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Sample interview questions

These sample interview questions come direct from the tutors who conduct the interviews. We hope they'll make you think, and help you understand why we ask the questions that we do.

Biochemistry

Interviewer: Kathryn Scott, Christ Church

Would you expect this compound to be more soluble in octanol or water? (The student will be shown the structure of an organic compound with functional groups that they will be familiar with from A-level/IB studies)

We do not expect the student to know the answer to this question straight away, and in fact getting the correct answer isn’t important here. It is more useful for us to see how the candidate applies their chemical knowledge to a problem they are unlikely to have considered before, how they justify their conclusions and whether they are capable of considering alternative possibilities.

If a student struggles with a starting point we would prompt them to describe more generally the different kinds of interactions that hold molecules together and to comment on their relative strength. We would then encourage them to think about what interactions the specific compound might make first with octanol and then with water. A good approach to answering the question would be to first consider the individual functional groups separately and then to discuss the compound as a whole.

The extension to this question asks the student to interpret some graphical data and requires a more technical introduction. We are careful at this point to make sure that the student has understood the explanation before moving forward with the question.

The relative solubility of a compound in octanol vs aqueous solution can be determined by putting a sample of the compound in a 1:1 mixture of octanol and aqueous solution and then measuring the concentration of the compound that has dissolved in each of the solvents. For one particular compound the relative solubility varies with pH as shown in the graph below. Can you interpret this graph?

We would clarify the compound discussed here is different to the one in the first part of the question and that ‘aqueous solution’ means water with acid or base added to control the pH.

The aim of this question is to see whether the student can understand a new concept and apply it to a problem. One approach to this question is to first consider the flat regions of the graph.  Between pH 0 and 4 the compound has a relative solubility very close 4. The student can use the equation to work out that this corresponds to much more of the compound dissolving in octanol than in water. In contrast, between pH 9 and 14 the relative solubility of approximately zero corresponds to almost equal concentrations of the compound dissolving in octanol and water. The student then needs to consider how the structure of a compound might change as pH is varied.  If they struggle at this point we might give a specific prompt, for example, “What form would you expect a water molecule to be found in at low pH?”.  Ultimately the prompts lead to the idea that the charge of a compound can change with pH due to gain or loss of hydrogen ions.

The graph shown here corresponds to a compound where the vast majority of the molecules are neutrally charged between pH 0 and 4. As the pH is raised a greater proportion of the molecules will lose a hydrogen ion to become negatively charged, being charged reduces the solubility in octanol and so the relative solubility decreases.  The plateau region above pH 9 occurs because almost all of molecules have lost the hydrogen ion by this point. Although the compound becomes negatively charged, it does not become more soluble in water than octanol, this suggests that the compound also includes functional groups that interact well with octanol, such as alkyl chains or rings.  It is important to note that a student would not have to make all of these points to do well in the interview. 

Biological Sciences

Interviewer: Owen Lewis, Brasenose College

Why do some habitats support higher biodiversity than others?

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?

Interviewer: Martin Speight, St Anne's College

Why do many animals have stripes?

The main aim of the question is to get applicants to think about biological topics and put them in the context of successful adaptations to life on earth. So I might expect students to start by thinking of some stripey animals, then move on to thinking about categories of striped animals – for example those that are dangerous (such as wasps, tigers, and snakes), those that have stripes for camouflage (such as zebras but also tigers), and those whose stripes are harmless mimics of dangerous ones. They might think of specific examples for detailed comparison: tigers and zebras for example both have stripes for camouflage and blending in with background, one to hide from prey and the other to hide from predators.

Other things that would be worth considering include whether stripes may only occur in the young of a species; whether the colour of the stripes matters rather than just the contrasting stripe pattern, and why do stripe size, shape, width and pattern vary in different species. There are no right or wrong specific answers to the questions – I'm just interested in candidates' speculations about the advantages of having stripes.

Here's a cactus. Tell me about it.

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's 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, 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.

If you could save either the rainforests or the coral reefs, which would you choose?

I'd expect students to be able to use their general knowledge plus their common sense to come up with an answer – no detailed knowledge is required. Students might then be asked about the importance of natural features, such as biodiversity and rare species, and human interests, such as the fuel and food, ecotourism and medicines we get from rainforests or reefs. Finally there are impacts to consider from climate change, soil erosion, pollution, logging, biofuel replacement, overfishing, etc. The final answer doesn't matter – both reefs and rainforests must be managed sustainably to balance conservation and human needs.

Is it easier for organisms to live in the sea or on land?

Firstly candidates should define 'easier' – does it mean less complexity, less energy expenditure, less highly evolved, less likely to be eaten etc? Then candidates could think of problems caused by living in the sea, such as high salinity, high pressure, lack of light etc. Problems living on land include extra support for the body, avoiding desiccation, the need for more complex locomotory systems (legs, wings etc) and hence better sensory and nervous systems etc. Then ask in which of the two ecosystems have animals and plants been more successful? So now they have to define 'successful'...

Interviewer: Owen Lewis, Brasenose College

Why do lions have manes?

Some of the best interview questions do not have a 'right' or a 'wrong' answer, and can potentially lead off in all sorts of different directions. Applicants might have picked up ideas about the function of a lion's mane from independent reading or from watching natural history documentaries. That's fine – but I'd follow up their response by asking how they would test their theory. When I've used this question in interviews I've had all sorts of innovative suggestions, including experiments where lions have their manes shaved to investigate whether this influences their chances with the opposite sex or helps them win fights over territory.

