“How many grains of sand are there in the world?”“Why is DNA like sheet music?”“Can you hear silence?”These are examples of Real Questions that were asked in the 2015 Oxbridge interviews. Stumped? You don’t need to be!Published by the UKs Leading University Admissions Company, The Ultimate Oxbridge Interview Guide contains over 900 Oxbridge Interview Questions that have been asked over the last 5 years for 18 Subjects. This book provides Fully Worked Model Answers for over 200 of these and guides you through the topics and problems that each one raises.With contributions and advice from over 40 Specialist Oxbridge Tutors, this is your Ultimate companion to the Oxbridge Interview and a MUST-BUY for those who have an upcoming interview at Oxbridge.
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This book is neither created nor endorsed by Oxford or Cambridge University. The authors and publisher are not affiliated with Oxford or Cambridge University. The information offered in this book is purely advisory and any advice given should be taken within this context. As such, the publishers and authors accept no liability whatsoever for the outcome of any applicant’s interview performance, the outcome of any university applications or for any other loss. Although every precaution has been taken in the preparation of this book, the publisher and author assume no responsibility for errors or omissions of any kind. Neither is any liability assumed for damages resulting from the use of information contained herein. This does not affect your statutory rights.
Rohan is the Director of Operations at UniAdmissions and is responsible for its technical and commercial arms. He graduated from Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge and is a fully qualified doctor. Over the last five years, he has tutored hundreds of successful Oxbridge and Medical applicants. He has also authored ten books on admissions tests and interviews.
Rohan has taught physiology to undergraduates and interviewed medical school applicants for Cambridge. He has published research on bone physiology and writes education articles for the Independent and Huffington Post. In his spare time, Rohan enjoys playing the piano and table tennis.
Oxbridge interviews are frequently the source of intriguing stories. You’ll frequently hear tales of students who were asked seemingly obscure questions e.g. “Why do we have two nostrils but only one mouth?”, or impossibly difficult ones e.g. “How many grains of sand are there in the world?”
If taken in context, both of these are very fair Oxbridge interview questions. The first would naturally lead to a discussion concerning the evolution of sensory organs and the pros/cons of having multiple mouths e.g. reduced risk of infections vs. inability to eat and speak simultaneously etc.
The latter question would test a candidate’s ability to breakdown an initially very large problem into more bite-sized chunks in order to manage it e.g. surface area of the Earth, percentage of the Earth covered by land, percentage of land covered by sand, average depth of sand and so on.
Oxbridge interviews are not about testing your knowledge. Instead, they are about testing what you can do with the knowledge you already possess. Remember, once you’re at university, you will rapidly assimilate a great deal of new information (so much so that you will start to wonder what all the fuss A-levels were about).
This is the main reason why it’s not particularly useful for interviewers to ask purely knowledge based questions e.g. “What is the normal plasma concentration of magnesium?”. Knowledge of isolated facts is neither necessary nor sufficient for a successful Oxbridge interview. Instead, it is the application of some basic facts to novel situation that is the hallmark of success.
One of the best ways to demonstrate this is to discuss my interview experiences at Cambridge when I applied to study Medicine several years ago.
This was my first science interview and the interviewer was delighted when he found out I studied physics at A2. His opening question was “What have you read recently?” I explained I’d been reading about the new drug Rosuvastatin – a statin that was being recommended for everyone above a certain age (regardless of their actual cholesterol levels). The follow-up questions were what you would expect e.g. “How do statins work?” (Ensure you know the basics of any topic that you voluntarily bring up), “What are the risks/benefits of giving them to everyone?”
This led to a discussion on how I would convince someone that this drug was useful for them, followed by how I would convince someone that blue light was more damaging than red. I struggled with this for a while, bouncing ideas back and forth (with each of them sequentially shot down) until I finally stumbled onto Einstein’s E=hf. This led to a discussion about why the sky is blue and sunsets can be a myriad of colours. All of this culminated in the classic- “What colour is the Sun in reality?” (Hint: It’s not yellow, orange or red!). This is the question that tabloids would take out of context to make the interview seem like an array of bizarre questions when in fact this was perfectly reasonable giving the preceding questions.
This interview serves as a perfect example of a non-scripted interview, i.e. one where the interviewer was happy to bounce ideas between us and forced me to think about concepts in ways I never had. I’m certain that if I had offered a different answer to the initial question about my reading, the discussion would have gone along a significantly different route.
My second interview was more scripted – the interviewer had a pre-set agenda with corresponding questions that he wanted to discuss. Given that this person is known to ask the same interview questions annually, I’ve refrained from including specifics in order to not spoil the plot for everyone and to unfairly put future applicants at an advantage (or disadvantage!).
After going through my BMAT essay very briefly, he asked me to draw a graph on his whiteboard. This was no easy task. I spent fifteen minutes struggling with this graph due to its unusual axis. Like many candidates, I made the mistake of learning about excessively complex topics like the Complement Membrane attack complex and ignored much core A-level topics like human physiology. This meant that I wasn’t completely sure about a basic fact that was required for the graph. This was a tough interview and at the end of it, I was certain I had flunked it. This was compounded by the fact that other candidates were bragging about how they had got the correct graph in only thirty seconds.
