For courses starting in October 2021, admissions interviews will be held online and are expected to follow this subject-specific timetable. Please note the advice given here is still valid for online interviews and we recommend that you prepare for interviews just as you would if the meeting were going to be face to face. See the Technology tab above for more subject-specific information on how your interview will take place online. You should also make sure you read the code of conduct expected from all shortlisted candidates invited to interviews online.
There are lots of myths about interviews at Oxford, but really they're just conversations about your chosen subject - like a short tutorial - with someone who knows a lot about it.
This video was produced as part of the Oxford Pathways Programme. For more information about the programme, please visit www.pathways.ox.ac.uk.
Download the full transcript of the podcast. Please note that although some of the information and experiences explained in the podcast are assuming interviews will be face to face and take place in Oxford, there is a lot which is relevant for online interviews as well.
Why does Oxford interview?
A good deal of the teaching at Oxford takes place in small classes or tutorials, and your interviewers – who may be your future tutors – are assessing your ability to study, think and learn in this way.
The interview is designed to assess your academic potential. Tutors are looking for your self-motivation and enthusiasm for your subject. Decisions are not based on your manners, appearance or background, but on your ability to think independently and to engage with new ideas beyond the scope of your school or college syllabus.
‘Interviews give us the chance to see whether an applicant has the intellectual capacity to learn and be stretched by our teaching system; fundamentally the question is this: can we teach this person in a tutorial situation and will they thrive in this environment?’
‘Interviews tell us important things about a candidate which are not captured by grades or test scores. We can see candidates think, not merely parrot information.’
‘I interview to find what we call ‘potential’ and disentangle it from either poor schooling or coaching.’
Who gets invited to interview?
Oxford typically receives over 22,000 applications for around 3,300 places every year and carries out around 10,000 interviews. With so many more applications than places, it just isn’t possible to interview everyone. Tutors shortlist the candidates they feel have the strongest potential and meet their selection criteria best. Only those shortlisted are invited to interview.
If you do not get shortlisted for interview, unfortunately that means that your application has not been successful.
If you are shortlisted for interview - congratulations! Being invited to attend our interviews is a fantastic achievement in its own right, considering the number of strongly competitive applications that we receive each year.
When will I find out if I have been invited to interview?
You will receive a letter or an email indicating whether or not you have been invited for interview, usually between the middle of November and early December. Different courses will issue invitations on different days depending on when the interviews are scheduled. Please be aware that you may only be given a week’s notice that you have been shortlisted although the interview timetable is normally viewable several months in advance.
All interviews are expected to take place in early to mid-December so please make sure you are going to be available during this time as interviews cannot be rearranged.
Your invitation letter or email will usually come from the college you applied to. If you submitted an open application, the letter or email will come from the college you have been allocated to. Sometimes you might get invited to interview by a college you did not apply to. This is part of our reallocation process, where applicants get moved around to make sure everyone interviewed has a similar chance of being made an offer.
Who will interview me?
You will be interviewed by academic tutors, usually from a college. They teach and research at the University and decide who studies here. Normally you will be interviewed by two tutors, occasionally more. If you are applying for a joint course, with two or more subjects, you should expect to be interviewed by tutors representing each of the subjects. For some joint courses you may be interviewed separately for each subject area.
What are tutors looking for?
‘First of all, there really is no Oxford ‘type’. A promising applicant is one who is flexible, responsive and thoughtful in their approach, whichever educational system or background they come from.’
‘Clarity of expression and thought, precision of analysis, flexibility of argument, and sheer enthusiasm for the subject – a raw intellectual curiosity which encourages the student to think and question.’
‘A deep, irresistible interest in the subject they want to study combined with an imaginative but rigorous mind. The best interviews develop into conversations rather than question-and-answer sessions.’
What will I be asked?
Tutors will understand that you may be nervous and will try to put you at your ease. They want you to feel able to be yourself in the interview, and to allow you to demonstrate your skills and abilities. They will probably ask you a few simple questions to begin with: perhaps about something in your personal statement or why you have applied for a particular course. They will then move on to questions about your subject. Depending on what is relevant for the course you are applying for, you may be given a text, a poem, a graph, or an object, and then asked to answer questions and comment on it. You may be given these before the interview, and will be advised if there is anything in particular on which you need to focus. Tutors may also refer to any written work that you were asked to submit. Questions may be about the subjects that you are currently studying at school or college. However, you will also be offered opportunities to show whether you have read around the subject and to demonstrate your knowledge and interest beyond your school or college syllabus.
We have published some sample interview questions to help you get an idea what to expect.
What if I don’t know the answer?
There may well be more than one right way to answer a question in which case tutors will be more interested in exploring your thought process. Remember they are trying to find out how you think, so anything you say will interest them. Many questions are designed to test your ability to apply logic and reason to an idea you may never have encountered before. If you think you don’t know the answer to a question, don’t panic, but try and apply your mind to it – you may surprise yourself! You may also wish to explain that you haven’t covered that topic yet, but the key thing is to appear interested. Don’t play it cool because you’re nervous. Tutors love their subject and they want to teach people who feel likewise. Sometimes tutors may suggest an alternative way of looking at a problem. They are looking for evidence that you are willing to engage with new ideas, and that you can be flexible in your thinking. Often your answers will lead to a discussion and students sometimes feel they learn a lot in interviews – despite their nerves. Interviewers are not trying to make you feel ignorant or catch you out, but to stretch you in order to assess your potential. Top tip: don’t try and second guess what tutors are looking for – just be yourself.
‘For the most part, interviews are about seeing how well you can think something through, not how much you already know. So don’t hesitate to ask for clarification if you are unfamiliar with a particular technical term, or if a question you’ve been asked seems unclear or ambiguous.’
‘We want to see someone thinking for themselves, being willing to tackle a challenging question – It’s really important for candidates to understand that ‘tackling’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘solving’: it’ll be about applying skills that you already have to a new scenario, text, or problem, so we want to see how you set about it.’
What if I make a mistake?
‘You said something that on reflection does not seem so clever after all? No big deal. “Oh - sorry - I take that back...” (big smile) “perhaps this might be a better way to think about it...” Exploring a blind alley or two is part of the normal thought process, and everyone makes occasional mistakes, but only very good candidates spot their own mistakes and recover from them.’
Will I be asked about extra-curricular activities?
Tutors may ask you about extra-curricular activities which you have mentioned in your personal statement, particularly to help you settle into the interview. However extra-curricular activities will not be assessed unless they help to demonstrate how you meet the selection criteria for your course.
Do I have to ask a question at the end?
Please don’t feel as though you must ask a question. If you are given the chance to ask your own questions at the end of the interview, this does not form any part of your assessment.
Technology for online interviews
All interviews for 2021-22 entry will take place online using Microsoft Teams. Any additional technology required will depend on the course you are being interviewed for. Technology requirements have been divided into three tiers, with tier 1 involving the least technology and tier 3 requiring the most. Most courses are in tier 1 where you will only need a computer for video conferencing using Microsoft Teams. Interviews for some subjects are likely to require the use of a shared virtual whiteboard and in other, more mathematical subjects, a separate touchscreen device will be needed for the whiteboard along with a basic universal stylus so you can share mathematical notation, draw sketches, annotate diagrams or text, or add text.
No candidate or their school will be expected to purchase a touchscreen device in order to participate in their Oxford interviews. Where necessary, for tier 3 subjects and where there are more technology requirements, colleges will discuss alternative arrangements with schools and applicants in order to find a practical solution for everyone involved.
The tables below outline which subject will use each tier and the technology needed for each.
You may be invited to more than one interview. For each one you will be sent a separate Microsoft Teams calendar invitation. By clicking on the link contained within the invitation you will enter a virtual interview lobby and interviewers will then ‘admit’ you to your interview. Your invitation will also include all other information you need to be aware of in advance of your interview. Read our detailed guidance on how to connect to Microsoft Teams for your online interview.
In many cases, interviews are expected to take place in schools, and so you and your school will need to check that you have access to the required technology listed here. We are already in touch with some applicants’ schools to try and pre-empt any potential issues around access to technology but please encourage your school to contact the college inviting you for interview with any queries. If you are not applying through your school, you can also contact the college inviting you with any issues.
We recommend that, for all tiers of interviews, you (and your school, if applicable) test your technology setup in advance of interviews.
|Tier 1 - Video conferencing only|
Ancient and Modern History, Archaeology and Anthropology, Biology, Biomedical Sciences, Classics, Classics and English, Classics and Modern Languages, Classics and Oriental Studies, English and Modern Languages, English Language and Literature, European and Middle Eastern Languages, Fine Art, Geography, History, History and English, History and Modern Languages, History and Politics, History of Art, Human Sciences, Law, Law with Law Studies in Europe, Materials Science, Medicine, Medicine (Graduate-entry), Modern Languages, Modern Languages and Linguistics, Oriental Studies, Philosophy and Modern Languages, Philosophy and Theology, Religion and Oriental Studies, Theology and Religion.
A computer, with a microphone, speakers and a webcam with access to Microsoft Teams as the video conferencing tool, either installed in advance or via an internet browser. You do not need to have a Microsoft account in order to use Microsoft Teams for this purpose.
You should also have the following:
|Technology required||Other than Microsoft Teams, you do not need any additional hardware or software for interviews in this tier. During the interview your interviewers may wish to show you a document by sharing their screen or to hold something up to the camera for you to see. Likewise, you may be asked to display rough working using your computer’s own camera.|
|Tier 2 - Video conferencing and Interactive Virtual Whiteboard|
|Subjects||Classical Archaeology and Ancient History, Economics and Management, Experimental Psychology, History and Economics, Music, Philosophy, Politics and Economics, Psychology, Philosophy and Linguistics.|
A computer, with a microphone, speakers and a webcam with access to Microsoft Teams as the video conferencing tool, either installed in advance or via an internet browser. You do not need to have a Microsoft account in order to use Microsoft Teams for this purpose.
You should also have the following:
For interviews in this tier, you will also need access to an online virtual whiteboard via the website or app, Miro (www.miro.com), on the same device on which you are accessing Microsoft Teams. We recommend that you create a Miro account prior to your interview to practise using a whiteboard – this is free to do. When you create an account, you will need to give your email address and create a password. This triggers a 6-digit access code which is sent to your email address. You will be asked during registration to give your company name and role but here you can instead just enter your full name and when asked for your role, click on the option "Not company-related".
