Why Oxford asks its applicants ‘would you run a red light?’
University releases sample questions for interviewees Test of how philosophical or legal position is justified
Efforts by Oxford University to elucidate its interview process and soothe anxious applicants’ nerves got under way this week with the annual release of sample questions and – crucially – the answers.
Law candidates could find themselves being asked at interview: “Should it be illegal to run a red light in the middle of the night on an empty road?” Those applying to study modern languages might be asked: “What do we lose if we only read a foreign work of literature in translation?”
Students of medicine could be asked to put the following countries in order of crude mortality rate: Bangladesh, Japan, South Africa, UK. Philosophy candidates might be asked to reflect on the individual morality of air travel.
The next round of applications is about to begin with the Oxbridge deadline on Sunday. Candidates with a successful written application will be invited for interview in December. At Oxford just over half of all applicants will be interviewed, compared with 75% at Cambridge.
Students are encouraged to regard the interview as a short conversation tutorial about their subject. On average, it takes about 20 minutes.
Dr Samina Khan, director of admissions and outreach at Oxford, said as well as sample questions, candidates could prepare by looking at mock interviews online. “We know many prospective applicants are worried about being in an unfamiliar place and being questioned by people they have not met – so to help students to become familiar with the type of questions they might get asked we release real examples.”
Often there is no right or wrong answer. On the legality of running a red light in the middle of the night, Jon Herring, professor of law at Exeter College, explained he was interested not only in what the candidate thinks the law should be but in their capacity to justify their position.
“A candidate might say that if no one was harmed by running the light, then it wouldn’t hurt to run it so it shouldn’t be illegal. This would be suggesting that the law is based on preventing harm. We might then explore whether this is the only purpose or the dominant purpose of the law, and how that might shape how legal rules need to be constructed.”
On the question about foreign literature, Jane Hiddleston, also a professor at Exeter College, said: “We don’t do this with the expectation that they have already read any particular works, but in order to get a sense of why they think it is worth studying literatures in foreign languages. “Occasionally candidates are able to give examples of famous lines or quotations that risk being misread when translated into English.”
The sample question for PPE (philosophy, politics and economics) reads: “I agree that air transport contributes to harmful climate change. But whether or not I make a given plane journey, the plane will fly anyway. So there is no moral reason for me to not travel by plane.”
Potential students are not being tested on their knowledge of philosophy, said Cécile Fabre, professor at All Souls College, but on thinking critically about the issue of individuals’ responsibility for harmful collective action. “I would also push them to think about other cases: for example, the bombing of Dresden,” she said, the thought being that if one bomber fewer makes no difference to the outcome, why not go?
On the question for students of medicine, Prof Andrew King said most candidates would expect Bangladesh or South Africa to have the highest crude mortality rate. In fact Japan does because its population is older. Bangladesh has a lower mortality rate because of its young population.
A ruler, subject of one question, as is the lion’s mane and Coronation Street. Below, an Oxford graduate – the final product of the university