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.

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