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19 Aug

Oxford Biochemistry (In Person)
<p>In this section, you’ll hear from an Oxford alumnus about his interview for Biochemistry and how it went.<br>&nbsp;</p><p><strong>What Happened On The Day Of Your Interview?</strong><br>&nbsp;</p><p>I woke up at 6am and took a train to Oxford. My high school was only half an hour from Oxford so I decided to travel on the date of the interview itself. I’d been to Oxford before for the Open Day in summer so the trip there felt familiar and also helped to make less nervous.&nbsp;</p><p>&nbsp;</p><p>I checked in at the College lodge by 8:30am as requested by the admissions office and was given a room key. The room belonged to an undergraduate student who was away for the winter vacation and it had been tidied up for me to use for the duration of my interviews. It felt really huge! Especially the ensuite shower. After unpacking my belongings, I went to the JCR (Junior Common Room) to check my interview timetable.</p><p>&nbsp;</p><p>There were a lot of people in the JCR, interviewees (me included) in casual and smart attire as well as undergraduate helpers in blue hoodies with the names of their degrees written at the back. I found my interview schedule on the noticeboard. The first interview would be at a randomly allocated college at 10:30am and second one would be at the college I applied to in the late afternoon at 5:30pm.&nbsp;<br>&nbsp;</p><p>I went to talk to the biochemistry helper who greeted me enthusiastically and very kindly offered to take me to the other college for my first interview. I politely refused as I thought this was too much to ask for, plus there were other biochemists to look after. Besides, I had the map of Oxford and could probably find my way there.&nbsp;</p><p>&nbsp;</p><p><strong>How Did Your First Interview Go?</strong></p><p>&nbsp;</p><p>My 1st interview was at one of the furthest colleges in Oxford. I only arrived 10 minutes before the interview which was not what I had in mind.&nbsp;</p><p>&nbsp;</p><p>I panicked because I was hoping to arrive well ahead of time. When I ran into the JCR of that college, I panicked again because there were no undergraduate helpers to be found. Fortunately, after some frantic searching a lovely helper spotted me and came by. At that time, she felt like an angel to me. With her guidance, I was saved from what could have been a chain of unthinkable disasters.&nbsp;<br>&nbsp;</p><p>So I got to my first interview and there was only one interviewer. I thought I was quite well prepared but the first question sort of caught me off guard. He asked whether I enjoyed studying history (even though I was applying for Biochemistry). Perhaps he was curious about my varied interests.<br>&nbsp;</p><p>Some of the questions I got were easy, like “Explain transcription and translation”. It was an AS level topic and all I had to do was explain what I learnt about the concept.&nbsp;</p><p>&nbsp;</p><p>But this is something interviewees should be aware of. You are given a question on two broad topics. Obviously you could go on for ages talking about them but you don’t want to do that in a 30 minute interview. So what I chose to do was start with the basics, which I talked about for about one minute.&nbsp;<br>&nbsp;</p><p>You don’t want to start by showing off and saying “I know additional information about transcription and translation which the A-Level textbooks don’t talk about”. Start by demonstrating that you can logically explain the basic concepts as well as the details.&nbsp;<br>&nbsp;</p><p>Next I was asked to draw an amino acid. That was a simple biology AS level concept. There was a whiteboard next to where I was sitting and I was asked to stand up and draw it out.&nbsp;</p><p>&nbsp;</p><p>The difficulty of the questions gradually built up. I was next asked to draw a peptide bond by drawing another amino acid and joining the two up. The tricky question came afterwards. I was asked to identify the most electronegative atom. With hindsight, it wasnt a very tricky question but I was under pressure in the interview and really nervous as well, so the question felt tricky. I ended up guessing whether it was nitrogen or oxygen. The answer of course oxygen, and I did choose the right answer eventually.&nbsp;<br>&nbsp;</p><p>Towards the end of the interview, the questions got more difficult. For instance, I was asked the following question: “<i>If a codon has 4 bases instead of 3, how would this change the structure of tRNA?”</i> This is definitely not covered in A-Levels and most biochemistry applicants will not have an immediate answer. You’ll have to think on the spot. The key thing to remember is that you should always explain your thought process to the tutor, show him how you arrived at your conclusion.<br>&nbsp;</p><p><strong>What Did You Do In the Interval Between The Two Interviews?</strong></p><p>&nbsp;</p><p>My first interview seemed to have gone pretty smoothly. I had worked on my oral delivery beforehand and put them to practise during the interview. The only thing which worried me was that the interview didn’t involve too many challenging questions. I wondered if I had a chance to really demonstrate my abilities. But anyhow, I finished my first ever Oxford interview which I’d been looking forward to for the past year, with a mixture of curiosity or nervousness thrown in. It felt great and I got together with my friends from school for lunch.&nbsp;</p><p>&nbsp;</p><p>By the time I returned to the JCR of the college I was staying at, the atmosphere had livened up a lot. Some people were playing foosball with great enthusiasm.&nbsp;</p><p>My next interview was at 5:30pm and I still had 3 hours left. I felt a little tired from waking up early and decided to take a 30 minute nap to recharge. On hindsight, I felt that was a wise choice.&nbsp;</p><p>&nbsp;</p><figure class="image"><img src=""></figure><p>&nbsp;</p><p><strong>What Happened in Your Second Interview?</strong></p><p>&nbsp;</p><p>I spent a long time waiting outside the tutor’s room. I could hear sounds from inside but couldn’t quite make out the words (maybe being able to listen in on the conversation could have helped me prepare some answers but that was not to be!). I was relieved when one of the interviewers came out of the room and welcomed me with a very friendly smile.