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.”
Ben McFarlane, professor of law, asks: “What does it mean for someone to ‘take’ another’s car?”
Answer: “There is no right answer to this question. For example, can you take a car without driving it, or even without moving it? Our focus is on the candidate’s reasoning – how he or she formulates an initial definition, and how he or she then applies and refines that initial definition in response to hypothetical examples provided by the interviewers.”
“One example might be: ‘I am walking along the street when it starts to rain. I open the door of an unlocked car and sit there for 15 minutes until the rain passes. Have I ‘taken’ the car?’ The aim of the interview is to give the candidate a chance to show his or her application, reasoning ability, and communication skills.”
Brian Harrington, previously a research fellow and tutor at Keble College, asks: “How do pirates divide their treasure? A group of 7 pirates has 100 gold coins. They have to decide amongst themselves how to divide the treasure, but must abide by pirate rules:
– The most senior pirate proposes the division.
– All of the pirates (including the most senior) vote on the division. If half or more vote for the division, it stands. If less than half vote for it, they throw the most senior pirate overboard and start again.
– The pirates are perfectly logical, and entirely ruthless (only caring about maximizing their own share of the gold).
So, what division should the most senior pirate suggest to the other six?”
Answer: “This is a standard logic problem and is a good example of the type of question that could be asked. I like to see how students can take directions, and if they can break problems into smaller subsets, and work through a complex concept applying a solution in an algorithmic way. If students have any questions, I want them to ask – not to sit in silence feeling stuck!”
Steve Roberts, professor of materials, asks: “How hot does the air have to be in a hot air balloon if I wanted to use it to lift an elephant?”
Answer: “When I actually used this question in interviews, no-one actually got as far as an actual ‘X degrees C’ answer in the ten minutes or so we allowed for it, nor did we expect them to.”
“We use this sort of question to try to find how applicants think about problems, and how they might operate within a tutorial. We make this clear to interviewees before even giving them questions of this type.”
“Things we are looking for include how readily they can see into the core of a problem (what’s the essential physics in this? – what concepts and equations might be useful?); how they respond to hints and suggestions from us (can they take a hint or two and run with it, or do they have to be dragged through every step?); their approach to basic concepts (how does a hot air balloon work, anyway? What else operates like one?); estimates (typical size of balloon, weight of elephant) and sorting out what’s important (what about the weight of the balloon itself?); and how they use ‘rough maths’ to get a quick idea of the likely sort of answer, using sensible approximations in working through formulae, and keeping track of units.”