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.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Practice makes perfect - Physics interviews

Since 2001 the Institute of Physics report that 30% Physics Departments in higher education in the UK have either merged or closed. The University of Reading's recent announcement that it intends to stop recruiting students from October 2007 onwards is the latest in a line of decisions to downscale student admissions in this subject. The reasons why Physics appears to be in decline are many - one of the most commonly voiced arguments is that it is seen as a "difficult" course amongst applicants, who would prefer to take other, less-demanding, disciplines.

The need for applicants to have a strong background in Mathematics also can create difficulties, not least because students with ability and aptitude in Mathematics and Physics have a wealth of additional options available in higher education (e.g. pretty much any branch of engineering, as well as some less well trodden routes such as meteorology, oceanography and sport technology).

Applications to study Physics at Oxford remain buoyant, so partly in response to a posting to the site requesting that the blog also cover more traditional science and/or engineering disciplines, and also to provide a sense of why Oxford may still be attracting strong applicants in what appears to be a diminishing pool, I arranged to attend some Physics interviews.

Unfortunately, because of a last-minute alteration to my diary commitments I had to pass on attending in person, but rather than lose the opportunity I was able to provide an alternate observer from the access and widening participation team to go in my place. Emma at least had the benefit of taking Physics and Mathematics at A-level herself, and the report she provided was therefore more informed than anything that I would have written.

Emma attended seven Physics interviews (all at the same College). Each was conducted by two interviewers, who aimed to provide twenty minutes with each candidate - the candidates all had three interviews in total at the College, focusing on the applicant's ability in Mathematics, in Physics, and their practical and laboratory skills. She found the atmosphere relaxed and congenial, with none of the formality that she had anticipated. With only twenty minutes the interviewers cut straight to the chase; the questions were heavily focused on academic topics - no time was spent on personal statement data indicating a candidate's social or extra-curricular activities. In discussion after the interviews the tutors commented that they found the personal statements frequently concentrated on "popular" areas of Physics such a quantum theory, but when questioned on these issues applicants tended to have a fairly superficial grasp of the subject.

In each case Emma felt that even with her "rusty" recollection of Physics and Mathematics (she studied chemistry at university), the questions were fair and realistic; the questions did not have simple right or wrong answers, but required knowledge and understanding of mathematics, physics and general knowledge to resolve successfully. All of the students were able to answer the questions asked of them, but the tutors provided advice or information to a greater or lesser extent depending on how capable the candidate was in tackling the question. This was not an exercise in intellectual humiliation, but a genuine attempt to identify which candidates had an aptitude and interest in Physics. After the interview the candidate's performance was discussed and the tutors agreed a score using a standardised report form.

At the post-interview selection meeting, which involved all six tutors at the College who had been involved in the Physics interviews, what came across was their strong interest in identifying mathematically capable students. One of the tutors commented that weaknesses in practical experience or physics knowledge could be compensated for through the tutorial, but a strong mathematics foundation was critical to the study of Physics at Oxford.

Candidates who had not studied A-level Further Mathematics were initially at a disadvantage in the opinion of the tutor, but where only A-level Mathematics had been available at the applicant's previous school or college, experience had shown that those candidates who were admitted had a tougher first year than their further mathematics-equipped fellow students, with a slightly heavier workload, but they were frequently more highly motivated than their further-mathematics peers.

The selection process also took into account the candidates' performances in the practical skills interview. The interviewers were concerned that this seems to be an area of decline, with many applicants demonstrating limited first-hand experience and knowledge of lab work. In at least one case the candidate had indicated that because of staff illness and shortages they had no physics practicals since returning from the summer vacation into year 13 (upper sixth).

Finally, this year the Physics applicants to Oxford had to sit an aptitude test devised by the department but taken at the applicant's school in early November. The two-part test, covering mathematics and physics, provided the interviewers with additional evidence of the candidate's ability, and assisted in deciding the final ranking of the candidates.

The College had selected 19 applicants to attend for interview this year - seven eventually received offers, with several more recommended to the pool that would be considered by other Colleges looking to supplement their own Physics candidates.

Physics is a demanding subject at University but the variety of opportunities that it provides make it an interesting and attractive degree for suitably motivated students.

