Monday, December 10, 2007

Setting the tone for Law interviews

One of the aspects of the interview that many applicants comment on after the event is how quickly the time passes. With usually between 20 and 30 minutes, even five minutes spent in giving general introductions cuts heavily into the available opportunity to engage with the applicant. One of the methods used by the interviewers to ensure that they can maximise the opportunity that the interview presents is to hold a pre-interview briefing for all of the students who are about to be interviewed; this enables all of the students within a subject discipline to receive the same information, and also allows general questions about the process and course to be asked up front.

In order to observe the effectiveness of this approach I was standing at 8.30 in the morning in front of 16 rather nervous and strained law applicants, listening as the law tutors introduced the interview team, and explained the structure of the day. Candidates would have two interviewers, and the focus of the discussion would be on some case extracts that the candidates would receive 75 minutes in advance of the interview. Candidates had a number of questions to answer, which were printed on the cover sheet of the extracts; knowledge of the law was not required, but the students would have to be able to interpret complex information and explain and summarise material.

The interviewers were very good at delivering what was an important message in a very encouraging manner. They were very straight-talking, emphasising that the interviews were only one part of the process in identifying the successful candidates, and stressing the importance to the interviewees of engaging in discussion - it was OK for a candidate to revise their views as a result of the interaction with the interviewers, as long as they could explain how they reached their conclusion clearly. The mood of suppressed panic in the room began to lift, and after 20 minutes the students were even beginning to smile. Then, disaster struck, as some one's mobile phone went off.

The ring tone of the phone was quite understated, and it wasn't immediately obvious what was causing the noise - gradually the tone grew louder; the interviewers to their credit ignored it, and kept on speaking, but it was clear that there was at least one person in the room who (internally at least) was going through a thousand years of agony in the space of a moment. Eventually the caller must have triggered the answer-phone, because the tune stopped, although we were then treated to a couple of loud beeps as the phone let its owner know that they had received an important message.

The briefing continued, the interviewers making a point about their intention to push the candidates hard, and in the supplementary questions towards the end of the interview they would ask about issues that had no clear right or wrong answer, but would require the applicant to take an ethical or moral stance.

Things were winding down, and the candidates were beginning to ask questions, when the mystery caller struck again - once more, the guilty party maintained a superb poker face, and let the call play out, although their self-control must have been at breaking point.

The Law Faculty typically only invites about 50% of their applicants to interview, following the initial scrutiny of applications, references and LNAT test results - for me the experience emphasised that the level of competition to do well and be successful for the candidates is so intense that a student will sit through the entire rendition of their most recently down-loaded ring-tone rather than indicate any possible fallibility on their part. It was a sobering thought. The silver lining however is that I guarantee that all 16 of the candidates in the room made sure that they were not going to fall victim to the same situation when it came to the real interview.

Friday, December 07, 2007

(Harris) Manchester United? Meeting the student runners at a special college

Standing in the Junior Common Room at Harris Manchester College waiting for the student runners I was scheduled to interview, I was struck by the very distinctive atmosphere that pervades the college. It is the only college I have visited where the annual photo of the undergraduate students routinely includes a number of their children, making it look much more like the portrait of a very large and extended (and diverse) family group.

Harris Manchester is the only Oxford College that is dedicated to mature students; the youngest is 21 years of age, but there is no upper age limit. It is also Oxford's smallest college, with under one hundred undergraduate students in total. This however contributes to the friendliness of the place.

I had turned up to speak with the student runners, who are employed by each college during the interview process to assist the applicants in navigating their way around the place, ensuring they find their way to the appropriate interview room and have the correct extracts to read in advance. They also keep the Common Room supplied with fresh tea and coffee and provide a sympathetic and understanding presence to meet and greet the applicants each day.

Geraldine (first year Theology), Karen (first year Law) and Toby (final year PPE) were united in their enthusiasm for the role they had in the admissions process. Karen was particularly keen to support the current applicants. She secured her place at Harris Manchester in 2007 after re-applying - she could therefore draw upon the experience of both being disappointed and successful in the Oxford admissions process.