Either before your interview or at the start of your interview, you will receive a link by email to a Miro whiteboard from the Oxford college running your interview. You will need to follow this link, which will open the whiteboard either in your browser or in the Miro app.
During the interview, your interviewers may wish to show you a document by sharing their screen, by pasting it into the Miro whiteboard, or by holding something up to the camera for you to see. Likewise, you might be asked to display any rough working using your computer’s own camera. Further, the interviewers may use the Miro whiteboard to write out mathematical notation, draw sketches, annotate diagrams or text, or to add text.
You may be asked to do the following using Miro:
In interviews using tier 2 technology, you will not be asked to write out complex mathematical notation using the whiteboard.
|Tier 3 - Video conferencing, Interactive Virtual Whiteboard and Natural Handwriting Capture via a basic universal stylus|
|Subjects||Biochemistry, Chemistry, Computer Science, Computer Science and Philosophy, Earth Sciences, Engineering, Mathematics, Mathematics and Computer Science, Mathematics and Philosophy, Mathematics and Statistics, Physics, Physics and Philosophy.|
A computer, with a microphone, speakers and a webcam with access to Microsoft Teams as the video conferencing tool, either installed in advance or via an internet browser. You do not need to have a Microsoft account in order to use Microsoft Teams for this purpose. You will also need a touchscreen device and basic universal stylus so you can access and write on a Miro whiteboard. It is possible that if the computer used to access Teams is touchscreen, no separate touchscreen device will be needed and the Miro whiteboard can be run on this at the same time. See the note under technology required below for further details.
You should also have the following:
For interviews in this tier, in addition to the device on which you are accessing Microsoft Teams, you will also need a basic universal stylus and a touchscreen device for accessing a Miro Whiteboard (www.miro.com). This can be a tablet, or a touchscreen laptop/Chromebook and should have a screen at least 8 inches in size, so a mobile phone is not likely to be suitable.
Note: Candidates with tier 3 requirements for their interviews may not need a second screen if the computer that they will be using for the video call has a touchscreen of at least 11” (28cm). The computer will need to be able to run Teams and Miro in separate windows (tablets using App versions may not allow this functionality). Any universal (capacitive) basic stylus will allow candidates to work collaboratively on the Miro whiteboard. The stylus does not need to be a ‘smart’ or ‘active’ stylus like an Apple Pencil. The Teams window may be reduced during collaborative use of Miro to allow sufficient space for whiteboard workings.
Create a Miro account so you can practise using a white board before your interview – this is free to do. When you create an account, you will need to give your email address and create a password. This triggers a 6-digit access code which is sent to your email address. You will be asked during registration to give your company name and role but here you can instead just enter your full name and when asked for your role, click on the option "Not company-related".
Either before your interview or at the start of your interview, you will receive a link by email to a Miro whiteboard from the college running your interview. You will need to be able to access this link on your touchscreen device in order to access the whiteboard you will use in your interview, so you should login to your email account on this device before your interview starts.
Interviewers may wish to show you a document by sharing their screen, by pasting it into the Miro whiteboard, or by holding something up to the camera for you to see. Likewise, you might be asked to display any rough working using your computer’s own camera. In addition, the interviewers may use the Miro whiteboard to write out mathematical notation, draw sketches, annotate diagrams or text, or to add text.
You may be asked to do the following using Miro on your touchscreen device and a stylus:
What if the technology goes wrong or internet connection is lost?
Please don’t worry. We know that these things can sometimes be a problem, and your interviewers will understand. We do recommend that you - and your school if that’s where you’re having your interview - test the technology beforehand, to make sure it works and that you’re comfortable with it. Remember your interviewers will want you to do well, and be able to see your potential. If the technology goes wrong or the connection is bad, make sure you tell your interviewers so that they are aware. If the interview can’t proceed then don’t worry - the college will rearrange it as soon as they can.
Instructional videos for online interviews
Tier 1: Video conferencing only
Required for: Ancient and Modern History, Archaeology and Anthropology, Biology, Biomedical Sciences, Classics, Classics and English, Classics and Modern Languages, Classics and Oriental Studies, English and Modern Languages, English Language and Literature, European and Middle Eastern Languages, Fine Art, Geography, History, History and English, History and Modern Languages, History and Politics, History of Art, Human Sciences, Law, Law with Law Studies in Europe, Materials Science, Medicine, Medicine (Graduate-entry), Modern Languages, Modern Languages and Linguistics, Oriental Studies, Philosophy and Modern Languages, Philosophy and Theology, Religion and Oriental Studies, Theology and Religion.
Tier 2: Video conferencing and Interactive Virtual Whiteboard
Required for: Classical Archaeology and Ancient History, Economics and Management, Experimental Psychology, History and Economics, Music, Philosophy, Politics and Economics, Psychology, Philosophy and Linguistics.
Tier 3: Video conferencing, Interactive Virtual Whiteboard and Natural Handwriting Capture via a stylus
Required for: Biochemistry, Chemistry, Computer Science, Computer Science and Philosophy, Earth Sciences, Engineering, Mathematics, Mathematics and Computer Science, Mathematics and Philosophy, Mathematics and Statistics, Physics, Physics and Philosophy.
Code of conduct
If you are shortlisted, it is important that you recognise that in accepting your invitation to interview, you are agreeing to the following code of conduct:
- I agree not to share in any form the content of interviews with others and including but not limited to candidates or teachers at my school/college or at any another school/college. This includes discussing the content of interviews verbally, as well as disseminating any materials shared in advance of or during interviews (e.g. documents, images, etc.)
- I agree not to research online any materials shared with me as part of a pre-interview task (unless explicitly permitted to do so by the interviewers)
- I agree not to record interviews (in either audio or video format), or to permit others (including but not limited to teachers, family members, etc.) to record interviews.
- I agree to take part in the interview myself and not to ask or allow anyone else to impersonate my identity fraudulently.
Candidates will be at serious risk of having any offer withdrawn if they do not abide by any aspects of this code of conduct.
How can I prepare?
It may sound obvious but first make sure you check the interview timetable so you know when the online interviews for your chosen subject are expected to take place.
It's natural to want to prepare before your interview, but the most important thing is to be yourself. The tutors will be trying to find out what you think, and how you think, and these things are easier to discover if you're able to relax a bit and talk about yourself.
Practise speaking about your subject and your thoughts about what you've seen or read - these don't have to be formal 'mock interviews', instead they could be chats with teachers, friends, or members of your family. If you aren't able to speak to other people, why not record a vlog to practise speaking, or hold an imaginary interview in your head, or even talk to the cat! It will all help you on the day.
Here are some more specific things that you can do to prepare:
Think about why you've chosen this subject
We recommend that you:
- find examples of your subject in the wider world, such as taking an interest in the scientific or economic theories that underlie news stories.
- read widely around your chosen subject, including newspaper articles, websites, journals, magazines and other publications. We have provided some reading suggestions for many of our courses, which might provide you with some inspiration.
- remind yourself of the selection criteria for your chosen subject.
If you are applying for a course not normally studied at school or college, such as Medicine, Law, Biochemistry or Oriental Studies, be prepared to show some background knowledge of the subject. For example, you may be asked what role your subject plays in society. However, you will not be expected to have a detailed understanding of specific or technical topics.
If you are applying for a course that you do study at school or college, we recommend that you revise material you have studied recently.
‘Have a clear reason in your mind as to why you have applied for this subject.’
‘Read as widely as you can in your chosen subject and then think carefully about what you read. Ask yourself questions: so rather than “I really like this book” it should be “Why do I really like this book?”, “How does it compare to something else I’ve read?”, “What connections can I see between this book and others?”'
‘I read recommended readings that had been advertised for prospective applicants, brushed up on my basic maths and just tried to stay calm and open minded.’
Anna, Economics and Management.
‘I read a few books on different topics within psychology (tip: try to be original with your book choices - people tend to choose the same books and interviewers can get bored very easily!!) and had a read around how to be a critical thinker. But to be honest I did very little - I don't think a lot of prep is that useful and can stress you out!’
Elin, Experimental Psychology
Practise talking about your subject and explaining how you think
Talking about your subject will help you to learn how to articulate your thoughts about it. Practise explaining how you think, almost as if you are thinking out loud.
We recommend that you:
- think about some basic questions that may be asked at the beginning of an interview and how you might answer them. For example, tutors may ask why you have chosen this particular subject, and why you want to study it at Oxford
- take a critical view of ideas and arguments that you encounter at school or college, in your reading or in the media – think about all sides of any debate
- re-read your personal statement, and any written work that you have submitted, thinking about how you might expand on what you wrote
- organise a practice interview for yourself. This could be with a teacher or someone else who is familiar with your subject, but preferably not someone you know very well. This will help you to get some more experience of talking about yourself and your work in an unfamiliar environment.
- If this isn't possible, then just practise talking about your subject to anyone who will listen - even the cat!
‘Practise talking through your thinking process – whether that’s speaking aloud to yourself, or to a friend or teacher.’
‘By far the best way to prepare for an interview is to do a few trial runs with a friend or teacher asking questions. This helps to demystify the situation.’
‘There is no better practice for being interviewed than being interviewed. If you can’t get someone to interview you, mentally rehearse it in your head.’
‘I found obscure maths questions that deviated far from my A-level syllabus and spent time talking through how I would answer these and where to go with them and talking with teachers about areas of maths that interested me.’
‘I revised some of the things I'd mentioned in my personal statement and went over my A-level work so that if they asked questions about it I'd know what I was talking about. When actually down for an interview, my main preparation was to relax. I would recommend going to the Junior Common Room and meeting people. I made so many friends and they put me at ease for the interview.’
What about coaching?
‘It is much less likely that a candidate who has been coached will really listen to the questions they’re being asked because they’ll be focusing on what they’ve prepared.’
‘Most of the sort of thinking questions we are asking are very hard to rehearse for. It is therefore usually quite easy to distinguish a candidate’s real ability to think on their feet and their enthusiasm for the subject from the veneer that comes from coaching.’