Further details of Physics at Oxford can be found at - the admissions material on the site includes sample versions of the aptitude tests for anyone who wants to get a feel of the style and level of the questions. For those who are interested in finding out about Physics in a broader perspective, the Institute of Physics website has a great deal to offer.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Got any silver bullets?

I will spend most of today away from the University, attending a meeting of the Data Advisory Group in London. This is a working party that runs under the auspices of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), to try and ensure that the collection of data for the admissions process occurs in a sensible and timely fashion. I can already feel many of you reaching for the mouse in order to click away from the page, so before I lose you, let me explain why this is important and relevant.

For several years now, people who work in admissions to higher education have been trying to assess whether there are things that we can identify in the admissions process that will give clear indications of an applicant's ability and potential. This "contextual data", should it exist, needs to be based on solid, verifiable evidence that can have a statistical base proving that it can positively identify and predict the potential an applicant may have for future study.

For instance, if we could be certain that everyone who had fair hair, was the second child in their family, spent at least two hours each day on MSN messenger and was named Florence was guaranteed to end up with a fantastic degree in Fine Art irrespective of whatever university or college they attended, then we would have some data that may assist in the admissions process.

Now obviously that is a clearly unprovable or even verifiable statement, so it wouldn't help with the process of admitting students. But there are perhaps more relevant issues that could help identify potential and ability, and the Data Advisory Group is today (amongst other things) looking at the first interim report on the work that has happened to date by the imaginatively titled Contextual Data Sub Group.

For the broader admissions process the final outcomes could be very useful. There is already a lot of debate as to whether aptitude tests or modular unit grades from A-level qualifications can accurately predict applicant potential.

There is regular discussion as to whether GCSE qualifications that UK students take at the age of sixteen years are a better indicator of final degree performance than A-levels that are taken at eighteen years.

Where does this then lead when universities are assessing the qualifications that are attained outside the UK, or where an applicant may have significant relevant employment or life experience but no evidence of recent study?

As the posts that I have provided to date indicate, the admissions process at Oxford (and at every other university or college) is seeking to identify the most appropriate students for the course and institution. The admissions tutors at Oxford consider all sorts of evidence, including looking at prior educational attainment, predicted performance, references, personal statements, interviews, test results and aptitude scores, and examples of submitted work. How that information and evidence is weighted and measured is a source of constant and frequent discussion and analysis, and I expect that it will commence once again in January, when the dust from this admissions round begins to settle.

Is there therefore a "silver bullet", a piece of contextual information that will make this activity more certain and effective? Unless we ask the question then we will never stand any chance of finding out. For applicants (and those who advise them) it is however comforting to know that the higher education sector in the UK isn't making the assumption that there is not, and is doing what it can to try and find out if there is.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

A ghost in the machine - observing computer science interviews

Upon leaving my previous role at the University of Essex the very generous leaving present was a palm-pilot. Whilst this was a very useful and appropriate gift, it also played to my rather irrational fear of technology. My age is such that I was one of the last school year groups not to receive computing lessons. At University, it was anticipated that, excluding the final year project, all essays would be handwritten. (The exception to this was my year spent attending college in the USA, when I had to master an electric typewriter). For most of my first job at Newcastle University access to a desktop computer was something that was seen as a rare and beautiful thing, whilst at Essex I resisted getting a laptop and using e-mail until more or less forced at gunpoint. I only started using text messaging about three months ago. One of my resolutions when starting the new post at Oxford was to try and conquer this apathy towards IT, and this blog is in part a result of my new-found interest in technological solutions to problems.

Thus my delight in going to sit in on some interviews for Computer science. Now, bearing in mind yesterday's advice on knowing what factors are significant about the subject discipline at Oxford I discover in the 2007 entry prospectus (page 36) that Computer Science requires

"a sound understanding of mathematical ideas is needed...both for potential applications such as scientific computation, and for reasoning rigorously about the specification and behaviour of programs. Practical skills must also be developed.."

In addition the tutors will

"want to see how you tackle problems and respond to new ideas; they will be more interested in the problem solving process.."