Geraldine had volunteered to help because, having had a career and returning to study, she felt it important that the candidates saw that Harris Manchester was a destination for not only twenty-somethings.

Toby had helped out every year whilst a student - Harris Manchester has a significant pool of PPE applicants each year, and he felt that it was important for there to be at least one runner that could represent this area to the candidates.

While a group of candidates waiting for Law and History interviews relaxed by playing a few frames of snooker, Geraldine commented that the age differences between students at Harris Manchester were not the issue that many applicants believed it would be. The strong motivation to study, combined with the focus at Oxford on attracting students who show enthusiasm and potential for their subject discipline, provides, in her view, a common and uniting bond that transcended any age differences. This was a view echoed by Karen, who felt that the peer support and the wealth of life experience amongst the undergraduates made for a vibrant and non-judgemental community. Meals at Harris Manchester emphasise this; a casual visitor would be hard-pressed to identify who are the tutors and who are the students.

The support and assistance that the runners offer appears to be appreciated by the applicants. Toby has, over the years he has helped out, built a number of friendships with people he has met during the interview period, who then, having received an offer, kept in touch with him in the remainder of the year prior to starting the course, whilst Geraldine had a clutch of e-mail addresses from this year's applicants who wanted to let her know the outcome of their interview.

Harris Manchester, like all of the Colleges, will typically invite interview candidates for two or three days - during the periods when candidates are not being assessed, the runners arrange visits to various parts of the city, or evening entertainment. Toby feels that this is a key part of the process, particularly for those candidates that are not familiar with Oxford. In particular he sees that many of the candidates who have returned to study, especially those currently at Further Education Colleges, have many misperceptions about the College and the University, and having forty eight hours to address these concerns and issues ensures that the applicants leave with a much greater appreciation and understanding of what Oxford is and is not.

As the group broke up to go and take the Law students to their interviews, I couldn't help but think that if Harris Manchester didn't exist, then it would have to be invented. It fulfills an important, if sometimes under-publicised, role in ensuring Oxford can attract and welcome applicants regardless of their background.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

A literary conundrum - making 5 out of 27

How do you decide between twenty seven interview candidates who, on paper, all appear to have the same level of academic attainment and potential, when you only have five vacancies to fill? That was the dilemma facing the tutors for English at the College that I visited.

The College concerned was making every effort to make sure that candidates were appropriately briefed and prepared. Upon arriving at the porters' lodge I was handed a pack telling me about the interview times, accommodation, meals, entertainments planned for the period, a list of all of the 29 student runners names and their subject disciplines, a map (showing all of the rooms in the colleges being used for interviews, as well as such key locations as the TV room, library, and laundry) and a set of guidelines, including the reminder that candidates under the age of 18 shouldn't purchase alcohol (illegality not being viewed as a positive characteristic), and those 18 and over also encouraged to refrain on the basis that it could affect interview performance.

This level of care and attention to detail followed through into the interviews. As well as a briefing that I had been sent in advance, I had also been sent a breakdown of the interview programme. The College interviewed all twenty 27 twice - the first interview was a general discussion to assess the candidates on their love of literature, commitment to the subject discipline, ability to think clearly about texts, and discuss new concepts and ideas. All of the candidates had been asked to provide the interviewers with a list of books and authors they wished to discuss. The second interview required the candidate to analyse and discuss a piece of poetry that they would receive an hour in advance - each candidate was given an individual text to assess, that had been selected in response to their comments on their personal statement and in their reference.

