How to survive the Oxford interview

Inside the Oxford interview

I’ve just finished the Oxford undergrad interviews. After two long days, where we saw 30 students for 20 minutes each, I thought I’d give some tips and thoughts on the whole interview thing.

The competition was very very tough – we had just 5 places for 24 students, basically all with straight A*/A at GCSE and A-level, lots of proven interest in the subject, a host of other extra-curricular accolades. These included being on the UK ski team, county rugby, junior Olympians and grade 8 in music. Some were brilliant, most were very good, a few we frankly thought were stupid, and made us wonder how the hell they’d got such outstanding grades. As a fellow who was interviewing for another subject said to me yesterday ‘they are good enough when they answer the question better than you could have done’….basically he was right.

So what did we talk about? To a large degree, it depended on what you wrote…so here is my biggest tip:

Tell us in your personal statement about a specific biological idea you want to talk about e.g. “On a school trip to the Natural History museum, I really enjoyed seeing the stuffed birds – particularly the peacock. I was fascinated by their degree of ornamentation and I wanted to understand why they evolved to be that way, so I read ‘The Red Queen’ by Matt Ridley.”


Why do peacocks have such big tails?

Try to pick a topic you are genuinely interested about (it’s OK to free your inner geek!) It could be anything (we had people talk in their statements about Lichens, breeding pet tropical fish, breeding pet rabbits, volunteering on sea turtle conservation projects, family genetically inherited illness, mind controlling parasites, models of population dynamics, the effect of climate change on bird migratory patterns, why peacocks have such big tails)…there were of course lots of gene/cell things, but I can’t remember them as I’m a naturalist at heart!

What are the interviews like?

The interview would start with the following patter: hello X, please come in, sit down, make yourself comfortable. Well we’ve just been reading your UCAS form and well done, you’ve got excellent grades and a really interesting personal statement and your teachers say very nice things about you, so well done. Now, there are lots of things on your statement we’d like to talk about, but in the time we have, I’d like to start by asking you…

For each, the interview would proceed similarly…1. Tell us about the thing you’re interested in e.g. why do peacocks have big tails? 2. Then a question to develop the idea e.g. Why then are there some species where the males and females look the same? We are normally wanting you to identify some underlying principles that put your interest in a bigger picture (e.g. the effect of competition and life history on the evolution of sexual dimorphism). 3. We’d often try to get you to define a word (e.g. what do you mean by ‘competition’)…these are not trick questions, if you know the topic, you should be able to answer them well…Try reading around the topic, maybe choose a good undergrad textbook e.g. Behavioural Ecology by Krebs, Davies and West….why not pick a topic from a chapter and write about that as an example?

Then came about one of three options…


Know what a book says, if you claim to have read it!

1. You said you’ve read [most common was Selfish Gene], could you please tell us what it says? [Hint – most people say selfish gene or blind watchmaker, which are obviously great as they are classics, but that also means we can compare you answer more easily, as we’ve heard several others answer the exact same question]…If you say you read a book, know what the book says, know how to summarise the book’s contents in 20 seconds, think what questions we may ask (e.g. you read the Selfish Gene, does it imply people are selfish? What behaviours can a gene’s-eye view explain that individual level perspectives could not? Do you know of any criticisms of the book?).

2. You said you like reading the New scientist, can you tell us about a recent article that you found particularly interesting? If you did not mention a magazine title, we’d often still ask for you to tell us about some recent scientific news. We don’t care which you choose! Just please pick one, make sure you remember it (several students got lost and fizzled out before explaining the idea with a ‘i can’t remember the details, but it was really cool’.) Details! Don’t be mentally arm-wavy!

3. I see you’re taking [maths/art/latin etc.] (i.e. not biology or chemistry), can you tell me how that subject might help you as a biologist? e.g. Art = observation, eye for detail, seeing patterns, creative thinking. Maths = stats, models, formulating theories. Latin = understanding species names, writing ability.

Here are some tips:

1. Know what is on your personal statement. Obvious, yes, but so many did not!

2. If we ask a broad question, just say something! We’re seeing lots of people, so whatever you do, don’t sit stumped going ‘ummm, I can’t think of an interesting global event that happened this year’…blood out of a stone students are not fun to teach!

3. If you don’t know the answer, just say so. We don’t expect you to know much yet, so it is no problem if you say ‘i don’t know’ to a specific question (as long as you dont say that to everything!). It means we can quickly move on to a topic you shine on, rather than spending time focusing on a weak spot. Bullshitting and pretending you know makes us think you’ll be hard to teach…of course though an educated guess is very welcome.

4. Be enthusiastic. sitting there, not making eye contact, hand over mouth, speaking in rambly monotone is bad (and we had that!). Equally, speaking at twice our volume, twice our speed, on the edge of your seat, wide eyed and assertive makes you overwhelming and a bit scary…again, a nightmare to teach. If we have to interrupt you, or look like we want to speak, shut up as it means your answers are too long. We know nerves do weird things, so we tried to ignore these things, but you can make it easier for us… The joys were genuinely interested people, who were enthusiastic, friendly and volunteered ideas. You do not need natural charming warmth, we also appreciated geeky awkwardness.

