Oxford University has published a selection of its tough interview questions and they're just as challenging and strange as you would imagine, from 'Why do animals have stripes?' to 'What is language?'
To mark the deadline for 2015 undergraduate admissions, the university asked admissions tutors to reveal the questions they ask all UK applicants in 20-minute interviews and how exactly to answer them.
The university, which recently ranked as the second best in the world by Times Higher Education, interviews more than 10,000 applicants over two weeks in December, for around 3,200 undergraduate places.
We pick a sample of ten questions from Oxford University. How many could you answer correctly? Beware, each question does not test academic knowledge, but aims to get applicants to think about wider topics and spark a discussion. As Psychology interviewer Nick Yeung says, "The question is meant to be deliberately provocative, in that I hope that it engages candidates". Take the test below.
Each question is for the course specified in brackets
1. Why do human beings have two eyes? (Pyschology)
2. Why do many animals have stripes? (Biological Sciences)
3. Imagine we had no records about the past at all, except everything to do with sport – how much of the past could we find out about? (History)
4. Why might it be useful for an English student to read the Twilight series? (English Literature)
5. Ladybirds are red. So are strawberries. Why? (Biological Sciences)
6. If the punishment for parking on double yellow lines were death, and therefore nobody did it, would that be a just and effective law? (Law)
7. What is language? (Modern Languages)
8. Here's a cactus. Tell me about it. (Biological Sciences)
9. 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)
10. In a world where English is a global language, why learn French? (Modern Languages)
How you should have answered
1. "This question may result from a more general discussion about the human senses. It can develop in a number of different directions, partly depending upon the knowledge and expertise of the interviewee. For example, two eyes are important for three-dimensional (3D) vision. Why is it that we can still see in 3D when only looking through one eye? What determines the optimum position and distance between the two eyes? Why is it that we see a stable view of the world even though we are constantly moving our head? How can an understanding of mathematics, physics and biology help us explain 3D vision? The discussion may develop into a consideration of the different senses and the role they play in us interacting in our environment, including interacting with other people, and the nature of perceptual experience." - Interviewer, David Popplewell, Brasenose College
2. "The main aim of the question is to get applicants to think about biological topics and put them in the context of successful adaptations to life on earth. So I might expect students to start by thinking of some stripey animals, then move on to thinking about categories of striped animals – for example those that are dangerous (such as wasps, tigers, and snakes), those that have stripes for camouflage (such as zebras but also tigers), and those whose stripes are harmless mimics of dangerous ones. They might think of specific examples for detailed comparison: tigers and zebras for example both have stripes for camouflage and blending in with background, one to hide from prey and the other to hide from predators.
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. There are no right or wrong specific answers to the questions – I'm just interested in candidates' speculations about the advantages of having stripes." - Interviewer, Martin Speight, St Anne's College
3. "I would say this to a candidate who had mentioned an interest in sport on their personal statement, though it could equally be applied to an interest in something else – like film, drama, or music. What I would be looking for is to see how the candidate might use their imagination, building on something they know about (probably much more than I do) to tackle questions of historical research.
