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“How do pirates divide their treasure?” and other questions you need to answer to get into Oxford

Reuters/Paul Hackett
A meaningful choice.
By Sonali Kohli
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Acceptance to Oxford University requires superb exam scores, an inspired personal statement, and outstanding teacher recommendations. Even if you get all those, however, there’s still the interview. For the UK’s Oct. 15 application deadline, Oxford University released some sample interview questions (which they also did last year).

Tutors—academic researchers and teachers at the university—meet with prospective students and interview them on academic topics, with the goal of understanding how a student thinks and who has the “potential” or “intellectual capacity” for Oxford, according to the university’s interview guide (pdf). Often that means there is not necessarily a right answer, so much as there is a right way of answering: pick apart the question, explain the reasons for the answer you’re giving, figure out ways to test your thesis.

The questions vary based on the applicant’s area of study, of course. Here are some of the sample questions, and Oxford tutors’ advice for answering them:

“Why do many animals have stripes?” (biological sciences)

The natural train of thought for this answer is to identify some striped animals, and then categorize them—wasps and snakes are dangerous, tigers and zebras need camouflage. But a successful applicant would take it a step farther than that, advised tutor Martin Speight on the website:

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.

“How do pirates divide their treasure?” (computer science)

This is a logic problem and the full question is actually a bit longer, involving an explanation of the pirate hierarchy and voting practices. The point here is that the interviewer talks the candidate through to work out the problem. The interviews are structured similarly to Oxford’s learning model, in which tutors work with students in small seminar groups, so this question is as much a test of learning ability than of actual knowledge.

From the interviewer who wrote this question, Brian Harrington: “If students have any questions, I want them to ask – not to sit in silence feeling stuck!”

“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?” (English literature)

Apparently your literary tastes needn’t be particularly lofty to secure an Oxford acceptance (another sample question asks about Twilight). But Harry Potter isn’t the point in this question; and nor is the difference between children and adult literature, really. The interviewer wants 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.” In that sense, it’s perhaps more impressive to provide an intelligent, original analysis of Twilight than it is to trudge through yet another well-worn argument about Hamlet.

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

The key here is to avoid the obvious. What the interviewer really wants to know is what you would want to learn from the person, and there is arguably more to learn from a less-known figure than from Queen Elizabeth I or Isaac Newton. For one thing, most influential historical figures recorded many of their thoughts, so you might not need to talk to them to get your answers. The interviewer may also push the applicant to think about not only who she wants to interview and why, but also how she might secure that interview. This requires a more in-depth knowledge of the historical period and its limitations.

“If you could invent a new musical instrument, what kind of sound would it make?” (music)

This question allows an applicant to demonstrate both imagination and a deep understanding of sound. A good answer to the question could even argue that musical instruments themselves are outdated, interviewer Dan Grimley writes.

Should interviews be used for selection?” (psychology)

Ah, so very meta. The answer, one imagines, is probably not, “It depends. How is this interview going?” But an answer to this question might examine the different sources of information that lead to an admissions decision, and their accuracy in predicting a student’s success. The question “come out of a discussion of errors and biases in human judgement—that we sometimes overlook some information, while attaching too much weight to other information; and we are often over-confident about the decisions we make,” writes interviewer Miles Hewstone

To all the young people about to embark upon this interview process: We wish you luck.

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