When you’re in the waiting room with the other candidates, it may appear that many of them are far smarter than you and know a lot more. Again, remember that the entire point of an interview is to assess your ability to apply knowledge.
People get nervous and unconfident whilst waiting for interviews. One of the ways they try to feel more secure is by exerting their intellectual superiority. In this example (although there were some exceptions), the students who tended to arrive at the answer very quickly were unsuccessful. This is likely because they had previous knowledge of the question from their school/extra reading. Although this allowed them to get the correct answer quickly, they were unable to explain the intermediate steps that led them to it, i.e. they knew the topic but didn’t understand it.
As you can see, I made lots of errors in my interview preparation. Please learn from them. Good students learn from their mistakes but great students learn from others’ mistakes.
Don’t be put off by what other candidates say in the waiting room. Focus on yourself – you are all that matter. If you want to be in the zone, then I would recommend taking some headphones and your favourite music.
Don’t read up on multiple advanced topics in depth. Choose one topic and know it well. Focus the rest of your time on your core A-level syllabus. You are not expected to know about the features of Transverse Myelitis, but you will be expected to be able to rattle off a list of 10 cellular organelles.
Don’t worry about being asked seemingly irrelevant questions that you’ll often hear in the media. These are taken out of context. Focus on being able to answer the common questions e.g. “Why this university?” etc.
Don’t lose heart if your interviews appear to have gone poorly. If anything, this can actually be a good sign as it shows that the interviewer pushed you to your limits rather than giving up on you as you clearly weren’t Oxbridge material.
Don’t give up. When you’re presented with complex scenarios, go back to the absolute basics and try to work things out using first principles. By doing this and thinking out loud, you allow the interviewer to see your logical train of thought so that they can help you when you become stuck.
Dr Rohan Agarwal
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An interview is a personal 20-30 minute session with one or two members of academic staff from Oxford or Cambridge. The interviewers will ask questions and guide the applicant to an answer. The answers usually require a large degree of creative and critical thought, as well as a good attitude and a sound foundation of subject-specific knowledge.
Most of the applicants to Oxbridge will have outstanding grades, predicted exam results, sample course work and personal statements. Interviews are used to help determine which applicants are best-suited for Oxbridge. During the interview, each applicant has a unique chance to demonstrate their creativity and critical thinking abilities- skills that Oxford and Cambridge consider vital for successful students.
At Cambridge, any applicant who might have a chance at being accepted to study will be called for interview. This corresponds to approximately 90% of applicants. At Oxford, a slightly smaller 40-80% of applicants are interviewed (applicants are shortlisted based on their admissions test results and UCAS form). No one is offered a place to study without attending an interview.
The interviews are conducted by a senior member of staff for the subject you’ve applied to; usually this person is the Director of Studies for that subject. There may also be a second interviewer who takes notes on the applicant or also asks questions. Interviewers describe this experience as just as nerve-wracking for them as for the applicants, as they are responsible for choosing the right students for Oxford and Cambridge.
Interviews are held in the beginning of December and some applicants may be invited back in January for a second round of interviews at another college. There are usually multiple interviews on the same day, either for different subjects or at different colleges. You will normally be given 2 weeks’ notice before your interview-so you should hear back by late November, but it is useful to begin preparing for the interview before you’re officially invited.
The interviews are held in Oxford and Cambridge at the college you applied to. Oxford applicants may have additional interviews at another college than the one applied to. Cambridge applicants may get ‘pooled’ – be required to have another set of interviews in January at a different college. If you are travelling from far away, most Oxbridge colleges will provide you free accommodation and food for the duration of your stay if you wish to arrive the night before your interview.
Very rarely, interviews can be held via Skype at an exam centre- this normally only applies to international students or for UK students in extreme circumstances.
The best way to gain the most from this book is to let it guide your independent learning.Read through the General Interview section.Read the Subject Interview chapter for your subject.Read other Relevant Chapters corresponding to your subject.
Your SubjectAlso read chapters on:
Psychology, Chemistry, Psychology, Maths
Biology, Physics, Material Sciences, Maths
Chemistry, Engineering, Material Sciences, Maths
Chemistry, Physics, Material Sciences, Maths
Chemistry, Physics, Engineering, Maths
PPE & HSPS, Maths
History, Modern Languages
Biology, Chemistry, Physics
HSPS, Economics, Maths
Modern Languages, History
Finally, work your way through the past interview questions – remember, you are not expected to know the answers to them, and they have been included here so that you can start to appreciate the style of questions that you may get asked. It is not a test of what you know – but what you can do with what you already know.
Hopefully, by this point, you’re familiar with the unique Oxbridge teaching system. Students on the same course will have lectures and practicals together. These are supplemented by college-based tutorials/supervisions. A tutorial/supervision is an individual or small group session with an academic to discuss ideas, ask questions, and receive feedback on your assignments. During the tutorial/supervision, you will be pushed to think critically about the material from the course in novel and innovative ways. To get the most out of Oxbridge, you need to be able to work in this setting and take criticism with a positive and constructive attitude.