I was sitting in to observe the second interviews. The candidates had received a very broad range of poems, ranging from a Shakespearean sonnet, through a Thomas Hardy poem (which took me back to my A-level English course), AE Houseman, Louis MacNeice, GM Hopkins, to Craig Raine. In all cases the candidates were initially asked to read the poems aloud, so that the interviewers could make sure they had comprehended the sense of the piece - the high point for me was the applicant who threw themselves dramatically into the part of an Irish Navvy, accent and all. The candidate's then had the opportunity to confer with the interviewers on any vocabulary they were unfamiliar with - one or two obviously were concerned at demonstrating a lack of knowledge, but the interviewers were adept at making sure the candidate had fully understood the piece, asking them to explain particular words or phrases. Any lack of understanding at this point was not a mark against them, and one candidate had made the most of the preparatory hour by looking up any words he was not sure of in a dictionary!

The interviewers then took it in turns to go line by line through the piece with the candidate, focusing on the meaning, the form and grammatical structure. Those I observed were all confident in their ability to analyse the content and express their views, and were prepared to engage in debate with the interviewers over the sense and meaning of the texts. As someone who has studied English, it was a particularly stimulating and invigorating three hours - in all of the interviews I found myself looking at the poems in a new light from my initial reading, and it was clear that the candidates all felt at the end of the process that they had gained a new perspective on the work under discussion.

At the end of the interview the candidates all had a chance to ask any questions that they themselves had - two main themes emerged; the first focusing on the opportunity to study Course II (Old and Middle English language and literature) in years two and three of the degree, the second on how the interviewers had selected the poems that were under discussion.

The seven interviews I observed were the last of the 27 - as I left the College the four tutors were convening to discuss their assessments. I left them to what seemed to be an unenviable task, particularly if the previous 20 candidates had demonstrated the same engagement and interest in English that I had just observed. Even with the English test results, essays, personal statements, references and interview reports I suspect they were in for a long night before they had their final list of five.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Opium of the Masses? Theology at Oxford

In 1193, Alexander Neckham from St Albans gave a series of biblical and moral lectures in Oxford. It only took until 1423 to begin construction of the Divinity School (planning permission being less of an issue back then than it is today), making it one of the oldest University buildings (and forever immortalised as part of Hogwarts in the film version of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire).

Theology remains a significant subject discipline at Oxford with both Theology and Philosophy & Theology recording over one hundred applications each this year, resulting in about three applicants for every offer made.

The interviews that I attended were towards the end of the day. In the failing light I was struggling to identify the particular door that I had to go through, but my obvious confusion acted as a beacon to the passing student helper, who immediately stopped and directed me to the room of the tutor concerned.

The interviews were a mix of Theology and Philosophy & Theology joint scheme applicants, and the structure was designed to ensure that the candidates had a variety of opportunities to demonstrate their interest and potential. Ten minutes were spent looking at candidate motivation, including the deceptively simple question "Why are you interested in studying this course?", ten minutes were devoted to a discussion on a piece of text that the candidates were given to study in advance of the interview (with candidates receiving one from a number of possible texts), and then, if time allowed, candidates were provided with the opportunity to discuss an ethical or moral dilemma, on issues as diverse as euthenasia, religious freedoms, and animal experimentation.

So, what key lessons did I pick up? Firstly, if you are applying to do a degree, have a clear idea why. Don't assume that just because you may have answered the question on your personal statement it won't be asked again. If you get flummoxed in answering this, then you will feel on the back foot for the rest of the interview. The tutors were particularly keen to address the issue of motivation and interest for the applicants for the Philosophy & Theology course - Oxford doesn't offer Philosophy as a single honours degree so a student who is not fully committed to the joint course has a very limited range of options available to them if they find the Theology aspect is not for them.

Secondly, on the ethical issue, it was very clear that the tutors were not expecting the applicants to engage in abstruse theological debate on the number of angels that can stand on the head of a pin, but were drawing their examples from issues that would be familiar to anyone who had a basic awareness of current affairs. What separated out the candidates was their ability to look at the question posed to them from more than one perspective.