Ladybirds are red. So are strawberries. Why?

Many Biological Sciences tutors use plant or animal specimens – often alive – as a starting point for questions and discussion, so applicants shouldn't be surprised if they are asked to inspect and discuss an insect or a fruit. Red can signal either 'don't eat me' or 'eat me' to consumers. I'm interested in seeing how applicants attempt to resolve this apparent paradox.

Would it matter if tigers became extinct?

This question is not about hoping students will display their expert knowledge of tigers. Most applicants would instinctively answer 'Yes...', but it is the 'because....' that interests me, and can help to distinguish critical thinkers. I might follow up this question by asking if it would matter if less glamorous creatures – like fungi – went extinct.

Biomedical Sciences

Interviewer: Robert Wilkins, St Edmund Hall

Why is sugar in your urine a good indicator that you might have diabetes?

This question builds on general knowledge and material studied at school in biology and chemistry to assess how students approach a clinically-relevant problem. It’s commonly known that diabetes is associated with sugar (glucose) in the urine; this question asks students to think about why this occurs. Students have usually have learnt that the kidneys filter blood to remove waste products, such as urea, that must be eliminated from the body but many other useful substances which must not be lost – including glucose – are also filtered. Given that glucose is not normally found in the urine, students are asked to speculate as to how it can all be recovered as the urine passes through the kidney’s tubules.

The process involves reabsorption by a carrier protein that binds the glucose molecules and moves them out of the renal tubule and back into the blood. Students should appreciate that, in binding glucose, the carrier will share properties with enzymes, about which they will have learned at school: the capacity to reabsorb glucose is finite because once all of the carriers are working maximally, no further glucose reabsorption can occur. A successful applicant will make the connection that an elevated level of glucose in the blood in diabetes leads to increased filtration of glucose by the kidneys and saturation of the carriers that perform the reabsorption, resulting in ‘overspill’ of glucose in the urine.

Interviewer: Jan Schnupp, St Peter's College

Why do a cat's eyes appear to 'glow' in the dark?

This question builds on commonly held knowledge and on material covered in Biology at school about visual processes. The question assesses criteria such as scientific curiosity (has the applicant ever wondered this themselves? Have they formulated any theories?) and scientific reasoning, based on information provided by the interviewer as the interview progresses. After establishing that the applicant understands that light is detected by photoreceptors in the eye (and exploring and explaining this concept if it is a new one), the discussion would consider how the glow might be advantageous to the cat, seeing whether the applicant can appreciate that it may help the animal to see in the dark. Possible explanations for the glow would be discussed with an expectation that applicants might recognise that the light could be generated within the eye or alternatively that light entering the eye is in some way reflected back out. Having established the second possibility as more being more plausible, the interviewer would probe to see whether the candidate recognises the significance of giving photoreceptors two chances to capture light as rays pass into and then out of the eye and why at night this might enhance vision.

Classics

Interviewer: Gail Trimble, Trinity College

Why do you think Dido kills herself in Aeneid 4? Couldn’t she just have gone back to her old life?

I would never ask a question like this without the student mentioning the text first, as we don’t assume that all applicants will have read the same things. Many candidates have never studied Latin or Greek before at all, so we certainly wouldn’t assume that they had any particular knowledge. I would open this part of the interview by asking the applicant to choose a Classical text that they have enjoyed. This could be something they have read at school/college or on their own, in the original or in translation – it just needs to be something that they found interesting and that they would be happy to discuss.

A good answer to this question about Aeneid 4 might point out that the work contains hints that Dido’s sister and the people she rules will be devastated by her death: she actually has a lot to live for.  The answer might look for things Dido says that suggest she’s killing herself because she has lost her self-respect, and perhaps ask whether this rather obsessive focus on self-respect is a typical characteristic of ancient heroes.

Other typical questions might be about why so much of the Odyssey is about Odysseus’ return to Ithaca, rather than the adventures at sea that everyone remembers, or whether Achilles or Hector is the real hero of the Iliad?  It really depends on what the applicant says they have read. We’re looking for candidates to be able to pick out details in the text that support the argument they want to make - and opposing arguments, too.  The questions allow us to see whether candidates are open-minded and able to see how others, both today and, crucially, in the ancient world, might put the evidence from the texts together to draw different conclusions.  And we would hope that candidates would think about how, although literary texts often encourage us to react to their characters as if they were real people, actually these characters are constructed by an author, and what we see of them always reflects that author’s choices.

Computer Science

Interviewer: Brian Harrington,  Keble College

How do pirates divide their treasure?

A group of 7 pirates has 100 gold coins. They have to decide amongst themselves how to divide the treasure, but must abide by pirate rules:

  • The most senior pirate proposes the division.
  • All of the pirates (including the most senior) vote on the division. If half or more vote for the division, it stands. If less than half vote for it, they throw the most senior pirate overboard and start again.
  • The pirates are perfectly logical, and entirely ruthless (only caring about maximizing their own share of the gold).

So, what division should the most senior pirate suggest to the other six?

This is a standard logic problem and is a good example of the type of question that could be asked. I like to see how students can take directions, and if they can break problems into smaller subsets, and work through a complex concept applying a solution in an algorithmic way.  If students have any questions, I want them to ask – not to sit in silence feeling stuck!

See the solution to this problem. There is a wide range of other example interview questions on the Computer Science website.

