It is fast approaching ‘that time of year’ – not Christmas although yes, Christmas of course – gone is the humdrum spookiness of Halloween only to be replaced instantaneously by a cornucopia of tinsel festooned supermarkets, each gaudier than the last and insisting on a live countdown until the damp squib of the day itself. BUT. For others, ‘that time of year” means something very different. If you were one of those chosen few or indeed the parents of one of the chosen ones that were touched on the shoulder and whispered to in conspiratorial tones that ‘Oxbridge may be worth considering’ then now is the time you will likely be feverishly hitting refresh to see whether you will be given the opportunity to interview in the coming month.
If you were one of the lucky few, the emphasis on few rather than lucky, then congratulations on overcoming the initial selection process but here you stand on the precipice of something altogether much more daunting. The infamous interview, more terrifying than Claude from The Apprentice and impossibly esoteric and therefore hard to prepare for – or so go the horror stories. Fortunately for you this is a level playing field in so much as everyone you are competing with will be equally terrified and have no more specialist knowledge than you and yours. In the interests of offering you some short term comfort I have prepared a brief list that may be of use in terms of your preparatory work – I say short term comfort because all the best laid plans fall by the wayside once you cross the history steeped quads…
1/ Be yourself – sounds like a cop out and a blindingly obvious truism but bear with me. With around 5 applicants for every place the fact that you are in the room and have been asked to interview means they saw something in you/your application that stood out against others with likely similarly impressive grades and academic potential. Academic excellence is almost a given so the interest likely stems from something you said in your personal statement, something in your extracurricular activities, something about your journey or your ambition. Focus on the areas that distinguish you from others, something about you that is noteworthy or interesting or compelling or unique and use it your advantage. Do not try to be something you’re not, these are professors at two of the best universities in the world and will smell waffle at a distance. Be honest and authentic – that’s what got you in the room in the first place.
2/ It’s just a chat – yes, they often talk about the interview as being ‘an exam out loud’ and that is true, but only to a degree. You will likely be given some material upon arrival and given some time prior to the interview to order your thoughts and formulate a response, depending on your subject choice they will then ask you questions, if it’s English Lit they may give you a poem to explore, History might be around the historical figures you’d like to interview, Sciences could involve probing a prevailing theory. Whatever it might be and whatever they throw at you, it will be within your self-acknowledged area of interest. This is an opportunity to demonstrate your passion for the subject – these people have made it their life’s work to commit to this area and the fact you have that shared interest should be a bonding opportunity. The bedrock of the Oxbridge style of teaching is the tutorial model, this interview affords them the chance to see how you operate, how you think, how you approach a problem, how you engage with them and how you assimilate new arguments and challenges to your way of thinking. Fundamentally though it will give them a chance to see if they like you and would be prepared to spend that time with you, what that means is be open to listening, by all means stand up for your point of view but not at the exclusion of listening to them, confidence is welcome, arrogance less so.
3/ Dress the part – once you become a student it’s practically a right of passage to dress with absurd flamboyance or predictably similar to the rest of your cohort, for the interview though, professionalism is the order of the day. Not necessarily a suit, academia isn’t renowned for its sharp suits but certainly smart and professional, making an effort shows them that you are not just taking it and them seriously but you have a level of respect for the institution and its mannered ways. Formal will never insult anyone so dress appropriately.
4/ Don’t forget the sides – it is largely true that people applying for universities will try and stuff their application form with everything they’ve ever done – the reality is that no one wants someone who is average at lots of things, they want someone who is excellent at one thing. However, one of the few exceptions is the Oxbridge interview. These are rightly lauded institutions and alongside the academic excellence and commitment (both practically demonstrable as well as academic) to your subject matter they will want to know what else you can contribute to college life and the make up of the incoming cohort, whether that’s in drama, sport, music, arts, entrepreneurial flair – whatever it might be, if it feels like it’s worth introducing and an area where you can effectively contribute to the prestige of the college/uni then don’t hide your light under a bushel.
5/ Practice makes perfect – ask your friends, your friends’ parents, your parents, teachers, your parents’ co-workers whoever it is to help, the more you rehearse something the more naturally it will flow when in the interview. Yes it will be odd and artificial initially but by talking things through you will work out kinks in your arguments, identify areas that may require greater depth and reading and will become more practiced at talking openly about yourself, your passions and your interests.
6/ Be bold – there is the idea that the tutors are there to catch you out and are looking to make you fail, when you go in with a suspicious mind, you will be guarded, your shields will be up, you will be looking for problems. Try to be ‘guileless’ or at least take what they say at face value, they are trying to give you the room to best showcase who you are, it’s not a trap unless you make it in to one. They want you to succeed because the lifeblood of any university is interested, engaged and articulate students and they know that an interview can be difficult so they do their level best to make it as comfortable as possible.
7/ Homework – the more research you do the better, yes there will be dozens if not more guides just like this one on the internet but have a look on their own websites, they are quite candid about the interview process and lay it all out for you. Equally the more you can learn and research the course, what it entails, books they might read and so on, the easier it is to speak in specifics about which bits are of particular interest and so on.
8/ Speak to others who have been through it – possibly in chat rooms, possibly former pupils of your school, maybe your teachers, relatives – whoever it might be, the more questions you ask the more scenarios you’ll have played out in your head and the broader range of responses you will have prepared for.
9/ Read The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis. It’s just a good book but more than that it details the central character’s preparation for his Oxford exam and given that it’s basically Martin Amis himself and his own experiences at Oxford it’s based in fact. But honestly with everything else you’ve got on your plate it may be a welcome distraction.
10/ Good luck!