What is “normal” for humans? Interview questions released

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview questions

Subject: English Literature

Interviewer: Lynn Robson, Regent’s Park College

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

A: 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'.

Subject: Music

Interviewer: Dan Grimley, Merton College

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

A: 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 ways, 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).

Subject: Biological Sciences

Interviewer: Martin Speight, St Anne’s College

Q: Here’s a cactus. Tell me about it.

A: 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.

Subject: Theology

Interviewer: Andrew Teal, Pembroke College

Q: Is someone who risks their own life (and those of others) in extreme sports or endurance activities a hero or a fool?

A: Theology 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. The 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 need 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.

Subject: Psychology

Interviewer: Dave Leal, Brasenose College

Q: What is 'normal' for humans?

A: 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 were various ways that this question might be approached, but some approach that distinguished the normal from the statistical average was 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.

Subject: Biomedical Sciences

Interviewer: Jan Schnupp, St Peter’s College

Q: Why do a cat's eyes appear to 'glow' in the dark?

A: 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.