Sample admissions interview questions released

Why do lions have manes?

In a world where English is a global language, why learn French?

Ladybirds are red. So are strawberries. Why?

If the punishment for parking on double yellow lines were death, and therefore nobody did it, would that be a just and effective law?

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 biological sciences might be asked why it matters if tigers become extinct, potential history students are asked to discuss whether the word ‘political’ has different meanings in different contexts, and applicants looking to study materials science may be asked to calculate the temperature in a hot air balloon necessary to lift an elephant.

‘The interviews are an important but often misunderstood part of Oxford’s admissions process,’ says Mike Nicholson, Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Oxford. 

‘We want to show students as much as possible what they are really like so they aren’t put off  by what they might have heard. The interviews are all about giving candidates the chance to show their real ability and potential – while this may sound intimidating, all it means is that candidates will be pushed to use their knowledge and apply their thinking to new problems in ways that will both challenge them and allow them to shine.

‘While the interview is only one part of the application process, for many students it is the part that makes them most anxious. We hope that seeing the questions will reassure students that tutors aren’t trying to see how quickly students get the ‘right’ answer or demonstrate their specialist knowledge, but how they respond to new ideas. We know there are still lots of myths about the Oxford interview, so we put as much information out there for students to see behind the hype to the reality of the process. We now have mock interviews online, video diaries made by admissions tutors during the interview process, and lots of example questions to help  students to familiarise themselves with what the process is – and isn’t – about.

‘The interview is an academic conversation in a subject area between tutors and candidate, similar to an undergraduate tutorial. And like tutorials, the interviews are designed to push students to think, not recite specific facts or answers. They may start with familiar territory and then move into areas students have not studied before, introducing new material or ideas, and they are entirely academic in focus. The selection criteria are subject-specific, and interviews are designed to find evidence of academic ability and potential in those areas.’

‘What we try to do in the interview is enable the candidate to perform to the best of their abilities’, says Dr Stephen Goddard, an admissions tutor for French. ‘So as well as asking questions specific to their chosen course or arising from their UCAS statement, we also give candidates the opportunity to think about the wider implications of what they want to study. The object of the exercise isn't to trick them, but to give them the chance to show what we're really looking for, which is the ability to think cogently and intelligently.’

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: Materials Science

Interviewer: Steve Roberts, St Edmund Hall

Q: How hot does the air have to be in a hot air balloon if I wanted to use it to lift an elephant?

Steve: ‘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, to 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.’

Subject: History

Interviewer: Ian Forrest, Oriel College

Q: Is violence always political?  Does 'political' mean something different in different contexts?

Ian: ‘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, 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.’

Subject: Biological Sciences 

Interviewer: Owen Lewis, Brasenose College

Q: Why do lions have manes?

Owen: ‘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.’

Subject: Biological Sciences   

Interviewer: Owen Lewis, Brasenose College

Q: Ladybirds are red. So are strawberries. Why?

Owen: ‘Many Biological Sciences 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.’

Subject: Biological Sciences

Interviewer: Owen Lewis, Brasenose College

Q: Would it matter if tigers became extinct?

Owen: ‘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.’

Subject: French

Interviewer: Stephen Goddard, St Catherine’s College

Q: In a world where English is a global language, why learn French?

Stephen: ‘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.’

Subject: Law

Interviewer: Liora Lazarus, St Anne’s College

Q: If the punishment for parking on double yellow lines were death, and therefore nobody did it, would that be a just and effective law?

Liora: ‘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.”’