Answers could relate to the racial/class/gender relations in society (who played the sports, and which sports, at any given time); international politics/empire (which countries were involved, did groups of countries play the same sport); economic development (the technological development of sports, how sport was watched); the values within a society (bloodthirsty sports to more genteel sports); health (participation rates); or many other issues – the list is long. I would usually ask supplementary questions, to push the students further – and often, I would have no answer in my mind, but would simply be interested in seeing how far the student could push their analysis." - Interviewer, Stephen Tuck, Pembroke College
4. "There's several reasons I might ask this one. It's useful in an interview to find some texts the candidate has read recently and the Twilight books are easily accessible and popular. Also, candidates tend to concentrate on texts they have been taught in school or college and I want to get them to talk about whatever they have read independently, so I can see how they think rather than what they have been taught. A good English student engages in literary analysis of every book they read. The question has led to some interesting discussions about narrative voice, genre, and audience in the past." - Interviewer, Lucinda Rumsey, Mansfield College
5. "Many Biological Sciences tutors use plant or animal specimens – often alive – as a starting point for questions and discussion, so applicants shouldn't be surprised if they are asked to inspect and discuss an insect or a fruit. Red can signal either 'don't eat me' or 'eat me' to consumers. I'm interested in seeing how applicants attempt to resolve this apparent paradox." - Interviewer, Owen Lewis, Brasenose College
6. "Candidates are not meant to give a right or wrong answer to this question. They need to demonstrate that they have recognised the various issues that arise. The candidate who distinguishes between 'just' and 'effective' does best. The issues are different once that distinction is made. A just law might not be effective, or vice versa. The issues of how proportionate the punishment is to the crime refer to the justness of the law. The answer to its effectiveness is already in the question: 'and therefore nobody did it.'" - Interviewer, Liora Lazarus, St Anne's College
7. "This question arose out of discussion of a few poems that a candidate said he had read, and we were talking through how these poems were conveying meaning (through things such as tone and the imagery they used). We wanted to push the candidate into more conceptual thinking to test his intellectual curiosity and how he would handle moving from familiar particulars (the poems he knew) to less familiar ways of approaching them. What's important for candidates to realise is that we don't expect a single correct answer to such a question; it's a starting point for a new direction of discussion: what sorts of 'difficulties' might we have in mind? Are these specific to poetry or do they also feature in other types of writing? And so on.
What most interests us is that candidates are willing to venture down a new path, however uncertain this may feel: to have a go and show that they have the potential to develop their thinking further – and thus thrive on the sort of course we offer. Literature forms an important part of a Modern Languages degree at Oxford, but we know that most candidates won't have studied literature formally before in the language for which they're applying. What we want to know isn't that they've read a certain number of texts to prove their interest, but that they have the aptitude for studying texts: that they're able to think carefully and imaginatively about whatever they've had chance to read (poems, prose, drama) that's interested them, in any language." - Interviewer, Helen Swift, St Hilda's College
8. "We wouldn't actually phrase the question this way – we give the student a cactus in a pot and a close-up photo of the cactus's surface structure and ask them to describe the object in as much detail as possible using the plant and the photo. We are looking for observation, attention to detail, both at the large and micro scale. We ask them to account for what they see – this means they don't have to use memory or knowledge about cacti (even if they have it) but to deduce the uses and functions of the shapes, sizes, structures that they have just described. So for example, why be fat and bulbous, why have large sharp spines, surrounded by lots of very small hair-like spines? Why does it have small cacti budding off the main body? There will frequently be more than one logical answer to these questions, and we are likely to follow one answer with another question – for example:
‘The big spines are to stop the cactus being eaten, yes, but by what sort of animals?' We would also bring in more general questions at the end of the cactus discussion, such as what are the problems faced by plants and animals living in very dry habitats such as deserts." - Interviewer, Martin Speight, St Anne's College
9. "Candidates who have grown up on Harry Potter might have read Rowling's new book and have thought both about Rowling's change of audience and their own change as readers from child to adult. But even without knowing Rowling's work at all candidates could say something about themselves as readers, and how as readers they approach different kinds of books, and how writers develop a body of work and write for different audiences. Mainly I always want 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. I worry that not all candidates might have the same access to a wide range of literature, and I am careful to judge them on what they know, not on what they don't know. If I asked that question about Shakespeare some candidates might have a view of his literary output, but many wouldn't. If I start with Harry Potter, everyone at least has a starting point of recognition. And I think Rowling deserves a mention as I am sure that there are many people applying to study English at university this year who became avid readers because of her books." - Interviewer, Lucinda Rumsey, Mansfield College
10. "I might use this question early in an interview in order to set the candidate thinking, and to elicit some idea of their motivation before moving on to more specific questions. Given the nature of the Modern Languages course, I would be interested in responses about the French language as a 'window' into French culture/literature/history, knowledge of which is valuable in itself/essential to understanding today's world, etc.; but would also be happy to see candidates investigate some of the assumptions underlying the question: Is English a global language? What about Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, etc.? Can we not in fact still consider French a global language? And so on." - Interviewer, Stephen Goddard, St Catherine's College