"Describe this rock to me." Oxford University reveals sample interview questions

Oxford University aerial view
by Nik Taylor | 19 Oct 2018

Rocks, God and music among the topics covered in Oxford's latest interview questions

Could you describe what a rock looks like? That's one of the puzzlers revealed by Oxford University in its latest sample of interview questions.

Other questions in the list, which Oxford releases to help prospective students get an idea of what to expect at interview, include: "What can historians not find out about the past?", "What are the different ways in which you listen to music?" and "Is religion of value whether or not there is a God?".

Chemistry students are asked "How many different molecules can be made from six carbon atoms and twelve hydrogen atoms?" while medicine students are presented with the challenge "The viruses that infect us are totally dependent on human cells for their reproduction; is it therefore surprising that viruses cause human diseases?".

Academic conversation
With the deadline for applications to Oxford now closed, next year's would-be undergrads will be looking ahead at a potential interview for a place on their chosen course. But they shouldn't feel unduly worried about the questions that will be asked, says Dr Samina Khan, director of admissions and outreach at Oxford University.

"We emphasise in all our outreach activity that the interview is primarily an academic conversation based on a passage of text, a problem set or a series of technical discussions related to the course students have applied for," she says. 

"But interviews 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. 

"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."

Suggestions and small questions
Roger Benson, professor of paleobiology, explains how interviewees would be supported while grappling with the rock question. 

"We don't want to intimidate or overwhelm the candidates with difficult questions that they haven’t encountered before," he says. "But we do want to see that they can get to grips with new information and use it in their reasoning. So we often provide suggestions and small questions that help to guide the conversation at various points."

Dr Khan adds: "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. 

"We now have mock interviews online, video diaries made by admissions tutors during the interview process, and lots of example questions to help students to familiarise themselves with what the process is – and isn’t – about."

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