We’d end with a problem question. This year, we asked ‘how many ping pong balls can you fit inside a jumbo jet aeroplane?’ We want to see how the student thinks on their feet, whether they can come up with a sensible answer. ‘Ask 10000 people and take the average?’ ‘Fill it with water’…or approximate the jet to a cylinder and count the balls that fit in a 1m cube.

We’d then ask them if they had any questions for us…most did not, some did. A really staged fake question that was meant to fatter did them no favours (we were probably running late). An honest one did…e.g. I have a question because my friend and I were watching Casualty on TV last saturday, and we got in to an argument about the definition of death…she reckons when your heart stops and they say ‘time of death’ you’re not really dead. So can you tell me how you would define it? Of course, be prepared for us to turn the question around and ask it back at you!

Does the school I went to matter?
We do not care what school you went to.

It was obvious from their clothes, schools and demeanour that some students were extremely wealthy (also their statements…’my interest in biology developed whilst scuba diving in the maldives, costa rica and the red sea’…’I gained a sense of responsibility looking after my horse, which I ride 5x a week’ vs ‘I was fascinated by the courtship of the pigeons in my local park’, ‘it was watching the BBCs Frozen Planet, that inspired me to study biology’). I did not care, so long as they did not come across as arrogant know-it-alls!

For students from underrepresented backgrounds, there is a system of flags. These highlight if a student has been in care, has attended a school that does not have a history of sending people to Oxford, if they live in a poor area etc. We graded everyone equally, but if a flagged student was good, we definitely rooted for them over an equally impressive privately educated student. Some privileged students clearly had been helped and coached by experienced teachers, ensuring they had slick box-ticking personal statements and answers. Others (mostly from comprehensive schools) I would say had received no help, and wrote rambly vague statements. We maybe asked slightly different questions (so trained students could not just rely on carefully prepared answers), but I’m not convinced the level of preparation made that much difference (we chose 3 state school, 2 private school students this year).

Do nerves matter?
We tried everything possible to keep things unstressful. We wore very casual clothing, asked the students to do the same, sat on comfy sofas, chatted about the weather, tried to make jokes, and smiled a lot! I hope it helped…but it’s normal to be nervous. Interestingly, the students from state schools in general seemed far more relaxed, and were often nicer to talk to, I’m guessing because they had fewer preconceptions, maybe less family pressure, and took us at face value (i.e. two friendly people trying to be relaxed, nice and informal not some stereotype of a stuffy Oxford fellow). They wore more genuinely casual everyday clothing (the wealthier ones clearly had gone shopping for the event). One poor student was so nervous his struggled to talk as his heart was racing, he started to struggle to breath and we had to pause the interview as he nearly fainted! Another started hitting himself and sort of barking…rather disconcerting, but we pretended not to notice! By the way, being nervous is normal and I certainly did not mark anyone down for it…it shows you really care, and shows you are genuine. Slimy overconfidence is not a good look.

And PLEASE don’t be stupid
Stupid may be not very politically correct! But we had some fantastically poor answers. For example..if we give you a great crested grebe skull (medium sized, fish eating bird) and say ‘what do you think this might be’…we expect an answer like ‘is it a bone?’, ‘is it part of a skeleton’, ‘a skull’ or maybe even for top marks ‘is it a bird skull’…what we don’t expect (and we got confidently told) was…oh it’s an insect…and then pointing to the nostrils on the beak saying ‘this is where the wings attach’…or ‘oh cute, it’s a dinosaur, how lovely’…umm, my dear, if it WAS a dinosaur, you’d sure as hell not be holding it! And did you notice there was a bit of flesh still on the inside?! And it was certainly not an elbow joint either. Neither was the slab of limestone with fossilised shell impressions ‘oh one of those pavements where they get insects to make little footprints in it before it sets’.


Bird, insect or dinosaur?

What we want is natural enthusiasm and a brain that is functional and is asking itself questions…no need for expert knowledge, just two eyes and two ears and a switched on mind…oh, it’s a skull, it looks like a bird because of the beak, it’s very light, i guess because birds need to be light to fly, its beak is very pointed, i guess so it could poke at things, maybe the sand because the beak is very fragile, so it would not be strong enough to hit things like wood, it’s got big eye sockets, i guess that might mean it has good eyesight, it’s got a very aerodynamic shape like a torpedo, so maybe it has to move fast, maybe flying fast? etc. etc.

Final word
What else? I suppose the final word might be that if you screw up at one question, it’s not the end…the guy who thought the skull was an insect was amazing on stem cells and described population dynamics really well, and he’ll have a place. Clearly he had no interest in whole organisms, but that’s ok. We want a diversity, and a balance of students who love all aspects of biology.

I could no way have made it in to Oxford, I had neither the grades, nor the maturity at 18 to make it through the interview. I went to Edinburgh, and loved every second of it. Even the dean of an Oxford college recently told me he got poor exam grades in school (certainly not Oxford entry standard)…the point is, so many outstanding minds who will go on to be extraordinary people will not even make it to interview, let alone get offered a place. So if you get a no, don’t be too gutted…Oxford really is not for everyone (maybe I’ll write a post on what I mean by that) and you may well still be top class fellow material!


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