Economics

Interviewer: Terry O'Shaughnessy, St Anne's College

The Holiday Puzzle:  

"Alex and Brian are cousins. They are planning a four-day holiday in Venice and they each have 400 euros to spend. (They have already paid for their return flights and for their hotel room.) On the flight to Venice Alex and Brian discuss how they should each allocate their spending over the four days.

Alex believes that the satisfaction he gains from spending a certain amount euros on a given day is proportional to √x. Explain why this might be a reasonable way to represent his preferences. If he has these preferences how would you expect him to allocate his spending over the four days?

Brian has the same preferences as Alex, but he knows that he tends to be impatient. This means that, on any given day, he tends to give extra weight to the current day’s spending when he makes his spending decisions for that day. Thus on a given day he behaves as if the satisfaction he would gain from spending euros would be √(2x) whereas the thinks that on subsequent days the satisfaction he will gain from spending euros will be only √x.

If Brian has these preferences how would you expect him to allocate his spending over the four days?

Is there a better way for Brian to allocate his spending and, if so, how might he achieve this better outcome?

Does your analysis of this problem have any implications for any current economic policy issues?"

After asking one or two general questions such as 'what topic in Economics have you enjoyed most, or found most surprising' we move on to working through a puzzle. We give the candidate a copy 10 minutes before the interview starts. We might spend 10-15 minutes going through the implications of the puzzle during the interview, though this depends on how far candidates get, and how quickly they get there!

Each puzzle is designed to see how willing candidates are to abstract from the complexities of a 'real world' case involving some economic principles and to put such principles 'to work'. There is usually some simple mathematical ideas involved (in this case, the idea that the utility function provided implies that it is best to allocate spending uniformly over the four days). However, we do not expect any calculations to be performed, though drawing a diagram is often useful (as it is in this example).

Economics and Management

Interviewer: Brian Bell, Lady Margaret Hall

Do bankers deserve the pay they receive? And should government do something to limit how much they get?

This is a very topical question in light of the recent financial crisis. A simple answer might be that since banks are generally private firms and workers are free to work where they wish, then the pay they receive is just the outcome of a competitive labour market. In this story, bankers earn a lot because they are very skilled and have rare talents. It is hard to see a reason for government intervention in this case – though on equity grounds one may want to have a progressive income tax system that redistributes some of this income. A good candidate would wonder why it is that seemingly equivalently talented people can get paid so much more in banking than in other occupations. Do we really believe that bankers are so much better than other workers in terms of skill? An alternative story is that the banking industry is not competitive and generates profits above what a competitive market would produce. This would then allow workers in that industry to share some of those profits and so earn much more. In this case, there is a role for government intervention - making the market more competitive. The key point about this question is trying to get candidates to think about the economics of pay rather than just whether they think it is fair or not.

Engineering

Interviewer: Steve Collins, University College

Place a 30cm ruler on top of one finger from each hand so that you have one finger at each end of the ruler, and the ruler is resting on your fingertips. What happens when you bring your fingers together?

This would never be the opening question in an interview - we usually start with a first question that gives the candidate an opportunity to get comfortable by discussing something familiar. We then ask more technical questions based on material in the GCSE and A-level syllabi. This question would come later in the interview, when we present candidates with an unfamiliar scenario and ask them to use what they know about familiar concepts (such as friction) to explain something.

Almost everyone in this example will expect the ruler to topple off the side where the finger is closest to the centre to the ruler because they expect this finger to reach the centre of the ruler first. They then complete the 'experiment' and find both fingers reach the centre of the ruler at the same time and the ruler remains balanced on two fingers. We like to see how candidates react to what is usually an unexpected result, and then encourage them to repeat the experiment slowly. This helps them observe that the ruler slides over each finger in turn, starting with the finger that is furthest from the centre.  With prompting to consider moments and friction, the candidate will come to the conclusion that moments mean that there is a larger force on the finger that is closest to the centre of the ruler. This means that there is more friction between the ruler and this finger and therefore the rule slides over the finger furthest from the centre first. This argument will apply until the fingers are the same distance from the centre. The candidate should then be able to explain why both fingers reach the centre of the rule at the same time as observed. In some cases, particularly if we have not done a quantitative question already, we might then proceed with a quantitative analysis of forces and moments. We might even discuss the fact that the coefficient of static friction is higher than the coefficient of dynamic friction and therefore the 'moving' finger gets closer to the centre than the static finger before the finger starts to move over the other finger.

Interviewer: Byron Byrne, Department of Engineering Science

How would you design a gravity dam for holding back water?

This is a great question because the candidate first has to determine the forces acting on the dam before considering the stability of the wall under the action of those forces. Candidates will probably recognise that the water could push the dam over. The candidate would then be expected to construct simple mathematical expressions that predict when this would occur. Some may also discuss failure by sliding, issues of structural design, the effects of water seeping under the dam, and so on. The candidate will not have covered all the material at school so guidance is provided to assess how quickly new ideas are absorbed. The question also probes the candidate's ability to apply physics and maths to new situations and can test interest in and enthusiasm for the engineered world.

English Literature

Interviewer: Lucinda Rumsey, Mansfield College

JK Rowling has just published a book for adults after the hugely successful Harry Potter series. In what ways do you think that writing for children is different to writing for adults?

