Oxford and Cambridge are both universities renowned for their bright minds and revolutionary thinking, and during the application process they seek candidates who not only exhibit deep academic knowledge and analytical ability, but also those who can defend a point of view and who are willing to challenge an assumption. To explore these characteristics in potential students, interviewers will sometimes ask students to engage in some sort of role-play, where the student has to defend an opinion, or convince the interviewer to change their mind. In interviews for medical students, this can often take the form of discussing ethical problems, but today I’d like to explore some scenarios a science student may face.
For science students, these types of questions often hinge on large well known topics, such as evolution or gravity. This allows students to not only draw on their own academic knowledge but also explore the various opinions that exist in the media and general public and assess their relative merits and drawbacks. For this blog, I’d like to touch upon climate change because of some very interesting research that was recently published. Before getting into that though, let’s review how you should approach answering these types of questions.
Typically, the interviewer asks a broad, open ended question; in this case, let’s assume they ask “Convince me that climate change is a real phenomenon”. The first thing to do is pause, and really determine what the question is that they are asking. In this case, they are saying they don’t believe in climate change as a process. Sounds obvious right? However, with the nerves of the interview, I can guarantee that many students would assume that this question was about whether climate change was being driven by human activity, not exploring whether climate change in itself was a process that was currently occurring.
The next step is to better frame the question and narrow its scope. In this case, I would open by saying that on a long enough time scale, the Earth’s climate has changed owing to slight variations in celestial motion, as evidenced by the geological record of previous ice ages. This helps clarify that the interviewers question is indeed (or not!) about short-term, rapid climate change. Having established this, the next step is to move onto an evidence-supported argument that makes your convincing case to the interviewer.
The most important of this previous sentence was the “evidence-supported” part. It is critical that for all the key hot topics in your subject area you have some examples of research that support (or dismiss) a particular hypothesis or argument. On the topic of climate change, one significant piece of research that has recently gotten media attention has been the topic of “river piracy”, where the study found that in mid-2016, the retreat of a very large glacier in Canada’s Yukon territory led to the rerouting of its vast stream of melt-water from one river system to another — cutting down flow to the Yukon’s largest lake, and channelling freshwater to the Pacific Ocean south of Alaska, rather than to the Bering Sea.
Being able to reference such pieces of research (no need to memorise the authors of the paper, or even the journal) makes your arguments much more sound and refined. However, do be prepared to defend the research you are quoting against any critiques the interviewer may have – they will want to probe to see that you are applying the findings of the research appropriately to support your argument!
So as a final tip to wrap this blog up – do start collecting some articles and research on the key topics for your subject area of choice, it will help immensely in the autumn to have all the evidence collected and ready for you to brush up on ahead of your interviews!