Could You Answer Oxford University's Notoriously Difficult Interview Questions?

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"Is it easier for organisms to live in the sea or on land?" "Would it matter if tigers became extinct?" "Why do humans have two eyes?" And finally, "Tell me about a banana."

The interview questions for prospective students at Oxford University have a reputation for being difficult and, well, just a little bit weird. But to secure a spot at one of the most prestigious and highly-ranked universities in the world, you have to prove you're a flexible and original thinker.


"We want to see someone thinking for themselves, being willing to tackle a challenging question," explained a French tutor, on the university's website. "It’s really important for candidates to understand that ‘tackling’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘solving’: it’ll be about applying skills that you already have to a new scenario, text, or problem, so we want to see how you set about it."

The questions might seem utterly random but they usually have at least some relevance to the subject being interviewed for. So someone applying for a Computer Science BA might be asked, "How do pirates divide their treasure?" A History student, "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?" and so on. 

In preparation for the 2018 application deadline (October 15), the university has released a new batch of sample questions, giving wannabe Oxford students the chance to practice before the interviews in December. 

"[I]nterviews will be an entirely new experience for most students, and we know many prospective applicants are already worried about being in an unfamiliar place and being questioned by people they have not met – so to help students to become familiar with the type of questions they might get asked we release these real examples," said Dr Samina Khan, Director of Admissions and Outreach at Oxford.  


"We want to underscore that every question asked by our tutors has a purpose, and that purpose is to assess how students think about their subject and respond to new information or unfamiliar ideas."

So, how do you think you'd do? Remember, there are no "right" or "wrong" answers – it's all about how you work through the question. 

What do we lose if we only read a foreign work of literature in translation? [Modern Languages]

"They might be able to tell us about the challenges of translation, about what sorts of things resist literal or straightforward translation from one language to another, and this would give us an indication of how aware they are of how languages work," Jane Hiddleston, Professor of Literatures in French at Exeter College, explained. 


"They might also tell us about literary language, and why literary texts in particular use language in ways that make translation problematic. This might lead to a discussion of what is distinct about literary works, and this helps us to see what kind of reader they are more broadly. We don't do this with the expectation that they have already read any particular works, however, but in order to get a sense of why they think it is worth studying literatures in foreign languages. This is an important issue, given that Modern Languages students at Oxford read a lot of literature in the language as part of their course. Occasionally candidates are able to give examples of famous lines or quotations that risk being misread when translated into English. This issue might also be something we discuss when we read an extract or poem in the language together during the interview."

"In a world where English is a global language, why learn French?" - A Modern Languages interview question that has been used in the past. CYC/Shutterstock

‘I agree that air transport contributes to harmful climate change. But whether or not I make a given plane journey, the plane will fly anyway. So there is no moral reason for me to not travel by plane.’ Is this a convincing argument? [Philosophy, Politics, and Economics]

As Cecile Fabre, Professor of Political Philosophy at All Souls College, explained, "This answer raises the difficult question of individuals’ responsibility, as individuals, for harmful collective actions. Some candidates might be inclined to dispute the premise that air transport contributes to climate change: that’s fine, but we would then ask them to accept that premise for the sake of argument. Whether they are able to do that is in itself an important test, since much of philosophical thinking proceeds in this way."

"Some candidates might say that the argument is a good one: given that what I do makes no difference, I have no moral reason not to do it. At this point, I would want to know what they consider a moral reason to be (as distinct from or similar to, for example, a practical or prudential reason)."


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

"The majority of candidates will expect Bangladesh or South Africa to have the highest crude mortality rate, and will be surprised to find that it is in fact Japan," explained Andrew King, a research fellow at Exeter College.

"The other part of the mortality rate calculation is of course the age of the population: we would ideally steer the conversation towards a discussion of why a wealthy but older country like Japan might have a higher mortality rate, while a country like Bangladesh – which many people might initially expect to have a high mortality rate due to relative poverty as a country – actually has a relatively lower mortality rate because of its young population."

"Similarly, Britain actually has the second-highest mortality rate because of the age structure of its population: we are a relatively old country and a majority of deaths occur in older people"


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