‘I am looking for potential, not polish.’
What should I wear?
Wear whatever clothes you feel comfortable in. Most tutors will not dress formally, and you really don’t have to either. You won’t be judged on what you wear.
What other practical tips for online interviews can you offer?
- Talk to school if your interview is taking place there, and make sure you know where and when it will be.
- It is important to be interviewed in a quiet place - if it’s at school, they’ll be able to help with this, but if it’s at home, you’ll need to think about this in advance.
- If you are likely to be distracted by background noise, then wearing headphones would be a good idea.
- You will be talking a lot and you might be nervous, so have a drink of water to hand, ideally in a bottle that can't spill!
- When you are in the interview, don't try and Google any answers - aside from the fact this is cheating, an interview is like a conversation and it will be very obvious if you zone out or are distracted.
Read more student experiences
‘I'd just like to say that I was really nervous, and felt fearful before my interviews of being made to feel stupid or unworthy of my place. This absolutely wasn't the case, and the interviews were much more akin to a lively chat than the academic grilling I feared it would be. I wasn't asked any bizarre questions, and despite spilling a cup of water on my unseen poetry excerpt, I actually felt very at ease during my interviews.’
‘Remember that the tutor is using the interview to see if they would enjoy teaching you for the next three or four years. If you are engaged with the problems, ask questions, and try to be positive and inquisitive, it is likely they will enjoy teaching you.’
Anna, Economics and Management
‘During the interviews themselves don't worry about answering straight away; take your time, speak through your thought process, and don't be afraid to ask questions or say that you're not sure about something. There will be a point where you don't know the answer (the tutors interviewing you know far more than you), so don't worry when this happens.’
Katheryn, Classics and English
Sample interview questions
These sample interview questions come direct from the tutors who conduct the interviews. We hope they'll make you think, and help you understand why we ask the questions that we do.
Interviewer: Kathryn Scott, Christ Church
Would you expect this compound to be more soluble in octanol or water? (The student will be shown the structure of an organic compound with functional groups that they will be familiar with from A-level/IB studies)
We do not expect the student to know the answer to this question straight away, and in fact getting the correct answer isn’t important here. It is more useful for us to see how the candidate applies their chemical knowledge to a problem they are unlikely to have considered before, how they justify their conclusions and whether they are capable of considering alternative possibilities.
If a student struggles with a starting point we would prompt them to describe more generally the different kinds of interactions that hold molecules together and to comment on their relative strength. We would then encourage them to think about what interactions the specific compound might make first with octanol and then with water. A good approach to answering the question would be to first consider the individual functional groups separately and then to discuss the compound as a whole.
The extension to this question asks the student to interpret some graphical data and requires a more technical introduction. We are careful at this point to make sure that the student has understood the explanation before moving forward with the question.
The relative solubility of a compound in octanol vs aqueous solution can be determined by putting a sample of the compound in a 1:1 mixture of octanol and aqueous solution and then measuring the concentration of the compound that has dissolved in each of the solvents. For one particular compound the relative solubility varies with pH as shown in the graph below. Can you interpret this graph?
We would clarify the compound discussed here is different to the one in the first part of the question and that ‘aqueous solution’ means water with acid or base added to control the pH.
The aim of this question is to see whether the student can understand a new concept and apply it to a problem. One approach to this question is to first consider the flat regions of the graph. Between pH 0 and 4 the compound has a relative solubility very close 4. The student can use the equation to work out that this corresponds to much more of the compound dissolving in octanol than in water. In contrast, between pH 9 and 14 the relative solubility of approximately zero corresponds to almost equal concentrations of the compound dissolving in octanol and water. The student then needs to consider how the structure of a compound might change as pH is varied. If they struggle at this point we might give a specific prompt, for example, “What form would you expect a water molecule to be found in at low pH?”. Ultimately the prompts lead to the idea that the charge of a compound can change with pH due to gain or loss of hydrogen ions.
The graph shown here corresponds to a compound where the vast majority of the molecules are neutrally charged between pH 0 and 4. As the pH is raised a greater proportion of the molecules will lose a hydrogen ion to become negatively charged, being charged reduces the solubility in octanol and so the relative solubility decreases. The plateau region above pH 9 occurs because almost all of molecules have lost the hydrogen ion by this point. Although the compound becomes negatively charged, it does not become more soluble in water than octanol, this suggests that the compound also includes functional groups that interact well with octanol, such as alkyl chains or rings. It is important to note that a student would not have to make all of these points to do well in the interview.
Interviewer: Owen Lewis, Brasenose College
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?
Interviewer: Martin Speight, St Anne's College
Why do many animals have stripes?
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.
Here's a cactus. Tell me about it.
We wouldn't actually phrase the question this way – we give the student a cactus in a pot and a close-up photo of the cactus's surface structure and ask them to describe the object in as much detail as possible using the plant and the photo. We are looking for observation, attention to detail, both at the large and micro scale. We ask them to account for what they see – this means they don't have to use memory or knowledge about cacti (even if they have it) but to deduce the uses and functions of the shapes, sizes, structures that they have just described. So for example, why be fat and bulbous, why have large sharp spines, surrounded by lots of very small hair-like spines? Why does it have small cacti budding off the main body? There will frequently be more than one logical answer to these questions, and we are likely to follow one answer with another question – for example:
‘The big spines are to stop the cactus being eaten, yes, but by what sort of animals?' We would also bring in more general questions at the end of the cactus discussion, such as what are the problems faced by plants and animals living in very dry habitats such as deserts.
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'...
Interviewer: Owen Lewis, Brasenose College
Why do lions have manes?
Some of the best interview questions do not have a 'right' or a 'wrong' answer, and can potentially lead off in all sorts of different directions. Applicants might have picked up ideas about the function of a lion's mane from independent reading or from watching natural history documentaries. That's fine – but I'd follow up their response by asking how they would test their theory. When I've used this question in interviews I've had all sorts of innovative suggestions, including experiments where lions have their manes shaved to investigate whether this influences their chances with the opposite sex or helps them win fights over territory.
Ladybirds are red. So are strawberries. Why?
Many Biology tutors use plant or animal specimens – often alive – as a starting point for questions and discussion, so applicants shouldn't be surprised if they are asked to inspect and discuss an insect or a fruit. Red can signal either 'don't eat me' or 'eat me' to consumers. I'm interested in seeing how applicants attempt to resolve this apparent paradox.
Would it matter if tigers became extinct?
This question is not about hoping students will display their expert knowledge of tigers. Most applicants would instinctively answer 'Yes...', but it is the 'because....' that interests me, and can help to distinguish critical thinkers. I might follow up this question by asking if it would matter if less glamorous creatures – like fungi – went extinct.
Interviewer: Robert Wilkins, St Edmund Hall
Why is sugar in your urine a good indicator that you might have diabetes?
This question builds on general knowledge and material studied at school in biology and chemistry to assess how students approach a clinically-relevant problem. It’s commonly known that diabetes is associated with sugar (glucose) in the urine; this question asks students to think about why this occurs. Students have usually have learnt that the kidneys filter blood to remove waste products, such as urea, that must be eliminated from the body but many other useful substances which must not be lost – including glucose – are also filtered. Given that glucose is not normally found in the urine, students are asked to speculate as to how it can all be recovered as the urine passes through the kidney’s tubules.
The process involves reabsorption by a carrier protein that binds the glucose molecules and moves them out of the renal tubule and back into the blood. Students should appreciate that, in binding glucose, the carrier will share properties with enzymes, about which they will have learned at school: the capacity to reabsorb glucose is finite because once all of the carriers are working maximally, no further glucose reabsorption can occur. A successful applicant will make the connection that an elevated level of glucose in the blood in diabetes leads to increased filtration of glucose by the kidneys and saturation of the carriers that perform the reabsorption, resulting in ‘overspill’ of glucose in the urine.
Interviewer: Jan Schnupp, St Peter's College
Why do a cat's eyes appear to 'glow' in the dark?
This question builds on commonly held knowledge and on material covered in Biology at school about visual processes. The question assesses criteria such as scientific curiosity (has the applicant ever wondered this themselves? Have they formulated any theories?) and scientific reasoning, based on information provided by the interviewer as the interview progresses. After establishing that the applicant understands that light is detected by photoreceptors in the eye (and exploring and explaining this concept if it is a new one), the discussion would consider how the glow might be advantageous to the cat, seeing whether the applicant can appreciate that it may help the animal to see in the dark. Possible explanations for the glow would be discussed with an expectation that applicants might recognise that the light could be generated within the eye or alternatively that light entering the eye is in some way reflected back out. Having established the second possibility as more being more plausible, the interviewer would probe to see whether the candidate recognises the significance of giving photoreceptors two chances to capture light as rays pass into and then out of the eye and why at night this might enhance vision.
Interviewer: Martin Galpin, University College
How many different molecules can be made from six carbon atoms and twelve hydrogen atoms?
This question gives candidates an opportunity to demonstrate a wide understanding of chemistry and there is no simple, immediate answer.
Most candidates would start by drawing some molecules to construct some that satisfy the requirement of six carbons and twelve hydrogens. If the candidate gets stuck, the interviewer may ask them to explain how many bonds they’d expect each carbon and each hydrogen to form. This part of the interview tests candidates’ familiarity with different kinds of molecules, their ability to visualise molecules in three dimensions and then draw them, and their ability to decide if two differently-drawn molecules are actually equivalent. During this process, the interviewer would also be looking at how well the candidate responds to prompting.
After a few minutes, the interviewer may use the question to move the discussion toward concepts such as chirality, cis-trans isomerism, ring strain, and isotope effects. Candidates may not have heard of these before, which is fine and to be expected; the interviewer wants to see how quickly the candidate picks up new concepts and whether they can offer plausible explanations for them. The interviewer might finish the discussion with a rather more difficult question, such as ‘is a molecule only stable if all the carbons form four bonds?’, thus challenging what is taught at school and getting the candidate to think critically about the nature of a chemical bond.
Interviewer: Gail Trimble, Trinity College
Why do you think Dido kills herself in Aeneid 4? Couldn’t she just have gone back to her old life?
