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Oxford Biology Complete Interview Questions & Answers

Oxbridge Application Specialists

In this guide we’ll take a look at some questions that have been asked of Oxford biology applicants in the past – both those that are more expected, and those that are a little stranger.

Let’s begin by considering an overall approach to science questions at interview.

Your first step should be to contextualise the question and think about what area of your knowledge is being tested. With some of the more left-field questions, this is especially important. For example, a question on poisoning could rely on your knowledge of how substances are metabolised.

Next, apply your A Level knowledge to the question. Then, bring in additional information from outside the A Level syllabus. Show that you’ve a true passion for the subject by involving books you’ve read, projects you’ve done, or experiments you have performed.

Lastly, use logic to build out an answer that you can then debate with the tutor interviewing you, and work towards a productive discussion. Show that you can take their ideas onboard.

Question 1: How would you poison someone without the police finding out?

This question has been asked of applicants for Medicine and Biology before. A good initial approach would be considering what constitutes a poison, and whether there are certain substances that are poisons but not seen as such – recreational drugs might be used in someone with a known drug problem, shellfish could be used if someone had a known history of being allergic to shellfish, etc. Moving beyond this first step, we need to consider how a poison might be metabolised, and how long this process might take. Alternatively we might want to consider what kind of tests are routinely performed for poisoning, and thus what substances would not feature on that list, or appear through the processes used. You should show an awareness of how different substances will have different detection periods within the body, and show that you’d wish to use a substance that would have a narrow detection window. 

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Question 2: Explain how your ears work

This question relies on relatively general knowledge, and gaps in that knowledge should be filled in with sensible questions to the tutor. You should be aware that hearing begins in the outer ears, and that sound travels from outside the ear, through the external auditory canal as sound waves, and then hits the tympanic membrane, which vibrates. The next steps, which you may not be aware of, are that the vibration is passed through small bones in the middle ear called the ossicles. They send sound waves into the inner ear and the cochlea. The cochlear nerve then carries impulses onwards.

Question 3: What skull is this?

This question is asked after a skull is presented, typically (based on previous students’ recollection) one with large teeth at the front of the mouth. You should therefore make the deduction that the animal is a carnivore, and that its sharp incisors would be used to rip apart flesh, aiding in both the hunting and eating process. You might look at the other teeth behind the incisors, which in a carnivore of this kind would be small and used to grind meat into smaller pieces. You could then make a logical deduction as to the animal, which is likely to be some form of big cat, like a tiger or lion. 

Question 4: Why is it a disadvantage for humans to have two legs?

This question might strike you as strange, because humans having two legs has clearly allowed us to flourish as a species. As such you might begin by making this clear – that being bipedal has bestowed many more advantages than disadvantages. Consider disadvantages as both current and past. Past disadvantages would include a relative lack of speed compared to many four legged animals, as well as a relative lack of agility in climbing or traversing. However, these are no longer issues for the typical modern human. Current disadvantages centre entirely on the spine – a human is far more likely to suffer spinal problems than non-human primates, due to our bipedal locomotion. Back problems affect a large proportion of our society, and disc herniation is common – this being a result of pressure on the discs, a pressure which would not be present if the spine were horizontally rather than vertically aligned. 

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Question 5: What happens when a neuron is excited?

This question relies on your A Level knowledge. You should explain that a stimulus triggers sodium ion channels to open, and that sodium ions diffuse into the neuron down an electrochemical gradient. In order for the resting potential of -70mV to become an action potential, a threshold value of -55mV must be reached. This triggers depolarisation. At this point, the voltage-gated sodium ion channels open, and sodium ions pass into the axon. They then reduce the potential difference across the axon membrane, in a process called depolarisation. This triggers more channels opening, which causes more depolarisation. After some time, a value of around +30mV is reached. At this point, repolarisation occurs – sodium voltage gated channels close, and potassium ion voltage-gated channels open, which returns the potential difference back to a value of -70mV again.

Question 6: How can a bear tell the difference between spring and autumn?

Your first point here should be the fact that bears hibernate, and as such spring and autumn see the animal in an entirely different state. The spring bear will be very learn, and needing to begin the process of bulking up again for its next hibernation, whilst the autumnal bear is heavy, having eaten well all summer in preparation for winter.

Next, consider external signs that the bear might be aware of, like the length of the day. It seems likely that an animal will have a subconscious awareness of days either lengthening or shortening, in spring or autumn respectively. In a similar vein, one would expect that temperature changes would be noted subconsciously, with an increasing temperature trend evidently showing the animal that it is heading into summer, and a decrease that winter is on its way.

We might also consider the other flora and fauna in the bear’s environment. Particular plants flowering might lead to particular behaviours, the presence of other animals that might hibernate at slightly different times, might be noted, and of course the animals that the bear feeds upon would allow it to understand what time of year it was. In particular, if the bear fed on salmon for example, then it might subconsciously associate a decreasing number of salmon to catch, and thus a slowing in its ability to put on weight, with the approach of winter as autumn deepened.

Question 7: Describe what happens to the membrane potential of an animal’s cell when it is put in different solutions.

The membrane potential is determined by the ion concentration between intra and extracellular areas, which means that a radical change in the ion concentration of the solution that the cell is in would change the resting potential of the cell. As an example, if the cell was put in a solution that did not contain any sodium, then the cell’s resting potential would presumably decrease (become more negative) as sodium’s electrochemical gradient would be more in favour of movement out of the cell. In contrast, an increased sodium or decreased potassium ions in the solution would perhaps lead to a more positive resting potential.

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