</p><p>&nbsp;</p><p>Once inside I saw two more interviewers who would later become my tutors. I was seated in front of all three of them and the first question I got was: “Tell us about stem cell research”. That was something I mentioned in my personal statement and it was quite straightforward since I’d prepared an answer. I think this question was designed to help me relax because right after that, the interviewers started quizzing me about things which I’d never learnt before.</p><p>I remember this really interesting question: "Given that the selectivity filter is lined with carbonyl oxygens, how might a K+ channel allow K+ ions through but not Na+ ions even though the Na+ ion is smaller?"&nbsp;</p><p>&nbsp;</p><p>In my mind I started (desperately) trawling through my biology knowledge to see if I had the answer but I really didnt have much of a clue. At the same time, I was genuinely curious about the answer. So I said: "I am not quite sure but I know that Na and K are Group 1 elements with 1 electron on their outer shell and they can form ionic-dipole bonds with carbonyl oxygens in the ionic state". And then I had nothing else to say.&nbsp;<br>&nbsp;</p><p>Surprisingly, my interviewer said “good”. I later found out that this was because I shared my thought process and what I said happened to be the first logical part of the answer. Not knowing where to go next, I asked for some hints and had this eureka moment where I thought to myself: “Hey, there could be molecules interacting with the ions outside the K+ channel”.&nbsp;<br>&nbsp;</p><p>To this day I can still remember how excited I was. I was practically shouting out my answer. On hindsight, this reaction was probably received favourably by the interviewers; I managed to deduce the answer through our discussion and also demonstrated my passion for Biochemistry through the enthusiastic manner in which I answered the question.&nbsp;</p><p>&nbsp;</p><p>So a tip I would like to give to future applicants is that you’re totally free to express your excitement when you receive hints that make the different pieces of the puzzle click together for you. It’s okay to show emotion during the interview.</p><p>That was the hardest question I got. Afterwards, I was tested on some equilibrium questions which were tweaked to be slightly harder than A-Levels questions. The question required some knowledge of resonance structure, which wasn’t covered yet at my school.&nbsp;</p><p>&nbsp;</p><p>I was aware that topics which I hadn’t yet studied in school could come up in the interview but couldn’t make up my mind whether to study in advance or to just focus on the topics which I knew about. I chose not to study in advance so when the resonance structure question came up, I told the interviewers that my school hadn’t covered the topic yet.</p><p>&nbsp;</p><p>The tutors taught me about resonance for about 3 minutes and then got me to answer the question. Fortunately, I was able to use the 3 minutes to deduce the answer. In the process I think this also helped to demonstrate that I was a quick learner.</p><p>&nbsp;</p><p>It would be a lie to say that I wasn’t nervous at all during the interviews but the nervousness while waiting was quickly transformed into excitement during the interview. I wanted to impress the interviewers with the hard work I had put in during whole preparation process.<br>&nbsp;</p><p>At the end of the two interviews, I felt exhausted. I didn’t think that I could prepare more for the next day’s interview. My friends felt the same and we decided to relax by watching a film called Abiding Citizen at the Odeon cinema.<br>&nbsp;</p><p>The next day, I couldn’t find my name on the interview schedule board but was told that I might be scheduled for a third interview so I had to be on standby until the next day. No news for the rest of the day. The next morning I didn’t see my name on the board either. I waited until evening and was informed that my first two interviews were sufficient and therefore I was free to leave.<br>&nbsp;</p><p><strong>Which Part of Your Interview Did You Think Was Most Well Done?</strong></p><p>&nbsp;</p><p>I spent a lot of time preparing for my interviews to the extent that my teacher specifically told me not to look at biology and chemistry topics which were yet to be covered in class.</p><p>&nbsp;</p><p>Nonetheless I still had a look. My cheeky plan was to say to the interviewers that the topic hadn’t been covered in school yet (which would be technically true) but nonetheless offer an intelligent answer, thus giving the impression that I was a quick learner. On hindsight though, I would like to advise future applicants not to do this because it takes up quite a bit of time which could be put to much better use.&nbsp;</p><p>&nbsp;</p><p>I believe I engaged in the biochemistry discussion with tutors at a sufficient level of depth and that is what they are looking for in a candidate. At times I would ask the tutors: “Why is this the case?”. I wasn’t trying to impress the tutors. I was just genuinely curious about the subject and I think the tutors took notice of that.<br>&nbsp;</p><p>Finally, I adopted a strategy where I would take 3 seconds to think before answering questions (even those that I had the answer to). To be honest, in my first interview I failed to do so because I was too happy that my predicted question came up and I jumped straight into the answer. But in the second interview, I managed to control myself. Those few seconds helped to give the impression that I was thinking and working out an answer. In addition, it’s very important to show the tutors that you’re able to give a thorough and logical explanation as opposed to a sort of knee jerk answer that has many gaps in it. At the same time, some spontaneity in an answer is good as well, so there is definitely a fine balance involved.<br>&nbsp;</p><p><strong>Any Parting Words for Prospective Biochemistry Applicants?</strong></p><p>&nbsp;</p><p>For me, the most challenging part of the interview was explaining my thought process. I had to make sure that I was expressing myself in a concise and logical manner. The amount of effort I put into practising my oral delivery was really worth it.</p><p>&nbsp;</p><p>Always remember the key qualities that interviewers are looking out for: academic excellence and passion for the subject. This should shine through in your answers. For questions like "What is a recent development in biochemistry that you have read about?", you don’t have to talk about a very complicated biochemistry complex so long as your answer can demonstrate your interest in biochemistry.=</p>