Candidates who have grown up on Harry Potter might have read Rowling's new book and have thought both about Rowling's change of audience and their own change as readers from child to adult. But even without knowing Rowling's work at all candidates could say something about themselves as readers, and how as readers they approach different kinds of books, and how writers develop a body of work and write for different audiences. Mainly I always want to know that whatever they are reading, candidates are reading thoughtfully and self-consciously, and are able to think as literary critics about all the books they read. I worry that not all candidates might have the same access to a wide range of literature, and I am careful to judge them on what they know, not on what they don't know. If I asked that question about Shakespeare some candidates might have a view of his literary output, but many wouldn't. If I start with Harry Potter, everyone at least has a starting point of recognition. And I think Rowling deserves a mention as I am sure that there are many people applying to study English at university this year who became avid readers because of her books.

Interviewer: Emma Smith, Hertford College

Tell me about [this literary work you have mentioned in your UCAS personal statement]

I'd want to start with something the candidate has already identified as something they want to talk about (so be honest on your personal statement!). I'd want to get a sense of what the candidate picks out about it, and perhaps to try to move the discussion onto matters of form (how the text is written) rather than content (what it is about). That might include - how does the author choose to begin or end the work and why? is it a first-person or a third-person narrator, and what effect does that have? what kind of vocabulary and writing style are chosen? what assumptions does it make about its readers? There might be other questions too: does the biography of the author have any relevance to our interpretation? do we need to know something about the historical context to understand it differently? how would we evaluate whether it is 'good' or not, and does that matter? where might its meaning be ambiguous? can it be compared to one of the other texts mentioned or studied to clarify any one of these aspects?  All of these approaches are intended to develop a discussion - like a tutorial -  and to work with something the candidate is already familiar with - something they have read and/or studied and enjoyed - but to ask some more sideways or expansive questions about it, moving away from the character or close-reading focus which is often prominent at A-level but is supplemented or challenged by other reading methods during university study. 

Interviewer: Lynn Robson, Regent's Park College

Why do you think an English student might be interested in the fact that Coronation Street has been running for 50 years?

First and foremost this brings popular culture into the mix and also 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 be 'canonical'.

Geography

Interviewer: Lorraine Wild, St Hilda's College

If I were to visit the area where you live, what would I be interested in?

The question gives candidates an opportunity to apply concepts from their A level geography course to their home area. They might discuss urban planning and regeneration, ethnic segregation and migration, or issues of environmental management. The question probes whether they are able to apply ‘geographical thinking' to the everyday landscapes around them. It reveals the extent to which they have a curiosity about the world around them. By asking specifically about their home area the question eliminates any advantage gained by those who are more widely travelled and have more experience of a variety of geographical contexts.

History

Interviewer: Ian Forrest, Oriel College

What would a historian find interesting about the place where you live?

We use this question to open a discussion that could go in a number of different directions.  We want to encourage candidates to talk about a subject on which they know something, but where probing questions can lead them to look at what they know in a new and revealing light.  It was very common for candidates to say that nothing interesting ever happens where they live, but this was a chance for the interviewers to encourage them to reflect on what we mean by historical significance, and why some places seem unremarkable in those terms.  It also allowed us to hear candidates describe things like a town in decline, unusual street names, or pride in local sports teams, and then to ask them what questions a historian should ask in order to set these in context. It’s also a good question because it allows us to steer candidates away from prepared scripts (which are always a waste of time), and for us to see evidence of some of the instincts and skills that are really important in good History students: observation, noticing the unusual, being interested in the world around them, a questioning attitude, and the ability to see things from new angles.  

Is violence always political?  Does 'political' mean something different in different contexts?

This pair of questions allows the interviewer to deal with historical material from any period the candidate is studying or knows about from more general reading.  It could also be answered extremely well from contemporary or current affairs knowledge.  The aim of the question is to get the candidate to challenge some received notions about what constitutes politics, and to think about how political history might be studied away from the usual kings, parliaments etc.  A good candidate would, with assistance, begin to construct categories of when violence looks more and less political.  A very good candidate would, with assistance, begin to construct a useful definition of 'political', but this is challenging.  The main aim would not be to solve these problems, but to use them to find some new interest in a subject that the candidate already knows something about.

Interviewer: Stephen Tuck, Pembroke College

Imagine we had no records about the past at all, except everything to do with sport – how much of the past could we find out about?

I would say this to a candidate who had mentioned an interest in sport on their personal statement, though it could equally be applied to an interest in something else – like film, drama, or music. What I would be looking for is to see how the candidate might use their imagination, building on something they know about (probably much more than I do) to tackle questions of historical research.

Answers could relate to the racial/class/gender relations in society (who played the sports, and which sports, at any given time); international politics/empire (which countries were involved, did groups of countries play the same sport); economic development (the technological development of sports, how sport was watched); the values within a society (bloodthirsty sports to more genteel sports); health (participation rates); or many other issues – the list is long. I would usually ask supplementary questions, to push the students further – and often, I would have no answer in my mind, but would simply be interested in seeing how far the student could push their analysis.

Which person (or sort of person) in the past would you most like to interview, and why? 

Candidates know that this is not a right/wrong type question. The question is not so much about which person the candidate wants to meet, but what sort of issues the candidate wants to find out about (which can be quite revealing) and then working out the best way to do so. 'Meeting' Elizabeth I or Winston Churchill might be exciting, but if the candidate wants to find out about, say, their leadership style, they might be better off asking questions of a courtier or member of the war cabinet. Or if they wanted to find out what we don't know about any given period, they might want to interview people who didn't leave any written records. Sometimes we might encourage the candidate to think through whether the person they selected would be willing or able to reveal the information they sought (and we allow plenty of time for the candidate to change the issue they want to find out about, and reconsider their choice of person).

