Whether it is the painstakingly high entry standards, the rich history of its setting or the roster of world-changing minds that have been nurtured there, the university of Oxford emanates a kind of magical quality.   

It is notoriously difficult to get accepted into the University. But just what is it that separates one candidate from another? Why is it that of two candidates - with the same grades, equal in sporting prowess and musical ability – only one is selected to study at this fine institution? The answer may lie in the questions. The questions that candidates are asked in their application interviews, that is.  

Whether a prospective student has applied to study mathematics, or history, the questions posed to them in their interview are designed to elicit one thing: how they think.

Admissions tutors and interviewers are not particularly interested in the right or wrong answer, because that simply conveys ‘what’ a candidate thinks. Instead, they want to understand the subtleties, nuances and direction of one’s thinking. And in so doing they will gain an understanding of whether a candidate is simply a ‘rote learner’, or whether they can ‘apply knowledge to a new scenario’.

Here are a few real questions from real interviews at the University of Oxford, that demonstrate this:

  1. Do you think Odysseus was a good leader?
  2. Who’s your favourite Roman historian and why?
  3. How do you know you are in Oxford?
  4. How can you measure how rich a country is?
  5. Why is Fair Trade important?
  6. How would you go about calculating the mass of the earth?
  7. What is poetry?
  8. What does it mean to ‘be political’?
  9. Does moral responsibility require the ability to do otherwise?
  10. How would you go about learning 50 words a day?


They’re acutely interesting questions to ponder, particularly the first (for me anyway, a Greek mythology geek). One thing does spring to mind upon reading these types of questions, and that is simply that if one is going to have a shot at impressing the questioner, they will likely have to be a good reader. To be able to talk around a topic as obscure as Roman historians with some clarity, and insight, a love of reading and a thirst for knowledge is almost a necessity.  

But that comes as no surprise, given that this university saw the likes of Oscar Wilde, Lewis Carroll, CS Lewis, Christopher Hitchens, Martin Amis and J.R.R Tolkien come through its doors.



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