Oxbridge Psychology Questions

Oxbridge Application Specialists

Why psychology?

  • Your answer here should ideally illustrate a knowledge of the topic, a deep-seated motivation to study psychology, and some succinct references to your own ability that would make you both a great psychology student and in turn a great psychologist.
  • You should know why you want to be a psychologist rather than a research scientist – you must be interested in working with people, and interested in being able to interact with them in order to help them
  • You might have some personal anecdote or experience that particularly illustrates your desire – if so this, should be reflected upon appropriately and placed in context of a broader understanding of the subject
  • You should show some awareness of the breadth of the subject e.g. dealing with everything from addiction through to depression helping athletes to perform better. You might mention areas that you are particularly interested in, but do not be dogmatic or make it appear as if you are only eager to enter one area of the subject.
  • You should be able to explain why you don’t want to become a doctor (specifically a psychiatrist) or a mental health nurse.

What is normal for humans?

  • You should show an awareness of how difficult defining normal is.
  • How might normal be defined in the most basic sense? This would be synonymous with something that is usual, or that conforms to existing standards. If you imagined a graph of behavioural distribution, it would be the behaviours within a set portion of the middle of that graph.
  • We need to differentiate behavioural and social norms from physical or purely biological norms. I would mention this to the tutor and check that they are interested only in considering the former meanings. Otherwise, you need to consider homeostasis and the regulation of body temperature, pH, etc, what a ‘normal’; body looks like, how a ‘normal’ heart functions etc.
  • We should show an awareness of societal norms – the general norms which are high-level and expected in society in general. An example might be the expectation to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ in our society – rather than merely making statements and/or demands.
  • We should differentiate these from other norms that are context-dependent. Normal might vary from month to month, from hour to hour, place to place, group to group. You might see different norms depending on gender or age, one’s role at one’s place of work, etc. There are many factors that will produce minute effects on what might be considered ‘normal’.
  • You might argue that there is no normal and that we are all unique. To try to find a sense of normal is a fool’s errand therefore.
  • Assuming the tutor does want to understand what normal is, then you should consider what the majority would do and consider typical attitudes across society. These are likely to constitute ‘normality’ for most.

Can a thermostat think?

  • Resist the urge to immediately say that a thermostat could not possibly think.
  • Let us replace the idea of can it ‘think’ with whether it is conscious.
  • We need to understand what our sense of experience, or our consciousness is. The human consciousness is incredibly complicated and involves the creation of a true ‘hallucination’ from a variety of sensory inputs.
  • We could therefore argue that the human’s ability to think is due to its ability to process information. Perhaps, because a thermostat processes information, it therefore thinks.
  • It can ‘think’ whether it is hotter or colder, and therefore react.
  • However, it has no perception of its reaction. It does not understand why it reacts, or the context in which it is reacting.
  • To ‘think’ implies some form of understanding. It certainly implies thoughts. A thermostat has neither. It has no understanding of temperature, and nor does it harbour any thoughts over temperature. It is a simple system in which it is either triggered by a higher or lower temperature, or in which it is entirely unreactive.
  • It has no form of experience. It cannot create a thought, lacking the apparatus or context to do so. To react is not the same as to think.

Is a snail conscious?

  • This is similar to the previous question, albeit with additional complexity.
  • I would avoid saying that the snail could be ‘somewhat’ conscious, as it must be either conscious or not. Of course, this consciousness could be on a vast continuum, with humans at (or so we would assume) the far end on the one side, and the snail on the far end at the other.
  • You should present some arguments for both sides.
  • On the one hand, snails have sensory experiences that, whilst we would struggle to imagine them, are real nonetheless. They have a sense of touch, and a limited sense of vision. However, are they capable of considering these inputs as a whole, and then creating a sense of themselves or their surroundings from these inputs? They do seem to learn – which implies that there is some form of storing information and thus altering future response, even if that is very basic.
  • On the other hand, they seem to really only simply move to or from particular triggers – they use chemoreception and mechanoreception and it would be difficult to argue that they create a complex picture from these limited inputs. Our own gastrointestinal system has far more neurons than an entire snail, yet would not argue that said system is conscious itself. It responds to inputs, yet it is surely not conscious.
  • Essentially, this boils down to where we draw the line for consciousness, and to what extent something must demonstrate some form of true awareness of self and surrounding in order to be conscious. Personally, I would argue that a snail has a very limited consciousness – as it can process information, respond to it in a variety of ways, exhibit varied behaviour, and is an entity unto itself.
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How many monkeys would you use for an experiment?

