Could You Pass These Oxford University Entrance Questions?

Evening skyline of Oxford. Pajor Pawel/Shutterstock

If you are one for trusting league tables, you may know that the University of Oxford is considered one of the best in the world, and has probably been revered as such almost since it was founded in 1096 CE.

To satisfy people's curiosity about the interview required to attend the university and demystify the process a bit, Oxford has released some of its questions for the last few years. Most questions are based on topics that the candidates are familiar with or have expressed an interest in during their application essay.  

“We know there are still misunderstandings about the Oxford interview, so we put as much information as possible out there to allow students to see the reality of the process,” Dr Samina Khan, director of Admissions and Outreach at Oxford University, said in a statement.

“No matter what kind of educational background or opportunities you have had, the interview should be an opportunity to present your interest and ability in your chosen subject, since they are not just about reciting what you already know.”

The questions Oxford presented over the last three years touch on various topics, from religion and economics to politics and French. They are there to give prospective students an idea of what the interview process is like. In general, the questions are not asked with the expectation that there is a single correct answer, but rather to start a conversation. The interviewers are interested in seeing how the candidates think, rather than how much they have memorized.

Here are the questions for Science and Medicine.  

About 1 in 4 deaths in the UK is due to some form of cancer, yet in the Philippines the figure is only around 1 in 10. What factors might underlie this difference?

Chris Norbury of Queen's College asked this question to prospective medical students in 2016. The candidates were not expected to make a comprehensive list of factors that distinguish the two populations. Instead, the college was interested in whether the candidates asked follow-up questions, linked lifestyles to outcomes, noted life expectancy differences between the two countries, as well as appreciated the subtle complexity of studying populations as a whole.

How many different molecules can be made from six carbon atoms and twelve hydrogen atoms?

Martin Galpin, University College, asked students interested in studying Chemistry this question last year. If you are a chemistry aficionado, you may know that you can make five molecules using all those atoms, but that’s not what the interviewer was particularly interested in hearing. Instead, he wanted to know if the prospective students understood how molecules with the same formula could have radically different structures and how this relates to properties we can measure.

Put these countries in order by their crude mortality (deaths per thousand of the population): Bangladesh, Japan, South Africa, the UK.

Andrew King, from Exeter College, asked this question in 2017. While on the surface this may seem similar to the previous medical question, it actually has students face their possible misconceptions regarding crude mortalityWhile mortality is often talked about in the media as specific diseases or childhood mortality, crude mortality considers it all. Candidates may assume that countries like Bangladesh have the highest crude mortality rate due to infant mortality rates and infectious diseases, but it is instead countries with an aging population that are higher on the list. The country with the highest crude mortality is Japan, followed by the UK, South Africa, and Bangladesh. 

How can we estimate the mass of the atmosphere?

This question was put forward by Conall MacNiocaill, from Exeter College. You may or may not know the atmosphere is estimated to weigh roughly 5.4 billion billion kilograms, but this wouldn't help you. The question asks "how" to estimate the mass of the atmosphere. MacNiocaill is interested in not just applying your knowledge to solve real-life problems but also thinking outside the box.

"An alternate approach is to see if there are properties of the atmosphere that we can observe at the surface that might enable us to estimate the mass," said MacNiocaill. "One such property is atmospheric pressure." He also looked to see whether or not candidates mentioned the challenges in determining where the atmosphere ends and if they noted that density can change with varying altitude.

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