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Want to study at Oxford University? These are the kind of questions you'll need to answer

Anmar Frangoul | Special to
Kim Sayer | Corbis Documentary | Getty Images

It is one of the world's most prestigious universities whose alumni – from the physicist Stephen Hawking to Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi – are among the world's most influential people.

Hardly surprising, then, that competition for places at the University of Oxford is fierce, with thousands of candidates applying to study there each year.

Now, the University has shone a little light on how they choose their students by releasing sample questions from its admissions interviews.

The questions were for the subjects of modern languages (French), medicine, PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics), maths and experimental psychology. They are designed to probe a host of selection criteria – from problem solving to communication skills and intellectual curiosity.

"We emphasize in all our outreach activity that the interview is primarily an academic conversation based on a passage of text, a problem set or a series of technical discussions related to the content of the course students have applied for," Samina Khan, director of admissions and outreach at Oxford, said in a news release on Tuesday.

Khan went on to explain that every question interviewers asked had a purpose to "assess how students think about their subject and respond to new information or unfamiliar ideas."

The sample questions are as follows:

  • What makes a novel or play 'political'? (French)

  • About 1 in 4 deaths in the UK is due to some form of cancer, yet in the Philippines the figure is only around 1 in 10. What factors might underlie this difference? (Medicine)

  • What exactly do you think is involved in blaming someone? (PPE and other philosophy courses)

  • Imagine a ladder leaning against a vertical wall with its feet on the ground. The middle rung of the ladder has been painted a different colour on the side, so that we can see it when we look at the ladder from the side on. What shape does that middle rung trace out as the ladder falls to the floor? (Maths)

  • A large study appears to show that older siblings consistently score higher than younger siblings on IQ tests. Why would this be? (Experimental Psychology)

In addition to the questions, the university also provided a set of what might be considered 'model answers'.

Chris Norbury, an interviewer for medicine from The Queen's College, described the question about the difference between the U.K. and the Philippines in cancer deaths as "a typically open question, with no single 'correct' answer."

"The discussion could take any one of a number of directions, according to the candidate's interests," Norbury added. "Some candidates will ask useful clarifying questions, such as 'Where do these data come from, and how reliable are they?', or 'What is the average life expectancy in these parts of the world?'"

Khan added that the university was looking to debunk some of the myths surrounding the interview process. "We know there are still misunderstandings about the Oxford interview, so we put as much information as possible out there to allow students to see the reality of the process," she said.

"We now have mock interviews online, video diaries made by admissions tutors during the interview process, and lots of example questions to help students to familiarise themselves with what the process is – and isn't – about."