Some of the modern world's sharpest and deepest minds have studied at the University of Oxford in the UK. The list of notable alumni dauntingly trails on and on and on, with endless Nobel Prize-winning scientists and world leaders, including Stephen Hawking, Tim Berners-Lee, Edwin Hubble, Richard Dawkins, JRR Tolkien, TS Eliot, and Oscar Wilde, to name but a few.
So, just how hard is it to get accepted into this university?
A handful of the university's tutors have shared some questions they’d ask you in an interview, along with explanations of how they would like students to answer. In most instances, the interviewers are not looking for a clear “yes or no” answer, even in interviews for “hard science” subjects. The questions are there for prospective students to demonstrate how their mind works, as opposed what to what is in their mind.
Owen Lewis, professor of ecology and tutor in biological sciences, asks: “Ladybirds are red. So are strawberries. Why?”
Answer: “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.”
Jeffrey Tseng, associate professor and tutor in physics, asks: “A ball, initially at rest, is pushed upwards by a constant force for a certain amount of time. Sketch the velocity of the ball as a function of time, from start to when it hits the ground.”
Answer: “Students do make mistakes, and that’s fine as I don’t expect them to know all the material... It's not assumed that a less-talented student will need more help on any given problem, and for this reason it can be difficult for students to judge how well they're doing during the interview."
"If a student gets things correct straight away, I just move on, either to further aspects of the original question, or to others."
"It's usually a guided discussion rather than a matter of getting answers right or wrong straight away. I want to see how students respond to guidance and how they correct themselves, hopefully less by guessing than by thinking through what they know and what I've told them. Or in other words, while I am looking for a correct answer in the end, I'm even more interested in rigorous thinking.”