The interviews are made to be model tutorials/supervisions, with an academic questioning an applicant and seeing if they can learn, problem-solve, demonstrate motivation for their subject. It is by considering this ultimate goal of the interview that you can start to understand how to present and prepare yourself for the Oxbridge interview process.
There are several qualities an interviewer is looking for the applicant to demonstrate during the interview. While an applicant may think the most ‘obvious’ thing interviewers are looking for is excellent factual knowledge, this is already displayed through exam results. Whilst having an excellent depth of knowledge may help you perform better during an interview, you’re unlikely to be chosen based solely on your knowledge. The main thing an interviewer is looking for is for the applicant to demonstrate critical thought, excellent problem-solving skills and intellectual flexibility, as well as motivation for the subject and suitability for small group teaching. It is also important for them to see that the applicant is willing to persevere with a challenging problem even if the answer is not immediately apparent.
The most important thing to do when communicating your answers is to think out loud. This will allow the interviewer to understand your thought processes. They will then be able to help you out if you get stuck. You should never give up on a question; show that you won’t be perturbed at the first sign of hardship as a student, and remain positive and demonstrate your engagement with the material. Interviewers enjoy teaching and working with students who are as enthusiastic about their subject as they are.
Try to keep the flow of conversation going between you and your interviewer so that you can engage with each other throughout the entire interview. The best way to do this is to just keep talking about what you are thinking. It is okay to take a moment when confronted with a difficult question or plan your approach, but ensure you let the interviewer know this by saying, “I’m going to think about this for a moment”. Don’t take too long- if you are finding the problems difficult, the interviewers will guide and prompt you to keep you moving forward. They can only do this if they know you’re stuck!
The questions that you’ll be asked are designed to be difficult, so don’t panic up when you don’t immediately know the answer. Tell the interviewer what you do know, offer some ideas, talk about ways you’ve worked through a similar problem that might apply here. If you’ve never heard anything like the question asked before, say that to the interviewer, “I’ve never seen anything like this before” or “We haven’t covered this yet at school”, but don’t use that as an excuse to quit. This is your chance to show that you are eager to engage with new ideas, so finish with “But let’s see if I can figure it out!” or “But I’m keen to try something new!”. There are many times at Oxbridge when students are in this situation during tutorials/supervisors and you need to show that you can persevere in the face of difficulty (and stay positive and pleasant to work with while doing so).
There are, at Cambridge and for some Oxford subjects, several different types of interview that you can be called for. Every applicant will have at least one subject interview. Applicants to some courses may also have a general interview, especially if they are applying for an arts subject. Either way, you will be asked questions that touch on the course you are applying to study. It may be useful to look at your interviewers’ teaching backgrounds and published work as this could potentially shed some light on the topics they might choose to discuss in an interview. However, there is absolutely no need to know the intricacies of their research work so don’t get bogged down in it. Interviews tend to open with easier and more general questions and become more detailed and complicated as you are pushed to explore topics in greater depth.
This book contains over 900 practice interview questions. They are all actual questions that successful Oxbridge applicants were asked in their interview. However, it is important you take these with a pinch of salt.
They are taken out of context and only included to give you a flavour of the style and difficulty of real Oxbridge interview questions. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that your interview will consist of a series of irrelevant and highly specific knowledge based questions.
OXBRIDGE INTERVIEWS ARE NOT ABOUT YOUR KNOWLEDGE
THEY ARE ABOUT WHAT YOU CAN DOWITH THE KNOWLEDGE YOU ALREADY POSSES
Thus, it does little benefit to rote learn answers to all the practice questions in this book as they are unlikely to be repeated. Instead, follow our top tips, take inspiration from the worked answers and put in some hard work – you’ll be sure to perform well on the day.
A general interview is a get-to-know-you session with senior admissions tutors. This is your chance to demonstrate a passion for Oxbridge; that you have understood the Oxbridge system, have a genuine interest in being a student, and could contribute to Oxbridge if you were admitted. These are more common for arts and humanities applicants, but all applicants should nevertheless be prepared for a general interview.This will be less specific than the subject interview. The interviewers will focus more on your personal statement, any essays you may have submitted or have completed on the day of the interview and may discuss your SAQ form if you are applying to Cambridge.One of the interviewers may not be a specialist in the subject you’ve applied for. Don’t be put off by this – you aren’t expected to have any knowledge of their subject.Ensure that you have read your personal statement and any books/journals that you’ve claimed to have read in your application. You will seem unenthusiastic and dishonest if you can’t answer questions regarding topics and activities that you claim to know about. Remember that it is much better to show a good understanding of a few texts than to list lots of texts that you haven’t properly read.Read and re-read the essays you have submitted. Be prepared to expand on the ideas you have explored in them. Remember, that the interviewers may criticise what you’ve argued in your submitted essays. If you believe in it, then defend your view but don’t be stubborn.You will normally be asked if you have any questions at the end of the interview. Avoid saying things like, “How did I do?” – Instead use this as an opportunity to show the interviewers the type of person you are e.g. “How many books can I borrow from the library at one time?”