The two tutors had allocated thirty minutes to each interview. The candidates had already taken a two and a half hour written test covering mathematical and analytical skills on the previous Sunday afternoon, although the tutors were not aware of the individual scores that the candidates had achieved at the point that they were interviewed. Prior to each interview the tutors discussed material on the application that related to the candidate's interest in computer science, and this formed the first set of questions when the candidate was seated at the interview table. As has been the case in every set of interviews to date, the focus was on teasing out the applicant's enthusiasm and motivation for their subject. Some obviously had extensive programming experience, whilst others talked about their interest in the impact of computers in society, and the pace of technological change. The interviewers then asked more penetrating questions, for example, in the case of students who had experience of programming, they were asked to identify how they had applied that knowledge.

Following on from this initial area of activity, the candidates were presented with a series of graphs which they had to discuss. The questions and graphs were progressively more difficult to assess and interpret, with the interviewers asking the candidate to explain their reasoning and approach to resolving each problem, eventually (for the last couple of graphs) to use notation to explain why they had reached their conclusions. The candidates were then asked to draw a number of graphs (this is why the interview was conducted at a table!) using information provided by the interviewers - again the construction of the graphs became progressively more demanding. All the candidates were given the same exercises to work on.

The final exercise required the applicant to stand at a whiteboard and resolve a mathematical problem using algorithms. Oxford requires Computer science students to have studied A-level mathematics, and the knowledge required to successfully complete this exercise was pitched at that level.

Throughout the interview the interviewers were happy to clarify any points that the candidate found ambiguous, and this was not held against an applicant in the subsequent discussion of their performance when the interviewers were marking the interview. With each of the exercises, one of the pair of interviewers took the lead in describing the problem and asking the follow-up questions, which allowed the other interviewer to closely observe and note the candidate's responses.

I was surprised to find that the interviewers did not give the applicant a chance to ask any questions - when I queried this it was clear that this was deliberate - with only half an hour available the interviewers were keen to maximise the time to use for assessing the candidate's aptitude and suitability. They did however check that all candidates were aware of the time and place of their second interview, and recommended that they talked through any queries they had with the student runners who were available to assist after the interview had concluded.

I was also surprised that the interview did not have a practical computing element. Again the interviewers were clear that they were not using the interview to assess an applicant's programming skills, in part because this differed so radically between applicants, but primarily because it was not something that was central to their suitability for the degree as taught at Oxford. Instead the focus was very much on testing and assessing a candidate's problem solving and reasoning ability and potential, which were viewed as much more fundamental than whether an applicant could demonstrate their ability at Pascal or C++.

After the candidate had left the room the interviewers discussed their performance and reached an agreed mark (out of ten) on a range of criteria using a report form in common use across the Department.

It was helpful for me to have had the chance to observe such a very different type of subject discipline from the humanities courses that interviewed last week. The approach used was clearly designed to assess the qualities required for the degree as it is taught at Oxford, with an emphasis on mathematical ability, application of theoretical principles and problem solving.

As a postscript, my immediate work colleagues at Essex bought me a separate gift. It was a battery operated watch. They had a very clear understanding of my potential and ability in mastering technology.

Monday, December 11, 2006

How ducks, elephants and space-hoppers changed my life

At my previous University there was a great deal made of the undergraduate prospectus, the annually produced document that indicated all of the courses that were on offer, and provided all sorts of useful information about the institution. Part of the reason for the excitement was that the front cover had, for a number of years, used a visually stunning image which always attracted comment, but had almost nothing ever to do with higher education. Covers have shown cakes, elephants, plastic ducks, frogs and most recently space-hoppers - they were carefully selected to appeal and act as a visual stimulus to potential applicants, with the intention being that they would at least glance at the publication because the front cover challenged their perceptions (or intrigued them). There was definitely an attempt at creating a "wow" factor, aside from providing a functional and useful document, and it was perceived as being a successful (if initially a risky) strategy, not least because the applications doubled during the eight year period that the approach was used.

Today I have been reading through some of the text intended for the 2008 entry University of Oxford undergraduate prospectus. Oxford has a rather more traditional approach to its publications than the University of Essex, where I used to work (so don't expect any space-hoppers soon, or even ever!) but the value and use of the prospectus to an applicant remains the same irrespective of the institution. In the context of preparing for admissions interviews, it can be an important (and frequently overlooked) tool to assist a candidate.

In pretty much every interview I have observed so far (it was Computer Science today; more on this later in the week) there has been a strong emphasis, usually in the initial questions, on a candidate's motivation and reasons for selecting that subject. Now in pretty much every case the applicant has identified what has led them to the point of wishing to study their chosen academic discipline, some with more feeling and enthusiasm than others.

