Oxbridge interview – Biological science

The Oxbridge trial – the expectation, the compromised nervous system, the loss of your own body weight in sweat, and, oooooo look! the Harry Potter buildings, the fact you think the trajectory of your entire life hangs in the balance of a performance of a lifetime. The nonsense talked about it. The misinformation.


First of all, well done you. You have been selected from one of the most over populated and competitive pools of super able students in the world. Pat on the back. Now, one thing to make very clear; Oxbridge is definitely not an exercise in success or failure. This portmanteau is but two of the wealth of prestigious institutions to choose from so if you don’t deliver that performance you knew you were capable of, don’t worry. World domination is still yours for the taking, if you want that sort of thing.


But lets assume you really want in. Really. You have the dreamy spires in your sights, so what next? What to expect? Having been in a privileged position on the intimidating assessing side of college interviews I know that several characteristics are desirable.


Before we even discuss the academic expectations a few words regarding approach. Be yourself. Yup, I know this is impossible so try to be an approximation of self, a surrogate who is attentive and personable. They know your brain is dribbling out of your ears and your former lightening recall suddenly holidaying. Just make sure you come across as the sort of character they can teach, the sort of character who will gain the most from the experience. The kind of guy who will take everything that the top-drawer faculty have to offer. Do not be over cocky – confident and assured maybe, but keep repeating the mantra ‘I must be able to evolve in opinion and argument. I want to learn.’ Be questioning and cynical without being immovable and arrogant.


The interview. There are a few different collegiate approaches here so I can only talk from personal experience of one format. This proceeded as follows; a short Q&A about motivations, discussion of a favourite piece of work to encourage dialogue and lastly the intellectual challenges to get some idea of your ability to think around a novel problem. In the Q&A section expect a rather gentle settling where they can assess how motivated you are – why you have chosen this particular course, what personally floats your boat in this specific area. This could seamlessly segue into a discussion about a particular book that grabbed you. For example, nearly every candidate who sat in front of me wishing to read Biological Science at Oxford, volunteered The Selfish Gene as a departure point for discussion. Unfortunately very few of them had actually bothered to read it. Make sure you have at least a working knowledge of the work you have selected (dare I suggest even a Wikipedia précis. I didn’t recommend that).


The written and practical challenges. An awful lot has been written on the unpredictable, random, leftfield and down right bonkers nature of the material thrown in front of our traumatised candidate; bananas, snake skins, hypothetical positions of authority with moral dilemmas, all things intending to prompt gushing and informed insight. True, this approach exists but what we posed was more conventional. Two different tests. The first comprised a simple recall of part of the A Level syllabus (simple, eh?) and secondly, real data from scholarly articles that required a thoughtful and spirited interpretation. Take your time with this bit. Ask them questions if you are unsure, lots of questions. You are really looking for patterns, for associations, a relationship maybe between two variables. Does one increase as the other falls? Be dead calm and really give this a good look. The data challenges are invariably a lot simpler than the occasion or cursory glance would have you believe. Now the important bit; don’t leave it as just a mere descriptive summary. Any mathematician fool can do this. You are a biologist, think like on! What does it mean for the distribution of one species to peak when the other is at a low density? Why that cheeky dip in the line? Think about the biological reasons – competition? Predation? Terror?


The good news is you can actually prepare for the data questions. It is a good idea to familiarize yourself with reading graphs and tables, just to get the hang of it. And do remember to think about cause and effect in terms of biology. Dead important, that.


Lastly, do challenge them with argument and not remain there like a passive vessel of indifference. Be inquisitive. I remember one candidate who shone very brightly in spite of arriving at the wrong conclusion to a question on mole rats and evolution of cooperative behaviour – it didn’t really matter; her reasoning showcased an agile mind capable of the development of logical thought.


Phew! Best of luck and please do remember, there is life after the interview.

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