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Oxford University publishes sample interview questions

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image captionInterview questions are not designed to catch candidates out, says the university

Place a 30cm ruler on top of one finger from each hand. What happens when you bring your fingers together?

Can archaeology prove or disprove the Bible?

Two tricky questions of the sort asked at interviews for Oxford University places, which are being published by the university ahead of the application deadline for 2016 entry on Wednesday.

The aim is to dispel false rumours, explained Oxford's education and outreach director, Samina Khan.

'An academic conversation'

"We know there are still lots of myths about the Oxford interview, so we put as much information as possible out there to allow students to see the reality of the process," said Dr Khan.

"Tutors simply want to see how students think and respond to new ideas.

"We are not interested in catching students out."

With this in mind, the university asked admissions tutors in a range of subjects for sample questions and tips on answering.

"Interviews are not about reciting what you already know," said Dr Khan.

She reassured candidates that the interview was a chance to show how they can apply their thinking to new problems in ways that will both challenge them and allow them to shine.

She added: "They are an academic conversation in a subject area between tutors and candidate, similar to the undergraduate tutorials which current Oxford students attend every week.

"It is often best to start responding by making very obvious observations and build up discussion from there, rather than assuming that there is a hidden meaning or a highly complicated answer you have to jump to immediately," she advised.

Familiar surroundings

So what of the ruler question, aimed at prospective engineering students?

Steve Collins of University College Oxford says he would never ask it as an opening question - which would allow candidates to get comfortable by firstly discussing something familiar.

"This question would come later in the interview, when we present candidates with an unfamiliar scenario," he explained.

Sample questions

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Engineering: Place a 30cm ruler on top of one finger from each hand. What happens when you bring your fingers together?

"Almost everyone in this example will expect the ruler to topple off the side where the finger is closest to the centre of the ruler, because they expect this finger to reach the centre of the ruler first. They then complete the "experiment" and find both fingers reach the centre of the ruler at the same time and the ruler remains balanced on two fingers.

"We like to see how candidates react to what is usually an unexpected result and then encourage them to repeat the experiment slowly. With prompting to consider moments and friction, the candidate will come to the conclusion there is a larger force on the finger that is closest to the centre of the ruler.

"This means that there is more friction between the ruler and this finger and therefore the ruler slides over the finger furthest from the centre first. This argument will apply until the fingers are the same distance from the centre.

"The candidate should then be able to explain why both fingers reach the centre of the rule at the same time as observed.

"We might even discuss the fact that the coefficient of static friction is higher than the coefficient of dynamic friction. Therefore the "moving" finger gets closer to the centre than the static finger before the finger starts to move over the other finger."

Prof Steve Collins, engineering tutor, University College

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Oriental studies: Can archaeology prove or disprove the Bible?

"I would be looking for an answer that showed the candidate could appreciate the Bible was a collection of documents written and transmitted over several centuries, and containing important traditions that have a bearing on history, but that academic study of the Bible means it has to be examined carefully to see when and where these traditions had come from and for what purpose they had been written,

"They should recognise archaeology relies on non-literary sources preserved from ancient periods such as the remains of buildings and tools.

"These can often be dated by scientific means (and so appear more objective than literature), but we still frequently need additional information such as inscriptions or evidence from other similar sites in order to make sense of the ancient remains.

"In the end I would hope the candidate would work towards a realisation of the very different nature of these types of evidence, which sometimes gives a complementary picture, while in others it may be contradictory.

"Both require very careful interpretation, and just arguing that "The Bible says" or that "Archaeology proves" is much too simplistic."

Dr Alison Salvesen, oriental studies tutor, Mansfield College

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Economics and management: Do Bankers deserve their high pay or should government limit it?

"A simple answer might be that since banks are generally private firms and workers are free to work where they wish, then the pay they receive is just the outcome of a competitive labour market.

"In this story, bankers earn a lot because they are very skilled and have rare talents. It is hard to see a reason for government intervention in this case, though on equity grounds one may want to have a progressive income tax system that redistributes some of this income.

"A good candidate would wonder why seemingly equivalently talented people can get paid so much more in banking than in other occupations. Do we really believe bankers are so much better than other workers in terms of skill?

"An alternative story is that the banking industry is not competitive and generates profits above what a competitive market would produce. In this case, there is a role for government intervention to make the market more competitive. The key point is for candidates to think about the economics of pay rather than just whether they think it is fair or not."

Prof Brian Bell, economics tutor, Lady Margaret Hall

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Experimental Psychology: Imagine 100 people all put £1 into a pot. Each person has to choose a number between 0 and 100. The prize goes to the person whose number is closest to 2/3 of the average of all of the numbers chosen. What number will you choose and why?

"Some people's first guess is 2/3 of 100, i.e. 66 or 67, in which case I'd ask them what numbers everyone else would have to pick for them to win. In this case, everyone else would have to choose 100, which is unlikely. More often people first guess 2/3 of 50 (= 33), which seems intuitively more likely.

"At this point, and usually without prompting, the recursive nature of the solution becomes clear: If there is good reason for me to choose 33, then maybe everyone else will choose 33 too, in which case I should choose 2/3 of 33... but then everyone will think this and choose 2/3 of 33 too, so I should choose 2/3 of that number... and so on.

"Assuming everyone thinks like this, then everyone will eventually settle on zero as their choice - this is the formal "game theory" solution. At this point, I'd ask questions that bring out the candidate's broader reasoning skills in terms of thinking how we could define what it is rational to do in this game...

"The question also has a psychological angle in thinking about reasons for people's behaviour and choices. Will everyone put in the same effort? Will everyone be motivated to win?

"We're interested in seeing how people think through a problem, figure out what are the relevant factors and respond when new information is provided."

Prof Nick Yeung, experimental psychology tutor, University College

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Biomedical studies: Why is sugar in your urine a good indicator that you might have diabetes?

"This question builds on general knowledge and material studied at school in biology and chemistry to assess how students approach a clinically relevant problem. It's commonly known that diabetes is associated with sugar (glucose) in the urine.

"This question asks students to think about why this occurs. Students have usually have learnt that the kidneys filter blood to remove waste products, such as urea, that must be eliminated from the body but many other useful substances which must not be lost, including glucose, are also filtered.

"Given that glucose is not normally found in the urine, students are asked to speculate as to how it can all be recovered as the urine passes through the kidney's tubules.

The process involves reabsorption by a carrier protein that binds the glucose molecules and moves them out of the renal tubule and back into the blood.

"Students should appreciate that, in binding glucose, the carrier will share properties with enzymes, about which they will have learned at school: the capacity to reabsorb glucose is finite because once all of the carriers are working maximally, no further glucose reabsorption can occur.

"A successful applicant will make the connection that an elevated level of glucose in the blood in diabetes leads to increased filtration of glucose by the kidneys and saturation of the carriers that perform the reabsorption, resulting in 'overspill' of glucose in the urine."

Prof Robert Wilkins, tutor biomedical sciences, St Edmund Hall

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