I have yet however to see any candidate then go on to explain what it is about the course at Oxford that makes their heart sing and their pulse race. Not only does the undergraduate prospectus provide some information about this very topic, all subject entries also provide (in some cases in a fair amount of detail) a section on what the admissions tutors are looking for at interview, and what qualities they will be trying to identify (and also sometimes how they will be doing that). All of this is very much in the public domain, and I would strongly recommend that any candidate coming to Oxford re-reads the subject entry just prior to the interview so as to prepare themselves for the format and style of the experience.

The other handy publication that will probably assist applicants as they prepare for their big day is the section on the undergraduate admissions office pages on interviews, with advice on what to wear, how to approach the actual interview, suggestions on what to do whilst waiting for the interview to happen, and attitudes to extra-curricular activities. All of this can be viewed at and can also be downloaded as a pdf (with lots of nice pictures and some case studies) from the same location.

The interview is only part of the selection criteria used, but it obviously for many candidates becomes a major part of their memory of the process. I am delighted to see that some of those who are commenting on the blog have chosen to record their own experiences. If you have an observation please feel free to add it to this post.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

A legal challenge - Law interviews at Oxford

What do Tony Blair, Fidel Castro, Lenin, Gandhi, and John Buchan (the author of the Thirty Nine Steps) have in common? The answer of course is that they all studied Law (in at least two cases at Oxford).

Law at Oxford this year attracted 959 applicants, with a further 277 applying for Law with Law Studies in Europe. There will be offers made to approximately 250 students in total.

On a rather wet and blustery evening I made my way over to the College where I had been invited to sit in on some Law interviews. Unfortunately I had not been able to attend the introductory meeting and briefing session for all of the College's law candidates, which had taken place earlier in the afternoon, and had identified the format for the interview procedure, as well as explaining how the admissions process for Law operated.

I arrived slightly ahead of schedule for the interviews, and had the opportunity to make small talk to the candidate who was waiting to go in front of the Law tutors. We stayed on fairly safe (i.e. not interview-related) topics, a position made much easier when it turned out he was a Newcastle United fan.

My expectation on the venue for the interview matched up to my prejudices (see yesterday's blog) so after I was briefed by the three-person interview panel and sat at the interview table, the first candidate was brought in.

The initial questions were focused solely on information provided from the UCAS form - personal statement and reference. In every case they were trying to identify the candidate's motivation and reason for selecting Law as a degree - in the case of those applicants for the four year degree that involves a period of international study, there was also interest in what the applicant hoped to gain from the year abroad experience. These are, to my mind, fairly basic and obvious queries, which should not give an applicant too many problems, but I was surprised that there was, in some cases, a rather lacklustre response to this fairly important and central set of questions.

Having assessed a candidate's rationale for applying, the applicant was then posed a hypothetical question which had a range of moral, ethical, and ultimately legal implications. The question required no prior legal knowledge in order to answer, but would probably cause a real dilemma and problem for the applicant who thought with their heart rather than their head and gave an off-the-cuff or ill-considered respond.

The interviewers had arranged in advance which of them would lead on the question, which enabled the other two to focus on the applicant and their replies, making notes as they went. After hearing the candidate's reply the lead interviewer asked a range of supplementary questions designed to broaden the candidate's answer, and appreciate in any moral or legal dilemma there are multiple viewpoints, responsibilities and reactions to factor into a decision.

Candidates who made very firm and definite initial responses were therefore being faced with increasingly difficult positions to justify, whilst those who had taken the time to consider the wider implications before they replied, and had perhaps been more circumspect in their reply had slightly more room for manoeuvre. Whilst the candidates were stretched in making their responses, they were not in any sense belittled or humiliated for expressing their views; those that took the time to stop and evaluate the position they had talked themselves into, but then explained why they might want to reconsider their initial thoughts were encouraged to develop their ideas, and alter their views accordingly.

After an opportunity for either of the other two panel members to ask supplementary questions, the applicant was given the chance to have any of their questions answered. My only comment is that a candidate should think carefully about who they are addressing their questions to - in at least one instance this week I have seen the interviewers valiantly attempting to answer a query about University-level sports teams which probably would have been better (and more successfully) answered if it had been directed at one of the student helpers.