Finally, the piece of text proved to be a very effective method of assessing the candidates. The thirty minutes allowed for preparation gave enough time to read through the text and make some notes, but the problem was that rather than reading the text in detail, and making sure they understood the terminology and sense of the entire piece, the weaker candidates were focusing on half a dozen words or phrases that they felt were key to the understanding of the extract, and then building (overly) complicated views and theories that they struggled to sustain when asked to relate this to the entire passage. The pieces chosen were deliberately not that complicated (the tutors being well aware that with only ten minutes or so there is a limit to how much discussion and evaluation can be crammed in to the time available).

The tutors were not seeking to trap or trip the candidates, but unfortunately for some of those that were interviewed, they were looking for layers of complexity where they didn't exist. This view was confirmed by my colleague Helen , who observed Theology interviews at another college, and found that the stronger candidates demonstrated flexibility when answering the ethical questions they were posed, seeing that there were several perspectives on an issue, rather than dogmatically sticking to one point of view.

As a final aside, Helen noted that when she entered the tutor's room where the interviews were being conducted, one wall was entirely taken up with books on the New Testament - there were, in her view, probably more books on this topic in one room of one college tutor at Oxford than you would probably get in the entire library collection of most other universities.

Return of the Oxblogster (for two weeks)

After a year of inactivity on the blog, and with the interview period upon us again at Oxford, it seemed appropriate to reactivate the Oxblogster account, and once again provide some insights into the selection process. Over the next two weeks, I will be observing a number of subject interviews, including law, medicine, theology,English literature, and that almost unique of Oxford combinations, PPP (Psychology, Philosophy and Physiology), as well as providing some more general musings about the admissions process.

To start with, I would like to draw your attention to a couple of other recent developments within Oxford admissions information. The first is the series of podcasts, which you can access at The podcasts cover all sorts of areas relating to undergraduate admissions; of particular note are the discussions about the interviews for medicine, law, biological sciences and history, conducted with tutors.

The other web-based resource is the site developed by Oxford University Students Union (OUSU) which includes all sorts of material about admissions from the perspective of current students. In particular I would want to draw your attention to the case-studies on interviews written by some of Oxford's current undergraduates. The OUSU admissions site can be found at

Finally for today, one of the questions that I am sometimes asked is "Why can't an applicant apply for more than one subject at Oxford?" The answer, which should become clear as the blogs mount up, is that the tutors at Oxford are focusing on the applicant's engagement, enthusiasm and potential for success in their subject, not the applicant's wish to study at Oxford. If an applicant applies for two or even three individual subjects, it doesn't give a convincing impression that they have a genuine and focused commitment to the subject discipline.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Oxford's Tardis

Walking around Oxford, it is difficult to get a sense of the scale of the collegiate university. This was brought home to me a couple of weeks ago when I visited Worcester College at the invitation of Jane Gover, who amongst her many other roles serves as the College's admissions tutor.

I had walked past the entry to Worcester dozens of times on my way to and from the railway station, and like many Oxford Colleges, the impression that you receive from the front is of a reasonably imposing fa├žade, but no real sense of the size of the operation behind the walls.

It was a very bright and crisp January morning when I reported to the porter's lodge. Jane showed me the main quad, with the medieval cottages that originally formed part of Gloucester College, a training seminary for Benedictine monks (which had occupied the site until the Dissolution of the Monasteries) and the dining hall, libraries and chapel, all of which conformed to my image of the usual Oxford college.I had assumed that we would then be heading indoors for a cup of coffee but she then led me through a short passage, and we emerged into a huge open space. It was at least half an hour later that we concluded the tour, and I felt justified in having the chocolate biscuit I was offered having walked for what seemed like miles.

Worcester College is vast (26 acres in fact) and the grounds include not only a lake, but sports pitches, tennis courts and a multi-gym. The College is engaged on a major building programme, and should be able to provide accommodation for all undergraduate students for the full duration of their degree course. Because of the screening however, a casual passer-by has no idea of any of this, nor can a website, prospectus or leaflet really capture how an individual college is as a place to live and study.

Worcester is not alone in concealing itself behind high walls, and all of the Colleges I have visited to date have much to recommend them that is not immediately obvious when you quickly peek through the gate at the lodge.