The three main questions that are likely to come up in an Oxbridge interview are:Why Oxford/Cambridge?Why this subject?Why this college?
You may also get asked more specific questions about the teaching system or about your future career aspirations. This will also be the time for discussing any extenuating circumstances for poor exam results and similar considerations.
To do well in a general interview, your answers should show that you understand the Oxbridge system and that you have strong reasons for applying there. Thus, it is essential that you prepare detailed answers to the common questions above so that you aren’t caught off guard. In addition, you should create a list of questions that could potentially be asked based on your personal statement or any submitted work.
Below are a few examples of how to start breaking down general interview questions- complete with model answers.
Q1: How did you choose which college to apply for?
This question is a good opportunity to tell the interviewer about yourself, your hobbies, motivations, and any interesting projects you have undertaken. You can demonstrate that you have read about the College thoroughly and you know what differentiates your College from the others. The decisive factors can include a great variety of different things from history, alumni, location in the city, community, sports clubs, societies, any positive personal experiences from Open Day and notable scholars.
This is a warm up question – an ice-breaker – so just be natural and give an honest answer. You may not want to say things like, “I like the statutes in the garden”. The more comprehensive your answer is, the better.
Good Applicant: I chose which college to apply for based on a number of factors that were important to me. First of all, I needed to consider how many other students at my college would be studying the same subject as me; this was important to me as I want to be able to engage in conversation about my subject with my peers. Secondly, I considered the location of the college as I wanted to ensure I had easy access to the faculty library and lecture theatres. Thirdly, I am a keen tennis player and so looked for a college with a very active tennis society. Finally, I wanted to ensure that the college I chose would feel right for me and so I looked around several Cambridge colleges before coming to my conclusion.
This response is broken down into a set of logical and yet personal reasons. There is no right answer to this question and the factors which influence this decision are likely to be unique for each individual. However, each college is unique and therefore the interviewer wants to know what influenced your decision. Therefore, it’s essential that you know what makes your college special and separates it from the others. Even more importantly, you should know what the significance of that will be for you. For example, if a college has a large number of mathematicians, you may want to say that by attending that college, it would allow you to discuss your subject with a greater number of people than otherwise.
A poor applicant may respond with a noncommittal shrug or an answer such as, “my brother went there”. The interviewers want to see that you have researched the university and although the reason for choosing a college won’t determine whether or not you get into the university, a lack of passion and interest in the college will greatly influence how you are perceived by the interviewers.
Q2: Why have you chosen to apply to study at ‘Oxbridge’, rather than another Russell Group university?
This is a very broad question and one which is simply designed to draw out the motives and thinking behind your application, as well as giving you an opportunity to speak freely about yourself.
A good applicant would seek to address this question in two parts, the first addressing the key features of Oxbridge for their course and the second emphasising their own personality traits and interests which make them most suited to the Oxbridge system.
It is useful to start off by talking about the supervision/tutorial system and why this method of very small group teaching is beneficial for studying your subject, both for the discussion of essay work and, more crucially, for developing a comprehensive understanding of your subject. You might also like to draw upon the key features of the course at Oxford and Cambridge that distinguish it from courses at other universities.
When talking about yourself, a good answer could take almost any route, though it is always productive to talk about which parts of your subject interest you, why this is the case, and how this ties in with the course at Oxford/Cambridge. You might also mention how the Oxbridge ethos suits your personality, e.g. how hard work and high achievement are important to you and you want to study your chosen subject in real depth, rather than a more superficial course elsewhere.
A poor applicant would likely demonstrate little or no knowledge of their course at Oxford/Cambridge and volunteer little information about why studying at Oxbridge would be good for them or why they would be suited to it. It’s important to focus on your interests and abilities rather than implying that you applied because Oxbridge is the biggest name or because your family or school had expected you to do so.
Q3: What will you contribute to college life?
This is a common question at general interviews and you need to show that you would be a good fit for the College and that you are also really motivated because you have researched the college’s facilities, notable fellows and alumni, societies and sports clubs etc. You can mention that you have looked at the website, talked to alumni and current students.
This question also gives the interviewer an excellent opportunity to learn about your personality, hobbies and motivations. Try to avoid listing one thing after the other for 5 minutes. Instead, you should try to give a balanced answer in terms of talking about the College and yourself. You should talk about your skills and give examples when you had to work in a team, deliver on strict deadlines, show strong time-management skills etc. You should also give a few examples from your previous studies, competitions or extracurricular activities (including sports and music).
Q4: Tell me about a recent news article not related to your subject that has interested you.
This can be absolutely anything and your interviewers just want to see that you are aware of the world in which you live and have a life outside of your subject. You could pick an interesting topic ahead of time and cultivate an opinion which could spark a lively discussion.
Q5: Which three famous people would you most like to be stuck on a desert island with?
This is a personal question that might be used by your interviewers as an ‘ice-breaker’ – you can say absolutely anyone but try to have a good justification (and avoid being melodramatic). This is a really good chance to show your personality and sense of humour. This is also a good question to ease you into the flow of the interview and make yourself feel more comfortable.
