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It’s approaching the crucial time of the year for Oxbridge applicants once more. The interviews – the distinguishing feature of the Oxford and Cambridge admissions process – are now just a few weeks away. In an effort to dispel some of the myths that surround this process, Oxford has released some of its past interview questions, accompanied by tips on what their admissions tutors would be looking for in candidates’ responses.

A theme that emerges is that many questions are relatively open-ended. In most cases there is no ‘right’ answer, in the strictest sense. Instead, the purpose of the questions is to start a discussion. One History question that has been asked is “How much of the past can you count?” Stephen Tuck (of Pembroke College) emphasises that this is supposed to raise numerous different issues relating to evidence, such as its availability from different periods of time, whether it is sufficient where available, and whether estimates can readily made where it is not.

Biologists have been asked why some habitats support higher biodiversity than others. Again, there is no single answer the interviewer will be looking for. Instead, what is important is that they get to see how the applicant actually thinks. For example, rather than just pointing out that the relevance of temperature, the strongest candidates may look to explain why this might be the case.

Just occasionally, candidates may be thrown something of a trick question. Art Historians were recently presented with newly created piece of work, and asked if they recognised it. Here there probably is a right answer (‘no’), but the purpose of asking this was really to see how they would approach something previously unseen, and to understand the sorts of issues they raise. This obviously would become something of a challenge for a candidate who had already claimed to be highly familiar with the distinguished piece put in front of them!

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