Could you get into the University of Oxford? Answer these five questions

Joe Vesey-Byrne
Wednesday 12 October 2016 07:30

The University of Oxford has released a series of sample interview questions.

In 2016 Oxford pipped Cambridge and Harvard to the top spot of the World University Rankings, so no pressure on the latest cohort.

Getting into Oxford varies from subject to subject, but all courses involve at least one interview, and usually two, at the college to which you've chosen to apply.

Dr Samina Khan, director of admissions and outreach at the university has explained that the interview process is designed to emulate a weekly tutorial that students would undertake.

No matter what kind of educational background or opportunities you have had, the interview should be an opportunity to show off your interest and ability in your chosen subject, since they are not about reciting what you already know. Tutors want 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 2015 there were 18,377 applicants, and of those 3,126 accepted offers. For the mathematically brained among you, that's obviously 18 per cent.

Eighteen per cent has also been the average rate of acceptance for the last three years.

To make these odds seem less daunting, and with the 15 October deadline for 2017 starters looming, the university has released a series of sample questions and advice from tutors.

Some are short but abstract, while others are the presentation of a complex problem to be solved.

How would you fare?

1. What makes a novel or play 'political'?

Subject: Modern Languages (French)

Helen Swift of St Hilda’s College explains how this question should be tackled, and what it will show the interviewer.

This is the sort of question that could emerge from a student's personal statement, where, in speaking about their engagement with literature and culture of the language they want to study, they state a keen interest in works (of whatever type they mention, such as a novel, play or film) that are 'political'.

Swift goes on to explain how a strong candidate would answer the question.

A strong candidate would show ready willingness and very good ability to engage and develop their ideas in conversation. It would be perfectly fine for someone to change their mind in the course of the discussion or come up with a thought that contradicted something they’d said before – we want people to think flexibly and be willing to consider different perspectives.

2. 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?

Subject: Maths

Interviewing tutor Rebecca Cotton-Barratt from Christ Church points out the main skill on show in this maths question, is the ability to cut away all of the unnecessary information in a problem, and then use maths to represent what is going on.

Cotton-Barratt explains that she would work through the problem with the applicant, asking them to solve the question, and then how they would test their hypothesis.

This is a fun question because the answer is typically the opposite of what they expect because they think about the shape the ladder makes when it falls (which is a series of tangents to a curve centred away from the wall and the floor).

3. 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?

Subject: Medicine

Chris Norbury, a tutor at the Queen's College explains that there is no single 'correct' answer to this question. Like many interview questions, it is designed to stimulate discussion and assess how an applicant thinks rather than measure their fact retention.

Norbury suggests several ways an applicant could respond.

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... 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.

4. What exactly do you think is involved in blaming someone?

Subject: Politics, Philosophy, Economics (and other Philosophy)

Ian Phillips of St Anne's College explains what the interviewer is hoping to prompt with this question:

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.

Phillips suggests some of the topics an interviewee might lead the discussion towards.

Some might suggest that blame involves a more complex judgment 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

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

Subject: Experimental Psychology

Kate Watkins of St Anne's College explained why this question is useful to interviewers:

This is a question that really asks students to think about lots of different aspects of psychology, and we guide students when discussing it 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.

Watkins explains that tutors will introduce other provisos into the situation, such as 'the effect isn't only observable in children'. This can then be used to guide applicants towards one of the possible answers: that older siblings usually teach younger siblings certain skills and types of knowledge, which in turn benefits their own cognitive skills.

But there isn't really a 'right' answer and we are always interested to hear new explanations that we haven’t heard before. What we are interested in is the kinds of reasoning students use and the questions they ask about the study – what it takes into account, what it might not – that tells us about their suitability for the course.

For the full explanations to each question on Oxford's admissions website, click here.

More: 5 posts for anyone who doesn't get that porn stars are normal people​

More: A new study on female orgasms proves Freud wrong once and for all​