Q6: Do you think you’re ‘clever’?
Don’t let this one faze you! Your interviewers are not being glib but instead want to see how you cope with questions you may not have anticipated. You could discuss different forms of intelligence, e.g. emotional vs. intellectual, perhaps concluding that you are stronger in one over the other.
Q7: What have you done in the past that makes you think you’re equipped to deal with the stresses of Oxbridge?
The interviewers want to hear that you know what you’re signing up to and that you are capable of dealing with stress. If you have any experience of dealing with pressure or meeting strict deadlines, this would be a good opportunity to talk about them. Otherwise, mention your time management skills and your ability to prioritise workloads. You could also mention how you deal with stress, e.g. do you like running? Yoga? Piano? Etc.
Q8: Why are you sitting in this chair?
There are hundreds of potential responses to this type of question, and the interviewer will see this as a chance to get to know your personality and how you react to unusual situations.
Firstly, take the question seriously, even if it strikes you as funny or bizarre. A good response may begin with: “There are many reasons why I am sitting in this chair. There are lots of smaller events and causes that have led up to me sitting in this chair”. You might choose to discuss your desire to attend Oxbridge, the fact that you have travelled to the college to take your interview. You might choose to discuss the interviewer or college’s taste and budget when it came to selecting the chair you are sitting in, as that determined why and how you have come to be sitting in that particular chair, rather than any other chair. You might then simply mention that you were invited by the interviewer to take a seat.
A weak response to this type of question would be to dismiss it as silly or irrelevant.
Q9: If you could have dinner with anyone in the world, who would it be?
This is a fairly straightforward question to get in a general interview, so use it to show your personality and originality, and to talk about something you are really passionate about.
If you are asked a question like this, give an answer that is relevant to your application. This is not the time to start talking about how you are a huge fan of Beyonce and would just love to have dinner together! You should also avoid generic answers like “God”.
If you would love to meet Obama and know more about him, consider what that would be like. Would he be at liberty to answer your questions? Might you not get more information from one of his aides or from a close friend, rather than the man himself? As this is a simple question, try to unpick it and answer it in a sophisticated way, rather than just stating the obvious.
Q10: What was the most recent film you watched?
This question seems simple and appears to require a relatively short answer. However, a good candidate will use a simple question such as this as an opportunity to speak in more depth and raise new and interesting topics of conversation: “What I find particularly interesting about this film was…. It reminded me of….. In relation to other works of this period/historical context, I found this particular scene very interesting as it mirrored/contrasted with my previous conceptions of this era as seen in other works, for example… I am now curious to find out more about… This film made me think about…etc.”
Whilst it is extremely important to respond accurately to the questions posed by the interviewer, do not be afraid to take the conversation in the direction led by your personal interests. This sort of initiative will be encouraged.
Q11: How should we measure your success at the end of your time here?
This question invites you to show your potential and how diverse your interests are. There are three aspects of this question that you should consider in order to give a complete answer: “end of your time here”, “measure” and “your achievements”. You may want to discuss your hobbies and interests and potential achievements regarding various aspects of university life including academia, sports, student societies, jobs, volunteering etc.
Then you may want to enter into a discussion about whether there is any appropriate measure of success. How could you possibly compare sporting excellence to volunteering? Is it better to be a specialist or a generalist? This ultimately comes down to your personal motivation and interests as you might be very focused on your studies or other activities (e.g. sports, music). Thus, multiple things would contribute to your success at university and your degree is only likely to be one way to measure this. Finally, it might be a great closing line to mention that getting your degree might not be the “end of your time here”.
Q12: Why should anyone go to university?
This sounds like a very general question at first but it is, in fact, about your personal motivations to go to university. You don’t need to enter into a discussion about what universities are designed for or any educational policy issues as the interviewer is unlikely to drive the discussion towards this in a general interview.
The best strategy is to discuss your motivations- this could include a broad range of different things from interest in a certain field, inspiring and diverse environments, academic excellence, opening up of more opportunities in the future and buying time to find out more about yourself etc. As it is very easy to give an unfocused answer, you should limit yourself to a few factors. You can also comment on whether people should go to university and whether this is good for the society.
Q13: How would you describe this painting on the wall to your friend on the phone?
This question is very common and surprisingly difficult. You can take a number of approaches. Ensure that you have a concrete idea of the structure you will use to describe the painting. For example, you could begin with your personal feelings about it, then the colours and atmosphere the painting creates, then the exact objects, then their respective position and size. It does not matter which approach you take but this question is designed to test your way of organising and presenting your ideas.
You could also comment on the difficulty of the task and argue that human language limits you from adequately describing smell, taste, sound, and vision. Modern language applicants may have read about Wittgenstein, in which case, they can reference his works on the limitations and functions of language here.
Q14: Which person in the past would you most like to interview, and why?
This is a personal question but try to avoid generic and mainstream answers. Keep in mind that you can find out much more about a particular period or era by speaking to everyday citizens or advisors for politicians or other important figures. It is much more important to identify what you want to learn about and then set criteria to narrow down the possible list of persons. This question opens the floor for developing an analytical, quasi-scientific approach to your research.