I would never ask a question like this without the student mentioning the text first, as we don’t assume that all applicants will have read the same things. Many candidates have never studied Latin or Greek before at all, so we certainly wouldn’t assume that they had any particular knowledge. I would open this part of the interview by asking the applicant to choose a Classical text that they have enjoyed. This could be something they have read at school/college or on their own, in the original or in translation – it just needs to be something that they found interesting and that they would be happy to discuss.
A good answer to this question about Aeneid 4 might point out that the work contains hints that Dido’s sister and the people she rules will be devastated by her death: she actually has a lot to live for. The answer might look for things Dido says that suggest she’s killing herself because she has lost her self-respect, and perhaps ask whether this rather obsessive focus on self-respect is a typical characteristic of ancient heroes.
Other typical questions might be about why so much of the Odyssey is about Odysseus’ return to Ithaca, rather than the adventures at sea that everyone remembers, or whether Achilles or Hector is the real hero of the Iliad? It really depends on what the applicant says they have read. We’re looking for candidates to be able to pick out details in the text that support the argument they want to make - and opposing arguments, too. The questions allow us to see whether candidates are open-minded and able to see how others, both today and, crucially, in the ancient world, might put the evidence from the texts together to draw different conclusions. And we would hope that candidates would think about how, although literary texts often encourage us to react to their characters as if they were real people, actually these characters are constructed by an author, and what we see of them always reflects that author’s choices.
Interviewer: Brian Harrington, Keble College
How do pirates divide their treasure?
A group of 7 pirates has 100 gold coins. They have to decide amongst themselves how to divide the treasure, but must abide by pirate rules:
- The most senior pirate proposes the division.
- All of the pirates (including the most senior) vote on the division. If half or more vote for the division, it stands. If less than half vote for it, they throw the most senior pirate overboard and start again.
- The pirates are perfectly logical, and entirely ruthless (only caring about maximizing their own share of the gold).
So, what division should the most senior pirate suggest to the other six?
This is a standard logic problem and is a good example of the type of question that could be asked. I like to see how students can take directions, and if they can break problems into smaller subsets, and work through a complex concept applying a solution in an algorithmic way. If students have any questions, I want them to ask – not to sit in silence feeling stuck!
Solution to the 'pirate problem'
The solution involves looking at what happens with only 2 pirates, and working up from there.
(We assume that the most senior pirate has the letter A. Others will be B, C, D etc, depending on how many there are in the group.)
Pirate A suggests he gets all the gold. He votes for it, so it carries.
Pirate A gets 100 coins, pirate B gets 0.
Pirate A knows that if he’s thrown overboard, pirate C would get nothing (as the situation would revert to the two pirate example above, with pirate C promoted to pirate B). So if pirate A bribes pirate C with 1 coin, pirate C will vote in favour.
Pirate A gets 99 coins, pirate B gets 0, pirate C gets 1.
Pirate A knows that if he dies, then pirate C gets nothing (again, it will become the 3 pirate case, and pirate C will be promoted to pirate B), so he needs 1 coin to bribe him.
Pirate A gets 99 coins, pirate B gets 0, pirate C gets 1, pirate D gets 0.
Now Pirate A needs 3 votes, so he must bribe each of the pirates who would get 0 coins if he dies with 1 coin each.
Pirate A gets 98 coins, pirate B gets 0, pirate C gets 1, pirate D gets 0, pirate E gets 1.
Same story: bribe pirate C and pirate E.
Pirate A gets 98 coins, pirate B gets 0, pirate C gets 1, pirate D gets 0, pirate E gets 1, pirate F gets 0.
In this final stage (although you can continue indefinitely!) the senior pirate has to get 4 votes, so must bribe 3 pirates… might as well bribe the 3 that have the most to lose if he dies (ie, pirates C, E and G). Pirate A gets 97 coins, pirates C, E and G get 1 coin each, and the others get nothing.
There is a wide range of other example interview questions on the Computer Science website.
Interviewer: Conall MacNiocaill, Exeter College
How can we estimate the mass of the atmosphere?
This question can be addressed in a variety of ways and addresses several of our selection criteria: an aptitude for analysing and solving a problem using a logical and critical approach; lateral thinking and hypothesis generation; the ability to manipulate quantities and units; and the ability to apply familiar concepts (pressure, force etc.) to unfamiliar situations.
Candidates often like to start off by thinking about the composition of the atmosphere, and how we might know that, what its density is, and then to ways of estimating its volume. We look to see if there are ways of simplifying the problem: for example, could you treat the Earth and atmosphere as a sphere slightly larger than the Earth and subtract the volume of the Earth from the larger sphere to get a volume for the atmosphere? The difficulty with this approach often lies with determining where the atmosphere ends and how the density might vary with altitude, how applicable concepts like the ideal gas law are in these circumstances, and these are uncertainties that we might explore in a discussion.
An alternate approach is to see if there are properties of the atmosphere that we can observe at the surface that might enable us to estimate the mass. One such property is atmospheric pressure, which is a force per unit area. The force can also be described as a mass multiplied by an acceleration, which on Earth is the acceleration due to gravity. Hence, if we have some idea about atmospheric pressure we can calculate the mass pressing down on a unit area. If we can estimate the total surface area of the earth (approximated by the surface area of a sphere) we can therefore calculate the total mass of the atmosphere.
Interviewer: Roger Benson, St Edmund Hall
Tell me what this rock looks like.
For this question, you are given a hand sample of rock to examine, and are asked to describe what you see. In the second part of the question, you are asked to suggest how the rock formed, and why it looks the way it does (it is made of crystals of several different types, and the types of crystal vary in their average size).
This question does not rely on pre-existing knowledge of geology or rocks. In fact, what we are interested in is whether the candidates can make accurate and critical observations (what does the rock look like?) and are able to interpret the meaning of those observations using their knowledge of physical and chemical processes (reasoning ability: aptitude for analysing and solving problems using logical approaches). As with many of our questions, we don’t want candidates necessarily to tell us the ‘right’ answer straight away. We want to see that they are motivated, and keen to engage with the topic. We don’t want to intimidate or overwhelm the candidates with difficult questions that they haven’t encountered before. But we do want to see that they can get to grips with new information and use it in their reasoning. So we often provide suggestions and small questions that help to guide the conversation at various points.
In the first part of the question, when describing the rock, we want candidates to organise their observations, so they have some structure. For example, the rock is made of crystals, some of which have well-defined shapes. The crystals vary in colour and size, and probably represent different chemical compositions (different minerals). The smaller types of crystals generally have less well-defined edges.
In the second part of the question, we want to see that candidates can use their knowledge of crystal formation – from GCSE and possibly A-level – to interpret why the rock appears as it does. The crystals indicate that the rock formed by crystallisation of molten rock from a liquid to a solid. Some crystals might be larger because they took longer to form. Crystals with poorly-defined shapes may have formed last, fitting into whatever space was available at the end of the process. These observations can be used to discuss the history of cooling of molten rock.
Interviewer: Terry O'Shaughnessy, St Anne's College
The Holiday Puzzle:
"Alex and Brian are cousins. They are planning a four-day holiday in Venice and they each have 400 euros to spend. (They have already paid for their return flights and for their hotel room.) On the flight to Venice Alex and Brian discuss how they should each allocate their spending over the four days.
Alex believes that the satisfaction he gains from spending a certain amount x euros on a given day is proportional to √x. Explain why this might be a reasonable way to represent his preferences. If he has these preferences how would you expect him to allocate his spending over the four days?
Brian has the same preferences as Alex, but he knows that he tends to be impatient. This means that, on any given day, he tends to give extra weight to the current day’s spending when he makes his spending decisions for that day. Thus on a given day he behaves as if the satisfaction he would gain from spending x euros would be √(2x) whereas the thinks that on subsequent days the satisfaction he will gain from spending x euros will be only √x.
If Brian has these preferences how would you expect him to allocate his spending over the four days?
Is there a better way for Brian to allocate his spending and, if so, how might he achieve this better outcome?
Does your analysis of this problem have any implications for any current economic policy issues?"
After asking one or two general questions such as 'what topic in Economics have you enjoyed most, or found most surprising' we move on to working through a puzzle. We give the candidate a copy 10 minutes before the interview starts. We might spend 10-15 minutes going through the implications of the puzzle during the interview, though this depends on how far candidates get, and how quickly they get there!
Each puzzle is designed to see how willing candidates are to abstract from the complexities of a 'real world' case involving some economic principles and to put such principles 'to work'. There is usually some simple mathematical ideas involved (in this case, the idea that the utility function provided implies that it is best to allocate spending uniformly over the four days). However, we do not expect any calculations to be performed, though drawing a diagram is often useful (as it is in this example).
Economics and Management
Interviewer: Brian Bell, Lady Margaret Hall
Do bankers deserve the pay they receive? And should government do something to limit how much they get?
This is a very topical question in light of the recent financial crisis. A simple answer might be that since banks are generally private firms and workers are free to work where they wish, then the pay they receive is just the outcome of a competitive labour market. In this story, bankers earn a lot because they are very skilled and have rare talents. It is hard to see a reason for government intervention in this case – though on equity grounds one may want to have a progressive income tax system that redistributes some of this income. A good candidate would wonder why it is that seemingly equivalently talented people can get paid so much more in banking than in other occupations. Do we really believe that bankers are so much better than other workers in terms of skill? An alternative story is that the banking industry is not competitive and generates profits above what a competitive market would produce. This would then allow workers in that industry to share some of those profits and so earn much more. In this case, there is a role for government intervention - making the market more competitive. The key point about this question is trying to get candidates to think about the economics of pay rather than just whether they think it is fair or not.
Interviewer: Steve Collins, University College
Place a 30cm ruler on top of one finger from each hand so that you have one finger at each end of the ruler, and the ruler is resting on your fingertips. What happens when you bring your fingers together?
This would never be the opening question in an interview - we usually start with a first question that gives the candidate an opportunity to get comfortable by discussing something familiar. We then ask more technical questions based on material in the GCSE and A-level syllabi. This question would come later in the interview, when we present candidates with an unfamiliar scenario and ask them to use what they know about familiar concepts (such as friction) to explain something.
