‘Explain why the death rate from cancer is much higher in the UK than in the Philippines’: Oxford interview questions demystified

Feeling nervous before a university admissions interview?

Most people advise practising using sample questions so that you’re well prepared.

In a bid to demystify the whole process, the University of Oxford regularly releases samples of interview questions which have been used on actual candidates.

Samina Khan, Director of Admissions and Outreach at Oxford, said: “We emphasise in all our outreach activity that the interview is primarily an academic conversation based on a passage of text, a problem set, or a series of technical discussions related to the content of the course students have applied for.”

“But interviews will be an entirely new experience for most students, and we know many prospective applicants are already worried about being in an unfamiliar place and being questioned by people they have not met – so to help students to become familiar with the type of questions they might get asked we release these real examples,” she added.

Its latest set of sample questions cover five topics:  modern languages; medicine; philosophy, politics and economics; mathematics; and experimental psychology.

According to the tutors in charge of conducting interviews for their respective subjects, what they’re looking for from students when they ask a question isn’t necessarily about getting the ‘right’ answer.

“We want to underscore that every question asked by our tutors has a purpose, and that purpose is to assess how students think about their subject and respond to new information or unfamiliar ideas.

“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,” said Khan.

Here are the questions, as well as the explanation from each tutor regarding the ‘why’ behind them:

Image via Pixabay.

Q: What makes a novel or play ‘political’? (Modern Languages)

Interviewer: Helen Swift, St Hilda’s College

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’.

We might start off by discussing the specific work that they cite (something that isn’t included in their A-level syllabus), so they have chance to start off on something concrete and familiar, asking, for instance, ‘in what ways?’, ‘why?’, ‘why might someone not enjoy it for the same reason?’.

We’d then look to test the extent of their intellectual curiosity and capacities for critical engagement by broadening the questioning out to be more conceptually orientated and invite them to make comparisons between things that they’ve read/seen (in whatever language). 

So, in 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 judgment about content or style? Could it be seen in and of itself 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? And so on.

The interviewers would provide prompt questions to help guide the discussion. 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; ideally, they would recognise themselves that they were changing their viewpoint, and such awareness could indicate aptitude for sustained, careful reflection rather than a ‘scattergun’ effect of lots of different points that aren’t developed or considered in a probing way. Undoubtedly, the candidate would need to take a moment to think in the middle of all that – we expect that ‘ermmm’, ‘ah’, ‘oh’, ‘well’, etc. will feature in someone’s responses!

Q: 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? (Medicine)

Interviewer: Chris Norbury, The Queen’s College

This is a typically open question, with no single ‘correct’ answer, which aims to stimulate the sort of discussion that might be encountered in a tutorial teaching session. The discussion could take any one of a number of directions, according to the candidate’s interests.

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. This probes selection criteria including problem-solving, critical thinking, intellectual curiosity, communication skills, ability to listen and compatibility with the tutorial format.

Image via Flickr.

Q: 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? (Mathematics)

Interviewer: Rebecca Cotton-Barratt, Christ Church

This question tests whether you can do what mathematicians do, which is to abstract away all the unimportant information and use mathematics to represent what’s going on. I’d initially ask the candidate what shape they think will be formed, and then ask them how they can test this hypothesis. They might initially try sketching the ladder at different stages – this is fine, but ultimately what we want is something that we can generalise and that is accurate (you can’t be sure that your drawing is that accurate, particularly when you’re making a sketch on a whiteboard and don’t have a ruler).

 So eventually they will fall back on maths, and try to model the situation using equations. 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).

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). A nice extension is what happens when we look at a point one-third or two-thirds up the ladder.

Q: What exactly do you think is involved in blaming someone? (Philosophy, Politics and Economics)

Interviewer: Ian Phillips, St Anne’s College

Questions like this help draw out a candidate’s ability to think carefully and precisely about a familiar concept, evaluating proposals, coming up with counter-examples, disentangling considerations, and being creative in proposing alternative approaches. Obviously the notion of blame is an important one in moral theory but insofar as blame is an emotional attitude it also brings in issues in the philosophy of mind. Debates about the nature of blame are going on right now in philosophy so the question is also partly a prompt for doing some philosophy together – which is exactly what we hope to achieve in a tutorial.

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. 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 might 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 recognize 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.

Good interviews will often generate all kinds of interesting and revealing discussions that show a candidate’s ability for analytical thought: for example about self-blame, cases of blame where the blamer knew the blamed had done nothing wrong, and indeed cases of blaming something inanimate (such as a faulty printer or phone).

Image via Flickr.

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

Interviewer: Kate Watkins, St Anne’s College

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.

It’s a great question because students begin from the point they are most comfortable with, and we gradually add more information to see how they respond: for example, noting that the pattern holds true even taking into account things like maternal age. 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).

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. And of course it doesn’t matter if you have a sibling or not – though depending on family dynamics, that can add an interesting twist to the conversation!

Want more questions to practice with? You can check out other sample interview questions at: http://www.ox.ac.uk/admissions/undergraduate/applying-to-oxford/interviews/sample-interview-questions.

Image via Pexels

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