My Biology Interview Tips

By Isobel Hawkins

You've received the email; you've been invited to interview at Oxford! Initially, you're elated, but soon, the apprehension sets in. Interviews for many can seem daunting, the prospect of being cross-examined by experts in your subject can make anyone feel intimidated. The interview process can, at times, be tricky, and nervousness is normal. However, interviews at Oxford can, if approached from a certain perspective, be an extremely rewarding and even potentially enjoyable experience!

Some apprehension surrounding interviews can stem from the unknown, particularly if you've never had to have an interview before. Interviews for Biology are simply a way for tutors to investigate your ability to learn and handle new information, and to see whether you are able to think like a scientist. Your interviewers will likely be the Biology tutors at the college, and so they are looking in an interview for students who they feel have potential, rather than who are polished, and therefore those who they would like to teach. Tutors also look for students who genuinely love their subject, and are enthusiastic about the prospect of delving deeper into it, as the tutors themselves are obviously passionate about their own research in Biology. If approached with a positive attitude, interviews can therefore resemble more of an intellectual discussion than a tricky and intimidating test! With this in mind, here are some tips and ideas to consider for Biology interviews...

1) Tutors are neither expecting, nor looking for perfection.

Interviews are a chance to demonstrate your biological knowledge and to sell yourself to the tutors. However, it is never possible to know everything, particularly as interviewees will have all studied different aspects of Biology. The tutors know this, so they won't expect you to have detailed and specific knowledge about all the topics you might be asked questions about. (I was asked a question relating to where certain snakes might be found. I'd never actually heard of the type of snake, which the tutor probably expected; he simply wanted me to make inferences based on the information given, rather than prove myself a snake expert!)

2) There is not necessarily a 'correct' answer.

Biology is a complex science, and there are many aspects that are subject to much discussion and disagreement; many biological questions don't have a definitive answer. Tutors may ask questions that do have a 'right' answer, such as asking you to explain a biological mechanism. However, it is likely that most of what you will be asked won't be quite as simple as a 'right answer'. In fact, the 'right answer' is rarely what the tutors are looking for; they are more interested in your ideas and reasoning skills, and the process by which you work through a question. Tutors want to see how you can think and approach unfamiliar topics, rather than how many facts you know. A good way to demonstrate this is explain to the tutors how and why you reach a conclusion, rather than simply the conclusion itself. Discussing the question, rather than rushing to an answer, is key.

3) It's fine to ask for clarification!

If you don't understand the question, it's absolutely fine to ask the tutor to repeat or rephrase the question. They want you to be able to reason through the question, which is impossible if you don't even understand it to start with! I had to ask one tutor what the question was at least three times, but after he re-phrased it, it was easier to see what he was asking. Tutors are also likely to 'prompt' you, by giving you extra information, or asking further questions, to guide you as you reason through a question. This doesn't mean that they don't think you're capable of answering yourself, but if you're struggling with a question, they will try to put you on the right track. Likewise, if the tutors can see that you're almost there with the question, they might just move on to the next part. This can make you feel like you might have got it 'wrong', but if they can see you're on the right track, the tutors might just move on to something else if they are satisfied with what you've already said.

4) Expect to be asked things you don't know.

Interviews are not supposed to be 'easy', or else they are not worth doing! Everyone is nervous leading up to their interviews, in case they are asked tricky questions and get stuck. However, accepting that you probably will be asked difficult questions can actually help you to prepare and feel less overwhelmed in an interview. Interview questions are intended to test you and make you think outside the box. When you are pushed outside your comfort zone, you can sometimes surprise yourself with the ideas you come up with! Interviews can also be a valuable experience in making you consider biological questions that you may never have thought of before. If you're able to view the interviews as a way to learn and stretch yourself, rather than a stressful experience that you just have to get through, hopefully the whole experience might be more enjoyable than scary!

5) Take your time and don't rush to answer.

It's easy to blurt out the first thing that comes into your head when faced with a challenging question, but if you can, try to relax and think through the question. If you need some time to think, verbalising your thought process is a good way to demonstrate to the tutors where you are with the question. If you are stuck on a question, but seem to be on the right track, they might let you keep working it out yourself, or they might then give you some extra information to help you move forwards. In the face of new information, you may sometimes find that your previous conclusion was inaccurate. If this is the case, don't back-track, but correct yourself and discuss why your previous conclusion was not the case.

6) Questions can be quite diverse in nature.

Many skills are needed in sciences like Biology, and the interview questions are designed to allow tutors to investigate the full range of your skills. At one college I was asked questions based on a series of graphs. One graph was related to the diet of a seabird, another to the population decline of the seabird, and one was related to the changing temperature of the North Sea. After being asked questions relating to the gradients of the graphs, I was then asked to 'put the pieces of the puzzle together'. Questions involving data analysis are not uncommon, as this is an essential part of Biology. Similarly, you may also be asked questions relating to biological specimens. In one interview, I was asked to choose a specimen (a Venus fly trap), and was then asked to make inferences about factors such as where it lived, and why it needed to be carnivorous. Expect to be asked a diverse range of question types!

7) Ensure you know what's on your personal statement.

Before you have your interviews, it might be a good idea to re-read your personal statement to ensure you're familiar with what's on it. Tutors might ask you questions about your personal statement, so it's always worth checking that you remember what you wrote about! In my first interview, one tutor asked about a book I'd written about, and asked me to elaborate on a point I had made.

8) Be positive!

If you receive an invitation to interview, this in itself is a great achievement! Interviews will test you beyond what you are used to at school or college, but recognising that you cannot have a 'perfect' interview, and using the experience to learn and develop as a Biologist, can make the experience invaluable.

If you have received an invitation to interview, good luck!