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Oxbridge English Interview Questions and Answers

Oxbridge Application Specialists

Here, we present ten example English Literature questions for Oxbridge applicants. More questions can be found in our Oxbridge Interview Question Bank.

Left-Field Questions

Should politicians study English?

– You should consider what exactly this question means and discuss it with your tutor. Clearly, they should study it to some extent, but to what extent?
– It would be impractical to have all politicians study English at university. It would arguably be just as impractical to have all politicians study even A Level English.
– The question therefore might be seen more as ‘what benefit does studying Literature hold for politicians and thus for the populace?’
– We might choose to refer to the fact that literature contains within it great ideas, and indeed great ideas simplified.
– We might reference the amount of history present in literature
– We might reference literature’s ability to help people understand others, understand other places and times, and hopefully therefore to empathise with others
– You might consider what you want from a politician – you would benefit from someone who does their best to understand the world and to then better it. To understand the world, we must study the arts as well as the sciences. We should understand the human condition, and this can be done through literature.
– You might argue that all politicians would be improved if they read certain works.
– Some books will influence politics or our approach to it subtly, others will have direct and tangible effects (like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, that is said to have helped end slavery).

“Actions speak louder than words” and yet “The pen is mightier than the sword”. Which lies nearest to the truth?

– This will be a personal opinion, although you might choose the pen in this situation, given that you are a literature applicant!

– You should be able to think through some examples of why one might be more true than the other. I would argue, for example, that the mere fact that books have had to be burnt (e.g. by the Nazis in 1933) is indicative of the immense power that they can have. A book can reach millions, change their perception of the world, and in turn result in millions of actions that change the world itself. Even if actions speak louder than words, they are driven by words at some point. Few will act without a reason to do so, and that reason will, at some point, have involved words – be they written or spoken. Words give rise to action. 

Are there too many books?

  • I would consider this from two perspectives. On the one hand, we could argue that more works is better. On the other, we must consider that too many works is somehow an issue.
  • Looking at the first side of the argument: 
  • More books means, in the simplest sense, that more ideas can be written down and saved for posterity
  • It means a broader spectrum of ideas from – theoretically – a wider range of society
  • It provides more choice for the reader

  • On the other side:
  • The greater the volume of books that are published, the harder it is to sift through them in search of specific works, ideas, or content
  • There is no guarantee of quality today. This is largely due to the option for people to self-publish online.  
  • If books can be essentially published for free online, then ‘publishers’ like Amazon  – driven only by revenue – will be motivated to facilitate the publishing of as many books as possible
  • As such, we might see quality works drowned in a torrent of much inferior works.

Overall, your response needs to highlight the battle here between more information being recorded and that information then being more difficult to find.

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Authorship

Have you ever visited an author’s birthplace, or home, or a place that a text is about? Is it a valuable thing to do?

  • This will rely on your personal opinion. Two ways of interpreting this are – i) do we learn more about the text’s true meaning or ii) do we simply enjoy the process?
  • In terms of better understanding a text, we need to separate this into a question of authorship (visiting the birthplace) and of understanding the text (place). Few would argue that visiting Oran might allow one to better visualise Camus’ La Peste. However, many would contend that seeing Camus’ birthplace would not provide us with a better understanding of his work. You will have your own views on the relative merits of these sorts of decisions. 

On the other hand, visiting a place which you have seen described in a text could be a very interesting personal journey, simply for the sake of the journey and the enjoyment of it. For example, I have a personal dream of walking much the same route described in Laurie Lee’s As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning. If you could discuss something along those lines – and show your passion for a work – then this would prove a good basis for discussion.

How important is biography in the study of literature?

  • The best way to approach this question (as it might be difficult to get to grips with at first) is to work through possible meanings logically and engage with the tutor. 
  • We could consider first biographies of writers – biographies of those who produce literature. These will enable us to understand the author behind works.
  • We could link this to a discussion on Barthes and Derrida (i.e. on the Death of the Author and subsequent debate) 
  • We could discuss the complexity of writing a biography of a famous writer – one must engage with their works as well as their life.
  • We might also consider biographical fiction and its role. Biographical fiction is historical fiction that takes a figure and recreates their life, using known information and then filling-in the gaps. 

 

What would your response be if you were told that Shakespeare didn't write Romeo and Juliet?

This depends on your view of authorship, and your view of Shakespeare.

– Some ways you might approach this would be questioning whether it was indeed Shakespeare that wrote the works attributed to him (e.g. was it de Vere), which is explored elsewhere in this series of questions. If you harbour doubts over whether Shakespeare wrote his works, then your response would be very different to someone who is convinced that he did write his works.