  • This question necessitates further questions on the ‘experiment’ and exactly what it is.
  • Essentially, we would need enough monkeys that we can gather accurate and reproducible data.
  • However, this would mean a very different number of monkeys for different experiment types. Assuming that this is some sort of experiment on behaviour (as it is likely to be in the context) then perhaps more complex behaviours would require more monkeys than less complex behaviours.
  • We need to consider various factors here – where do the monkeys live and how many monkeys is it realistic to have or to house for the purposes of our experiment?
  • We might consider the breed of the monkey – how well do we understand that breed and how sure are we of the reproducibility of results in that breed? How akin to one another are members of that particular breed?
  • We need to consider the age of the monkeys, the gender, etc. If we are looking for data across a range of these variables, then we will necessarily need more monkeys.
  • You should use this as a springboard for further debate on designing experiments, and ensure that you explore this with the tutor.

How useful are twin studies?

  • You need to be aware of what twins are: that means monozygotic twins are conceived from a single fertilised egg, while dizygotic twins are due to two eggs being fertilised at the same time.
  • Monozygotic twins are ‘identical twins’
  • You need to be aware that twin studies compare monozygotic twins with dizygotic twins – not MZ twins with other MZ twins.
  • This is to see if nature or nurture is causing the behavior that one sees – if the MZ and DZ twins behave the same, it implies that nurture is largely the cause for this.
  • You need to consider how useful the studies truly are – the typical accusation levelled at twin studies is that drawing conclusions from them is inaccurate or unreliable simply because twins are not treated the same as other members of society. They are often seen as being twins, rather than being seen as individuals, often encouraged to dress similarly or act similarly, and thus may behave more like each other due to the external pressure from society – before we begin to consider a study and its purposes.
  • Twin studies will rarely show a concordance rate approaching anything like 100%, because environmental influences have such a pronounced effect on MZ twins as well as DZ twins.

Should interviews be used for selection?

  • A slightly ironic question given the situation
  • You need to consider how interviews are suitable as a selection tool, and what makes them less suitable (i.e. present both sides)
  • On one side: they allow people to gain more of an insight into your personality than is possible from a written statement, they allow for a back-and-forth exchange of ideas, and they allow for ideas or concepts to be examined in detail. They allow for an individual suitability to be thoroughly assessed
  • On the other side, they are perhaps not truly accurate or representative in that they are a very high-pressure situation which some people may struggle in, despite being likely to succeed in the actual role for which they are interviewing
  • They are perhaps less accurate than some other more modern forms of assessment (e.g. group activities, role plays, etc)
  • Whether or not they are of use is clearly context dependent

What is a crime?

  • You need to examine legal versus moral ideas here. There are some crimes that are universally recognised as such, as they are clearly amoral. Example would include theft, or murder.
  • Other crimes are defined as such by law in some jurisdictions but would not be recognised as being crimes in others. These are therefore designated as crimes by law but not by our own morality. An example might be consuming alcohol, or sex before marriage.
  • You must consider who is affected by a crime. Do crimes have to affect others, or could a crime affect only yourself? Typically, crimes are perceived as having to affect other people, or the community at large. This latter part of the definition is rather nebulous and perhaps allows for seemingly victimless crimes (the consumption of alcohol) to be deemed crimes.

What is love?

