Oxbridge interviews: real advice from a real don

The Times blogs

This week marks the start of the Oxbridge interview season. I’ve been watching with interest from the USA as newspapers
peddle advice to anxious applicants and their parents about how they
might best get through the ordeal – and especially  about how to deal
with all those weird questions that we dons do like to devise to trip
up the poor candidates.

More often than not, the information is being fed to the press by Oxbridge Application Advisory Companies, which make their money out of increasing the Oxbridge mystique, then claiming to offer a way through the applications jungle.

Feel some sympathy for Oxford and Cambridge, please. While we do our
best to de-mystify the process and explain why interviews are useful
(can you think of a better way of distinguishing two
students, both with 10 A*s at GCSE and predicted for As at A level?),
other people have a financial stake in making it all seem as
complicated as possible.

One company is charging £950 for an Interview Preparation Weekend,
which is just one small part of the “Premier Service” (covering
everything advice on your personal statement to 14 hours personal
tuition to promote independent thinking), for which they don’t even
quote a price on the web; you have to phone, which I haven’t.  I cant
imagine the price is far short of the just over £3000 annual fees for
being  taught at Cambridge. To be fair to this company, you can apply for their Access Scheme,
a much shorter version, if you receive Educational Maintenance
Allowance – though how many people are given this is not clear. Perhaps
it depends on how many spare places they have once the fee payers have
paid their fees.

So what is my advice?

OK, I can’t speak for science subjects, but for humanities – three things.

First don’t worry about the weird questions. We don’t sit round each
year and dream them up over the port (port – another myth, for the most
part). “I know Humphrey, why don’t we ask them if they can imagine what
it was like being a strawberry…That’ll sort the sheep from the goats,

If the questions sound a bit unexpected, that is what they are meant
to be. It’s partly to prevent people being drilled in the “right
answer” at ambitious schools or on those fee-paying courses. So don’t
be misled by all those people who try to tell you that what “they” are
really after when they ask you “how does Geography relate to Midsummer
Night’s Dream” (“a wonderful chance to show you can adopt an
interdisciplinary approach”). It really isn’t like that. Worse still,
don’t try to second guess what the agenda is. Engage in the
conversation, trusting that the person asking the question is trying to
get the best out of you.

Second, ask yourself: what would I be looking for in an
applicant for this subject to this university? The application process
isn’t rocket science. If someone asks you what you have read about your
chosen subject outside of your A level syllabus, and you say “Nothing”,
it’s not a great start. Arts courses at Oxbridge demand huge amounts of
reading and an engagement with the written word. Be able to talk about
something you have read, independently, that has engaged you, whether
it’s a battered 1950s text book you found in the chuck out pile at the
school library, or a 3 for 2 offer at W H Smiths.

Third, don’t put your faith in profit-making companies that promise
to help you ‘get in’, and claim that they have advice from sources
close to the mysterious decision making. (Sorry – if you already have
shelled out vast amounts of money, it probably hasn’t actually done you
any harm, but there might have been better ways of spending your
money!). No-one I know who is really close to the admissions process
would sell themselves to a private company.

I took a look at the “Advisory Board
of one of these organisations. The descriptions were strictly accurate,
but still gave a misleading impression of intimacy with the system. One
of the advisers was described as “a Former schoolteacher fellow of
Magdalene, Cambridge specializing in admissions”. OK , but
“schoolteacher fellows” are teachers who come to a college for a term,
on sabbatical from a school. They may have an interest in admissions,
but they have nothing at all directly to do with them. Another had been
involved in admissions in a ‘Permanent Private Hall” at Oxford (which
is not quite the same as a college). Another was an interesting
cultural theorist – who most likely had once been involved in
admissions at a post-graduate college at Oxford, but I couldn’t
discover which exactly (Google was a bit unclear on this).

Why not instead take advantage of what is available outside the commercial sector? The Sutton Trust
arranges courses with an eye to Oxbridge and to other top rank
universities (Oxbridge isn’t the be all and end all). A friendly
teacher can almost certainly help to get you a practice interview (and
honestly, you don’t need a whole weekend of it).

In fact, the Cambridge website gives you an example of what an interview is like; and it’s made by those who REALLY know. I’d start there.

Roman temple found in Notts

From This is Nottingham

THE remains of a Roman temple have been found in Notts – and experts say it could re-write the history books.

wall dating back as far as 43AD, made from large smooth-faced sandstone
blocks, has been unearthed at the former Minster School site in

metres long by 2.5 metres tall, it is part of an emerging complex of
buildings including a Roman bathing monument – known as a nymphaeum.

The site also contains what is believed to be a large villa.

Spence, senior archaeological officer for Notts County Council, says
the find is one of the most exciting in her 25-year career.

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She said: “This is a monumental discovery. I have never seen Roman archaeology looking like that in Notts.

“It is starting to re-write our understanding of Notts in the Roman period.

don’t expect to see a wall of this masonry. It looks as if it could be
a pagan Roman temple. Not only are they using these huge blocks but
they were using smooth faces. It is very much a grand building.

“We certainly were not expecting anything like this.

“We had nothing to say it was there. To us it is new and very exciting.”

is only the second Roman pagan temple to be discovered in Notts, the
other was found in 1963 near to the site where the East Midlands
Parkway Station is being built.

The Southwell find is significant because there is no evidence of a Roman settlement in the town.

Bryn Walters, director and secretary of the Association for Roman Archeology, described the news as “very, very interesting”.

He said: “This could change the way the history [of Southwell] is looked at.

“It is interesting that there might be something else and has not been found yet.

“If there is a temple, there is going to be something else not far away.”

said the discovery of the temple could mean that what was thought to be
a villa, previously discovered at the site, might be a lavish resting
place for pilgrims.

He said: “There may well be something of great importance there.

“It is potentially a very, very interesting site indeed. Potentially Southwell is hiding a lot of information.”

Spence added: “We think it’s a whole complex. We have got most of the
elements. I am expecting another structure to turn up this week.”

I expect the men in white coats any day

New signs of failing powers come so regularly when one is over 70 that most of them are greeted with no more than a shrug.

That it takes 10 minutes for a name you are searching for to come to the surface of your mind – that’s worth a shrug.

That you go upstairs for something, forget what it was, go down again and remember – and then repeat the whole process – well, it comes to us all.

But I thought I could still manage crosswords.

Even if the Guardian crossword that I begin at about midnight has to wait for the morning for the last lights to be filled in, it does get completed before the business of the day begins.


But the last clue in yesterday’s puzzle defeated me until I was out of the bath and dressed.  ‘A west African state engulfs a west African state.’ No problem. Malawi, clearly. ‘Show trials.’ Easy.  Rehearsals.  ‘Look for a bird.’ Gander.

But the one that kept eluding me (I hang my head in shame) was ‘International contest won by gifted horse (6,3).’

I won’t insult the intelligence of fellow Classicists by giving the answer that eventually came to me, but only when I had five of the nine letters in place.

As I say, I expect the men in white coats to be ringing the doorbell any day.