Q15: Tell me about a recent news article that interested you.
Whilst this question may be asked at a general interview, it’s a good idea to come up with something that is related to your course. Instead of going into technical detail with an interviewer who may be from a completely different discipline, it is better to give a brief overview of the article and then put it into a broader context.
For example, an economics applicant may want to discuss the decision of the Swiss National Bank to discontinue the currency ‘ceiling’.
Definition: The currency ceiling was a policy to peg the value of the Franc to the Euro at a rate of 1.2.
Reasons: At the beginning of the Euro crisis, investors turned away from the more risky Euro and started buying Francs instead which was then perceived as a stable currency. This resulted in the value of the Franc increasing with respect to other currencies, especially the Euro. But this had a negative impact on the Swiss economy as a strong currency is not favourable for export.
Analyse the news: The decision of the National Bank to let the exchange change freely will certainly cause harm to the Swiss economy. On the other hand, it will cost the National Bank a lot of money to maintain the 1.2 Franc:Euro exchange rate by buying Euros and selling Francs in the open market. And the Swiss National Bank had a large exposure to Euro, with its risks.
The answer should not be a complete analysis of the issue but an intuitive and logical description of an event. Then the interviews would most likely ask you to make recommendations or ask your opinion about the whole article.
Q16: Do you have political views?
In general, you should avoid expressing any very extreme views at all during interviews. The answer, “I do not” is not the most favourable either. This question invites you to demonstrate academic thinking in a topic which could be part of everyday conversations. You are not expected to present a full analysis of party politics and different ideologies. It doesn’t matter if you actually have strong political views; the main point is to talk about your perception of what political ideas are present and how one differs from the other.
With such a broad question – you have the power to choose the topic- be it wealth inequality, nuclear weapons, corruption, human rights, or budget deficit etc. Firstly, you should explain why that particular topic or political theme is important. For example, the protection of fundamental human rights is crucial in today’s society because this introduces a social sensitivity to our democratic system where theoretically 51% of the population could impose its will on the other 49%. On the other hand, it should be noted that Western liberal values may contradict with social, historical and cultural aspects of society in certain developing countries, and a different political discourse is needed in different countries about the same questions. Secondly, you should discuss whether that topic is well-represented in the political discourse of our society and what should be done to trigger a more democratic debate.
Q17: One of the unique features of the Oxbridge education is the supervision system, one-on-one tutorials every week. This means a heavy workload, one essay every week with strict deadlines. Do you think you can cope with this?
By this point, you should hopefully have a sound understanding of the supervision/tutorial systems. You should also be aware of the possibility of spending long hours in the library and meeting tight deadlines so this question should not be surprising at all. It gives you an opportunity to prove that you would fit into this educational system very well. Firstly, you should make it clear that you understand the system and the requirements. On average, there is one essay or problem sheet every week for each paper that you are reading which requires going through the reading list/lecture notes and engaging with wider readings around certain topics or problems. Secondly, you should give some examples from your past when you had to work long hours or had strict deadlines etc. You should also tell the interviewer how you felt in these situations, what you enjoyed the most and what you learned from them. Finally, you may wish to stress that you would “not only be able to cope with the system but also enjoy it a great deal”.
Q18: If you had to choose to be a character from a novel, who would you want to be?
This question is an ice-breaker- the interviewer is curious to find out what type of novels you read and how thoroughly you are reading them. For example, if you say you like Robin Hood, then explain his situation briefly as becoming an outlaw, resisting the authorities, and aiding the poor and his fellow men. You can then continue and argue that it is rather difficult to decide if he was a positive or a negative character at the end of the day. Making decisions like he did with a strong moral standing on who is a good and bad person would make for a great learning experience about human nature and myself.
The main point is to be able to give a very brief summary of the character, (especially if you choose a less well-known work), and have a good and interesting justification for being them.
Q19: Should you be allowed internet access during this interview?
This is a classic open question for an insightful debate. The most important thing to realise here is that Oxbridge education is about teaching you how to think in clear, structured and coherent ways as opposed to collecting lots of facts from the internet.
Internet access would provide each candidate with the same available information and therefore the art of using information to make sound arguments would be the sole decisive factor. On the other hand, the information overload can be rather confusing. In general, a braindump is not helpful at the interview as it does not demonstrate in-depth understanding and analysis of any problems. At the end of the day, it comes down to the individual candidate, i.e. what would you look up on the Internet during the interview? Would you want to rely on unverified knowledge? How reliable is that information on the internet? How could you verify this information?
Q20: What achievement are you most proud of?
This is another chance to highlight your suitability for the course, so try to make it as subject-relevant as possible. “I felt proud to be awarded first place in a poetry competition with a sonnet I wrote about…” (if you’re applying for English). “I recently won the Senior Challenge for the UK Mathematics Trust.”, “Achieving a 100% mark in my AS-level History and English exams – an achievement I hope to emulate at A2”.
Of course, it’s not easy to pick one achievement and this is not a question you might have expected. You could also argue that you can’t really compare your achievements from different fields e.g. your 100% Physics AS-level and football team captaincy. This will allow you to bypass the question’s number limit and mention more than one achievement so that you have more opportunities to impress the interviewer.
