Oxford: Silly Questions Show Us How Students Really Think

Published: 17th October 2014 04:22 PM  |   Last Updated: 17th October 2014 04:22 PM   |  A+A-

OXFORD University is relying on its notoriously difficult interview to pick the most talented students because the system allows candidates to show their "real ability and potential", according to an admissions chief.

The interview plays a vital part of the selection process as it forces students to think for themselves instead of "reciting" facts, said Samina Khan, the acting director of undergraduate admissions,

As the deadline to apply to Oxford passed yesterday (Thursday), she sought to dismiss the "myth" that the process was "intimidating or confrontational or downright silly".

Dr Khan insisted that questions posed by admissions tutors were designed to spark an "academic conversation" that allows students to show their flair - rather than finding a right or wrong answer.

The comments were made as the university released a series of sample questions to mark the deadline. This included a history interview at Pembroke College in which students were asked: "How much of the past can you count?"

Other questions have been released over the years. Students applying to study biological sciences at St Anne's College, Oxford, were shown a cactus and told: "Tell me about it."

During an English literature interview at Regent's Park College, students were asked: "Why do you think an English student might be interested in the fact that Coronation Street has been running for 50 years?" Music students at Merton College were asked: "If you could invent a new musical instrument, what kind of sound would it make?"

Other subjects include why speak French, or why do many animals have stripes?

But Dr Khan insisted most questions were based on logic or to prompt a discussion - rather than trip up students.

Oxford now increasingly relies on the interview to pick out students alongside GCSE scores, A-level grades and the results of its own aptitude tests.

There is a continuing rise in applications, with 17,480 students applying for around 3,100 places at Oxford last year, up 1.5 per cent in 12 months and eclipsing the previous record seen in 2011, just before the rise in tuition fees.

Dr Khan said: "Interviews are not about reciting what you already know - they are designed to give candidates a chance to show their real ability and potential, which means candidates will be encouraged to use their knowledge and apply their thinking to new problems in ways that will both challenge them and allow them to shine.

"They are an academic conversation in a subject area between tutors and candidate."

She admitted there were "plenty of anecdotes about Oxford interviewers asking questions that seem intimidating or confrontational, or even downright silly" but she insisted the process was not about "trying to catch students out or see how quickly they get the 'right' answer".

"Tutors simply want to see how students think and respond to new ideas," she said.


Interview examples Would you pass?

 Experimental psychology, University College

Q An experiment appears to suggest Welsh speakers are worse at remembering phone numbers than English speakers. Why?

A The key point is that numbers are spelt differently and are longer in Welsh, and memory (and arithmetic) depend on how easily pronounced the words are. I would hope the student would pick out this connection between memory and how easy to spell or pronounce a word is."

History, Pembroke College

Q How much of the past can you count?

A The question relates to historical evidence. For which periods and places is data readily available? When it's not, can it be collected, or estimated (and, if so, how)? When it is available, is that data trustworthy? Is it sufficient? How might it be misleading?

Biological sciences, Brasenose College

Q Why do some habitats support higher biodiversity than others?

A This question encourages students to think about what high-diversity habitats such as rainforests and coral reefs have in common. Patterns or correlations can help us to identify mechanisms.


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