So - if you have an intention to apply to the University, a visit would be a very helpful part of the process. Fortunately there are plenty of opportunities to come to Oxford, and the programme of 2007 open days and college and departmental visits has just gone live on the University website. Full details can be found at

Hope to see you soon!

Friday, December 15, 2006

Making a list, and checking it twice.

So - two weeks in and several thousand interviews later, where are we at with admissions to Oxford for October 2007 entry? To answer this question, I took a trip to one of the Colleges I had visited last week to talk to one of the (many) unsung heroes of the admissions activity, a College Admissions Secretary.

When I arrived (late on Thursday morning) she was in the process of printing out several hundred letters that were due to be sent by first class post on Friday of this week, indicating which candidates had received an offer, and which were unsuccessful. Prior to the start of the print-run, the various subject boards and interview tutors had met to compile a final list of those which they wished to admit. All of the results from the interviews, along with the marks from the tests and practical exercises that the candidates had taken had been fed into the discussion, and in each case a group of those to whom an offer would be made had been identified.

One of the particular facets of the Oxford (and Cambridge) admissions systems is that it is the individual colleges that are responsible for their admissions decisions, not the University.

The University of Oxford is responsible for the award of the degree - the Colleges were established (from 1249 onwards) to provide the tutoring (and also accommodation) to enable students to then take the examinations that led to the award of the University qualification. It is therefore critically important that candidates receive the appropriate letter indicating the decision of the College relating to their individual application.

In this College the letter of admission, which also sets down any conditions that the student still needs to meet to be fully accepted (typically three A-grades at A-level, or equivalent) also includes a great deal of supplementary information.

The Admissions Secretary believed that much of the content (on issues such as when student accommodation would be allocated, costs, and recommended reading lists) would be more likely read by the candidate's parents or guardians, but she felt it important that the initial letter contained as much detailed information as possible, and also set out for candidates the calendar of future contact that would occur between the student and the College up until October 2007. (For example the College organises a weekend visit for the new intake in February 2007 to allow them to meet with existing students and begin the process of familiarising them with the College environment). Every year she reviews all of the information and amends it in the light of the queries that she received from the previous admissions cycle.

Typically one in four of those students who apply each year to Oxford receive an offer of admission. For those who are not successful, they will also receive written confirmation of their situation from the College, usually prior to the end of December. For many applicants (who are usually academically very capable, and have a wide range of interests, often exhibiting significant responsibility in roles that they have within their school, colleges and/or local community) receiving a letter from the University that indicates that they have not obtained an offer can be the first point in their life that they have experienced a significant setback.

To attempt to provide some useful feedback, each candidate's school or college will (where requested) be sent a letter from the College (usually between January and late February) which provides feedback upon the candidate's performance and indentifies their strengths and weaknesses. It is also for this reason that the national admissions system co-ordinated by the Universities' and Colleges' Admissions Service (UCAS) allows an applicant up to five other choices (four additional choices from 2008 entry) to provide alternative options.

The Admissions Secretary was very concerned to ensure that the material was accurate, so two colleagues, including the College's Senior Tutor, were checking each individual letter before they were sealed in the envelope prior to being posted.

By the time you read this, those of you who have applied to Oxford this year may already have learned of the outcome. For anyone applying this year (whether to Oxford or elsewhere) I wish you every success in your future studies.

Mike Nicholson

p.s. I hope that you have found this set of entries to be illuminating, interesting and possibly even entertaining. Those of you who pay particular attention to the time of posting will note that as the weeks have progressed the time that the blog has appeared has got progressively later, as I have struggled to find the time to fit this into my daily routine. For that reason, I feel that it would be difficult for me to continue with a daily blog. It is clear from some your posts that the content, and possibly the perspective that I can bring because of my role at Oxford, has added some value to the activity however, and I therefore intend to have a break for the next few weeks, but return in the New Year with a weekly blog that will pick up either on an Oxford or national admissions topic. Expect the first post of 2007 sometime around the 12th January.