Law

Interviewer: Ben McFarlane, Faculty of Law

What does it mean for someone to ‘take' another's car?

There is no right answer to this question. For example, can you take a car without driving it, or even without moving it? Our focus is on the candidate's reasoning – how he or she formulates an initial definition, and how he or she then applies and refines that initial definition in response to hypothetical examples provided by the interviewers. One example might be: 'I am walking along the street when it starts to rain. I open the door of an unlocked car and sit there for 15 minutes until the rain passes. Have I ‘taken' the car?' The aim of the interview is to give the candidate a chance to show his or her application, reasoning ability, and communication skills.

Interviewer:  Liora Lazarus, St Anne's College

If the punishment for parking on double yellow lines were death, and therefore nobody did it, would that be a just and effective law?

Candidates are not meant to give a right or wrong answer to this question.  They need to demonstrate that they have recognised the various issues that arise.  The candidate who distinguishes between 'just' and 'effective' does best.  The issues are different once that distinction is made.  A just law might not be effective, or vice versa.  The issues of how proportionate the punishment is to the crime refer to the justness of the law.  The answer to its effectiveness is already in the question: 'and therefore nobody did it.'

Interviewer: Imogen Goold, St Anne’s College

Should it be illegal to run a red light in the middle of the night on an empty road?

Studying law requires that students understand what the law is, and also about what it should be, that is to think normatively. We are particularly interested in their capacity to justify their views and interpretations. This involves being able to analyse concepts and to critically appraise arguments and the reasoning behind a position, as well as to consider objections and to offer rebuttals to those objections. There isn’t a right or wrong answer to this question; we would be using the example to see how well the candidate could justify their stance. For example, a candidate might say that if no one was harmed by running the light, then it wouldn’t hurt to run it so it shouldn’t be illegal. This would be suggesting that the law is based on preventing harm. We might then explore whether this is the only purpose or the dominant purpose of the law, and how that might shape how legal rules need to be constructed, whether there are any circumstances in which exceptions might be valid and how effective exceptions could be created. Here, we would be looking to see how well they can see the problems with their approach and the difficulties inherent in drafting a rule that works in every situation without being too broad. This line of discussion would draw out their capacity to respond to challenges to their position, their ability to amend their initial answer when it no longer seems sustainable, and their ability to think precisely. Another candidate might suggest that even if no one is harmed, it is important that laws are respected and we could examine why this is the case. For example, if running lights was only illegal when it was dangerous, this would leave it to each person’s assessment of ‘dangerous’, so we could never be sure when someone would run a light, leading to chaotic traffic.

This question also picks up on ideas about what it means for something to be illegal and citizen’s relationship with the law, whether it can ever be justified to break the law and what might be a sufficient justification. This could lead into more philosophical discussions of what it means for a law to be binding and how legal rules might differ from moral rules or guidelines. A candidate might begin to consider whether there is something special about legal rules – are they different from other kinds of rules, such as those of a game, moral rules, social rules, club rules and so on. We could use this as a way into exploring with them whether the fact that something is illegal is itself a reason not to do something, over and above, perhaps, the harm the rule is aiming to prevent. Candidates might then think about how law makes other people’s behaviour more predictable so that we can plan our own actions, or how the law might serve functions like punishing wrongdoing. An example might be that because the law makes murder illegal and those who kill are punished, I can expect that I can leave my house and generally not expect to be killed, so this allows me to decide it’s safe to go outside.  

Materials Science

Interviewer: Steve Roberts, St Edmund Hall

How hot does the air have to be in a hot air balloon if I wanted to use it to lift an elephant?

When I actually used this question in interviews, no-one actually got as far as an actual 'X degrees C' answer in the ten minutes or so we allowed for it, nor did we expect them to. We use this sort of question to try to find how applicants think about problems, and how they might operate within a tutorial. We make this clear to interviewees before even giving them questions of this type. Things we are looking for include how readily they can see into the core of a problem (what's the essential physics in this? – what concepts and equations might be useful?); how they respond to hints and suggestions from us (can they take a hint or two and run with it, or do they have to be dragged through every step?); their approach to basic concepts (how does a hot air balloon work, anyway? What else operates like one?); estimates (typical size of balloon, weight of elephant) and sorting out what's important (what about the weight of the balloon itself?); and how they use 'rough maths' to get a quick idea of the likely sort of answer, using sensible approximations in working through formulae, and keeping track of units.

Mathematics

Interviewer: Rebecca Cotton-Barratt, Christ Church

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?

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 1/3 or 2/3 up the ladder.

Interviewer: Richard Earl, Worcester College

How many ways are there to cover a 2 x n rectangular grid with 2 x 1 tiles?

The question would typically be posed with the caveat – “I don’t expect you to have the answer straight away; try working out the answer when n = 1,2,3,4 say”. So here is something to investigate. Maths interviews are usually conducted over a piece of paper, sometimes at a white board and so diagrams will get drawn and the student will find the answers are 1, 2, 3, 5 for the first four cases. Some systematic care may be needed to explain why the fourth answer is 5 and why no sixth solution has been missed.

