kitchen table math, the sequel: Oxbridge

Friday, September 10, 2010

Oxbridge

It is probably the most important day of your life. Your mind is racing and your hands are trembling at the thought of the erudite questions you are about to be asked, which will determine your future education, career and indeed the rest of your life. Then a man leans forward towards you and says: "Tell me about a banana."

other questions:
"Why isn't this chair acting as a wave?"(Chemistry, Oxford).

"Estimate the number of pebbles on Brighton Beach. If a pebble was given to each person would there be enough for the entire population?" (Natural sciences, Cambridge).

"If you leave the fridge turned on in a thermally isolated room, what happens to the room?" (Physics, Oxford).

Knowledge of a banana may be the key to Oxbridge entry
By Richard Garner
Monday, 6 September 2010
So You Want to Go to Oxbridge?: Tell Me About a Banana

So You Want to Go to Oxbridge?: Tell Me About a Banana

13 comments:

John Warner said...

Am I weird or do these seem normal kinds of questions to ask - okay I went to Oxford and studied Theoretical Chemistry - but the questions posed are very simple questions about the application of scientific theories to the reality we experience.
Quantum theory at the level an 18 year old would have studied it will talk about the wave nature of matter - so why do not the macro-scale objects not seem to us as waves.
The second one is an estimation problem - a back of an envelope type problem.
The third is thermodynamics question about the predictions of some abstract seeming laws.
This is all stuff that applicants should be able to do.

Can I recommend the Lewis Carroll Epstein book "Thinking Physics".

Anonymous said...

And the banana question?

-Mark R.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

The banana question opens up several options for asking questions back: did the person asking mean the Cavendish banana (the familiar yellow banana that is the mainstay of world trade in bananas and currently subject to some serious plant diseases) or were they interested in the bananas actually used as food in the areas where bananas grow? Was this an economic question? a political question?

Or moving away from the abstract thought of a banana, one could discuss the color, the use of bananas as a source of ethylene gas for ripening other fruit, a model for demonstrating condom use, a prop in school art class still lives, recipes for banana bread, ...

I don't think that the interviewers cared much where the interviewee went with the question, just how well they could riff on an arbitrary topic.

kcab said...

These questions remind me of some of the interview questions we used to ask at one of the places I worked. The point (for us) was to see how the interviewee approached the question. Made for some interesting interviews, some uncomfortable ones also. Having been on both sides of that table, I found that I gained more understanding of what it would be like to work with someone from this sort of question than from the standard routine.

But, I guess they may not be usual in college interviews.

Anonymous said...

"I don't think that the interviewers cared much where the interviewee went with the question, just how well they could riff on an arbitrary topic."

I get that.

What I'm wondering is, do Oxford and Cambridge actually want to skew their incoming class towards people who have done lots of improv threater (or improptu competitions on a speed and debate team)? If the goal is to produce good lawyers who can BS well if needed in a courtroom situation, I see the benefit. But if one is trying to produce people who can do good science or engineering (or history or ...), does success at improv correlate to success in the other field?

It isn't obvious to me that it does.

-Mark Roulo

John Warner said...

I am not sure that it does skew the students to improv theatre - these questions are about applying some of your thinking into other situations - not sure that improv theatre would help there. I certainly hadn't done any and few of my colleagues had done that sort of thing - but we could have damned good pub conversations about anything.
It is about showing your reasoning skills and being quick witted and applying knowledge that all the candidates have but some have not the gumption to apply. Most people who apply to Oxford or Cambridge have top marks so you need something to stand out.

le radical galoisien said...

"But if one is trying to produce people who can do good science or engineering (or history or ...), does success at improv correlate to success in the other field?"

It's about creativity, not improv.

Can you answer creatively? How original can you be?

Highly relevant to engineering.

Are you CONFIDENT of what you know about a banana? How much do you know about a banana?

Science all the way.

You can caramelise bananas.
Commercial bananas are seedless, but wild bananas are not. This is due to aneuploidy.
Interesting to ponder why bananas are yellow. But then, some bananas are red.

I mean when I answer this question, my responses will be totally dominated by science.

le radical galoisien said...

When I did summer research, impromptu things came up a lot.

Oh hmm, the nanorod is behaving weirdly in this cell in a way we never anticipated.

or

taking a look at a DIC live image -- look at that really weird endocytosis pattern


When you're doing research, the unexpected comes up all the time. If you're quick-witted you can usually deduce what's going on -- discuss it with your group mates -- and then quickly take advantage (of new opportunities) or fix things as needed.

SteveH said...

Carmen Miranda = creativity?

I detested these sorts of questions in job interviews. "Why is a manhole cover round?" As a tie-breaker? As a brain dump exhibition? Only when demand exceeds supply? To put you on the defensive? Is it a managerial versus technical track issue? It's not enough to look at my previous work and ask specific technical questions?

There are clear differences between questions which hope to elicit a true understanding of science, and those that warm the cockles of psychologists justifying their position in human resources. Once you get past the personnel group, however, the technical people seem quite able to figure it out without resorting to such silliness.

In music performance, you live and die by the audition. Is this skill necessary for other fields? Perhaps those facing these questions should eat a few bananas beforehand to calm the nerves.

le radical galoisien said...

I have found that in approaching people (professors, friends, other researchers) for collaboration quite important to exercise my elevator speech skills.

the more prosaic -- the more I captivate their attention, etc. and the more genuine/passionate you seem.

but that's because I am a no-name undergrad, so I need personality to make up for my lack of existing credentials. but still. people applying to Oxbridge don't really have established names in their field either.

Barry Garelick said...

Slightly off topic, but regarding interview questions, I once had a variant on the "What are your weaknesses?" question in the form of "If we were to ask someone who knew you what your weaknesses were, what do you think they would say?"

I had this asked in an interview by someone who was a VP of the company and had a keen grasp of freshman psychology. I answered: "They would say I have a difficult time dealing with jerks."

I got the job. Six months later, for the first and only time in my life, I was fired. The firm was rampant with jerks.

CassyT said...

I answered: "They would say I have a difficult time dealing with jerks."

Nice. Having interviewed many job applicants, I know that the stock answer for that question is some variation of: "I love doing (whatever the job is) so much, I tend to work too much."

Right. Barry-I'd have hired you too, with your answer.

Barry Garelick said...


Right. Barry-I'd have hired you too, with your answer.


Which raises the question in my mind of whether you, like they, would have fired me after six months?