From “How do pirates divide their treasure?” to “If the punishment for parking on double yellow lines were death, and therefore nobody did it, would that be a just and effective law?” the questions to enter Oxford University are quite thought provoking.
Oxford has released a set of example questions they’d ask potential students, and then explain their thought process behind the questions themselves. Have a look and see how you think You’d do. The questions are obviously different depending on the course you’re thinking of taking:
Would it matter if tigers became extinct?
This question is not about hoping students will display their expert knowledge of tigers. Most applicants would instinctively answer ‘Yes…’, but it is the ‘because….’ that interests me, and can help to distinguish critical thinkers. I might follow up this question by asking if it would matter if less glamorous creatures – like fungi – went extinct.
How do pirates divide their treasure?
A group of 7 pirates has 100 gold coins. They have to decide amongst themselves how to divide the treasure, but must abide by pirate rules:
- The most senior pirate proposes the division.
- All of the pirates (including the most senior) vote on the division. If half or more vote for the division, it stands. If less than half vote for it, they throw the most senior pirate overboard and start again.
- The pirates are perfectly logical, and entirely ruthless (only caring about maximizing their own share of the gold).
So, what division should the most senior pirate suggest to the other six? (answer at the bottom of the post)
Economics and Management
Do bankers deserve the pay they receive? And should government do something to limit how much they get?
A good candidate would wonder why it is that seemingly equivalently talented people can get paid so much more in banking than in other occupations. Do we really believe that bankers are so much better than other workers in terms of skill?
Place a 30cm ruler on top of one finger from each hand. What happens when you bring your fingers together?
Almost everyone in this example will expect the ruler to topple off the side where the finger is closest to the centre to the ruler because they expect this finger to reach the centre of the ruler first. They then complete the ‘experiment’ and find both fingers reach the centre of the ruler at the same time and the ruler remains balanced on two fingers. We like to see how candidates react to what is usually an unexpected result, and then encourage them to repeat the experiment slowly.
Imagine we had no records about the past at all, except everything to do with sport – how much of the past could we find out about?
What I would be looking for is to see how the candidate might use their imagination, building on something they know about (probably much more than I do) to tackle questions of historical research.
If the punishment for parking on double yellow lines were death, and therefore nobody did it, would that be a just and effective law?
Candidates are not meant to give a right or wrong answer to this question. They need to demonstrate that they have recognised the various issues that arise. The candidate who distinguishes between ‘just’ and ‘effective’ does best.
Can archaeology ‘prove’ or ‘disprove’ the Bible?
For this particular question I would be looking for an answer that showed the candidate could appreciate that the Bible was a collection of documents written and transmitted over several centuries, and containing important traditions that have a bearing on history, but that academic study of the Bible means that it has to be examined carefully to see when and where these traditions had come from and for what purpose they had been written.
What is ‘normal’ for humans?
There are various ways that this question might be approached, but some approach that distinguishes the normal from the statistical average is a good start. Issues such as whether normality is to be judged by ‘biological’ factors that might be held to be common to humans, or whether it’s normal within a particular culture or at a particular period of history, might also be worth addressing.
The Pirate Question Answer
The solution involves looking at what happens with only 2 pirates, and working up from there.
(We assume that the most senior pirate has the letter A. Others will be B, C, D etc, depending on how many there are in the group.)
Pirate A suggests he gets all the gold. He votes for it, so it carries.
Pirate A gets 100 coins, pirate B gets 0.
Pirate A knows that if he’s thrown overboard, pirate C would get nothing (as the situation would revert to the two pirate example above, with pirate C promoted to pirate B). So if pirate A bribes pirate C with 1 coin, pirate C will vote in favour.
Pirate A gets 99 coins, pirate B gets 0, pirate C gets 1.
Pirate A knows that if he dies, then pirate C gets nothing (again, it will become the 3 pirate case, and pirate C will be promoted to pirate B), so he needs 1 coin to bribe him.
Pirate A gets 99 coins, pirate B gets 0, pirate C gets 1, pirate D gets 0.
Now Pirate A needs 3 votes, so he must bribe each of the pirates who would get 0 coins if he dies with 1 coin each.
Pirate A gets 98 coins, pirate B gets 0, pirate B gets 1, pirate D gets 0, pirate E gets 1.
Same story: bribe pirate B and pirate D.
Pirate A gets 98 coins, pirate B gets 0, pirate C gets 1, pirate D gets 0, pirate E gets 1, pirate F gets 0.
In this final stage (although you can continue indefinitely!) the senior pirate has to get 4 votes, so must bribe 3 pirates… might as well bribe the 3 that have the most to lose if he dies (ie, pirates C, E and G). Pirate A gets 97 coins, pirates C, E and G get 1 coin each, and the others get nothing.