A relatively comfortable few minutes has been spent on this, but it’s also important that the student and I aren’t talking at cross-purposes. At this point I usually tell the student the next two answers at 8 and 13 – any thoughts on the emerging pattern? The answer is the Fibonacci sequence – where a term of the sequence is the sum of the previous two eg 8 = 5 + 3, though it’s not important if the student hasn’t met this before or has forgotten the name. The next stage of the interview is about understanding why that pattern should be appearing here.

When done with this bit of the interview hopefully the student has taken on board a few new ideas. So the question moves on to: 3 x n rectangular grids and 3 x 1 tiles, to 3 x n rectangular grids and 2 x 1 tiles. Hints will continue to be needed, but also there will be plenty of chance to see just how much the student has taken on board from earlier and how well s/he can adapt what’s been learned.

One of the reasons I found this a good question in the past was that its knowledge content is low, no more than GCSE. But its internal complexity is sufficiently difficult to test the brightest students, especially in the final part, whilst also allowing students repeated chances to show what they were learning and share their thinking.

Medicine

Interviewer: Andrew King, Exeter College

Put these countries in order by their crude mortality (deaths per thousand of the population): Bangladesh, Japan, South Africa, the UK.

Interviews for Medicine aim to gauge candidates' understanding of the science underpinning the study of medicine, as well as skills in scientific enquiry. This question invites candidates to think about a public health question and epidemiology that can be approached in many different ways, without necessarily knowing anything about specific mortality rates around the world. We would expect the initial discussion to probe the differing causes of death that contribute to mortality rates – such as those 'Western diseases' heart disease and cancer – and how they compare to those found in developing countries (high infant mortality, infectious diseases, poor nutrition, high rates of HIV etc.). The majority of candidates will expect Bangladesh or South Africa to have the highest crude mortality rate, and will be surprised to find that it is in fact Japan.

The other part of the mortality rate calculation is of course the age of the population: we would ideally steer the conversation towards a discussion of why a wealthy but older country like Japan might have a higher mortality rate, while a country like Bangladesh – which many people might initially expect to have a high mortality rate due to relative poverty as a country – actually has a relatively lower mortality rate because of its young population. Similarly, Britain actually has the second-highest mortality rate because of the age structure of its population: we are a relatively old country and a majority of deaths occur in older people. We wouldn't expect students to get the right answer on their own, and in fact that's not the point: the point is to see how they apply their understanding of social and cultural factors in health and illness to a problem of epidemiology. Some students might already have a detailed knowledge of demography, others might need to be given more relevant information – the point isn't what they know, it's what questions they ask to make their conclusions, and how they interpret information to draw those conclusions. We might then go on to discuss how you could make a valid comparison between mortality rates in different countries.

Modern Languages

Interviewer: Helen Swift, St Hilda's College

What makes a novel or play ‘political’?

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!

Should poetry be difficult to understand?

This question arose out of discussion of a few poems that a candidate said he had read, and we were talking through how these poems were conveying meaning (through things such as tone and the imagery they used). We wanted to push the candidate into more conceptual thinking to test his intellectual curiosity and how he would handle moving from familiar particulars (the poems he knew) to less familiar ways of approaching them. What's important for candidates to realise is that we don't expect a single correct answer to such a question; it's a starting point for a new direction of discussion: what sorts of 'difficulties' might we have in mind? Are these specific to poetry or do they also feature in other types of writing? And so on.

What most interests us is that candidates are willing to venture down a new path, however uncertain this may feel: to have a go and show that they have the potential to develop their thinking further – and thus thrive on the sort of course we offer. Literature forms an important part of a Modern Languages degree at Oxford, but we know that most candidates won't have studied literature formally before in the language for which they're applying. What we want to know isn't that they've read a certain number of texts to prove their interest, but that they have the aptitude for studying texts: that they're able to think carefully and imaginatively about whatever they've had chance to read (poems, prose, drama) that's interested them, in any language.

What is language?

Although I would never launch this question at a candidate on its own, it might grow out of a discussion. Students sometimes say they like studying Spanish, for example, because they 'love the language'. In order to get a student thinking critically and analytically, the question would get them to consider what constitutes the language they enjoy – is it defined by particular features or by function (what it does)? How does form relate to meaning? And so on.

What makes a short story different from a novel?

To further their subject interest and to discover whether the Oxford Modern Languages course is a good fit for them, candidates are encouraged to try reading some literary texts in the foreign language. We know that most won't have studied literature formally before in the language for which they're applying, so this will be reading that they've undertaken independently. In that respect, short stories, such as those by Guy de Maupassant, are a good and a popular place to start: they're engaging, memorable and can feel quite approachable. So if a candidate mentions s/he has read a few short stories, we might begin by asking them which they found the most engaging (or, for instance, the most challenging) and why. After developing this discussion for a short while, we might then push outwards from particular narratives to broader, conceptual issues, such as 'what is a short story?' or, differently posed, 'what makes a short story different from a novel?'

This isn't a question on which we'd necessarily have expected the candidate to have reflected already; it would be the beginning of a conversation, which would start by breaking down the question itself and building up an answer gradually: what might we want to think about in making such a comparison? What elements of plot design or structure or character presentation might differ? Are there, in fact, salient differences? Is it a valid opposition to make? We'd be looking for a willingness to try out new ways of thinking and an aptitude for thinking carefully and imaginatively through a perhaps initially unfamiliar issue. That we'd been speaking about one or two particular stories before posing this 'bigger picture' question would mean that the candidate would have ready to hand material to illustrate her/his responses. In asking such a question, I as interviewer don't have in my mind a fixed answer or set of expected points as the candidate starts to respond; the follow-up on any question depends on how s/he sets about thinking her/his way through it.