Q21: When would you toss a coin to make a decision?
This question can be quite tricky and aims at revealing how you make decisions in your life, your understanding of abstract concepts, rationality and probabilities. You should begin with answering the question from your perspective, you can be honest about it but give a justification even if you never want to make decisions based on luck. Try to give a few examples when tossing a coin could be a good idea, or would cause no harm. Then you can take the discussion to a more abstract level and argue that once all yes/no decisions are made by tossing a coin in the long run, the expected value should be fifty-fifty so you might not be worse-off at all and you could avoid the stress of making decisions (although this is very simplistic).
You could also reference the stock markets where high returns may be purely luck-dependent. On the other hand, rational decision-making is part of human nature and analysing costs and benefits would result in better decisions in the long-run than tossing a coin. In addition, this would incentivise people to conduct research, collect information, develop and test theories, etc. As you see, the question could be interpreted to focus on the merits of rigorous scientific methodology.
Q22: If you could change one thing in the world now what would you change?
This question tests your sound reasoning and clear presentation of your answer. There is no right or wrong “one thing” to choose. It is equally valid to choose wealth inequality or the colour of a double-decker bus if you argue it well! It should be noted that if you’ve applied for social sciences, it is a better strategy to choose a related topic to show your sensitivity to social issues.
Firstly, you should choose something you would like to change while demonstrating clear thinking, relevant arguments. Secondly, you are expected to discuss how, and to what extent, you would and could change it. Again, a better candidate would realise that this is not necessarily a binomial problem – either change it or not – but there may be a spectrum between these two extremes.
Q23: Where would you like to travel with a time machine first?
This is a question where you can really use your imagination (or draw on History GCSE or A-level). You can say absolutely any time period in the past or the far future but you must have a good reason for it. This doesn’t necessarily need to be linked to your subject.
For example, “I would love to see a time when my parents were little children and see where and how they grew up. This would allow me to better understand their nostalgic stories of the ‘good old days’”.
Choosing something personal or creative will make you stand out and you are more likely to get interesting questions from the interviewer if you are able to involve them in an intriguing conversation. It is also fine if you choose a standard period like the Roman Empire or Victorian Britain if you have a good reason.
The following pages contain real examples of interview questions that our tutors were asked at their general interview. At first glance, they may appear rather obscure and intimidating. However, remember that you are unlikely to be asked these questions in series. They will only be asked because the topic being discussed naturally led to the question or if you alluded to it earlier. E.g. “Why are flowers not green?” may precede or follow a discussion of chlorophyll or the evolution of colour vision.
Thus, whilst going through these questions is excellent practice, ensure that you don’t get too bogged down in the knowledge aspects of these questions.
Interviewers are far more interested to see what you can do with the knowledge you already possess.What do you expect to get out of this degree?Why do you want to study [insert subject here]?Why do you want to come to this college?Have you been to this college before?What makes you think this University will be the right fit for you?Where do you see yourself in 10 years’ time? What about 20 years?What extracurricular activities do you do?How will you contribute to College life?What do you know about the course structure?What is your biggest weakness?What is your biggest strength?How will your experiences from the Duke of Edinburgh scheme benefit your future studies?What makes you want to come here when you would most certainly get a better result at any other university?Oxford is very intense, how will you manage your time to deal with all of the work?What did you read this morning?What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced and how did you deal with it?Who was your best teacher? How have they influenced you?What are your long term plans in life?What are your top three skills?Would you choose a party over an essay?Who’s the most influential: Obama, Merkel or Adele?What colour best represents you?What shape is man? What shape is time?Why do things have names?What international newspapers and publications do you read?Can you hear silence?How many golf balls can you fit in a Boeing 747 plane?How many planes are flying over London right now?How many letters does Royal Mail deliver every day?How much should you charge to wash all the windows in London?How many piano tuners are there in Europe?India introduces a new population control policy to address the gender imbalance. If a couple has a girl, they may have another child. If they have a boy, they can’t have any more children. What would be the new ratio of boys: girls?Why are manhole covers round?How many times per day does a clock’s hand overlap?You are shrunk down so you’re the size of a matchstick and then put into a blender with metal blades. It is about to be turned on – what do you do?You are given 7 identical balls and another ball that looks the same as the others but is heavier than them. You can use a balance only two times. How would you identify which is the heavy ball?What is your favourite number?Who am I? (Always read up on your interviewers!)Is there any question that you wished we had asked you?If you could keep objects from the present for the future, what would they be?Does human nature change over time?Is there such a thing as truth?What is a lie? How do I know what you just said isn’t a lie?If you could have one superpower – which one would it be? Why?Who has had the largest influence on your life?What is more important – art or science?What are you looking forward to the least at this college?If you were me, would you let yourself in?Would you ever go on a one-way trip to Mars? Why/Why not?What do you think my favourite colour is? Why do you say that?Define ‘success’ in one sentence.
