Our blog series on real Oxbridge interview questions continues with a genuine question posed to prospective students by admissions tutor Martin Speight, of St Anne’s College, Oxford: “Here’s a cactus. Tell me about it.” At first glance, this might make prospective applicants panic – it sounds like one of those ‘nightmare’ questions for which the Oxbridge interview process is famed – so simple, unexpected, open-ended and vague that it would be easy to panic completely and have no idea how to begin to answer. But don’t panic. Though it sounds flippant and challenging at first, what the interviewer is actually doing is not trying to intimidate you with a tough and weird trick question, but simply opening up a whole range of possible topics for discussion and giving you the opportunity to choose which you feel most comfortable talking about. Confused? Here’s how it works…

Choose Your Own Question

When the interviewer gives you a question as open as this, what they are really doing is offering you a gift. All he has asked of you in this case is to provide him with information about a cactus, and he has even given you one in order to give you ammunition should your own prior knowledge of this particular plant be sketchy. So, if you happen to have studied some aspect of cacti in depth for an A-level project, or during a trip abroad, by all means take advantage of this opportunity to show off your knowledge. But if you don’t know much about them, use the situation as a chance to show your analytical skills – take the features of the plant in front of you one at a time and use your knowledge of plant biology and the natural world to explain how each aspect has developed for a specific reason, such as the development of spikes to prevent predators from eating the plant. If you feel more comfortable discussing the adaptation of the plant’s roots to an arid climate, or the way in which the colouring of its flowers attracts insects to enable reproduction, then seize on these topics for discussion. This is your chance to choose the question you want to answer.

Lead the Interview

The interviewer truly wants to hear what your strengths and interests are and to talk about a subject in which you will be able to shine and show off your best style of academic argument. So if your strongest subject is photosynthesis, take firm hold of this open-ended question by first speculating about the ability of the cactus to photosynthesize and the development of the relevant features that allow it to do so efficiently. Next, allow this discussion of photosynthesis to lead naturally into a more specific analysis of the particular area you wanted to talk about: you will have successfully changed the subject to the one where you can shine whilst still answering an important aspect of the question that the interviewer has asked. He may interrupt and return the conversation to the original question, but it is highly likely that he will follow your lead, as he will be excited to learn about the areas of the subject that you feel confident and passionate about.

Ask for Help

Admissions tutors absolutely understand that questions may phase or intimidate candidates and they are also aware that you may be extremely nervous. If you are really thrown by a particularly open-ended question, don’t be afraid to ask for clarification – but try to do so in a way that still demonstrates your intelligence. So, instead of asking “what do you mean” or “in what way?” try to offer several possibilities, to demonstrate that you are not lost for ideas but simply looking for guidance on which direction to choose. So ask “would you prefer me to discuss the physical attributes of the specimen or consider the wider implications of its development within its specific habitat and alongside its natural competitors?”

Pay Attention to Detail

The admissions tutor who posed this question said he would be looking for students who provided an in-depth discussion of any of the specific aspects of the plant’s appearance. So instead of giving general information about desert plants, try to look more closely – comment on the different types of spines the cactus displays, its spherical shape, or the smaller cacti budding off from the main stem.

Analysis, analysis, analysis!

Perhaps most importantly of all, as many candidates fail to do this at interview, follow up those observations with analysis. It isn’t enough simply to point out or manage to correctly distinguish a particular feature of the plant – you need to show a natural inclination to interrogate these observations and consider the scientific reasons behind them. So instead of just pointing out that the plant has different sized spikes, try to speculate on the different functions for which these may have developed and how their different shapes may make them ideally adapted to their purpose. Even if you are wrong; even if it sounds terrifying to speculate on the reason behind the evolution of a spiny plant when you don’t have the factual knowledge to answer; you will impress the interviewer far more by having a guess and showing a genuine interest and fascination to learn and discover the reasons behind the information in front of you.


Finally, if the interviewer has to tell you the answer or give you some information you didn’t know, don’t see it as a failure or think that it’s all over – you can completely rescue the situation if you respond in the right way to their prompt. If you hang your head in embarrassment and grunt “oh, ok”, they are unlikely to be impressed, but an eager and engaged “Oh I see….so in that case…” where you accept the information and quickly use it to launch into a related topic where you are more informed, will impress them deeply.