Just as pictures emerged of Malala Yousafzai attending her first lecture at Oxford last week, the university released its annual sample of interview questions, always a titillating glimpse into the rarefied reaches of academia. It was all a bit much for some on my Twitter feed, who saw the arcane, theoretical nature of the questions as yet another example of the institution’s exclusivity and self-regard, nothing more than a secret handshake between the privileged few.
The thing about these interviews, of course, is that you can’t prep for them, notwithstanding the endless sites offering online advice, the numerous books that have been published promising to give applicants a cutting edge, the hothouse tutors who auction themselves off to those with enough money to pay their inflated fees.
Oxford and Cambridge can be accused of many things, but I feel there’s a democratic instinct at the heart of the interview process. The questions are designed to preclude preparation; instead, they seek to show the shape of a student’s mind, the first flickerings of critical thought.
I was prepared for my interview by the genial headmaster of the Sussex comprehensive I attended. We met most mornings in the weeks leading up to that fateful October day and he’d fire questions at me about Eliot, Pound, Woolf and Joyce, my specialist subjects in what felt increasingly like a gameshow whose prize was my future. In the end, I wasn’t able to roll out any of the dozen quotes I’d learned by heart – the three dons (that’s what I called them in my head) quizzed me about an early 19th-century nature poem. I came out thankful only that I’d managed not to soil myself.
With a little perspective, I can see two things about that interview. The first is that it was only partly aimed at testing me. It also offered me a glimpse of life within the tutorial system, of the kind of questions I’d be faced with during my time at university. I also realised that the interview was about my potential tutors deciding whether I was a pupil who would manage to stick out the three years of essays and exams, whether I’d bore them in tutorials, or infuriate them, or perhaps even surprise them with a few original thoughts.
The English literature question in this year’s sample was set by one of those who interviewed me 18 years ago, Emma Smith. In it, she asks students to consider the difference between JK Rowling’s writing for children and adults. The choice of author is a conscious one, Smith says. “I worry that not all candidates might have the same access to a wide range of literature and I am careful to judge them on what they know, not on what they don’t know.” At a time when Oxford is seeking to be more inclusive and representative in its choice of students, the idea is to find out how students think about literature, rather than whether they’ve been forced to wade through Areopagitica. “Mainly,” Smith says, “I always want to know that whatever they are reading, candidates are reading thoughtfully and self-consciously and are able to think as literary critics about all the books they read.”
Other questions on this year’s sample asked law students: “If the punishment for parking on double yellow lines were death, and therefore nobody did it, would that be a just and effective law?”; philosophy candidates had to consider if violence was always political; music students to design a new musical instrument and describe its sound. None was quite as fiendish as the (sometimes apocryphal) tales we were told in the run-up to our own interviews: of bricks lobbed through windows, of students asked to change a fuse in a kettle, of an interviewer who sat in total silence for 20 minutes, then told the student they could leave.
I’m occasionally asked when speaking at secondary schools what advice I’d give to those facing Oxbridge interviews. First, I point them towards the lectures that Oxford has on its podcast station on Apple Podcasts (formerly iTunes U). Emma Smith’s talks on Shakespeare are brilliantly approachable and entertaining, but the anarchic, counterintuitive, critical approach they take to the plays is the perfect illustration of the difference between school and university. I also suggest they read The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan. This book, which is subtitled A New History of the World, seeks to de-westernise our ideas of history, unlearns so much of what we’ve learned about the way the world was put together. Again, it’s about pushing students to question everything, to challenge received ideas, whatever field they’re in. It also helps that Frankopan is professor of global history at Oxford and a fellow at Worcester College.
I emailed Frankopan to ask him for the inside line on the interview process and I’ll leave you with his response, which strikes me as decent counsel whether you’re sitting an Oxford interview or not. “My advice is simple: listen and think. These interviews are not about catching out applicants or stretching them to see who breaks and who doesn’t. They are about getting candidates to think. Some turn up with pre-packaged ‘greatest hits’ of things they want to talk about in the hope of impressing the interviewers; others think that agreeing with the questions will do the trick. (There are always a few who think that violently disagreeing with any premise will show ‘independent thinking’). The best thing to do is to stay calm and use the one thing that will get you into Oxford: your brain. We are not expecting you to solve the riddles of the universe. Just the potential that you might do that one day.”
Alex Preston’s latest book is As Kingfishers Catch Fire
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