Oxford Outreach and the Undergraduate Admissions Interview: Spotlight on the Question Funnel


Christ Church Meadow, Oxford

Before November’s Arctic front set in, Oxford’s Early Career Academic Outreach Network (OECAON) met on a warm October evening at Somerville College for the Michaelmas term training session. The afternoon saw the appearance of the Network’s newest co-coordinators, Jessica Boland and Sarah Jones. We kicked off with Dr Eleanor Parker’s insight-packed introductory lecture into outreach at Oxford. Topics ranged from the secondary education system in the UK and the state of Higher Education, to a summary of Oxford-wide outreach initiatives in addition to college- and department-led taster days. Whilst Eleanor gave a whistle-stop tour of Oxford outreach, Jessica Boland led a successful workshop on how experienced members can improve their schools-based taster sessions. As in every term, the OECAON training session aims to provide Oxford’s early career researchers with the most comprehensive and accessible overview of Oxford’s outreach initiatives, as well as practical information on how to get involved.

With week nine just around the corner, our final session concentrated on the Oxford undergraduate admissions interviews. We learned that the interviews are a central cause of great anxiety for schools, teachers, tutors, parents and – finally – the students themselves. Lecturers at Oxford often discover that their undergraduate cohort was wracked with nerves about the questions they were about to face at their interviews: the stereotype of an Oxford don turning to a nervous teenager and quizzing them on the nature of life couldn’t be further from the truth. OECAON members are often asked about the interview, and are always more than happy to demystify the process.

Oxford’s interviews to assess how suited a student might be to our tutorial system of teaching. We’re not looking for candidates who are already fully clued up on their subjects, but rather the students who have the potential to be challenged and pushed, to have their minds expanded by exploring topics of which they weren’t previously aware. The Oxford interview seeks out the candidates with the most potential, not those who have already fulfilled it. The first part of the interview is often subject-specific: the interviewer will present an object of study, such as a literary extract, a political theory, or a mathematical equation, and ask the student to interpret it. The student is not assessed purely on their knowledge, but rather on how they use the information the interviewer provides in order to better understand the object of study with which they have been presented.

In the Admissions Training for Oxford tutors, participants are encouraged to try and use a ‘question funnel’. The question funnel is a simple concept, allowing the interviewer to pose an open question before narrowing into more specific questions. Interview questions may begin very broadly, and then focus increasingly on more specific details so that the student teases out a problem for themselves. This model allows the interviewer to understand an interviewee’s broader understanding of a topic, as well as probing their ability to make sense of detail. I am a D.Phil student in French and have interviewed students applying for places for French and History (which was also my BA) and used the question funnel to structure my interview questions last year.

Opening questions

Interviewing on behalf of the French department, I would start with a broad, open question that sought to understand how a student viewed their degree choice. My personal favourite is ‘what is the link between literature and history?’. I’m never looking for a textbook definition of each term, but rather for the student to explore what we mean by each term, to contrast them, and, potentially, to find unexpected analogies between the two.

Getting deeper

Working from how the student answered their open questions, I would ask them a more specific question such as ‘does literature passively reflect history, or can it actively change the course of history?’ This question juxtaposes a commonplace idea about literature, that it merely reflects historical change, with a more radical idea that literature can change history. Examples on either side might be Gustave Flaubert’s Sentimental Education (1869) which depicts the aftermath of the failed 1848 revolution, and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) which Abraham Lincoln cited as one of the reasons for the American Civil War since it stirred up anti-slavery feeling in the northern states of America.

Defining and hypothesising

To wrap up the interview, I will often ask the student to re-articulate their ideas in a few sentences. These final questions are an essential way for students to learn how to reflect on the pathway that they’ve taken to reach a particular conclusion, and to work out how to summarise their thoughts according to a hierarchy of importance. I also like to ask a hypothetical question to really challenge the student: ‘would history be different if literature did not exist?’ Moments of reflection and/or hesitation are warmly welcomed at this point (as they are throughout the interview process) – an interviewer would never anticipate that a student had considered a question such as this before!

OECAON’s members are committed to demystifying the imposing façade of Oxford and to opening up higher education to all potential applicants. One barrier to entry is the myths surrounding the undergraduate admissions interview, but there is no longer any reason for these myths to persist. Oxford interviewers are looking to see whether the interviewee could become an Oxford student – and the only criterion for this is whether they have the potential to be taught and be pushed by their teachers, and classmates.

For more information on the University’s admissions interviews, including sample questions provided by tutors, please see www.ox.ac.uk/interviews. For more information on the Early Career Academic Outreach Network and getting involved with Oxford outreach projects, please email eleanor.parker@admin.ox.ac.uk.

Sarah Jones is a second-year D.Phil student in French, and college lecturer in French at Oriel College. She is co-coordinator of the Oxford Early Career Academic Outreach Network.