How to answer Oxford’s unanswerable questions

Take a look at the questions

Subject: History
Interviewer: Stephen Tuck, Pembroke College

Q: How much of the past can you count?

A: This is, obviously, a question for someone who has also
studied Maths in Year 12 or 13. (For those who have done English, the
question could be ‘What can novels tell us about the past that other sources
can't?’, and so on for other subjects.)

The question plays to the applicant’s strengths (which is what we always try
to do), but provides a chance to see whether the applicant can relate other
subjects to history – quite a challenge given that subjects are often
studied entirely separately at school.

In this case, the question gets at all sorts of issues relating to historical
evidence. For which periods and places and aspects of the past is data
readily available? When it's not, can it be collected, or at least estimated
(and if so, how)? When it is available, is that data trustworthy? Is it
sufficient? How might it be misleading (intentionally or unintentionally)?
We might then probe the value of numerical evidence in a particular subject
they have studied, for example agricultural yields in medieval Europe, crime
rates in industrial England, or the profitability of American slavery – and
think about what other sources would be needed to make sense of the past.

Of course, much of the interview would be taken up with discussing in depth
the history courses the students have studied – the interview is not all
about unusual questions.

Subject: Biological Sciences
Interviewer: Owen Lewis, Brasenose College

Q: Why do some habitats support higher biodiversity than others?

A: "This question encourages students to think about what
high-diversity habitats such as rainforests and coral reefs have in common.
In many cases, patterns or correlations can help us to identify the
underlying mechanisms.

"For example, a student might point out that both rainforests and coral
reefs are found in hot countries and near the equator. The best answers will
attempt to unravel exactly what it is about being hot or near the equator
that might allow numerous types of plant and animal to arise, persist and

"Do new species evolve more frequently there, or go extinct less
frequently? 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?"

Subject: Experimental Psychology
Interviewer: Nick Yeung, University College

Q: An experiment appears to suggest Welsh speakers are worse at
remembering phone numbers than English speakers. Why?

A: "This would never be given as a one-line question out of
context – it is one of a set of questions I ask students after showing them
a psychology experiment case study with data about short-term memory in
English and Welsh speakers.

"The key point is that numbers are spelt differently and are longer in
Welsh than in English, and it turns out that memory (and arithmetic) depend
on how easily pronounced the words are.

"I would hope the student would pick out this connection between memory
and how easy to spell or pronounce a word is, and how that relates to
spelling and pronunciation in Welsh versus in English.

"The interview is structured so that further hints and guidance are
provided if the student doesn't immediately see this problem with the design
of the experiment described in the problem sheet. This basic question can
then lead to interesting discussion about the role of language in other
cognitive abilities, such as memory or maths.

"This question is meant to be deliberately provocative, in that I hope
that it engages candidates' intuitions that Welsh people aren't simply less
clever than English people!"

Subject: Art History
Interviewer: Geraldine Johnson, Christ Church

Q: Do you recognise this image?

A: "This is the first question we ask history of art candidates in
interviews when they are shown images of artworks like this one. And it is
the only question for which there is a single, correct answer, which is ‘No’
– though if the answer happens to be ‘Yes,’ then we simply pull out another
image to show them.

"The interviewers obviously know what the picture being shown is, and
the point isn’t to quiz candidates on what they may or may not have stumbled
across in a book, online or in a gallery. Instead, 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.

"We want to find out what questions a candidate would ask about a
particular image: what is it made of? What is being depicted? What size
might it be? For what purpose might it have originally been made? How could
we try to figure out when it might have been produced, and by whom?

"We are less interested in hearing a “correct” answer than in seeing the
thought process a candidate goes through in trying to analyse something he
or she has never seen before. In fact, we have had candidates who have been
off by several centuries and entire continents when assessing an unknown
image, but who have really impressed us at interview because of the
potential they showed in the kinds of questions they asked.

"In trying to tackle these questions, we hope that the interview will
resemble a tutorial in establishing a two-way conversation rather than being
just an exercise in question and answer."

(Image: William Holt Hunt’s ‘The Afterglow in Egypt’ courtesy the Ashmolean

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