  • You should have considered this question before and have some ideas and theories beyond your own to deploy. As an overview of some possibilities, you might consider John Lee’s categorisation of love into 6 areas: these being ludus (a playful love), storage (a slowly developing attachment), eros (erotic desire), mania (a love that borders on obsession), agape (altruistic love), and pragma (practical love).
  • You could also consider Sternberg’s eight types of love, which consist of three elements – some have more intimacy, others have more passion, and others have more commitment.
  • You should be aware of the different types of love and be able to separate them in a rational manner. As an example, romantic love would clearly involve passion whereas a familial love would involve commitment.
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Why are Welsh speakers worse at remembering phone numbers than English speakers?

  • This question would be asked as one of a series, rather than out of context.
  • You would therefore be expected to have realised that numbers are spelled differently in Welsh than in English, and that they are much longer.
  • You therefore should realise that longer and more complex words are more difficult to remember – meaning that English speakers can remember phone numbers more easily than Welsh speakers. You should be aware, of course, that whilst Welsh speakers will likely speak English too, they will think in Welsh – and therefore memorise numbers in Welsh too.

How would you design an experiment to see if babies can recognise faces?

  • I would assume that this question refers to specific faces, rather than faces in general. If so, I would nonetheless first want to consider how we would even know if babies recognise faces.
  • I would therefore first study the reaction of a group of babies to various forms of objects, including humanoid figures, and including faces. I would like to study how they respond to the faces – do they follow eyes, for example? Do they watch our mouths when we talk?
  • Given babies’ inability to speak, I would perhaps want to track their vision to see if there were particular parts of our face that they watched, which might indicate an awareness of ‘self’ or others – notably, I would theorise that following our eyes would show an awareness of what a face is.
  • As to whether they could recognise a particular face – I would look to have a large sample of babies, and then provide them with a group of adults. Some adults would always offer treats, whilst others would ignore the babies. I would repeat the exposure to the adults a few times. I would then hope to see some sort of Pavlov-esque reaction where the babies showed eagerness and enthusiasm for the gift-giving aduit’s faces.
  • I would need to ensure that faces were the only factor – through changing people’s outfits etc.

Why do you think that first-born siblings have higher IQs than their younger siblings?

  • This is due to differences in the levels of stimulation received by the children.
  • Parents are more likely to give higher levels of mental stimulation to their first-born (or older if multiple) children.
  • Parents then change their behaviour as they have subsequent children, providing them with less mental stimulation and taking part in fewer activities with them.
  • Mothers are also likely to take more risks with later born children during pregnancy (e.g. smoking during pregnancy).

Why do people perceive certain faces as beautiful and others not so?

  • You should show an awareness that some aspects of beauty are more universal than others. As an example, facial symmetry is universally seen to be a sign of attraction, whereas particular aspects of facial shape might be seen as more or less attractive depending on culture, hormone levels, fertility, and even one’s own attractiveness and personality.
  • You should explain that innately, people are likely to be attracted to faces that represent health and fertility, although this can vary depending on one’s own situation (social context and hormones)
  • Typically, beautiful faces are those that tend towards the mean for a population. This does not mean that they are ‘average’ in a negative way, but rather that they are a mathematical average of others’ features. I would assume that such a face is likely to show that someone is in the middle of a population and thus perhaps more likely to be healthy and further removed from the extremes of possible variations.

Does Google know us better than we do?

  • I would see two approaches to this. One is that Google does know us better than we know ourselves. We could argue this as it has our search data from our earliest days til now, remembered better than we could possibly remember it. It has our movement history, the history of events that we have attended, and likely our education history, work history, and relationship history. It probably knows the exact day that you changed your status to Facebook to being ‘in a relationship’ with an ex whereas you may well not. It will not lie, whereas you might lie to yourself. If it knows something, it will ‘know’ that and not try to deceive itself.
  • On the other hand, it cannot know anything that is not put out into the world. It doesn’t know if you are doubting your marriage, unless you search ‘marriage problems.’ It doesn’t know if you are feeling anxious, unless you search ‘anxiety symptoms.’ It can know only what it is allowed to know through your actions.
  • Therefore Google might know more about us than we do, but I would argue that it cannot know us better than we know ourselves. It knows only what we do, and from that it could surmise why we do things and who we are – but it cannot know our motivations in the same way that we can, and thus cannot know who we are as we do.

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