UCAS application

10 odd university interview questions – and why tutors ask them

By Alan Bullock (Careers Adviser) - 02 November 2013

'Tell me about a cactus...' and more odd university questions

If you're invited to an interview by a university, there's no need to panic – but it's probably safe to expect the unexpected. Here are some off-the-wall questions university tutors have asked before, along with why they might not be so strange after all...

We've also got loads of advice from experts and admissions tutors on preparing for university interviews, as well as students' insider stories on what a university interview is really like

Tell me about a cactus…’
 
‘Should a chimpanzee have human rights..?’
 
‘So you volunteer in a nursing home. Do the residents like it there?’
 
‘Explain the respiratory system with the aid of this snorkel.’
 
‘Can machines make decisions?’
 
‘It’s raining and you forgot your umbrella, so you shelter in an unlocked car. Are you guilty of the offence of allowing yourself to be carried in a conveyance without the owner’s consent?’
 
‘How would you break the news to a farmer that his cow has died?’
 
‘2011 - an incredible year for physics?’
 
‘Would you choose a party over an essay?’
 
‘Who’s the most influential: Obama, Merkel or Adele?’

Odd - or just challenging?

So, are these university interview questions actually odd? At face value, perhaps – but look at them another way. What they’re actually doing is exploring how well you: 
  • Think independently
  • Communicate your ideas
  • Can think on your feet
  • Apply your skills to new problems
  • Stand your ground in an academic debate
  • Present both sides of an argument
  • Are willing to tackle complex and challenging ideas.
Your interviewer will also be checking to see that what you said in your personal statement stands up to scrutiny, that you actively try and keep up-to-date with what’s going on in the world around you, and – most importantly – that you’re genuinely motivated by your chosen subject and have made efforts to research it beyond your school or college syllabuses.

No trick questions

Generally speaking, interviewers don’t ask trick questions, although some may ask tricky ones. 
Interviewers aren't out to test you with trick questions, but you will find some of the questions quite challenging as they're designed to encourage you to think for yourself and develop an argument or tackle a problem. What the interviewer really wants to find out is how you think, rather than how much you know, and very often there are no right or wrong answers. University Of Cambridge Website

If you've been invited to an interview for Oxford or Cambridge, take a look at what students said about their Oxbridge interview experiences

But many universities told us quite categorically that they wouldn’t ask odd questions. For example, University of South Wales said: ‘We don’t try to catch applicants out in any way.’

Nottingham Trent University adds an extra factor to this: ‘If you’re applying for a creative course, the interviewer might want to see how creatively you can answer the questions and ‘think outside the box’. An obscure question may then be asked if the applicant opens up their answers to afford further questioning.’

Odd can be good

If your interview seemed very harsh, it might be because you showed so much potential in your answers that the interviewer felt comfortable asking more challenging questions.
 
Conversely, some applicants may think they’ve sailed through their interview, when in fact the interviewer simply lost the will to pursue things because of their lack of spontaneity. 
People assume that we ask lots of odd questions, but this is part of the mythology. We ask questions that will challenge the candidate, will require them to think (rather than regurgitate a pre-prepared response) and use their knowledge and understanding of their subject to respond with an appropriate answer. Mike Nicholson | Director Of Undergraduate Admissions - University Of Oxford

Mind you, a fashion design applicant was once asked ‘Kylie or Dannii’, so you never know quite what you’ll get...

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