Interviewer: Stephen Goddard, St Catherine's College

In a world where English is a global language, why learn French?

I might use this question early in an interview in order to set the candidate thinking, and to elicit some idea of their motivation before moving on to more specific questions. Given the nature of the Modern Languages course, I would be interested in responses about the French language as a 'window' into French culture/literature/history, knowledge of which is valuable in itself/essential to understanding today's world, etc.; but would also be happy to see candidates investigate some of the assumptions underlying the question: Is English a global language? What about Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, etc.? Can we not in fact still consider French a global language? And so on.

Interviewer: Jane Hiddleston, Exeter College

What do we lose if we only read a foreign work of literature in translation?

This is a good question as it helps us to see how candidates think about both languages and literature. They might be able to tell us about the challenges of translation, about what sorts of things resist literal or straightforward translation from one language to another, and this would give us an indication of how aware they are of how languages work.

They might also tell us about literary language, and why literary texts in particular use language in ways that make translation problematic. This might lead to a discussion of what is distinct about literary works, and this helps us to see what kind of reader they are more broadly. We don't do this with the expectation that they have already read any particular works, however, but in order to get a sense of why they think it is worth studying literatures in foreign languages. This is an important issue, given that Modern Languages students at Oxford read a lot of literature in the language as part of their course. Occasionally candidates are able to give examples of famous lines or quotations that risk being misread when translated into English. This issue might also be something we discuss when we read an extract or poem in the language together during the interview.

Music

Interviewer: Dan Grimley, Merton College

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

This question is really very open-ended, and I'm interested in answers which 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) which 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 which deal with musical styles and tastes of all kinds (and which are produced/consumed in all places).

Oriental Studies

Interviewer: Alison Salvesen, Mansfield College

Can archaeology ‘prove’ or ‘disprove’ the Bible?

Candidates in my subject come from a wide variety of backgrounds and qualifications, so we generally try to tailor the interview questions to the individual according to what they have on the UCAS form or wrote about in their submitted work, in order to find out whether they have a genuine interest in the subject area and an aptitude for the course.

For this particular question I would be looking for an answer that showed the candidate could appreciate that the Bible was a collection of documents written and transmitted over several centuries, and containing important traditions that have a bearing on history, but that academic study of the Bible means that it has to be examined carefully to see when and where these traditions had come from and for what purpose they had been written. Whereas they should recognise that archaeology relies on non-literary sources preserved from ancient periods such as the remains of buildings and tools. These can often be dated by scientific means (and so appear more objective than literature), but we still frequently need additional information such as inscriptions or evidence from other similar sites in order to make sense of the ancient remains. In the end I would hope the candidate would work towards a realisation of the very different nature of these types of evidence, which  sometimes gives a complementary picture, while in others it may be contradictory. Both require very careful interpretation, and just arguing that ‘The Bible says’ or that ‘Archaeology proves’ is much too simplistic. (The same kind of thing applies to archaeology, the Quran, and non-Islamic historical sources for a study of the early Arab conquests.)

Philosophy, Politics and Economics

Interviewer: Cecile Fabre, Lincoln College (now of All Souls)

'I agree that air transport contributes to harmful climate change. But whether or not I make a given plane journey, the plane will fly anyway. So there is no moral reason for me not to travel by plane.' Is this a convincing argument?

The interview is not meant to test candidates' knowledge of Philosophy, since more often than not, they have not studied this subject before. Moreover, we are not trying to get them to guess or arrive at 'the right answer'. Rather, the interview is about candidates' ability to think critically, to deal with counter-examples to the views they put forward, and to draw distinctions between important concepts.

This answer raises the difficult question of individuals' responsibility, as individuals, for harmful collective actions. Some candidates might be inclined to dispute the premise that air transport contributes to climate change: that’s fine, but we would then ask them to accept that premise for the sake of argument. Whether they are able to do that is in itself an important test, since much of philosophical thinking proceeds in this way.

Some candidates might say that the argument is a good one: given that what I do makes no difference, I have no moral reason not to do it. At this point, I would want to know what they consider a moral reason to be (as distinct from or similar to, for example, a practical or prudential reason).

I would also push them to think about other cases: for example, the bombing of Dresden (one jet fighter less makes no difference to the collective outcome – so why not go and fight); or voting (why should I vote in a general election, given that my vote makes no difference)? Are the cases the same? Are they different? If so, are the differences or similarities relevant? That is to say, do those differences and similarities help us think about the original case? Do they help us to work out a view about individual responsibility in those cases? For example, in the Dresden case, the individual jet fighters act together as part of an organisation – the air force – whose aim is to bomb Dresden. But we cannot say of companies such as British Airways that they aim to cause climate change. And the air passengers cannot really be described as acting together. Does this make a difference?

Interviewer: Tim Mawson, St Peter's College

Are our deaths bad for us?

I quite like this question because whichever way one answers it, new questions open up. One can distinguish between the process of dying and the state of being dead. The first seems non-problematically something that might well be bad for us (involving suffering), but the second is harder to assess – not least because one can have differing understandings of what the state of being dead is: is it permanent annihilation? Is it somehow waiting unconscious for a resurrection? Is to die simply to be transported instantaneously to some new realm? Or is it something else again? And can one know which? Whichever way the discussion goes, interesting topics branch off. These can include the nature of the self and personal identity; the rationality (or otherwise) of religious beliefs.

