How to get into Oxford University: Sample interview questions released to help people trying to get onto PPE, economics, biomedical sciences, experimental psychology and engineering courses

Emma Haslett
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Do you have what it takes to live among the dreaming spires? (Source: Getty)

As thousands of A-Level students clamour to put together personal statements and find grades, one select bunch is beginning to sweat, with deadline day for Oxbridge candidates just two days away.

But do you have what it takes to get into Oxford? This year, the university has decided to give prospective students a bit of a helping hand by supplying sample interview questions.

Nervous? Here's what you can expect at that all-important interview.

Philosophy, politics and economics (PPE)

Q: Why is income per head between 50 and 100 times larger in the United States than in countries such as Burundi and Malawi?

Interviewer Brian Bell from Lady Margaret Hall suggests that this focuses on "perhaps the most important economic question there is: why are some countries rich and some countries poor?".

There's no simple answer, so candidates must "think about all the potential reasons such income gaps exist". Take into consideration capital an technology available to workers - why do poor countries not have the same technology as rich ones?

"Good candidates should recognise that institutions matter a lot," adds Bell. "Respect for property rights and the rule of law appear to be pre-requisites for sustainable development... The trick is to think widely."

Economics and management

Q: Do bankers deserve the pay they receive? And should government do something to limit how much they get?

Bell says the key point here is for candidates to consider the "economics of pay, rather than just whether they think it is fair or not".

A simple answer might be that "banks are generally private firms and workers are free to work where they wish" - but a good candidate might ask "why it is that seemingly equivalently talented people can get paid so much more in banking".

"An alternative story is that the banking industry is not competitive and generates profits above what a competitive market would produce," adds Bell.

Biomedical sciences

Q: Why is sugar in your urine a good indicator that you might have diabetes?

Unlike the previous two questions, this one has a definite answer, building on general knowledge and material studied at school, says interviewer Robert Wilkins, from St Edmund Hall.

"Students have usually learnt that the kidneys filter blood to remove waste products... but many other useful substances which must not be lost - including glucose - are also filtered."

"A successful applicant will make the connection that an elevated level of glucose in the blood in diabetes leads to increased filtration of glucose by the kidneys," he adds.

Experimental psychology

Q: Imagine that 100 people all put £1 into a pot for a prize that will go to the winner of a simple game. Each person has to choose a number between 0 and 100. The prize goes to the person whose number is closest to 2/3 of the average of all of the numbers chosen. What number will you choose, and why?

Interviewer Nick Yeung of University College says he likes this question because it "brings in a range of skills relevant to the subject".

"Partly it involves numerical and analytical skills," although it also tests candidates' other skills, such as broader reasoning skills "in terms of thinking how we could define what it is rational to do in this game".

If you thought of game theory, you may be on the right track: it "gives one definition of rationality, but does it give a plausible winning answer?"

"What's clear from all of this is that we're not looking for a single answer. Rather, we're interested in seeing how people think through a problem, figure out what are the relevant factors, respond when new information is provided, and so on."


Q: Place a 30cm ruler on top of one finger from each hand. What happens when you bring your fingers together?

Interviewer Steve Collins, of University College, suggests this would never be an opening question - "we usually start with a first question that gives the candidate an opportunity to get comfortable by discussing something familiar", before asking questions based on material from GCSE and A-Level studies.

"This question would come later in the interview, when we present candidates with an unfamiliar scenario and ask them to use what they know about familiar concepts (such as friction) to explain something."

So how to answer the question? Try it, says Collins: "[candidates] complete the 'experiment' and find both fingers reach the centre of the ruler at the same time and the ruler remains balanced on both fingers".

The important thing is how you react to "what is usually an unexpected result".

Complete the experiment again, slowly. "The candidate should be able to explain why both fingers reach the centre of the rule at the same time as observed."

Oriental studies

Q: Can archaeology "prove" or "disprove" the Bible?

Alison Salvesen, from Mansfield College, says interviews tend to be tailors to individuals based on their background, in order to find out whether they have a genuine interest in the subject area.

"For this question I would be looking for an answer that showed the candidate could appreciate that the Bible was a collection of documents written and transmitted over several centuries," she suggests.

Archaeology, on the other hand, "relies on non-literary sources preserved from ancient periods such as the remains of buildings and tools".

By the end of the interview, Salvesen says she "would hope the candidate would work towards a realisation of the very different nature of these types of evidence, which sometimes gives a complementary picture, while in others it may be contradictory".

How to get through an Oxford interview: Tips from admissions and outreach director Dr Samina Khan

Focus on your subject
"We emphasise... that the interview is primarily an academic conversation based on a passage of text, an object, a problem set or a series of questions relating to the course the applicant has applied for," says Khan. So if a question seems a bit off-the-wall, find a way to bring it back to your subject.

It's all in your reactions
Interviewers expect some of the information presented to applicants to be unfamiliar. What's important is how you react to it. "We hope that seeing some of the less obvious questions will reassure prospective applicants that tutors simply want to see how students think and respond to new ideas - we are not interested in catching students out."

Think creatively
"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 [they] will be encouraged to use their knowledge and apply their thinking to new problems in a way that will both challenge them and allow them to shine".

Look back at your personal statement
Your interview is likely to build on the subjects you mentioned in your personal statement, says Khan - so make sure you are up-to-date on those subjects.

Don't be afraid of stating the obvious - but then build on it
Interviews "might include a logic problem to solve for a problem like mathematics, and we will often provide candidates with material to prompt discussion," says Khan. "It is often best to start responding by making very obvious observations and build up discussion from there, rather than assuming that there is a hidden meaning or a highly complicated answer you have to jump to immediately."

Do your research
Khan points out that the university provides online materials including mock interviews, video diaries by admissions tutors and lots of example questions - so you don't need to go in feeling unprepared.

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