Student in a tutor’s room at St Anne’s College. Credit: Rob Judges.

How to shine in an Oxford interview

What admissions tutors want candidates to know so they can really shine at interview

Imagine you’re 18 years old and sitting in probably the first formal interview you’ve ever had. Your place at Oxford is on the line, and you’re barely able to control your nerves. Then, out of the blue, you get a question:

Is violence always political?

Can archaeology ‘prove’ or ‘disprove’ the Bible?

If you could invent a new musical instrument, what kind of sound would it make?

If the punishment for parking on double yellow lines were death, and therefore nobody did it, would that be a just and effective law?

How do you respond? And would such an unexpected question throw you off enough to prevent you from making it through what Oxbridge mythology builds up as 20 minutes that can change the course of a life?

Happily, that’s not how it really happens in admissions interviews at Oxford (for starters, everyone gets more than one shot). ‘Tell me about the books you mentioned in your personal statement,’ ‘let’s discuss this problem set,’ or ‘why do you want to study medicine?’ might be more standard opening questions.

It’s not hard to understand why the Oxford interview produces so much anxiety among candidates — and the parents and teachers who support them. And tutors who interview students take pains to emphasise that nerves and performance anxiety are natural, and that they are interested in content, not presentation, when it comes to the interview process.

The interview isn’t a performance

‘Interviews aren’t X Factor or The Apprentice — there shouldn’t be anything adversarial about them,’ says Helen Swift, Director of Undergraduate Studies for Modern Languages and a tutor at St Hilda’s College. ‘They should be a genuine conversation about a subject that impassions both interviewer and interviewee. I want to know what brings each person to the desire to study French at Oxford, her or his aptitude for studying it, and potential for pushing further.

‘Sometimes candidates feel like they have to appear confident, or speak in a particular way, or be quite elaborate in the language that they use, or that they can’t pause, or ask questions if they’re not certain — but you might need to. The interview isn’t a performance. Thinking back to one candidate in particular, she was clearly very self-conscious and nervous, but once she got into thinking and talking about a poem we’d set her to read beforehand, all that self-consciousness fell away: she was interested, motivated, and keen for us to think through her responses together. And she went on to thrive in her degree here.’

It’s also important to remember that the interview isn’t the be-all and end-all of the selection process, nor does it happen in a vacuum: decisions are made by taking every piece of evidence about candidates’ aptitude and potential into account. ‘Candidates often think that interviews are the most important part of our selection process, but they’re not,’ says Andrew Bell, who is Senior Tutor at University College and has interviewed candidates in history. He says: ‘We look for potential wherever we can find it, whether in excellent exam results, a really good performance in an aptitude test, a great reference from a teacher, or interesting submitted written work. A student who’s really good on paper but then underperforms a bit at interview due to nerves is still a really good student, and they might still get a place at Oxford and go on to do really well here.’

Brilliant brains come in whole variety of packages — there isn’t a type

Andrew King is a lecturer in physiology who interviews candidates for medicine and is helping co-ordinate the admissions process for biomedical sciences and medicine this year at Exeter College. He says: ‘By the time they arrive at interview, we already know a lot about each candidate. We know their GCSE and predicted A level grades, we’ve read their personal statement and teacher’s reference in detail, and we know how they did on any subject test (such as the BMAT for medicine). For British students, we also know the context for their grades and performance — what kind of school they went to, and how they have performed in their exams in relation to other students from their school. These are all very important aspects of a candidate’s application to Oxford and are taken into account when selecting candidates, alongside their performance at interview.

‘We go to great lengths to try and ensure that the interview process gives each candidate the best chance to show their ability, whatever their background. We agree on questions that will provoke interesting discussions, similar to a tutorial setting, and try to make students feel comfortable and at ease. We always start the interview by outlining how it will work and what we expect candidates to do.’

So what would tutors say to students about preparing for interview?

Be reassured that you don’t need to make a good superficial impression, says Helen Swift. ‘I think that “individual” could and should be the watchword for the whole process: the role of the interview is precisely about them, the individual. Brilliant brains come in whole variety of packages — there isn’t a type. What interviews aren’t about is how you look, how you sound, where you have or haven’t been, or what you’re wearing.’ A steady performance in interview, demonstrating your engagement with the subject, is much more important than trying to do something dramatic to make an impression in the first five seconds.

Resist the urge to hold back for fear of getting things wrong, says Andrew King. ‘Don’t be afraid to think out loud or say something that might be the wrong answer — interesting discussions can happen in almost any context. The worst interviews usually aren’t where candidates get something completely wrong — they’re the ones where they have so little to say that tutors can’t get a genuine sense — positive or negative — of their motivation and ability.’

‘The best way to prepare for an interview is to do more or less the same as you would to prepare for an exam, an aptitude test or a piece of coursework,’ suggests Andrew Bell. ‘Make the time in an ongoing way to explore your subject and think hard about its academic challenges. Make sure that you’re on top of your school work and that you have its key components at your fingertips. If your subject is one which requires core skills of, say, languages or maths, then practice those skills diligently. Give yourself new academic challenges which are within your subject but which fall outside your syllabus and use this extension work to increase your experience of your subject and its methods. If you have the opportunity to talk about your subject to a friend, family member or teacher, so much the better, but it’s the ideas you express, not the fluency with which you express them, that matter.’

Follow on Twitter

Helen Swift @poulethelen
Oxford Modern Languages @OxfordModLangs
Oxford Modern Languages Schools Liaison and Outreach @OxMML_Schools
St Hilda’s College @hilda_beastoxf

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