There are also different understandings of what ‘badness’ is or would be – are all bad things that happen to us things which affect our consciousness, in which case how could annihilation (if that’s what being dead is) be bad for us? And wider discussions of the nature of value might open up from there. Is there a world of value in some sense ‘out there’, waiting to be discovered, independent of what we might happen to think or feel about it? Or is value more ‘in here’, waiting to be created, depending on our own individual (or societal?) thoughts and feelings? Students might also have different understandings of the ‘us’ in the original question: perhaps it’s good for us as a species that individuals die off; perhaps it’s bad for each of us as individuals that we die off. Perhaps there isn’t an answer that applies across the board to all of us considered as individuals – some individuals' deaths are bad for them; some aren't. Questions in practical ethics come up here – to do with euthanasia and the like.

Most people have instinctive reactions to these types of questions, answers that feel right to them without argument. In Philosophy, we are less interested in what that answer or series of answers might be, but how the person developing their thinking justifies it with argument or adapts it in the light of counterargument; how they respond to new considerations – new conceptual distinctions, new evidence, and so on; how (or if) they spot inconsistencies or growing implausibility as their series of answers and ideas develop, or bonds of mutual support between their answers and ideas.

Interviewer: Cecile Fabre, Lincoln College (now All Soul’s)

Suppose that you could plug yourself into a machine for the rest of your life, which would give you all the experiences you find enjoyable and valuable. Once in the machine, you would not know that you are plugged in, and that these experiences are not real. Would you go into the machine? If so, why? If not, why not?

 

Medicine Personal Statement

Illness affects us all at some point during our lives. From birth to death, the study of Medicine contributes towards improving the quality of life and the ability of the human body to overcome these illnesses, allowing us to live longer and die more comfortably. Should I be given the opportunity to do so, studying Medicine will enable me to pursue a career which dedicates itself towards caring for others. This is something I feel incredibly passionate about.

I have been fortunate enough to contextualise the knowledge that I have gained during my A-Levels through several work experience placements which I organised independently. Having learnt about the complexities of the human body in Biology, I spent two weeks at the London Chest Hospital, shadowing a cardiothoracic consultant. There, I observed open heart surgery and the remarkable progress made in technology through a TAAVI procedure. This, alongside my two weeks shadowing a consultant urologist, allowed me to build bridges between my A-Level Physics course and medical equipment. An example of this is the development of Cell Savers, which clean lost blood during surgery, using the principle of sedimentation. This analytical skill is fundamental to a doctor’s success because, in most situations, it is not a case of recalling what one has studied during medical school, but being able to apply it practically as each patient is unique. Furthermore, the placements developed my ability to communicate with patients during ward rounds in a sensitive manner. I then organised a two week placement for myself at a General Practice to gain an insight into primary care. What struck me was that, despite television portraying a hospital environment as one that is led solely by medical personnel, teamwork is indispensable. Having been a member of the Army Cadet Force for eighteen months, my ability to work in a team has improved significantly and is continuing to through my pursuit of a gold Duke of Edinburgh’s award. This is further highlighted by the fact that, as the captain of my school’s netball team, I have won several inter-borough netball competitions.

My experiences at St Joseph’s Hospice as part of a project with the National Council for Palliative Care taught me, over the course of the four months which I spent there, that a doctor’s ability to cure is limited. The fact that the patients were deteriorating so rapidly showed me the importance of being able to control one’s emotions. My ability to cope with this pressure is highlighted by the fact that, as a qualified member of the British Red Cross first aid team, I am required to deal with traumatic incidents. Having a second language, Farsi, allowed me to understand the different cultures at the hospice, enhancing my empathetic skills. I was subsequently invited to deliver a speech at the Houses of Parliament to share my experiences. For over six months now, I have volunteered at St Anne’s Care Home which has further developed these skills.

My ability to manage my time effectively without losing my academic focus has allowed me to maintain my extracurricular interests. As a member of my school’s drama society, I have been able to release the stress associated with my academic life in a creative manner. Debating has enriched my ability to communicate coherently and my successes as a debater have led me to receive a Trailblazer award at the House of Lords. Attending medical ethics master-classes and reading journals such as The Lancet, alongside books like ‘The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat’ by Oliver Sacks, have allowed me to explore concepts which extend beyond my A-Level studies, developing my ability to learn and research independently.

I fully comprehend that Medicine is not an easy route to pursue. However, the skills that I have developed through my experiences contribute towards my belief that, not only do I have the determination to succeed at medical school, but the sensitivity and passion to succeed as a doctor.

Universities Applied to:

  • Cambridge, King's College (Medicine) - Offer (A*AA) Firm
  • King's College London (Medicine) - Offer (AAAC) Insurance
  • Bart's and the London (Medicine) - Offer (AA in Biology & Chemistry, AC in Maths & Physics) Declined
  • Birmingham (Medicine) - Rejection w/o interview
  • Durham (Biomedical Science) - Offer (ABB) Declined

 

Grades Achieved:

  • Biology (A2) - A*
  • Chemistry (A2) - A*
  • Physics (A2) - A*
  • Maths (A2) - A*

Comments

General Comments:

I'm very impressed. Wow.

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Article by TSR User on Thursday 15 February 2018

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