– Do we then approach this as – what does this mean for Shakespeare if Romeo and Juliet is removed from his body of works? Does it damage him as an author that this great piece is no longer part of his works? Or do we approach this as – how does this alter Romeo and Juliet? Do we now see a different context to it or could try to find different meanings within it? This will depend on the extent to which we associate a work with the author – it might then give rise to a discussion on poststructuralism and the role of the reader. 

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Definitions

What makes a short story different from a novel?

  • Resist the temptation to just answer that a short story is shorter than a novel! 
  • Of course, brevity is one of the features of a short story that will differentiate it from a novel. We should then question what this brevity means. It means that a short story is likely digestible in one sitting. It can be read and enjoyed quickly, rather than savoured and considered over a period of time like a longer work. 
  • Short stories will likely contain one plot, rather than a plot and (potentially very complex) subplots. 
  • Short stories are likely to have to stick to the simple structure of exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement, and not be more complex than this.
    Short stories are likely to focus on only one or two characters, rather than having an entire cast of characters as might be seen in a longer work. 
  • A short story is likely to cover either only a very particular time period, a very particular setting, or both. They are unlikely to cover a range.

 

What is literature?

  • This is a contentious question and should lend itself to a lengthy discussion. You might start by outlining that literature first began as a concept when defined by the Canon, this being an idea and set of works that began its development in the 1700s. The idea here was to find modern works that could stand up to the Ancient greats – whose works would have at the time been considered both as literature and as finer than modern works. 
  • Today, our definition of literature is fluid. We still have the Canon, but countless more works would be seen by most to be literature. 
  • We therefore need to consider what separates the general written word from literature. Is an airport novel literature? Most would contend that it is not. We need to understand why this is.
  • Does literature necessarily deal with more difficult or broader themes that would be avoided by more simple books?
  • Is literature better-written than non-literature?
  • We might turn to a definition from the Encyclopaedia Britannica, from 1911, that defined literature as the ‘best expression of the best thought reduced to writing.’
  • In a sense, this definition can still be used today. I would personally argue that literature goes far beyond any Canon that may be taught at universities, but it must still have an intent – or at least an effect – beyond merely entertaining. I would draw an interesting parallel here to Spaghetti Westerns, which whilst ostensibly simple stories and simple cinema, have come to be seen as some of the finest works of film. I would contend that in a similar manner some novels that are simple, and perhaps not even intended to be literature, could be classed as such. 
  • Ultimately, the definition will ebb and flow with the prevailing thought of the time. Perhaps then the best thing to do is avoid a particular definition and instead focus on authors, works and themes that make us feel something and make us want to think and digest the work.

 

What is tragedy?

  • You could use a quote from Aristotle here. He said that ‘through pity and fear, it [tragedy] effects catharsis.’
  • A simple way of considering tragedy is that it is a narrative which begins with order (and frequently with much more than order, with greatness) and ends in chaos, and the destruction of that order and greatness. 
  • Aristotle outlined that our hero must go from good fortune to bad fortune over the course of the narrative, and must be somewhere between good and evil – i.e. neither truly noble nor truly villainous, but rather more human. 
  • The undoing of our hero will typically come about due to an error on their part or a personal flaw, but not through an overwhelming depravity. As an example, we would consider Oedipus’ pride. 
  • We, the audience, feel our initial reverence (if there was any) for the great figure of a Tragedy turning to pity as the narrative continues. Of course, we know that ill-luck is likely to befall the protagonist. 
  • Their fall, likely their death, should therefore create a catharsis for the audience. 

This definition remains largely the same throughout history. However, Shakespeare would focus on some more normal characters, rather than the kings and almost god-like figures of Greek works. He also added subplots that would incorporate not only other people but wider political machinations.

Define irony.

  • The key to answering this question is realising that ‘irony’ is not something solely associated with humour – it can be as readily associated with tragedy. 
  • When considering tragedy, it involves a contrast between an expectation and reality. 
  • You should make mention of tragic (or dramatic) irony, comic irony and situational irony. 
  • Considering tragic irony, you should be able to define this through an example, like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. It involves the reader knowing something that the characters do not – in this case, we know that Juliet is not dead, whilst Romeo of course believes that she is. The contrast between expectation and reality here involves Romeo’s lack of understanding, but could also be seen to involve the reader’s understanding of the true reality – and thus their realisation of what is about to take place.
  • Comic irony can arise from certain statements or from situations that arise in the text. It is simpler to consider and likely the first definition of ‘irony’ that one would typically consider. 
  • Situational irony arises due to a difference between intentions and outcomes for characters, and will underpin both works of literature and pop culture centrepieces – most obviously, cartoons like Tom and Jerry – in which the characters’ plans inevitably backfire.

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