‘Why would you read Twilight?’: Sample questions give an insight into Oxford interviews

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

‘We are keen to show the reality of an admissions interview at Oxford,’ says Mike Nicholson, Director of Undergraduate Admissions. ‘The interviews are all about assessing academic ability and potential. The aim is to get candidates to use their knowledge and apply their minds to new problems while allowing them to shine.’

‘Many myths persist about Oxford interviews, but these questions show there are no trick questions, no special knowledge is required, and there are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers. Instead, the open-ended questions are designed to start discussion and see how candidates respond to new ideas or advance interesting arguments.’

Interviews at Oxford are structured and designed to assess academic ability and potential, looking for evidence of specific selection criteria for each subject. They take the form of an academic conversation in the chosen subject area between the tutors and the candidate. 

‘We want to see how candidates think, not draw out specific answers,’ explains Mike Nicholson. ‘The interviews may start in familiar areas and then move beyond the school curriculum to stretch candidates and see how they tackle new material and ideas. Interviews are not testing personality or polish, and will not focus on things unrelated to the chosen subject, such as hobbies or sports achievements.’

‘We are not trying to catch candidates out in interview and they shouldn’t feel they need to try to second guess what we are going to ask, and prepare answers,’ says Lucinda Rumsey, an Admissions Tutor who interviews candidates for English. ‘The purpose of these kinds of open questions is as a starting point for developing a discussion, and there are many directions that might go. We want to see candidates thinking critically and exploring new ideas.’

‘We hope that these example questions will be helpful for candidates preparing for admissions interviews,’ adds Mike Nicholson. ‘It also gives candidates a chance to get a sense of what Oxford would be like, with many interviews being similar to the tutorials that are part of any course at the University.’

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

Interview questions

Subject: Geography
Interviewer: Lorraine Wild, St Hilda’s College
Q: If I were to visit the area where you live, what would I be interested in?

Lorraine Wild: ‘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.’

Subject: Modern languages
Interviewer: Helen Swift, St Hilda’s College
Q: What is language?
Helen Swift: ‘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.’

Subject: English
Interviewer: Lucinda Rumsey, Mansfield College
Q: Why might it be useful for an English student to read the Twilight series?

Lucinda Rumsey: ‘There's several reasons I might ask this one. It's useful in an interview to find some texts the candidate has read recently and the Twilight books are easily accessible and popular. Also, candidates tend to concentrate on texts they have been taught in school or college and I want to get them to talk about whatever they have read independently, so I can see how they think rather than what they have been taught. A good English student engages in literary analysis of every book they read. The question has led to some interesting discussions about narrative voice, genre, and audience in the past.’

Subject: Medicine
Interviewer: Robert Wilkins, Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics
Q: Why does your heart rate increase when you exercise?

Robert Wilkins: ‘The simple answer, which all students can provide, is because you need to deliver more oxygen and nutrients to muscles and remove metabolic products. But follow-up questions would probe whether the student appreciates that there must be a way for the body to know it needs to raise the heart rate, and possible ways for achieving this. Answers might include sensing lowered oxygen or raised carbon dioxide levels. In fact, gas levels might not change much, so students are further asked to propose other signals and ways in which those possibilities could be tested. This probes selection criteria such as problem-solving and critical thinking, intellectual curiosity, enthusiasm and curiosity, and the ability to listen.’

Subject: Biological sciences
Interviewer: Martin Speight, Department of Zoology
Q: If you could save either the rainforests or the coral reefs, which would you choose?

Martin Speight: ‘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.’

Subject: Law
Interviewer: Ben McFarlane, Faculty of Law
Q: What does it mean for someone to ‘take’ another's car?

Ben McFarlane: ‘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.’

Subject: Engineering
Interviewer: Byron Byrne, Department of Engineering Science
Q: How would you design a gravity dam for holding back water?

Byron Byrne: ‘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.’