Oxford reveals the method in the madness of its interview questions

What is “normal” for humans? Why do a cat’s eyes appear to glow in the dark?

October 19, 2010

The University of Oxford has revealed the thinking behind its famously odd interview questions in a bid to convince the general public that its interviews are not designed to catch students out.

Instead, the apparently weird and wacky questions help tutors assess how applicants respond to new ideas, according to Mike Nicholson, the university’s director of undergraduate admissions.

“There are many myths surrounding Oxford interviews, and they can be the most anxiety-provoking part of the Oxford application process for students,” he said.

“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.”

Nicholas Owen, an admissions tutor for the department of politics and international relations, said: “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.”

Interviews for undergraduate places are just one part of Oxford’s selection process.


Sample undergraduate admissions interview questions released by the University of Oxford:

Subject: English literature

Interviewer: Lynn Robson, lecturer in English, 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?

What Dr Robson says about the question: “First and foremost, this brings popular culture into the mix and 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 being ‘canonical’.”

Subject: Music

Interviewer: Dan Grimley, tutor in music, Merton College

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

What Dr Grimley says about the question: “This question is really very open-ended, and I’m interested in answers that 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) that 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 that deal with musical styles and tastes of all kinds.”

Subject: Biological sciences

Interviewer: Martin Speight, tutorial Fellow in biology, St Anne’s College

Q: Here’s a cactus. Tell me about it.

What Dr Speight says about the question: “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’ 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 and 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?’”

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