The interview format for Law (at least at this College) had a slightly different approach than that I had observed for the previous interviews I had witnessed this week. Rather than expect all candidates to undergo two interviews, each candidate had only one interview lasting twenty five minutes on average which each of the three Law tutors on the interview panel scoring the candidates independently on a variety of criteria that had been agreed in advance. Details of the Law selection criteria can be accessed at the Law Faculty website.

By using three interviewers, but only giving one interview, it allowed all twenty two candidates for Law at the College to be seen and considered by the same three academics, which provided a continuity and consistency in the interview panel's decisions, and would allow the three law tutors to assess the pool of applicants based upon the same evidence. After awarding the individual marks, the three tutors then discussed the candidates performance to come up with a composite score. It was at this point that the advantage of having three interviewers became apparent. In at least one case there had been very different opinions formed of a candidate, with two of the interviewers scoring at opposite ends of the scale. The third view therefore acted as a moderating influence, which drew the overall mark much more in one (in this instance, positive) direction, compared to the likely outcome if there had been two interviewers, which would probably have resulted in a middle-ranking score overall.

At the end of the process the interview panel then reviewed their thoughts on the entire field of twenty-two, before putting them in a rank order. In the case of this particular College, their intention was to identify a maximum of nine applicants which they intended to make offers to.

They were very clear in their view however that the interview was only one aspect of the overall decision process. The Law Faculty uses a variety of tools to make a judgement on which candidates are made offers; I plan to look at some of these next week. Overall however I was left feeling that a candidate had the opportunity to plead their case for admission and the jury of tutors weighed all the evidence (showing due process and diligence), before they delivered a fair and just verdict.

Rooms with a view

One of the aspects of the Oxford interview process that I feel moved to comment on is the use of a tutor's office in their college as the venue for the interview. Whilst this may seem a rather odd thing to make an observation on, particularly given my own preference for an office where every available space is covered with books or paper, I have been quietly amused by how the venues for the three sets of interviews to date have conformed exactly to my vision of what that particular subject discipline conjures up.

The interviews for English were conducted in an environment of comfortable clutter. A large office was full of bookshelves stacked high with periodicals and literary volumes. The furniture was well-used, mismatched and, probably most revealing, there was no table separating the interviewers from the interviewees.

Modern languages occupied a light, airy office, with sunlight streaming through the wide windows, illuminating the darkest recesses of the room. The furniture was modern, neat and chic, with primary colours very much in evidence. Whilst there was a table, it had a functional role - it allowed the candidates to lay out their notes on the texts they had to comment on, whilst the interviewers had all their information on the applicant to hand.

The law interviews (of which more tomorrow) took place in a room that displayed a lot of dark wood - a magnificent desk, bookshelves with bound legal journals, and the candidate and interviewers grouped around a desk. Off to one side there were a set of armchairs and sofas (for tutorial discussions) set beside a fireplace (sadly without a roaring log fire, which really would have completed the picture).

So, apart from confirming some of my own narrow-minded prejudices and stereotypes, what does it mean for a candidate at interview? Only that, as an observer, it felt right that these were the surroundings that the interviews were being conducted in. Rather than being assessed in an anti-septic, artificial, utilitarian space, interviewees probably picked up, either consciously or unconsciously, a sense of the individual styles and preferences of those who, if they receive an offer and come to Oxford, will be their personal tutor for the duration of their course.

It is a significant element of the Oxford educational "experience" that sets the place apart from almost every other University in the country. Given how important it is that candidates make the correct choice for their future success and happiness, long may the world of the overstuffed armchair and framed artistic poster be a feature of the Oxford interview.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Lost in translation - an insight into modern language admissions

My entire life could have worked out very differently if I had demonstrated greater ability in modern languages. When I applied to University in 1987, my first choice University had something called matriculation requirements (which was another way of saying that in addition to studying English and History at A-level to do a joint degree in English and History, I also had to demonstrate ability in other areas).

Whilst the English and Mathematics GCSE grade C or better didn't prove too much of an obstacle, the need to show some (any!) ability in a modern language proved to be more challenging, not least because I attended school long before the advent of a national curriculum, so at GCSE (or O-level as it was then) I had taken mainly science subjects (because at fourteen I wanted to be a forensic scientist), and only in the Sixth Form had opted to pursue arts and humanities subjects (English, History and Geography) because I decided that journalism was my chosen career path.

