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Decoding the Oxbridge Interview

The mythology of the Oxbridge interview grows with every anecdote from an interviewee. Barely 25% of Oxbridge applicants gain places, although they all arrive at the interview with A Grades.
BY Anabel Loyd |   2011
 

Excellent ‘A’ grades in a minimum of three ‘A2’ Level exams are only one of the mandatory steps towards Oxbridge entrance, counting for about a third of the requirements. Aside from the UCAS (University and Colleges Administration Service) form, this includes a personal statement from the applicant and an excellent academic reference from the school principal. The final clincher, the one most discussed and feared, is the interview.

The mythology of the Oxbridge interview grows incrementally with every anecdote from an interviewee. A myopic friend was so unnerved by his interview that he left through the wrong door, straight into a broom cupboard, where he remained for several minutes before making a shamefaced exit.

Barely 25% of Oxbridge applicants gain places and most arrive at the interview with the statutory ‘A’ Grades and academic references. The interview is the final and only remaining means of sifting not so much straw from chaff, but those who the university teachers or Dons would like to teach as opposed to those they would rather not. The ‘Wet Wednesday Footfall’ method described by a professor at the London School of Economics is a typical sorting process. He explains it as the means by which he decides between a bunch of candidates with 5 ‘A’s and every talent under the sun when he knows he can only choose 3. He closes his eyes when the interviewee is in full spiel, and imagines a wet miserable Wednesday afternoon, and the footfall of a student coming upstairs for a tutorial. He opens his eyes; will he be pleased to see this one?

Use every Advantage

My niece, who is in her first year studying PPE, Politics, Philosophy and Economics, at Oxford, emphasizes the importance of entertaining the interviewer as a means of showing that you will be fun to teach for an hour or so on that wet Wednesday afternoon. She believes you should use every advantage you have beyond sheer brainpower when, at the most competitive colleges especially, there will always be someone equally or more clever than you. While you have to prove your ability and determination to work hard, there is no need to portray yourself as a hardcore intellectual.

Most Oxbridge students have tales to tell of eccentric interview questions. Interviews vary tremendously from a row of academics firing questions to one person encouraging the candidate to do all the talking and not commenting at all. Questions range from the absolutely straightforward, asking a politics applicant to explain a brief text on Marxism; to asking the same candidate to: ‘Describe to an alien on Mars what politics is’.

Being Interesting is Better than Being Right

Aliens seem to crop up regularly; to a philosophy student as part of a discussion on the nature of reality: ‘If an exact copy of you was transported to Mars, would you be the same person on Mars as on Earth?’ There is no doubt that interviewers aim to surprise and most of the bizarre stories about interviews are likely to be at least partially true.

Certainly questions are likely to be abstract at the very least. The essential thing is to be quick on the day and have confidence in your own ability to give an interesting answer to a question, not one that is right or wrong. Candidates are up against other candidates, not against their interviewers who are using the same questions, however eccentric, on whole batches of interviewees to elicit the interesting or unusual answers that make an individual stand out.

A passionate interest in something outside the study subject can make a student shine out from the crowd. One psychology student worked the conversation around to a discussion of some intricate aspect of jazz, a candidate for a history place, discussed DJ-ing in French. They both got places.

Believe in Yourself

It is a random process but confidence in yourself and an ability to think on your feet and be yourself seems to be the key to success, not the expensive tutoring now available to entrants who can afford it. The truth is, as the Higher Education Services Unit (HECSU) reports, most of those who can afford to pay for tutoring come from backgrounds where the ‘thought processes typical of Oxbridge are already part of daily life’. For international candidates and students from schools where Oxford is an unusual option, the benefits of tutoring may be in building confidence in interview technique that may be in a second language or in other ways particularly daunting.

For those who wish to take the tutoring route, James Uffindell , of London based Oxbridge Applications (www.oxbridgeapplications.com ), has cornered much of the market and claims a success rate of 46%. There are others such as Oxbridge –Tutors.com and further advice can be sought through Gabbitas Educational Consultants based in London and operating worldwide (http://www.gabbitas.co.uk).

It is worth remembering that while tutoring can help confidence and elasticity of mind, it may be as well to forget any preparation of answers that, under interview stress, are likely to come out sounding just like someone else. The dons are aware of and bored by those spouting coached facts, they are looking for individuals with ideas and a passion to learn.

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