Can you answer these Oxford University interview questions?

Oxford interviewers explain what it takes to impress them
October 13 2016

Interviewers at Oxford University aren’t interested in how much you know. They’re interested in how you think.

Which is why the questions asked in interviews are never quite straightforward.

Helpfully, the university has released sample questions for different subjects, and provided explanations about what the interviewers are really looking for.

The five questions below are chosen and explained by real interviewers at Oxford colleges.

Can you impress the University of Oxford scholars? Give the questions a go.

Five examples of Oxford University interview questions

1. Modern languages (French): What makes a novel or play ‘political’?

2. Medicine: About 1 in 4 deaths in the UK is due to some form of cancer, yet in the Philippines the figure is only around 1 in 10. What factors might underlie this difference?

3. PPE (philosophy courses): What exactly do you think is involved in blaming someone?

4. Maths: Imagine a ladder leaning against a vertical wall with its feet on the ground. The middle rung of the ladder has been painted a different colour on the side, so that we can see it when we look at the ladder from the side on. What shape does that middle rung trace out as the ladder falls to the floor?

5. Experimental psychology: A large study appears to show that older siblings consistently score higher than younger siblings on IQ tests. Why would this be?

Answers and explanations

1. Modern languages (French): What makes a novel or play ‘political’?

Helen Swift, an interviewer at St Hilda’s College, explains: “[I]n posing the overall question ‘what makes this political?’ we’d want the candidate to start thinking about what one means in applying the label: what aspects of a work does it evoke? Is it a judgement about content or style? Could it be seen in and of itself as a value judgment? How useful is it as a label? What if we said that all art is, in fact, political? What about cases where an author denies that their work is political, but critics assert that it is – is it purely a question of subjective interpretation?”

Dr Swift also says that a candidate would not be penalised for changing their mind during the course of the conversation, so long as they showed a willingness and ability to engage with difficult and new ideas.

2. Medicine: About 1 in 4 deaths in the UK is due to some form of cancer, yet in the Philippines the figure is only around 1 in 10. What factors might underlie this difference?

Chris Norbury, an interviewer at The Queen’s College, says: “This is a typically open question, with no single ‘correct’ answer.”

He explains: “Some candidates will ask useful clarifying questions, such as ‘Where do these data come from, and how reliable are they?’, or ‘What is the average life expectancy in these parts of the world?’. Some candidates will seize on the idea that various aspects of the typical lifestyle in the UK are inherently unhealthy, which can make for an interesting discussion in itself. Others, especially if they appreciate that life expectancy in the Philippines is substantially lower than in the UK, will realise that other causes of death are more common in the developing world, and that this is the major factor that gives rise to the difference alluded to in the question.”

Considering these questions, according to Professor Norbury, displays your problem-solving, critical thinking, communication skills and other capabilities that are integral to the Oxford tutorial format of teaching.

3. PPE (philosophy courses): What exactly do you think is involved in blaming someone?

Ian Phillips, an interviewer at St Anne’s College, says: “With a question like this, we’re not looking for a right answer but instead whether the candidate can be creative in coming up with examples and suggestions, and can think critically and carefully through their implications.”

He continues: “So, for example, many candidates start out by suggesting that for A to blame B, A would have to think that B had done something wrong. Many also make the point that B needn’t actually have done anything wrong.

“We can use this opening suggestion to consider a simple theory of blame: blame is just thinking that someone has done something wrong. When this is put to candidates, most recognise that blame seems to involve more than this.

“This shows their capacity to evaluate a proposal, and we’ll typically ask them to illustrate their verdict with a counter-example: a case where someone thinks someone has done something wrong but doesn’t blame them. Candidates will then be encouraged to offer and test out more sophisticated proposals about the nature of blame.

“Some might suggest that blame involves a more complex judgement than just that someone has done something wrong. Others instead might argue that real blame requires feelings of some kind on the part of the blamer: anger, or resentment, for example. And again, we can put these proposals to the test by looking for counter-examples.

A good interview, according to Professor Phillips, will throw out revealing examples that show a candidate’s capacity for analytical thought.

4. Maths: Imagine a ladder leaning against a vertical wall with its feet on the ground. The middle rung of the ladder has been painted a different colour on the side, so that we can see it when we look at the ladder from the side on. What shape does that middle rung trace out as the ladder falls to the floor?

Rebecca Cotton-Barratt, an interviewer at Christ Church College, says the question tests whether a candidate can abstract away unimportant information and use mathematics to represent a situation.

Although candidates often sketch stages of the ladder falling to the ground, the correct approach is to model the fall using equations.

Dr Cotton-Barratt adds: “If they get stuck, we would ask them what shape the ladder makes with the wall and floor, and they’ll eventually spot that at each stage the ladder is forming a right-angled triangle.

“Some might then immediately leap to Pythagoras’ theorem and use that to find the answer (which is that it forms a quarter circle centred on the point where the floor meets the wall).”

5. Experimental psychology: A large study appears to show that older siblings consistently score higher than younger siblings on IQ tests. Why would this be?

Kate Watkins, an interviewer at St Anne’s College, says: “We guide students when discussing [this question] to think about both scientific factors such as maternal age (mothers are older when younger siblings are born – could that play a role?) and observational analysis about how birth order might affect behaviour and therefore performance on IQ tests.”

“This can lead them to think about what the dynamics of being an older sibling might be that produce such an effect – they might suggest that having more undivided parental attention in the years before a sibling comes along makes a difference, for example.

“Then we introduce the further proviso that the effect isn’t observable in only children – there is something particular to being an older sibling that produces it. Eventually most students arrive at the conclusion that being an older sibling and having to teach a younger sibling certain skills and types of knowledge benefits their own cognitive skills (learning things twice, in effect).”

In spite of that thorough explanation, Professor Watkins says that there is no right answer, and interviewers are often impressed by new explanation they have not heard before.

More sample questions can be found on the University of Oxford’s admissions page.

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Arguably the strangest University Entrance Questions on the face of the Earth.

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