Almost everyone in this example will expect the ruler to topple off the side where the finger is closest to the centre to the ruler because they expect this finger to reach the centre of the ruler first. They then complete the 'experiment' and find both fingers reach the centre of the ruler at the same time and the ruler remains balanced on two fingers. We like to see how candidates react to what is usually an unexpected result, and then encourage them to repeat the experiment slowly. This helps them observe that the ruler slides over each finger in turn, starting with the finger that is furthest from the centre. With prompting to consider moments and friction, the candidate will come to the conclusion that moments mean that there is a larger force on the finger that is closest to the centre of the ruler. This means that there is more friction between the ruler and this finger and therefore the rule slides over the finger furthest from the centre first. This argument will apply until the fingers are the same distance from the centre. The candidate should then be able to explain why both fingers reach the centre of the rule at the same time as observed. In some cases, particularly if we have not done a quantitative question already, we might then proceed with a quantitative analysis of forces and moments. We might even discuss the fact that the coefficient of static friction is higher than the coefficient of dynamic friction and therefore the 'moving' finger gets closer to the centre than the static finger before the finger starts to move over the other finger.
Interviewer: Byron Byrne, Department of Engineering Science
How would you design a gravity dam for holding back water?
This is a great question because the candidate first has to determine the forces acting on the dam before considering the stability of the wall under the action of those forces. Candidates will probably recognise that the water could push the dam over. The candidate would then be expected to construct simple mathematical expressions that predict when this would occur. Some may also discuss failure by sliding, issues of structural design, the effects of water seeping under the dam, and so on. The candidate will not have covered all the material at school so guidance is provided to assess how quickly new ideas are absorbed. The question also probes the candidate's ability to apply physics and maths to new situations and can test interest in and enthusiasm for the engineered world.
Interviewer: Lucinda Rumsey, Mansfield College
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?
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.
Interviewer: Emma Smith, Hertford College
Tell me about [this literary work you have mentioned in your UCAS personal statement]
I'd want to start with something the candidate has already identified as something they want to talk about (so be honest on your personal statement!). I'd want to get a sense of what the candidate picks out about it, and perhaps to try to move the discussion onto matters of form (how the text is written) rather than content (what it is about). That might include - how does the author choose to begin or end the work and why? is it a first-person or a third-person narrator, and what effect does that have? what kind of vocabulary and writing style are chosen? what assumptions does it make about its readers? There might be other questions too: does the biography of the author have any relevance to our interpretation? do we need to know something about the historical context to understand it differently? how would we evaluate whether it is 'good' or not, and does that matter? where might its meaning be ambiguous? can it be compared to one of the other texts mentioned or studied to clarify any one of these aspects? All of these approaches are intended to develop a discussion - like a tutorial - and to work with something the candidate is already familiar with - something they have read and/or studied and enjoyed - but to ask some more sideways or expansive questions about it, moving away from the character or close-reading focus which is often prominent at A-level but is supplemented or challenged by other reading methods during university study.
Interviewer: Lynn Robson, Regent's Park College
Why do you think an English student might be interested in the fact that Coronation Street has been running 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'.
Interviewer: Lorraine Wild, St Hilda's College
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.
Interviewer: Ian Forrest, Oriel College
What would a historian find interesting about the place where you live?
We use this question to open a discussion that could go in a number of different directions. We want to encourage candidates to talk about a subject on which they know something, but where probing questions can lead them to look at what they know in a new and revealing light. It was very common for candidates to say that nothing interesting ever happens where they live, but this was a chance for the interviewers to encourage them to reflect on what we mean by historical significance, and why some places seem unremarkable in those terms. It also allowed us to hear candidates describe things like a town in decline, unusual street names, or pride in local sports teams, and then to ask them what questions a historian should ask in order to set these in context. It’s also a good question because it allows us to steer candidates away from prepared scripts (which are always a waste of time), and for us to see evidence of some of the instincts and skills that are really important in good History students: observation, noticing the unusual, being interested in the world around them, a questioning attitude, and the ability to see things from new angles.
Is violence always political? Does 'political' mean something different in different contexts?
This pair of questions allows the interviewer to deal with historical material from any period the candidate is studying or knows about from more general reading. It could also be answered extremely well from contemporary or current affairs knowledge. The aim of the question is to get the candidate to challenge some received notions about what constitutes politics, and to think about how political history might be studied away from the usual kings, parliaments etc. A good candidate would, with assistance, begin to construct categories of when violence looks more and less political. A very good candidate would, with assistance, begin to construct a useful definition of 'political', but this is challenging. The main aim would not be to solve these problems, but to use them to find some new interest in a subject that the candidate already knows something about.
Interviewer: Stephen Tuck, Pembroke College
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.
Which person (or sort of person) in the past would you most like to interview, and why?
Candidates know that this is not a right/wrong type question. The question is not so much about which person the candidate wants to meet, but what sort of issues the candidate wants to find out about (which can be quite revealing) and then working out the best way to do so. 'Meeting' Elizabeth I or Winston Churchill might be exciting, but if the candidate wants to find out about, say, their leadership style, they might be better off asking questions of a courtier or member of the war cabinet. Or if they wanted to find out what we don't know about any given period, they might want to interview people who didn't leave any written records. Sometimes we might encourage the candidate to think through whether the person they selected would be willing or able to reveal the information they sought (and we allow plenty of time for the candidate to change the issue they want to find out about, and reconsider their choice of person).
Interviewer: Sian Pooley, Magdalen College
What can historians not find out about the past?
The aim of this question is to encourage candidates to think critically, creatively and comparatively about how historians know what happened in the past. I would use this sort of open question to allow a candidate to talk about the availability of historical evidence in whatever time period, place or theme interested them from their school-work or wider reading. For instance, a candidate might start off by saying that they had been studying Tudor England and historians don't know much about the lives of the poor because they were less likely to be able to write. Given these lower levels of literacy, we could then talk about what sources historians can use to learn about the lives of the majority of the population in sixteenth-century England. This would require the candidate to think creatively about alternative sources (and their drawbacks), such as, for instance, criminal court records in which people who could not write were required to give oral testimony as witnesses.
Historians are always interested in explaining continuity and change over time, so I might then ask the candidate to compare what historians can know about Tudor England to another time period or place that interests them. For instance, if they had also studied the USA during the Depression, I might ask the candidate whether the gaps in historical evidence are different in interwar America. By thinking comparatively across four-hundred years and in different continents, a candidate might be able to draw some thoughtful conclusions. They might want to think about how structures of power have altered over time or about how social norms for what can be recorded and kept in archives have changed. This is the sort of conversation that no candidate could predict in advance. The hope is that the discussion allows candidates to show their understanding of, and enthusiasm for, history, and – most importantly – their ability to think independently, flexibly, and imaginatively about the past.
Interviewer: Ben McFarlane, Faculty of 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.
Interviewer: Liora Lazarus, St Anne's College
If the punishment for parking on double yellow lines were death, and therefore nobody did it, would that be a just and effective law?
Candidates are not meant to give a right or wrong answer to this question. They need to demonstrate that they have recognised the various issues that arise. The candidate who distinguishes between 'just' and 'effective' does best. The issues are different once that distinction is made. A just law might not be effective, or vice versa. The issues of how proportionate the punishment is to the crime refer to the justness of the law. The answer to its effectiveness is already in the question: 'and therefore nobody did it.'
Interviewer: Imogen Goold, St Anne’s College
Should it be illegal to run a red light in the middle of the night on an empty road?
Studying law requires that students understand what the law is, and also about what it should be, that is to think normatively. We are particularly interested in their capacity to justify their views and interpretations. This involves being able to analyse concepts and to critically appraise arguments and the reasoning behind a position, as well as to consider objections and to offer rebuttals to those objections. There isn’t a right or wrong answer to this question; we would be using the example to see how well the candidate could justify their stance. For example, a candidate might say that if no one was harmed by running the light, then it wouldn’t hurt to run it so it shouldn’t be illegal. This would be suggesting that the law is based on preventing harm. We might then explore whether this is the only purpose or the dominant purpose of the law, and how that might shape how legal rules need to be constructed, whether there are any circumstances in which exceptions might be valid and how effective exceptions could be created. Here, we would be looking to see how well they can see the problems with their approach and the difficulties inherent in drafting a rule that works in every situation without being too broad. This line of discussion would draw out their capacity to respond to challenges to their position, their ability to amend their initial answer when it no longer seems sustainable, and their ability to think precisely. Another candidate might suggest that even if no one is harmed, it is important that laws are respected and we could examine why this is the case. For example, if running lights was only illegal when it was dangerous, this would leave it to each person’s assessment of ‘dangerous’, so we could never be sure when someone would run a light, leading to chaotic traffic.
This question also picks up on ideas about what it means for something to be illegal and citizen’s relationship with the law, whether it can ever be justified to break the law and what might be a sufficient justification. This could lead into more philosophical discussions of what it means for a law to be binding and how legal rules might differ from moral rules or guidelines. A candidate might begin to consider whether there is something special about legal rules – are they different from other kinds of rules, such as those of a game, moral rules, social rules, club rules and so on. We could use this as a way into exploring with them whether the fact that something is illegal is itself a reason not to do something, over and above, perhaps, the harm the rule is aiming to prevent. Candidates might then think about how law makes other people’s behaviour more predictable so that we can plan our own actions, or how the law might serve functions like punishing wrongdoing. An example might be that because the law makes murder illegal and those who kill are punished, I can expect that I can leave my house and generally not expect to be killed, so this allows me to decide it’s safe to go outside.
"You are the sheriff of a small town on the American frontier 150 years ago. A young woman from a prominent white family in your town has been killed. She was white, and a rumour is spreading that the killer was a young black man, even though no evidence of this has been brought forward. There is increasing disquiet in the community. Some people are scared for their female relations, while the family and their friends are desperate to avenge her death.
You are worried that if you don’t find the killer soon, the townspeople will take matters into their own hands and mete out vigilante justice. You are particularly concerned that there will be violence amongst the townspeople, and possibly racially-motivated killings, if nothing is done. You have no idea who the real killer is.
