Habitats such as coral reefs support a huge diversity of plant and animal life, which students applying to study biological sciences might be asked to explain.
Habitats such as coral reefs support a huge diversity of plant and animal life, which students applying to study biological sciences might be asked to explain.
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'How much of the past can you count?' Oxford interview questions explained

The University of Oxford has released a set of sample interview questions from tutors who conduct Oxford interviews, in an attempt to explain the reasoning behind even the most strange-sounding questions.

The questions have been released to mark the deadline day for students to apply to study at Oxford University next year (15 October). Students applying for biological sciences might be asked why rainforests and coral reefs support such a high diversity of plant and animal life, while budding art historians should expect to discuss a painting they have never encountered before.

'While we look very carefully at GCSE results, aptitude test scores, personal statement and teacher’s reference in addition to interview performance in considering who gets a place at Oxford, we know that for many students the interview is the most daunting part of the process,' says Samina Khan, Acting Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Oxford University. 'Academic interviews will be an entirely new experience for most students, so we want to show students what they are really like so they aren't put off by what they might have heard.

'Interviews are not about reciting what you already know – they are designed to give candidates a chance to show their real ability and potential, which means candidates will be encouraged to use their knowledge and apply their thinking to new problems in ways that will both challenge them and allow them to shine. They are an academic conversation in a subject area between tutors and candidate, similar to the undergraduate tutorials which current Oxford students attend every week.'

Dr Khan adds: 'It's important to remember that most interviews don't involve strange or irrelevant-sounding questions at all – they might include a logic problem to solve for a subject like Maths, and we will often provide candidates with material to prompt discussion – for example a piece of text, an item to examine, or an image. It is often best to start responding by making very obvious observations and build up discussion from there, rather than assuming that there is a hidden meaning or a highly complicated answer you have to jump to immediately. Questions 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.

'There are plenty of anecdotes out there about Oxford interviewers asking questions that seem intimidating or confrontational, or even downright silly – we hope that seeing some of the less obvious questions will reassure prospective applicants that tutors aren't trying to catch students out or see how quickly they get the "right" answer or demonstrate their specialist knowledge. Tutors simply want to see how students think and respond to new ideas. We know there are still lots of myths about the Oxford interview, so we put as much information as possible out there to allow students to see behind the hype to the reality of the process. We now have mock interviews online, video diaries made by admissions tutors during the interview process, and lots of example questions to help students to familiarise themselves with what the process is – and isn't – about.'

Here are some sample questions:

Subject: History
Interviewer: Stephen Tuck, Pembroke College

Q: How much of the past can you count?
Stephen: This is, obviously, a question for someone who has also studied Maths in Year 12 or 13. (For those who have done English, the question could be 'What can novels tell us about the past that other sources can't?', and so on for other subjects.)

The question plays to the applicant's strengths (which is what we always try to do), but provides a chance to see whether the applicant can relate other subjects to history - quite a challenge given that subjects are often studied entirely separately at school.

In this case, the question gets at all sorts of issues relating to historical evidence. For which periods and places and aspects of the past is data readily available? When it's not, can it be collected, or at least estimated (and if so, how)? When it is available, is that data trustworthy? Is it sufficient? How might it be misleading (intentionally or unintentionally)? We might then probe the value of numerical evidence in a particular subject they have studied, for example agricultural yields in medieval Europe, crime rates in industrial England, or the profitability of American slavery – and think about what other sources would be needed to make sense of the past.

Of course, much of the interview would be taken up with discussing in depth the history courses the students have studied – the interview is not all about unusual questions.

Subject: Biological Sciences
Interviewer: Owen Lewis, Brasenose College

Q: Why do some habitats support higher biodiversity than others?
Owen: 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? 

Subject: Experimental Psychology
Interviewer: Nick Yeung, University College

Q: 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!

Subject: Art History
Interviewer: Geraldine Johnson, Christ Church

Q: Do you recognise this image?
Geraldine: This is the first question we ask History of Art candidates in interviews when they are shown images of artworks like this one. And it is the only question for which there is a single, correct answer, which is 'No' – though if the answer happens to be 'Yes,' then we simply pull out another image to show them. The interviewers obviously know what the picture being shown is, and the point isn’t to quiz candidates on what they may or may not have stumbled across in a book, online or in a gallery. Instead, we want our candidates, many of whom have never studied Art History, to show us how they would begin to approach an image they have not previously encountered. We want to find out what questions a candidate would ask about a particular image: what is it made of? what is being depicted? what size might it be? for what purpose might it have originally been made? how could we try to figure out when it might have been produced, and by whom? 

We are less interested in hearing a 'correct' answer than in seeing the thought process a candidate goes through in trying to analyse something he or she has never seen before. In fact, we have had candidates who have been off by several centuries and entire continents when assessing an unknown image, but who have really impressed us at interview because of the potential they showed in the kinds of questions they asked. In trying to tackle these questions, we hope that the interview will resemble a tutorial in establishing a two-way conversation rather than being just an exercise in question and answer.