Subject interviews are where subject-specific questions are asked to test critical thinking and problem-solving skills. These interviews are very likely to follow the format of tutorials/supervisions. You will be interviewed by one or two senior academics from the college you applied to. They will be experts on the subject you’ve applied for and will ask academic questions around a central theme. The questions are intended to be difficult so as to push you and test your critical thinking abilities in a learning situation. You are not meant to know the answers, but to use your existing knowledge to offer creative and original thoughts to address the questions.
Here are some general tips to keep in mind:Apply the knowledge you have acquired at A-Level and from your wider reading to unfamiliar scenarios.Stand your ground if you are confident in your argument- even if your interviewers disagree with you. They may deliberately play the devil’s advocate to see if you are able to defend your argument.However, if you are making an argument that is clearly wrong and are being told so by the interviewers - then concede your mistake and revise your viewpoint. Do not stubbornly carry on arguing a point that they are saying is wrong.Remember, making mistakes is no bad thing. The important point is that you address the mistake head on and adapt the statement, with their assistance where necessary.The tutors know what subjects you have studied at A-Level so don’t feel pressured to read EVERY aspect of your subject.
In the chapters that follow, each subject is discussed in detail – including common types of questions and model solutions to previously asked interview questions. This book is not intended to be an exhaustive list of all that you need to know for your Oxbridge interview (if that’s even possible!). Instead, it is designed to guide your learning by exposing you to the style and difficulty of questions that might come up and how to best approach them.
There is a large degree of overlap between the biological sciences and Medicine at Oxbridge. Thus, biologists may be asked straight biology questions, medical questions, or questions from a related subject, such as chemistry.
Contrastingly, medical interviews at Oxbridge are much more likely to focus on the human side of biology (physiology, pathology, pharmacology etc). One of the medical interviews maybe a ‘general’ one- similar in style to the classical medical interviews (with questions like “how do you deal with stress?” etc). This latter style of interview is beyond the confines of this book. The advice that follows is applicable to both biology and medicine applicants due to their similarity.
In general, you’ll be tackling a large question with many smaller sub-questions to guide the answer from the start to a conclusion. The main question may seem difficult, impossible or random at first, but take a deep breath and start discussing different ideas that you have for breaking the question down into manageable pieces.
The questions are designed to be difficult to give you the chance to show your full intellectual potential. The interviewers will help guide you to the right idea provided you work with them and offer ideas for them to steer you along with. This is your chance to show your creativity, analytical skills, intellectual flexibility, problem-solving skills, and your go-getter attitude. Don’t waste it by letting your nerves overtake or from a fear of messing up or looking stupid.
For biology, the questions will usually take one of five possible forms based on the skills necessary to ‘think like a biologist’:Observation-based questions (“Tell me about this…”)Practical questions (“How would you determine that…”)Statistical questions (“Given this data…”)Ethical questions (“Are humans obligated to…”, “What are the implications of…”)Proximate causes (mechanism; “How does…”) and ultimate causes (function; “Why does…”)- usually both at once.
The questions also have recurring themes because they are important for biological theory and research: Natural and sexual selection, genetics and inheritance, human body systems, global warming and environmental change, and general knowledge of plants, animals, bacteria and pathogens.
Medical applicants are commonly asked medical ethics questions, so it’s well worth knowing the basics. Whilst there are huge ethical textbooks available– you only need to be familiar with the basic principles for the purposes of your interview. These principles can be applied to all cases regardless what the social/ethnic background the healthcare professional or patient is from. The principles are:
Beneficence: The wellbeing of the patient should be the doctor’s first priority. In medicine this means that one must act in the patient’s best interests to ensure the best outcome is achieved for them i.e. ‘Do Good’.
Non-Maleficence: This is the principle of avoiding harm to the patient (i.e. Do no harm). There can be a danger that in a willingness to treat, doctors can sometimes cause more harm to the patient than good. This can especially be the case with major interventions, such as chemotherapy or surgery. Where a course of action has both potential harms and potential benefits, non-maleficence must be balanced against beneficence.
Autonomy: The patient has the right to determine their own health care. This, therefore, requires the doctor to be a good communicator so that the patient is sufficiently informed to make their own decisions. ‘Informed consent’ is thus a vital precursor to any treatment. A doctor must respect a patient’s refusal of treatment even if they think it is not the correct choice. Note that patients cannot demand treatment – only refuse it, e.g. an alcoholic patient can refuse rehabilitation but cannot demand a liver transplant.
There are many situations where the application of autonomy can be quite complex, for example:Treating Children: Consent is required from the parents, although the autonomy of the child is taken into account increasingly as they get older.Treating adults without the capacity to make important decisions. The first challenge with this is in assessing whether or not a patient has the capacity to make the decisions. Just because a patient has a mental illness does not necessarily mean that they lack the capacity to make decisions about their health care. Where patients do lack capacity, the power to make decisions is transferred to the next of kin (or Legal Power of Attorney, if one has been set up).
Justice: This principle deals with the fair distribution and allocation of healthcare resources for the population.
Consent: This is an extension of Autonomy- patients must agree to a procedure or intervention. For consent to be valid, it must be voluntary informed consent.
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