In an unprecedented move, Oxford University has chosen to draw back the mysterious veil surrounding its legendary admissions process by releasing a wide ranging set of genuine interview questions from recent years. The decision, aimed at demystifying the interview for students from all backgrounds and making it a less intimidating experience, has seen questions from admissions tutors across a broad spectrum of subjects published on the university website. As one admissions tutor, Dr Nicholas Owen, explained, the goal of the interview is not “to catch candidates out with trick questions,” but rather “to find out how they think when they encounter challenging ideas.”
We will go on in later blogs to explore specific questions posed by the Oxford interviewers and consider the various ways in which an applicant might approach them, but before we move on to individual scenarios there are some very useful truths to be drawn about the Oxbridge interview process from the set of released questions as a whole. Here are our top ten tips.
There are very few ‘trick questions’
The admissions tutors frequently stress that there is nothing to be gained from their point of view by ‘catching students out’ with questions designed to make them fall into a trap. They want you to show them your fullest potential, so don’t be suspicious and wary, but rather consider every question as widely and carefully as possible and consider that there may be several different ways to answer it.
You aren’t expected to know everything
Many of the questions are much less specific than you might expect and could actually be answered by anybody with basic general knowledge and an intelligent brain. Admissions tutors are very aware that different pupils will have been taught to different levels in their A level subjects and you won’t be disadvantaged if you haven’t happened to cover a particular topic, provided you show enthusiasm and interest to have a go and apply a logical, intelligent approach to trying.
Students from disadvantaged backgrounds shouldn’t be at a disadvantage
One specific sample question asks geography candidates to describe their local area, with the interviewer explaining that this gives no advantage to those who may be lucky enough to be widely travelled. Interviewers are looking for evidence of a positive attitude and intelligent methods of thinking, not of life experience or privileges.
There is no ‘right’ answer
Almost all the sample questions make it very clear that there is no one simple ‘correct’ answer. So don’t be tempted to solve the question simply or be too clear cut – it is much better to carefully approach the different possible methods of interpreting it and show the breadth of your critical thinking – don’t be afraid to put forward two or three possible conclusions.
You need to take a hint
The interviewers suggest that they will often gently nudge candidates towards the type of discussion they are hoping a question will provoke – so if you are struggling, be careful to listen to what the interviewer says and be guided by them. Don’t just shut them out as you dig yourself into a hole – they will be trying to help you!
You can change your mind!
Interviewers will often accept your first answer to a question, but then follow it with a new question that makes you wish you had made a different decision! For example in the biological sciences question “would you save the rainforests or the coral reefs?” you may initially elect to save the reefs, but then regret this when a question about pollution follows. Don’t be afraid to double back and change your mind – as long as you explain the reason for your decision the interviewer will be impressed by your flexibility and capacity to adjust your position when new information emerges.
The sample questions make it clear that interviewers are looking for intelligent, nuanced answers that go into detail and acknowledge complexity. Answering questions with clichés like “I want to help people” (for “why do you want to study medicine”) will not get you very far.
The interview questions that have been released make it clear above all that admissions tutors want to get a sense of who you are and what your unique academic approach to the subject will be. Don’t try to give the textbook answer; be prepared to show individuality and don’t be scared to let the interviewer see your own take on the question, even if it might not be the ‘traditional’ answer you think they are expecting.
Don’t be afraid to question the question
Although there are no ‘trick’ questions, several admissions tutors intentionally ask questions that invite interrogation or clarification. A question may, for example, be in two parts and those two parts might actually be mutually contradictory – make sure you carefully consider exactly what is being asked and whether it is appropriate to reframe or question the question before you begin to formulate your answer.
Stand up for yourself
Most of the sample questions are extremely broad and open ended, and intentionally so – the interviewers are looking as much at whether or not you can defend and rationalise an argument as at whether or not you choose the ‘correct’ position. So don’t leap to change your mind if you are questioned – be confident and use evidence to explain why you have drawn those particular conclusions. Much of the interview is aimed at surmising what a candidate would be like in a tutorial situation – and you wouldn’t want to be walked over too easily by other students with conflicting ideas!