mimics of dangerous ones. They might think of specific examples for detailed comparison: tigers and zebras for example both have stripes for camouflage and blending in with background, one to hide from prey and the other to hide from predators.
Other things that would be worth considering include whether stripes may only occur in the young of a species; whether the colour of the stripes matters rather than just the contrasting stripe pattern, and why do stripe size, shape, width and pattern vary in different species. There are no right or wrong specific answers to the questions – I'm just interested in candidates' speculations about the advantages of having stripes.
Subject: Politics (Philosophy, Politics and Economics)
Interviewer: Dave Leal, Brasenose College
Q: When I was at school in the 1970s, there was talk of a pensions crisis that would one day hit. The talk persisted in the 1980s, and the 1990s – and then there was a pensions crisis, and little had been done politically to prepare us for it. Is there a fault with the British political system that means we can't sensibly address serious medium- and long-term problems when they are identified?
Dave: This question was an invitation to think about democracy and its limitations – it's a big question, but an important one. I have had candidates come up with good discussions about voting methods – for example, how having proportions of parliament voted in for much longer terms might promote more long-term policy thinking.
Another approach might be to reflect on the responsibility of the electorate; if they do not think in long-term ways, it may not be politicians who are to blame, and the problem may be down to education. One might reflect upon the importance of having an un-elected second chamber to which all really important business could be delegated. One candidate suggested that no one should be allowed to stand for parliament unless they have dependent children, with the thought that this would ensure a personal motivation towards longer term thinking on a variety of matters.
There is no single 'right answer' to the question, most answers given serve as the basis for further elaboration: For example, in the case of longer parliamentary terms: What would be the wider consequences of that change? Would they be desirable? We are testing the capacity to begin to locate the source of a problem, and try out solutions through discussion. The precise solution students suggest matters much less than evidence of the refining of ideas and of self-correction where necessary.