A homeless man comes to town. He has no friends or family in the town; no-one has seen him before as far as you know. You do not suspect he committed the murder. However, you do think you would be able to concoct enough false evidence to convince a jury that he killed the young woman and sentence him to death.
Do you concoct the evidence to save the town from violence and potentially prevent the deaths of numerous people?
Would your answer be different if:
1) You discovered that the real murderer was the son of another prominent local family, and you believed it highly likely revealing the killer’s identity would lead to violence between the two families which could well result in numerous deaths?
2) You knew that the homeless man had been convicted of another murder and was on the run from a death sentence from another town?
3) You did have evidence of the homeless man’s guilt in the murder of the young woman, but you knew it would be rejected by the court on a ‘technicality’ of evidence rules? Would you concoct new evidence?"
This is a complicated question and we would take the candidate through the scenario slowly and discuss their reasoning to the first part before moving on to each variation in turn. This question delves into the role of the law in society and what is meant by justice. There are many ways to answer it. What we would want to see is the candidate reasoning about issues like whether the sheriff should be purely utilitarian and act so as to prevent violence, or whether other considerations like justice should override this, even if it means loss of innocent life. Strong responses would include lots of explanation of their thinking about why there might be good reasons for the law to be committed to only punishing the guilty; the goals of punishment and its justifications; and why we need to promote trust in law enforcement institutions and the law. Really great answers might think about how rules of evidence aim to promote justice, and might consider how something could be a technicality (or not). Candidates could also think about what a purely utilitarian legal system might look like and the problems it might pose, and why even if the law must be utilitarian in many ways, this needs to be tempered with other considerations.
Interviewer: Steve Roberts, St Edmund Hall
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.
Interviewer: Rebecca Cotton-Barratt, Christ Church
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?
This question tests whether you can do what mathematicians do, which is to abstract away all the unimportant information and use mathematics to represent what’s going on. 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. If they get stuck we would ask them what shape the ladder makes with the wall and floor, and they’ll eventually spot that at each stage the ladder is forming a right-angled triangle. Some might then immediately leap to Pythagoras’ Theorem and use that to find the answer (which is that it forms a quarter circle centred on the point where the floor meets the wall).
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 (which is a series of tangents to a curve centred 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.
Interviewer: Richard Earl, Worcester College
How many ways are there to cover a 2 x n rectangular grid with 2 x 1 tiles?
The question would typically be posed with the caveat – “I don’t expect you to have the answer straight away; try working out the answer when n = 1,2,3,4 say”. So here is something to investigate. Maths interviews are usually conducted over a piece of paper, sometimes at a white board and so diagrams will get drawn and the student will find the answers are 1, 2, 3, 5 for the first four cases. Some systematic care may be needed to explain why the fourth answer is 5 and why no sixth solution has been missed.
A relatively comfortable few minutes has been spent on this, but it’s also important that the student and I aren’t talking at cross-purposes. At this point I usually tell the student the next two answers at 8 and 13 – any thoughts on the emerging pattern? The answer is the Fibonacci sequence – where a term of the sequence is the sum of the previous two eg 8 = 5 + 3, though it’s not important if the student hasn’t met this before or has forgotten the name. The next stage of the interview is about understanding why that pattern should be appearing here.
When done with this bit of the interview hopefully the student has taken on board a few new ideas. So the question moves on to: 3 x n rectangular grids and 3 x 1 tiles, to 3 x n rectangular grids and 2 x 1 tiles. Hints will continue to be needed, but also there will be plenty of chance to see just how much the student has taken on board from earlier and how well s/he can adapt what’s been learned.
One of the reasons I found this a good question in the past was that its knowledge content is low, no more than GCSE. But its internal complexity is sufficiently difficult to test the brightest students, especially in the final part, whilst also allowing students repeated chances to show what they were learning and share their thinking.
Interviewer: Andrew King, Exeter College
Put these countries in order by their crude mortality (deaths per thousand of the population): Bangladesh, Japan, South Africa, the UK.
Interviews for Medicine aim to gauge candidates' understanding of the science underpinning the study of medicine, as well as skills in scientific enquiry. This question invites candidates to think about a public health question and epidemiology that can be approached in many different ways, without necessarily knowing anything about specific mortality rates around the world. We would expect the initial discussion to probe the differing causes of death that contribute to mortality rates – such as those 'Western diseases' heart disease and cancer – and how they compare to those found in developing countries (high infant mortality, infectious diseases, poor nutrition, high rates of HIV etc.). The majority of candidates will expect Bangladesh or South Africa to have the highest crude mortality rate, and will be surprised to find that it is in fact Japan.
The other part of the mortality rate calculation is of course the age of the population: we would ideally steer the conversation towards a discussion of why a wealthy but older country like Japan might have a higher mortality rate, while a country like Bangladesh – which many people might initially expect to have a high mortality rate due to relative poverty as a country – actually has a relatively lower mortality rate because of its young population. Similarly, Britain actually has the second-highest mortality rate because of the age structure of its population: we are a relatively old country and a majority of deaths occur in older people. We wouldn't expect students to get the right answer on their own, and in fact that's not the point: the point is to see how they apply their understanding of social and cultural factors in health and illness to a problem of epidemiology. Some students might already have a detailed knowledge of demography, others might need to be given more relevant information – the point isn't what they know, it's what questions they ask to make their conclusions, and how they interpret information to draw those conclusions. We might then go on to discuss how you could make a valid comparison between mortality rates in different countries.
Interviewer: Chris Norbury, The Queen’s College
The viruses that infect us are totally dependent on human cells for their reproduction; is it therefore surprising that viruses cause human diseases?
Like most good interview questions, this could be a starting point for any number of interesting conversations. Most candidates will have a reasonable understanding that viruses are essentially parasitic genetic entities, but the interviewers are not really looking for factual knowledge.
In a tutorial-style discussion, strong candidates will engage with the paradox that viruses need us for their own reproduction, and yet cause us damage. They might point out that some of our responses to viral infection (such as sneezing) favour the spread of the virus. The interviewer might steer the discussion towards viral infections associated with high mortality, and the idea that any virus that killed off its host entirely would run the risk of extinction – unless it could infect other host species too. Candidates may have come across examples of viruses that jump from non-human animals to human hosts in this way.
We might then ask if the candidate considers it possible that there are viruses that infect humans and reproduce successfully, but do not cause any disease. How might we go about finding and characterising such viruses? These questions probe selection criteria including problem-solving, critical thinking, intellectual curiosity, communication skills, ability to listen and compatibility with the tutorial format.
Interviewer: Helen Swift, St Hilda's College
What makes a novel or play ‘political’?
This is the sort of question that could emerge from a student’s personal statement, where, in speaking about their engagement with literature and culture of the language they want to study, they state a keen interest in works (of whatever type they mention, such as a novel, play or film) that are ‘political’. We might start off by discussing the specific work that they cite (something that isn’t included in their A-level syllabus), so they have chance to start off on something concrete and familiar, asking, for instance, ‘in what ways?’, ‘why?’, ‘why might someone not enjoy it for the same reason?’. We’d then look to test the extent of their intellectual curiosity and capacities for critical engagement by broadening the questioning out to be more conceptually orientated and invite them to make comparisons between things that they’ve read/seen (in whatever language).
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? Is it a judgment about content or style? Could it be seen in and of itself a value judgment? How useful is it as a label? What if we said that all art is, in fact, political? What about cases where an author denies that their work is political, but critics assert that it is – is it purely a question of subjective interpretation? And so on. The interviewers would provide prompt questions to help guide the discussion. 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; ideally, they would recognise themselves that they were changing their viewpoint, and such awareness could indicate aptitude for sustained, careful reflection rather than a ‘scattergun’ effect of lots of different points that aren’t developed or considered in a probing way. Undoubtedly, the candidate would need to take a moment to think in the middle of all that -- we expect that ‘ermmm’, ‘ah’, ‘oh’, ‘well’, etc. will feature in someone’s responses!
Should poetry be difficult to understand?
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 had chance to read (poems, prose, drama) that's interested them, in any language.
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.
What makes a short story different from a novel?
To further their subject interest and to discover whether the Oxford Modern Languages course is a good fit for them, candidates are encouraged to try reading some literary texts in the foreign language. We know that most won't have studied literature formally before in the language for which they're applying, so this will be reading that they've undertaken independently. In that respect, short stories, such as those by Guy de Maupassant, are a good and a popular place to start: they're engaging, memorable and can feel quite approachable. So if a candidate mentions s/he has read a few short stories, we might begin by asking them which they found the most engaging (or, for instance, the most challenging) and why. After developing this discussion for a short while, we might then push outwards from particular narratives to broader, conceptual issues, such as 'what is a short story?' or, differently posed, 'what makes a short story different from a novel?'
This isn't a question on which we'd necessarily have expected the candidate to have reflected already; it would be the beginning of a conversation, which would start by breaking down the question itself and building up an answer gradually: what might we want to think about in making such a comparison? What elements of plot design or structure or character presentation might differ? Are there, in fact, salient differences? Is it a valid opposition to make? We'd be looking for a willingness to try out new ways of thinking and an aptitude for thinking carefully and imaginatively through a perhaps initially unfamiliar issue. That we'd been speaking about one or two particular stories before posing this 'bigger picture' question would mean that the candidate would have ready to hand material to illustrate her/his responses. In asking such a question, I as interviewer don't have in my mind a fixed answer or set of expected points as the candidate starts to respond; the follow-up on any question depends on how s/he sets about thinking her/his way through it.
Interviewer: Stephen Goddard, St Catherine's College
In a world where English is a global language, why learn French?
I might use this question early in an interview in order to set the candidate thinking, and to elicit some idea of their motivation before moving on to more specific questions. Given the nature of the Modern Languages course, I would be interested in responses about the French language as a 'window' into French culture/literature/history, knowledge of which is valuable in itself/essential to understanding today's world, etc.; but would also be happy to see candidates investigate some of the assumptions underlying the question: Is English a global language? What about Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, etc.? Can we not in fact still consider French a global language? And so on.
Interviewer: Jane Hiddleston, Exeter College
What do we lose if we only read a foreign work of literature in translation?
