Oxbridge Interview Questions | Varsity Education

Oxbridge Interviews: “Why do they ask that?”

Oxbridge interviews are often a question of intellectual flexibility…

“What will they ask me during the interview?” That’s one of the most commonly-asked questions during our summer programmes here at Varsity Education. After all, Oxford and Cambridge have a rigorous interview process that is particularly difficult to understand for newcomers. At Oxford alone, approximately 10,000 young people are interviewed for just 3,500 places.

Fortunately, all our tutors (and many of our admin staff, too) are Oxbridge graduates who have already experienced these interviews themselves – and they are used to advising young people on the questioning style they will face for entry to their preferred course.

A couple of years ago, Oxford released a set of sample questions which included:

  • “What makes a novel or a play political?” (Modern Languages)
  • “What exactly do you think is involved in blaming someone?” (Philosophy)
  • “Imagine a ladder leaning against a vertical wall with its feet on the ground. The middle rung of the ladder has been painted a different colour on the side, so that we can see it when we look at the ladder from the side on. What shape does that middle rung trace out as the ladder falls to the floor?” (Mathematics)
  • “About one in four deaths in the UK is due to some form of cancer, yet in the Philippines the figure is only around one in 10. What factors might underlie this difference?” (Medicine)
  • “A large study appears to show that older siblings consistently score more highly than younger siblings on IQ tests. Why would this be?” (Psychology)

“The most challenging question was ‘which is better: History or English?’ I was applying for a combined honours degree in both! I decided on the latter and argued as best I could without offending the English tutor. There was no right or wrong answer – she was simply intrigued to see how I’d compare the two disciplines, analyse their merits and make my case.”

Erin, Oxford alumna working for Varsity Education

Meanwhile, over at Cambridge, some of the more unusual and intriguing questions asked of students recently came to light, including the following:

  • “Instead of politicians, why don’t we let the managers of Ikea run the country?” (Social and Political Science)
  • “If a wife had expressed distaste for it previously, would her husband’s habit of putting marmalade in his egg at breakfast be grounds for divorce?” (Law)
  • “What would you do if I were a magpie?” (Natural Science)

Nevertheless, Sam Lucy, Director of Admissions for Cambridge colleges, offered reassurance by advising prospective applicants not to ‘over-think’ the process. “There is quite a lot of trying to interpret what we’re looking for,” she explained. “We’re looking for people who are extremely enthusiastic about the subject they are applying for, have got the right aptitudes and, if necessary, prior knowledge for it. Everything we do in the process is about trying to identify those things.”

“One of the most memorable questions was about the way a film director had portrayed Hitler in a particular film, Der Untergang. That’s because I’d mentioned this film on my SAQ (a form for Cambridge University, in addition to the standard UCAS application). I think I said something about lighting and camera angles!”

Bethan, Cambridge alumna working for Varsity Education

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