’Should it be illegal to run a red light in the middle of the night on an empty road?’

The questions have been released ahead of the deadline day for students to apply to study at Oxford University next year (15 October). Students applying to study French might be asked about the difference between reading a work in its original language compared with a translation, while aspiring doctors might be asked to discuss and rank the mortality rates of several countries from around the world.  

’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,’ says Dr Samina Khan, Director of Admissions and Outreach at Oxford. ’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.

’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. Tutors want to give students a chance to show their real ability and potential, which means students will be encouraged to use their knowledge and apply their thinking to new problems - with tutors guiding the discussion to ensure students feel comfortable and confident. They are an academic conversation in a subject area between tutors and students, similar to the undergraduate tutorials which current Oxford students attend every week.’

Dr Khan adds: ’It’s important to remember that most interviews build on material students will have encountered in their studies or touch on areas students mention in their personal statements. Most commonly tutors will provide candidates with material to prompt discussion - for example a piece of text, an image, or a sample experiment whose results they are asked to consider. It is often best to start responding by making very obvious observations and build up discussion from there - solving the problem quickly is less important than showing how you use information and analysis to get there.

’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.’

Here are some sample questions:

Subject: Modern Languages (French)
Interviewer: Jane Hiddleston, Exeter College

Q: What do we lose if we only read a foreign work of literature in translation?

Jane: This is a good question as it helps us to see how candidates think about both languages and literature. 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.

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.

Subject: Philosophy (Philosophy, Politics and Economics)
Interviewer: Cecile Fabre, Lincoln College (now of All Souls)

Q: ’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 not to travel by plane.’ Is this a convincing argument?

Cecile: The interview is not meant to test candidates’ knowledge of Philosophy, since more often than not, they have not studied this subject before. Moreover, we are not trying to get them to guess or arrive at ’the right answer’. Rather, the interview is about candidates’ ability to think critically, to deal with counter-examples to the views they put forward, and to draw distinctions between important concepts.

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).

I would also push them to think about other cases: for example, the bombing of Dresden (one jet fighter less makes no difference to the collective outcome - so why not go and fight); or voting (why should I vote in a general election, given that my vote makes no difference)- Are the cases the same? Are they different? If so, are the differences or similarities relevant? That is to say, do those differences and similarities help us think about the original case? Do they help us to work out a view about individual responsibility in those cases’ For example, in the Dresden case, the individual jet fighters act together as part of an organisation - the air force - whose aim is to bomb Dresden. But we cannot say of companies such as British Airways that they aim to cause climate change. And the air passengers cannot really be described as acting together. Does this make a difference?

Subject: Law
Interviewer: Jon Herring, Exeter College

Q: Should it be illegal to run a red light in the middle of the night on an empty road?

Jon: The ability to think normatively is important to the study of law, so we are interested in what candidates think the law ought to be, but more important is their capacity to justify their position. This involves being able analyse concepts, critically appraise arguments and the reasoning behind a position, as well as to consider objections and to offer rebuttals to those objections. There isn’t a right or wrong answer to this question; we would be using the example to see how well the candidate could justify their stance. For example, a candidate might say that if no one was harmed by running the light, then it wouldn’t hurt to run it so it shouldn’t be illegal. This would be suggesting that the law is based on preventing harm. We might then explore whether this is the only purpose or the dominant purpose of the law, and how that might shape how legal rules need to be constructed, when exceptions might be valid and how effective exceptions could be created. Here, we would be looking to see how well they can see the problems with their approach, the difficulties inherent in drafting a rule that works in every situation without being too broad. This line of discussion would draw out their capacity to respond to challenges to their position, their mental flexibility, and their ability to think precisely. Another candidate might suggest that even if no one is harmed, it is important that laws are respected and we could examine why this is the case. For example, if running lights was only illegal when it was dangerous, this would leave it to each person’s assessment of ’dangerous’, so we could never be sure when someone would run a light, leading to chaotic traffic.

This question also picks up on ideas about what it means for something to be illegal and citizens’ relationship with the law, whether it can ever be justified to break the law and what might be a sufficient justification. This could lead into more philosophical discussions of what it means for a law to be binding and how legal rules might differ from moral rules or guidelines. A candidate might begin to consider whether there is something special about ’law’, and we could use this as a way into exploring with them whether the fact that something is illegal is itself a reason not to do something, over and above, perhaps, the harm the rule is aiming to prevent. Candidates might then think about how law makes other people’s behaviour more predictable so that we can plan our own actions, or how the law might serve functions like punishing wrongdoing. An example might be that because the law makes murder illegal and those who kill are punished, I can expect that I can leave my house and generally not expect to be killed, so this allows me to decide it’s safe to go outside.

Subject: Medicine
Interviewer: Andrew King, Exeter College

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

Andrew: Interviews for Medicine aim to gauge candidates’ understanding of the science underpinning the study of medicine, as well as skills in scientific enquiry. This question invites candidates to think about a public health question and epidemiology that can be approached in many different ways, without necessarily knowing anything about specific mortality rates around the world. We would expect the initial discussion to probe the differing causes of death that contribute to mortality rates - such as those ’Western diseases’ heart disease and cancer - and how they compare to those found in developing countries (high infant mortality, infectious diseases, poor nutrition, high rates of HIV etc.). 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.

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. We wouldn’t expect students to get the right answer on their own, and in fact that’s not the point: the point is to see how they apply their understanding of social and cultural factors in health and illness to a problem of epidemiology. Some students might already have a detailed knowledge of demography, others might need to be given more relevant information - the point isn’t what they know, it’s what questions they ask to make their conclusions, and how they interpret information to draw those conclusions. We might then go on to discuss how you could make a valid comparison between mortality rates in different countries.