This is a good question as it helps us to see how candidates think about both languages and literature. They might be able to tell us about the challenges of translation, about what sorts of things resist literal or straightforward translation from one language to another, and this would give us an indication of how aware they are of how languages work.
They might also tell us about literary language, and why literary texts in particular use language in ways that make translation problematic. This might lead to a discussion of what is distinct about literary works, and this helps us to see what kind of reader they are more broadly. We don't do this with the expectation that they have already read any particular works, however, but in order to get a sense of why they think it is worth studying literatures in foreign languages. This is an important issue, given that Modern Languages students at Oxford read a lot of literature in the language as part of their course. Occasionally candidates are able to give examples of famous lines or quotations that risk being misread when translated into English. This issue might also be something we discuss when we read an extract or poem in the language together during the interview.
Interviewer: Dan Grimley, Merton College
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).
Interviewer: Laura Tunbridge, St Catherine’s College
What are the different ways in which you listen to music? How does that change the way in which you think about what you're listening to?
Music interviews often have several parts: there may be questions about your interests or on broad topics, and many colleges will give a reading and/or a short piece of music to look at beforehand, which you will be asked questions about. Some colleagues play music in the interview and, similarly, ask what your thoughts are about it. The point of all this isn't to find out what you don't know but to get a sense of how you read a text or understand a piece of music, and how you think through issues or material. We are very much aware that the types of music people play and care about are varied and the course itself covers a wide range, from global hip hop to Mozart, medieval song to sound art. It's not a question, then, of liking the right stuff but of finding out how curious you are, and how well you can apply what you already know to something new.
Standalone questions like this one, are more unusual, but suggest the kinds of topics that might be used to prompt discussion. The question allows students to use their own musical experiences as a starting point for a broader and more abstract discussion about the different ways people consume music, the relationship between music and technology, and how music can define us socially. There might be follow-up questions about whether students think a particular way of listening has more worth the others, for example. It could also prompt other discussions; for example, we tend in Western Europe to be silent in concert halls: why might that be and what is the effect? Does it encourage a certain kind of attentiveness and respect? Might it put some people off? What would be effect of, say, clapping between movements of a symphony to your understanding of how the music works?
I might also expect to discuss whether particular types of music suit being listened to in particular ways; whether listening on headphones changes the way you experience what's going around you; and what makes some soundtracks better than others. We are interested in probing their understanding of music and its contexts, so thinking about how you share music with others and how the environment in which you listen to music affects the way you experience it – if you hear the same tracks live, at a festival or concert, what factors change how you hear and think about the music? The study of music is about more than just examining composed works, and a question like this gets at that aspect of the course.
Interviewer: Alison Salvesen, Mansfield College
Can archaeology ‘prove’ or ‘disprove’ the Bible?
Candidates in my subject come from a wide variety of backgrounds and qualifications, so we generally try to tailor the interview questions to the individual according to what they have on the UCAS form or wrote about in their submitted work, in order to find out whether they have a genuine interest in the subject area and an aptitude for the course.
For this particular question I would be looking for an answer that showed the candidate could appreciate that the Bible was a collection of documents written and transmitted over several centuries, and containing important traditions that have a bearing on history, but that academic study of the Bible means that it has to be examined carefully to see when and where these traditions had come from and for what purpose they had been written. Whereas they should recognise that archaeology relies on non-literary sources preserved from ancient periods such as the remains of buildings and tools. These can often be dated by scientific means (and so appear more objective than literature), but we still frequently need additional information such as inscriptions or evidence from other similar sites in order to make sense of the ancient remains. In the end I would hope the candidate would work towards a realisation of the very different nature of these types of evidence, which sometimes gives a complementary picture, while in others it may be contradictory. Both require very careful interpretation, and just arguing that ‘The Bible says’ or that ‘Archaeology proves’ is much too simplistic. (The same kind of thing applies to archaeology, the Quran, and non-Islamic historical sources for a study of the early Arab conquests.)
Philosophy, Politics and Economics
Interviewer: Cecile Fabre, Lincoln College (now of All Souls)
'I agree that air transport contributes to harmful climate change. But whether or not I make a given plane journey, the plane will fly anyway. So there is no moral reason for me not to travel by plane.' Is this a convincing argument?
The interview is not meant to test candidates' knowledge of Philosophy, since more often than not, they have not studied this subject before. Moreover, we are not trying to get them to guess or arrive at 'the right answer'. Rather, the interview is about candidates' ability to think critically, to deal with counter-examples to the views they put forward, and to draw distinctions between important concepts.
This answer raises the difficult question of individuals' responsibility, as individuals, for harmful collective actions. Some candidates might be inclined to dispute the premise that air transport contributes to climate change: that’s fine, but we would then ask them to accept that premise for the sake of argument. Whether they are able to do that is in itself an important test, since much of philosophical thinking proceeds in this way.
Some candidates might say that the argument is a good one: given that what I do makes no difference, I have no moral reason not to do it. At this point, I would want to know what they consider a moral reason to be (as distinct from or similar to, for example, a practical or prudential reason).
I would also push them to think about other cases: for example, the bombing of Dresden (one jet fighter less makes no difference to the collective outcome – so why not go and fight); or voting (why should I vote in a general election, given that my vote makes no difference)? Are the cases the same? Are they different? If so, are the differences or similarities relevant? That is to say, do those differences and similarities help us think about the original case? Do they help us to work out a view about individual responsibility in those cases? For example, in the Dresden case, the individual jet fighters act together as part of an organisation – the air force – whose aim is to bomb Dresden. But we cannot say of companies such as British Airways that they aim to cause climate change. And the air passengers cannot really be described as acting together. Does this make a difference?
Suppose that you could plug yourself into a machine for the rest of your life, which would give you all the experiences you find enjoyable and valuable. Once in the machine, you would not know that you are plugged in, and that these experiences are not real. Would you go into the machine? If so, why? If not, why not?
The interview is not meant to test candidates’ knowledge of Philosophy, since more often than not, they have not studied this subject before. Moreover, we are not trying to get them to guess or arrive at ‘the right answer’. Rather, the interview is about candidates’ ability to think critically, to deal with counter-examples to the views they put forward, and to draw distinctions between important concepts. Thought-experiments are an important part of doing Philosophy. The experience machine is a thought experiment (it’s also at the heart of the movie The Matrix, of course.) It invites candidates to think about what makes a life worth living. Some candidates might be tempted to go into the machine, on the grounds that a good life is a pleasurable life. If so, we would invite them to consider the case of the addict with unlimited supplies of pleasures-inducing drugs. We would also invite them to consider the distinction between ‘experiencing’ and ‘doing/acting’: could actually carrying out those pleasurable activities be a better measure of a good life than merely experiencing those pleasures? Other candidates might say, on the contrary, that they would not go into the machine, precisely on the grounds that a good life is not merely one in which we experience pleasure. Depending on how they construct their argument, we would try and see what they make of the distinction between what is pleasurable and what is valuable (some experiences might be valuable precisely in so far as they are not enjoyable.) In all cases we want them to reflect on whether a good life, for me, is simply what I say it is, or whether a good life must be objectively good.
Interviewer: Tim Mawson, St Peter's College
Are our deaths bad for us?
I quite like this question because whichever way one answers it, new questions open up. One can distinguish between the process of dying and the state of being dead. The first seems non-problematically something that might well be bad for us (involving suffering), but the second is harder to assess – not least because one can have differing understandings of what the state of being dead is: is it permanent annihilation? Is it somehow waiting unconscious for a resurrection? Is to die simply to be transported instantaneously to some new realm? Or is it something else again? And can one know which? Whichever way the discussion goes, interesting topics branch off. These can include the nature of the self and personal identity; the rationality (or otherwise) of religious beliefs.
There are also different understandings of what ‘badness’ is or would be – are all bad things that happen to us things which affect our consciousness, in which case how could annihilation (if that’s what being dead is) be bad for us? And wider discussions of the nature of value might open up from there. Is there a world of value in some sense ‘out there’, waiting to be discovered, independent of what we might happen to think or feel about it? Or is value more ‘in here’, waiting to be created, depending on our own individual (or societal?) thoughts and feelings? Students might also have different understandings of the ‘us’ in the original question: perhaps it’s good for us as a species that individuals die off; perhaps it’s bad for each of us as individuals that we die off. Perhaps there isn’t an answer that applies across the board to all of us considered as individuals – some individuals' deaths are bad for them; some aren't. Questions in practical ethics come up here – to do with euthanasia and the like.
Most people have instinctive reactions to these types of questions, answers that feel right to them without argument. In Philosophy, we are less interested in what that answer or series of answers might be, but how the person developing their thinking justifies it with argument or adapts it in the light of counterargument; how they respond to new considerations – new conceptual distinctions, new evidence, and so on; how (or if) they spot inconsistencies or growing implausibility as their series of answers and ideas develop, or bonds of mutual support between their answers and ideas.
Interviewer: Brian Bell, Lady Margaret Hall
Why is income per head between 50 and 100 times larger in the United States than in countries such as Burundi and Malawi?
The question is focused on perhaps the most important economic question there is: why are some countries rich and some countries poor? As with most economics questions, there is no simple or unique answer. Candidates need to think about all the potential reasons why such income gaps exist. A good starting point is to think about whether the amount of capital and technology available to workers in different countries is the same and if not, why not? US workers are much more productive because they have access to the best technology - the US is at the technological frontier. But why do poor countries not just buy the same technology and be as productive? Possibly, the education levels are too low to allow for the use of such technology or perhaps there are insufficient savings to purchase the technology or the infrastructure might not exist. Good candidates should recognise that institutions matter a lot - respect for property rights and the rule of law appear to be pre-requisites for sustainable development. Other factors might include trade restrictions by the rich world on poor countries exports, civil wars, disease (eg AIDS, malaria) etc. The trick is to think widely and not try and fit the answer to some lesson that has been learnt in school.
Interviewer: Dave Leal, Brasenose College
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?
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 unelected 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.
I'm having trouble with the meaning of three words: Lie, Deceive, Mislead. They seem to mean something a bit similar, but not exactly the same. Help me to sort them out from each other.
