Oxford University interviews: what do tutors ask?

As the deadline for Oxbridge applications looms, Oxford tutors talk through the type of questions they’ll be asking university applicants this autumn – and the answers they hope to hear.

Subject: History

Q: 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?

Stephen: I would say this to a candidate who had mentioned an interest in sport on their personal statement, though it could equally be applied to an interest in something else – like film, drama, or music.

What I would be looking for is to see how the candidate might use their imagination, building on something they know about (probably much more than I do) to tackle questions of historical research.

Answers could relate to the racial/class/gender relations in society (who played the sports, and which sports, at any given time); international politics/empire (which countries were involved, did groups of countries play the same sport); economic development (the technological development of sports, how sport was watched); the values within a society (bloodthirsty sports to more genteel sports); health (participation rates); or many other issues – the list is long.

I would usually ask supplementary questions, to push the students further – and often, I would have no answer in my mind, but would simply be interested in seeing how far the student could push their analysis.

Subject: Philosophy, Politics, Economics

When I was at school in the 1970s, there was talk of a pensions crisis that would one day hit. The talk persisted in the 1980s, and the 1990s – and then there was a pensions crisis, and little had been done politically to prepare us for it.

Q: Is there a fault with the British political system that means we can’t sensibly address serious medium and long-term problems when they are identified?

Dave: This question was an invitation to think about democracy and its limitations – it’s a big question, but an important one. I have had candidates come up with good discussions about voting methods – for example, how having proportions of parliament voted in for much longer terms might promote more long-term policy thinking.

Another approach might be to reflect on the responsibility of the electorate; if they do not think in long-term ways, it may not be politicians who are to blame, and the problem may be down to education.

One might reflect upon the importance of having an un-elected second chamber to which all really important business could be delegated.

One candidate suggested that no one should be allowed to stand for parliament unless they have dependent children, with the thought that this would ensure a personal motivation towards longer term thinking on a variety of matters.

There is no single ‘right answer’ to the question, most answers given serve as the basis for further elaboration. For example, in the case of longer parliamentary terms: what would be the wider consequences of that change? Would they be desirable?

We are testing the capacity to begin to locate the source of a problem, and try out solutions through discussion. The precise solution students suggest matters much less than evidence of the refining of ideas and of self-correction where necessary.

Subject: English

Q: JK Rowling has just published a book for adults after the hugely successful Harry Potter series. In what ways do you think that writing for children is different to writing for adults?

Lucinda: Candidates who have grown up on Harry Potter might have read Rowling’s new book and have thought both about Rowling’s change of audience and their own change as readers from child to adult. But even without knowing Rowling’s work at all candidates could say something about themselves as readers, and how as readers they approach different kinds of books, and how writers develop a body of work and write for different audiences.

Mainly I always want to know that whatever they are reading, candidates are reading thoughtfully and self-consciously, and are able to think as literary critics about all the books they read. I worry that not all candidates might have the same access to a wide range of literature, and I am careful to judge them on what they know, not on what they don’t know.

If I asked that question about Shakespeare some candidates might have a view of his literary output, but many wouldn’t. If I start with Harry Potter, everyone at least has a starting point of recognition. And I think Rowling deserves a mention as I am sure that there are many people applying to study English at university this year who became avid readers because of her books.

Categories: Academic

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