The most daunting part of the Oxford and Cambridge application process is the legendarily ‘unanswerable’ question designed to test the university-goer’s lateral thinking. What is the toughest one ever asked – and how should you respond?
December: ’tis the season to be petrified, if you’re a pupil hoping to go to Oxford or Cambridge University.For this is the month that would-be Oxbridge undergraduates are invited to attend an interview, to be asked “unanswerable” questions – brain-teasers designed to explore the far reaches of their mind, test their lateral thinking and expose weaknesses in their ability to argue, process and reason.The interview is often the most “daunting” part of the Oxbridge application process. Famous examples of the legendarily difficult questions include “What is the purpose of comedy?” (Modern and Medieval Languages, Cambridge), “If you were to form a government of philosophers, what selection process would you use?” (Philosophy, Cambridge) and “Does a girl scout have a political agenda?” (Law, Oxford).John Farndon – author of several books about how to answer these questions, the latest of which is Do You Still Think You’re Clever? (Icon Books, £12.99) – says: “Some people think these Oxbridge questions are just weird and pretentious. Or that they’re designed as traps to frighten off any young students foolhardy enough to apply to those privileged pinnacles of learning, like a trial of fire for budding Harry Potters.“Of course, there probably are some dastardly tutors who do use them in this way. But the brilliant thing about them is: they make you think. Aggravating and provocative as they are, they set your mind racing. That’s what to my mind makes them fascinating for everyone, not just those applying to Oxbridge.”Now, Farndon has determined what he thinks is the toughest “unaswerable” question ever asked. Candidates hoping to read Social and Political Sciences at Cambridge have been faced with this superficially easy head-scratcher: “Instead of politicians, why don’t we let the managers of IKEA run the country?”Here, Farndon explains how to tackle the question – and win that university place.
1. Start with an overview that shows a breadth of knowledge of the subject
“Over the last 30 years or so, there has been an increasing move towards privatisation of government and public services in many Western democracies. In the UK, for instance, major nationalised industries, such as the railways, telecommunications and power were sold off by the government to private, profit-making businesses in the 1980s, and more recently the Post Office has been sold, while more and more elements of the National Health Service and education have been contracted out.”
2. Refocus on the question
“So why indeed don’t we take the logical next step and privatise the whole business of government?”
3. State your case – and try to be counter-intuitive
“I have a feeling that if you conducted a poll using this question, a large proportion would consider it a good idea. The choice of private institution in the question is clever. It doesn’t ask why don’t we let government be taken over by the managers of BP, or Lloyds Bank or Rio Tinto – vast corporations whose reputations have all come under fire. Instead, the question talks about IKEA, a company who deal directly with the public, and make what seems cheap, neatly designed furniture with an image of Scandinavian style and neatness. IKEA’s image seems clean, efficient and essentially benign rather than possibly rapacious or dirty. There is no connection at all between the running of a country and trim Scandinavian furniture, but the association creates the appealing idea of a country run along the same clean, efficient and benign lines.”
4. Show residual knowledge of the subject, even if it’s not one you hope to study
“As influential American psychologist Edward Bernays showed in the 1930s, the power of association is huge. People might be much more hesitant to put power in the hands of a BP or Rio Tinto, even though their managers might be equally efficient.”
5. Delve into greater detail
“The argument might run that IKEA managers are experts in management – and that they are forced to be experts because they need to achieve bottom lines. Politicians are not expert managers at all; they are simply good at talking and negotiating. So politicians (and public servants) are good at creating red tape, but if you want something actually done, go to the experts.
“Moreover, the IKEA managers will always be kept efficient by the profit incentive. If politicians get things wrong, they may not even get voted out if they contrive to pull the wool over the public’s eyes.”
6. Highlight problems within your own argument
“One problem with the IKEA argument is that it is would be a massive – indeed, possibly fatal – blow to the democratic ideal. If we were to let IKEA managers ‘run the country’, what would we be essentially saying? That they take over all the functions of public administrators? Or that they take over the functions of parliament or the president altogether? If so, to whom would they be accountable? For whom would they be running the country? Who would set their agenda? Indeed, what on earth would they running?
“If they are to remain IKEA managers in nature (highly unlikely), then they’d be running the country simply as a business to maximise profits for shareholders. That could simply mean milking the country and all its people dry to bring dividends to outside shareholders.
“Running a country is about so much more than making a profit. It’s about looking after its people. It’s about making sure we all have the chance of a decent life, a decent home, food, care in sickness, proper education, justice and security, freedom of speech, protection of the fabric and heritage of the country for the benefit of all, and so much more. None of these come into making a profit at all – and for all these we need politicians not retail managers.”
7. When summing up, finish with a memorable line
“For all its flaws, true democracy is by far the best way of government anyone has yet thought of. But democracy requires democratic representatives and our participation in the process. We cannot simply hand over the functions of government, without handing over our democratic system and our control over the way the country is. Democracy requires either direct participation or elected representatives, that is, politicians. If we cannot trust the incumbent politicians to run the country, we cannot simply abandon the idea of representation – we need to find politicians who we can trust. And then of course, there will be those tiresome weekends struggling to assemble your statutory government quota of flat-pack furniture…”