Oxford Interview Experience - Biochemistry

Harry Lee, Oxford, Biochemistry 2010-2014
7 Mar 2015

Briefly tell us about your interview

Waiting outside my college tutor’s room was very long. I could hear sounds from inside the door but couldn’t quite make out the words (maybe being able to listen to the conversation could have helped me prepare some answers haha) I was a little relieved when one of the interviewers came out of the room to welcome me with a very friendly smile.

Going inside I saw two more interviewers who would later be my tutors. So yeah I was seated in front of three interviewers all looking at me. The first question i asked was on ‘tell us about stem cell research’, something I mentioned in my personal statement. That was ok because I prepared an answer for that. I think this was a question designed to relax me because from the next question onwards, they started to ask me on things I have never seen before.

I remember this really interesting question: "Given that the selectivity filter is lined with carbonyl oxygens, how might K+ channel allow K+ through but not Na+ when Na+ is smaller?" Obviously, I started to desperately go through all my biology knowledge to see if any of the them could explain this but at the same time I was genuinely curious why this was the case. Unfortunately I couldn’t and I said "I'm not quite sure but I know that Na and K are in Group 1 with 1 electron on their outer shell and form ionic-dipole bond with carbonyl oxygens in ionic state" because I had nothing else to say. But then, my interviewer said “good”. I later found out this was because I was sharing my thoughts process and this was the first logical part of the answer. Not knowing where to go next, I asked for some hint and had this sudden eureka moment by “Think if there are some molecules interacting with the ions outside the channel” I can still remember that I was VERY VERY excited and was practically shouting my answer. I think this looked quite good to the interviewers because I deduced the answer through discussion and have demonstrated my passion (perhaps too much). This has been the hardest question for me as the next questions were on some equilibrium questions tweaked to be slightly harder than A-Levels.

It would be a lie to say that I wasn’t nervous at all during interviews but the nervousness during the pre-interview waiting period was instantly switched to excitement to impress the interviewers with what I had been preparing through hard work.

What would you say was best done by you during your interview?

I prepared (more like tried to prepare) A LOT for my interviews. To the extent that my teacher told me not to look at biology and chemistry topics not covered yet in class but I still looked at them. My cheeky plan was to say this topic wasn't done in class which is technically true and hope to appear more 'quick-absorbing' new concepts. But don't there's more time-worthy preparation.

I personally think what I did alright in was at keeping up with the tutors' during discussion of deep level biochemistry. But then all applicants are expected to do this. Hmm, I actually asked in the interview 'Why is this?'. I'm guessing me questioning the tutors showed that I was genuinely interested in learning what's going on in the topic instead of just trying to impress the tutors.

Finally, I planned that if any questions for which I knew the answers (or similar), I would take 3 seconds to think without saying anything. To be honest, in my first interview, I failed because I was too happy that my predicted question came up and jumped straight into the answer. But in the second one, I did keep hold of myself and 'pretended' to be working out the answer. It's very important to show that you are able to deliver a thorough and logical explanation and not a impulsive answer with breaks in the middle. But you also want your answer to reflect some excitement as well. So balance needed here.

What was your motivation in studying Biochemistry?

What I wanted to study was actually about human body. And the best subject that offers study of body at the moment would be Biomedical Sciences (besides Medicine). But when I was applying, Biomedical Sciences wasn't available. I wanted to study about the human body because that's what I was interested in from the very first time I learnt about digestion.

Back then, based on my experiences of being charged in hospital and later volunteer working, I wanted to work in the biopharmaceutical industry after graduation. But now thinking back after graduation, I now know I wanted to study Biochemistry because I liked Biology and Chemistry. And from my 4 years of Oxford Biochemistry, I can for sure say that purely liking Biology and Chemistry is the best motivation for studying Biochemistry.

Advice for prospective biochemistry applicants?

I would say the most challenging part was trying to explain my thought process in logical and concise words and looking back it was definitely worth practicing describing and explaining biological processes like transcription and translation in spoken words. I do hope that this review of my interview experience will be useful to prospective applicants and do feel free to post comments and ask questions.

Also just a few things to point out would be that there might be a question like "What is a recent development in biochemistry that you have read?" The answer to this doesn't have to be about a very complicated biochemistry but one that can show you have interests in biochemistry. So have an answer for this!

Oxford Biochemistry can be divided into 4 courses:
cell biology.

Not guaranteed of course but just to speak out what I feel is one of the biggest topics for each would be:
Amino acids and proteins
This one can vary.

Also organic chemistry is something not to neglect (we attend the same organic chemistry course and I think we take the same organic chemistry exam as the chemists in our first year!) I remember receiving questions on dynamic equilibrium and resonance.

Finally, this point is about importance of maths in biochemistry interviews. We study statistics as one of the 6 'modules' in first year. But then hardly any except the data analysis paper in 3rd year. So it is fair to say maths related questions are very unlikely to come up in the interviews. I've seen biochemistry friends that haven't done AS mathematics. But a maths related question may well come up that may catch you off guard. Shouldn't be that difficult but just wanted to say there's a chance of such question so that you are aware of this and don't panic!

How to prepare for Oxford Biochemistry interviews?

1. Practice speaking out loud in English biology and chemistry topic explanations. What I used to do is I drew up a long list of chemistry topics like 'Electrophilic addition', 'nucleophiles', 'VSEPR', randomly pick out one topic and practice explaining out loud for 1-2 minutes.

The mission is not to say 'uhm' or stop in the middle of the explanation to think of what to say next. This was to deliver more logical and coherent oral answers in the interviews. I've done this for a month, not necessarily everyday but good 8 topics a week.

2.Mock interviews. Find yourself your biology and chemistry teachers to give you a few 30 minute mock interviews to model the real condition. Putting yourself in a mock interview that models the real one is definitely an effective way to improve your performance.

3.Have an idea of the kind of questions that come up.

I would say the most challenging part was trying to explain my thought process in logical and concise words and looking back it was definitely worth practicing describing and explaining biological processes like transcription and translation in spoken words. I do hope that this review of my interview experience will be useful to prospective applicants and do feel free to post comments and ask questions.




Do comment here if you have any questions for me!



Thank you very much for the information. it is very useful. I am in Singapore and the interview will be conducted via SkyPE in Singapore or in Oxford. Shall I attend the interview in Singapore to go to Oxford for the face-to-face interview. Another question is that I will serve National Service during the interview period and is it possible to obtain leave from NS to attend the interview? Dis your classmates in Oxford or you faced this problem before? Thanks.