Medicine is perhaps the subject that causes the greatest anxiety amongst candidates preparing for interview. Competition is extremely fierce, with only 12% of Oxbridge applicants offered a place, and rumours of terrifying interview questions abound. But the myth that admissions tutors are trying to catch students out or confound them with ‘trick questions’ is a huge misconception – as is the idea that a vast and intricate knowledge of medicine is required. The interviewer simply wants to see evidence of the sort of intelligent thought and problem solving that would make you a great student – as this week’s real Oxbridge interview question shows.

“Why does your heart rate increase when you exercise?” (Question posed by Robert Wilkins, Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics, Oxford University).

Start Simple

When there is a clear, simple answer to a question, it’s amazing how many students will panic and assume something more complex is required. But once you have given the obvious answer, the interviewer will lead you on to more complex issues – so don’t fall at the first hurdle by assuming they are trying to catch you out! In this case, the interviewer really is looking for you to start off by confirming your understanding of basic human biology by explaining that when the body exercises, muscles work harder, therefore they require more oxygen and produce greater amounts of waste products. So the heart has to pump faster to send the blood around the body more quickly in order to deliver oxygen and take metabolic by-products away.

Expand on Ideas

Many Oxbridge candidates mistakenly think that the interview will take the form of a rapid succession of difficult, separate questions with no relation to one another. In fact it is much more common for a candidate only to discuss two or three issues in the whole interview, as the interviewer’s main objective is to see how you expand on an idea and whether you are able to take a simple concept and explore it increasing detail and complexity. In this case, after you have correctly answered the first question, the interviewer is likely to go on to ask how the body knows it needs to increase heart rate, a more complex question which requires you to speculate about methods of detection of raised C02 or lowered 02 levels in the blood.

Take Direction

Wilkins explains that one of the most important things he looks for when interviewing candidates for medicine is simply the ability to listen. There may be several different ideas you could progress to discussing from the initial question, but if the interviewer is prompting you or gently trying to push you in a certain direction, it is because they want to see how you will respond to discussion of that particular area and it is important to respond to their suggestions. Remember, the interviewer is very often one of the people who would teach you if you were to be offered a place, so they are as keen to see how well you would follow directions and respond to teaching in a tutorial environment as they are to test your scientific knowledge. An extremely common Oxbridge interview blunder is to panic so much about needing to show off all you have learned that you bluster on about different topics and ignore the hints the interviewer is giving you all along. Show them you could be the student they want to teach and you will be well on your way to an Oxbridge place.