Oxford applicants are being asked to assess the academic merits of Coronation Street and invent a new musical instrument as part of university interviews, it emerged today.
The university is increasingly relying on interviews and aptitude tests to assess students’ ability and reasoning power amid record numbers of applications.
As students prepare to negotiate the Oxford selection system in coming weeks, academics released a series of sample questions to debunk well-worn “myths” surrounding the process.
Mike Nicholson, the university’s director of admissions, said interview questions were aimed at “pushing students to think, not recite specific facts or answers”.
In one psychology interview, applicants to Brasenose College were asked: “What is ‘normal’ for humans?”
Students applying to study biological sciences at St Anne’s College, Oxford, were shown a cactus by one academic and told: “Tell me about it.”
A biomedical sciences interview at St Peter’s College asked applicants: “Why do a cat's eyes appear to 'glow' in the dark?”
And at Pembroke College, theology students were asked: “Is someone who risks their own life – and those of others – in extreme sports or endurance activities a hero or a fool?”
Some 17,144 people applied for just 3,200 undergraduate places at Oxford last year and numbers are expected to continue to rise amid growing demand for degree courses across Britain.
The ancient institution already employs one of the most rigorous selection procedures in the world, with straight As at GCSE and A-level seen as a minimum entry requirement.
Most students are forced to take two interviews, aptitude tests, submit written work and supply references – on top of exam grades.
But Dr Nicholas Owen, an admissions tutor for the Department of Politics and International Relations, insisted the university was not trying to "catch candidates out with trick questions".
The university released six sample questions taken from real interviews conducted in recent years. It comes ahead of interviews being staged in December.
In an English literature interview, applicants to Regent’s Park College were asked: “Why do you think an English student might be interested in the fact that Coronation Street has been running for 50 years?”
Dr Lynn Robson, an English lecturer, said the question was designed to show how literary analysis techniques can be applied to popular culture.
It was also intended to provoke discussion about issues such as storytelling techniques, mixing humorous and serious storylines and the use of serialisation, she said.
In a music interview at Merton College, students were asked: “If you could invent a new musical instrument, what kind of sound would it make?”
Dr Dan Grimley, from the college’s music faculty, said: “This question is really very open-ended, and I'm interested in answers which demonstrate a critical imagination at work; what kinds of sounds do instruments/voices make now, and how might these be imaginatively extended or developed?”
Mr Nicholson said: “There are many myths surrounding Oxford interviews, and they can be the most anxiety-provoking part of the Oxford application process for students.
“These questions show that the interviews are not designed to see how quickly students get the ‘right’ answer or show off specialist knowledge, but to gauge how they respond to new ideas.”