Oxford Interviews and The Art of Answering The ‘Unanswerable’

by David Shandley

When is a question ‘unanswerable’? This was the way the UK’s Daily Telegraph described a selection of academic interview questions published by Oxford University this week. In an article entitled How to answer Oxford’s unanswerable questions, the newspaper provides students with an idea of what the Oxford interview experience might be like.

The excellent questions suggested include, for history of art undergraduates, the Kafkaesque: ‘Do you recognise this image?’, where the only correct answer is ‘no’. The point is, says Geraldine Johnson of Christ Church, ‘we want our candidates, many of whom have never studied art history, to show us how they would begin to approach an image they have not previously encountered.’

These questions show that ‘tutors simply want to see how students think and respond to new ideas’. What they clearly show is that the top universities are looking for a combination of knowledge and understanding: knowledge of a subject combined with a deeper understanding of its core principles. This deeper understanding is what comes to the fore when a student is asked a question about material they have never seen before.

Take the question: ‘how much of the past can you count?’. This question, says Stephen Tuck of Pembroke College, ‘provides a chance to see whether the applicant can relate other subjects to history’, in this case the maths that the applicant has studied in Years 12 and 13. He goes on to say that this is ‘quite a challenge given that subjects are often studied entirely separately at school’.

Another question asks: ‘Why do some habitats support higher biodiversity than other?’. Owen Lewis of Brasenose College goes on to say that ‘once students have come up with a plausible theory, I’d follow up by asking them how they would go about testing their idea. What sort of data would they need?’.

Geraldine Johnson finishes with the comment that tutors ‘hope that the interview will resemble a tutorial in establishing a two-way conversation rather than being just an exercise in question and answer’.

So are such questions ‘unanswerable’? It seems that the point is rather that they have no simple answer, but instead require a student to demonstrate the process by which they would begin an answer, regardless of whether they ever reach a conclusion or not. This is not quite the same thing as saying the question is ‘unanswerable’. In a series of videos on the Oxford Website, tutors explain that ‘many questions are designed to test your ability to apply logic and reason to an idea you may never have encountered before’ and ‘remember that tutors are not necessarily so concerned with what you know, but how you think’.

Our best universities are looking for students with real, in-depth knowledge of the subject they are going to read for 3 or 4 years. Academic results are vital to demonstrate this. However, they are also looking to see how you approach new material. For this you need to have developed thinking strategies for when you come across new ideas. You also need to be confident in exploring these ideas with other people and to pose the right questions before you can expect to reach the right answers. This approach is very much built into units of inquiry that form the basis of the International Baccalaureate, which we offer at Newland College, and which was developed by academics at Oxford University.

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