When I used this question, candidates adopted a number of strategies. One was to provide definitions of each of them - which turned out to be less easy than one might think without using the other words in the definition. Or they could be contrasted in pairs, or, like a good dictionary, examples might be given of sentences where they are used. No particular strategy was 'correct', and a variety of interesting discussions developed. A few candidates were inclined to think that it might be possible to lie without intending to; most reckoned that one could unintentionally mislead. A fertile line of discussion centred on misleading someone by telling them the truth. When Lucy tries to console Mr Tumnus, the faun, in Narnia, she tells him that he is 'the nicest faun I've ever met'. Which does sound comforting. She's only ever met one faun, though - him - so he's also the nastiest faun she's ever met. If he had felt comforted by her remark, would he have been deceived? And, in saying something true, had she deceived him, or had he deceived himself?
Questions of this sort help us to test a candidate's capacity to draw nuanced distinctions between concepts, and to revise and challenge their own first moves in the light of different sentences containing the key words. Discussion may well lead into areas which could crop up during a degree in philosophy, including questions in ethics, the philosophy of mind and of language. It's not, though, a test of 'philosophical knowledge', and the content of the discussion begins from words which candidates should have a good familiarity with. Until asked this question, they would probably think that they knew their meanings pretty well. Those for whom English isn't a first language might be thought to be at a disadvantage, but they often do strikingly well at such questions, better indeed than native speakers. There may well be reasons for this, which could form the basis of a different interview question.
Interviewer: Ian Phillips, St Anne’s College
What exactly do you think is involved in blaming someone?
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. Obviously the notion of blame is an important one in moral theory but insofar as blame is an emotional attitude it also brings in issues in the philosophy of mind. Debates about the nature of blame are going on right now in philosophy so the question is also partly a prompt for doing some philosophy together -- which is exactly what we hope to achieve in a tutorial.
With a question like this we’re not looking for a right answer but instead whether the candidate can be creative in coming up with examples and suggestions, and can think critically and carefully through their implications. So, for example, 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. This shows their capacity to evaluate a proposal, and we’ll typically ask them to illustrate their verdict with a counter-example: a case where someone thinks someone has done something wrong but doesn’t blame them. Candidates will then be encouraged to offer and test-out more sophisticated proposals about the nature of blame. Some might suggest that blame involves a more complex judgement than just that someone has done something wrong. Others instead might argue that real blame requires feelings of some kind on the part of the blamer: anger, or resentment, for example. And again we can put these proposals to the test by looking for counter-examples. 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).
Interviewer: Jeffrey Tseng, St Edmund Hall
A ball, initially at rest, is pushed upwards by a constant force for a certain amount of time. Sketch the velocity of the ball as a function of time, from start to when it hits the ground.
Physics interview questions often start with a question like this which looks as though it could have come from the Physics Admissions Test. In this example, I've asked the student to sketch a graph, and then I’d help him or her to get through the problem. Students do make mistakes, and that’s fine as I don’t expect them to know all the material, especially as the interview progresses. It's not assumed that a less-talented student will need more help on any given problem, and for this reason it can be difficult for students to judge how well they're doing during the interview.
If a student gets things correct straight away, I just move on, either to further aspects of the original question, or to others. For instance, the above line of questioning could easily result in a discussion of satellites, orbits, weightlessness or dark matter. It's usually a guided discussion rather than a matter of getting answers right or wrong straight away. I want to see how students respond to guidance and how they correct themselves, hopefully less by guessing than by thinking through what they know and what I've told them. Or in other words, while I am looking for a correct answer in the end, I'm even more interested in rigorous thinking.
Interviewer: Kate Watkins, St Anne’s College
A large study appears to show that older siblings consistently score higher than younger siblings on IQ tests. Why would this be?
This is a question that really asks students to think about lots of different aspects of psychology, and 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. 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: for example, noting that for example the pattern holds true even taking into account things like maternal age. This can lead them to think about what the dynamics of being an older sibling might be that produce such an effect - they might suggest that having more undivided parental attention in the years before a sibling comes along makes a difference, for example. Then we introduce the further proviso that the effect isn’t observable in only children - there is something particular to being an older sibling that produces it. Eventually most students arrive at the conclusion that being an older sibling and having to teach a younger sibling certain skills and types of knowledge benefits their own cognitive skills (learning things twice, in effect). But there isn’t really a ‘right’ answer and we are always interested to hear new explanations that we haven’t heard before. 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!
Interviewer: Nick Yeung, University College
Imagine that 100 people each put £1 into a pot for a prize that will go to the winner of a simple game. Each person has to choose a number between 0 and 100. The prize goes to the person whose number is closest to 2/3 of the average of all of the numbers chosen. What number will you choose, and why?
I like this as a question for Experimental Psychology because answering it brings in a range of skills relevant to the subject. Partly it involves numerical and analytical skills: the question implies that the answer will be 2/3 of some other number, but which one? Some people's first guess is 2/3 of 100, i.e., 66 or 67, in which case I'd ask them what numbers everyone else would have to pick for them to win. In this case, everyone else would have to choose 100, which is unlikely. More often people first guess 2/3 of 50 (= 33), which seems intuitively more likely. At this point, and usually without prompting, the recursive nature of the solution becomes clear: If there is good reason for me to choose 33, then maybe everyone else will choose 33 too, in which case I should choose 2/3 of 33... but then everyone will think this and choose 2/3 of 33 too, so I should choose 2/3 of that number.. and so on. Assuming everyone thinks like this, then everyone will eventually settle on 0 as their choice – this is the formal ‘game theory’ solution. At this point, I'd ask questions that bring out the candidate's broader reasoning skills in terms of thinking how we could define what it is rational to do in this game. Game theory gives one definition of rationality, but does it give a plausible winning answer – that is, is it likely that everyone, all 100 of them, will go through exactly the thought process we've just described? If not, is 0 really a rational answer? The question also has a psychological angle in thinking about reasons for people's behaviour and choices: Will everyone put in the same effort? Will everyone be motivated to win? When I've used this question in live audiences, sometimes people say they'd pick the number 100 just because it'd throw a spanner in the works for everyone playing the game rationally. How should this affect your choice of answer? What if the stakes were increased so that everyone put £1000 into the pot at the start?
What's clear from all of this is that we're not looking for a single answer. Rather, we're interested in seeing how people think through a problem, figure out what are the relevant factors, respond when new information is provided, and so on.
Interviewer: Nick Yeung, University College
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!
Interviewer: Dave Leal, Brasenose College
What is 'normal' for humans?
We're keen to point out to potential psychology applicants that primarily psychology is the study of normal human beings and behaviour; in part this is because of a suspicion that potential undergraduates are attracted to psychology to help them study forms of human life they find
strange (neuroses, psychoses, parents). There are various ways that this question might be approached, but some approach that distinguishes the normal from the statistical average is a good start. Issues such as whether normality is to be judged by 'biological' factors that might be held to be common to humans, or whether it's normal within a particular culture or at a particular period of history, might also be worth addressing. We are mainly looking for a line of thinking which could be developed and challenged. Once candidates show a defensible position regarding what might serve as the basis of normality, we extend the discussion to (for example) the relation between abnormality and eccentricity.
Interviewer: David Popplewell, Brasenose College
Why do human beings have two eyes?
This question may result from a more general discussion about the human senses. It 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 it 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 into 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.
Interviewer: Miles Hewstone, New College
Should interviews be used for selection?
This question could come out of a discussion of errors and biases in human judgement – that we sometimes overlook some information, while attaching too much weight to other information; and we are often over-confident about the decisions we make. What sources of information might be used to select, for example, Oxford students? Why? How do we know that information is valid? What does validity even mean? Once we have chosen what information we will consider, how can we combine it? And what are we trying to predict? (What is the criterion?). How would you design a research study to see how well different sources of information do, in fact, predict how well we can select Oxford students? What would your study need to measure? Would there be a control group? If so, what kind of control group? What would you need to control for?
Theology and Religion
Interviewer: Andrew Teal, Pembroke College
Is someone who risks their own life (and those of others) in extreme sports or endurance activities a hero or a fool?
Theology and Religion doesn't require A-level Religious Studies, so we always want to find issues that enable us to see how a student is able to handle and unpick a question, relating the particular to more general concepts. This question appeared to work well because there really isn't a single answer – it's open not least because we could state the opposite case and observe how flexible, reasoned and committed each student was. The question is properly approached from many perspectives and opens up many topics – is there something distinctively human about going beyond boundaries? Is this impulse selfish, or does it contribute to the whole of humanity's attainment? Is the heroism of those who respond to the needs of the sportsperson more heroic still? What debts do individuals owe to society, and society owe to individuals? What is a hero, and is that category in opposition to folly? What we found with this question is that it did manage to open what is a stressful occasion into a real discussion, and we want to offer places to gifted candidates who are willing to think out loud with us in tutorials, and in a college community, whilst they are still explorers into truths.
Interviewer: Peter Groves, Worcester College
Is religion of value whether or not there is a God?
This is a question we would hope any candidate for Theology and Religion would enjoy answering. It raises a number of issues for them to explore. What is our definition of religion, and how fluid is that definition? What do we mean by value, and how might it be measured? Are the effects of religion in the past as important as its consequences in the present?
A candidate might also want to ask what we mean when we say ‘there is a God?’ Is affirming this statement enough, or should religious or theological enquiry be more specific – is talk of God in the abstract as helpful as discussion of particular religious ideas or texts? How would we construct a case for the value of religion in the absence of belief in God?
A good answer could engage with one or more of these problems, and we would hope in conversation develop further questions. For example, can we adjudicate competing claims in conversations such as these? Is a worldwide religion such as Christianity or Islam intrinsically more or less valuable because of its number of adherents? Do ethics or aesthetics have a part to play: can I claim religious ideas have value if they inspire great art or music or poetry? Who gets to decide what is great? Does religion affect this decision?
All these possible questions represent directions in which the conversation might go – none is particularly wrong or right, but strong candidates will see a number of different routes available for them to explore, and could choose whichever interested them most.
If your course isn't listed here, please refer to the questions for other courses which are most similar to yours. The questions are intended to give you an insight in to the type of questions that may be asked, rather than to give specific examples of topics that will come up. You may also like to refer to the Interviews Guide and the selection criteria for your course, which you can find on your course page.
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