Also, because I was rather ignorant of the process (first generation in my family to apply to University, and also a bit too intimidated to actually ask sensible questions of people who might have been in a position to offer good advice) I only learned about the matriculation requirements after I had submitted my UCAS application. Several months and one crash course in German later (on a Wednesday afternoon: at least it got me out of playing sport!) I achieved a D grade, and ended up at my insurance choice University instead (which frankly I loved, and if had my time over again wouldn't change a thing about).

All of which is a very long pre-amble to saying that I was looking forward to today's interviews like I relish a visit to the dentists. I had been invited to sit in on a whole morning (eight interviews) for the joint school of English and Modern Languages. Joint schools admissions interviews are handled a little differently than the single honours subjects, in that the candidate will receive two interviews, one in each subject, at their College. The interviews I observed were for the modern languages bit, and the subject tutors represented both French and German languages.

Prior to the interview the candidates have to submit examples of their coursework which are re-marked by appropriate language specialists at Oxford. This is considered alongside the information on the application form to decide who gets summoned to Oxford. Those who are then invited to interview are asked to report to the College about thirty minutes before the actual interview takes place, and are provided with two pieces of text - one passage in English, and another text from a different source in the appropriate modern language. They are then allowed twenty minutes in supervised conditions to look over the texts and make notes before they go to the interview room. Helpfully the modern language text has some of the more unfamiliar vocabulary and phrases translated.

The format of the interviews was slightly different to that for English. The interviews were scheduled for approximately twenty minutes, with the interviewers spelling out exactly what would happen at the start of each interview. The initial questions were designed to examine that interviewee's motivation and interest in the modern language, and frequent reference was made to their personal statement, particularly any evidence of wider reading in the modern language beyond the requirements of their course. Candidates' approaches to this varied - some had read other works by authors they were studying as part of their A-levels, others used their free time to broaden their knowledge and appreciation of the literature by reading different authors. The interviewers encouraged applicants to compare and contrast styles and genres, and discuss whether this additional reading assisted them in their coursework.

The interview then moved on to the study of the texts. In every case the piece written in English was the first to be discussed (in some cases to the visible relief of the candidate). The selected texts used by the interviewers varied between candidates (and the sheets were collected up at the end of the interview so that the candidates wouldn't be tempted to pass them on to a third party) and covered a wide historical period, from early nineteenth century members of the literary establishment through to Booker-prize shortlisted novelists. Candidates were encouraged initially to discuss the content ("What is this piece about?") with the questions moving onto discussion of language, grammar, syntax and narrative viewpoint. A similar approach was taken with the text in the modern language, although candidates were clearly not penalised if they asked for clarification of words or phrases that they had problems in translating. Stronger candidates were particularly identifiable at this stage - questions and answers were all in English (so even with my less than ideal ability I was able to get the gist of what was going on). The interviewers also asked for the candidates to translate particular parts of the modern language text into English, which identified a candidate's knowledge of both grammar and vocabulary, as well as identifying their aptitude to sight-read the language.

The final part of the interview consisted of a number of questions from the interviewer based on information in the personal statement which were asked in the appropriate modern language, and which the candidate was expected to answer likewise. Again this provided an opportunity to assess a candidate's language fluency and confidence in the spoken language.

The candidates were then given the opportunity to ask questions - most didn't, but as one of the interviewers commented, "You get no Brownie points for this part of the activity."

After the interview the two interviewers consulted and agreed an overall mark out of ten, having recorded their views on a standardised report form. This would then be considered alongside the results of the grammar test (taken tomorrow) and the results of the English Literature subject interview.

After eight interviews I left with a much greater appreciation of both the skills and ability required to study modern languages, and a healthy respect for the interviewers' stamina - before I arrived they had seen a couple of applicants for Classics and Modern Languages, and had an afternoon interviewing History and Modern Languages joint school applicants. Because of the nature of the joint school programmes, all the candidates were asked if they would be interested in only studying a single honours course should that be an option - of those that I observed almost half said "Yes", although others were adamant that it was all or nothing. In all cases they had strong reasons for their preference.

For anyone who wants to find out more about Modern Languages at Oxford, you can visit the very helpful website (or for those who want to really broaden their horizons with a bit of Arabic, Turkish or Japanese (amongst others) the Oriental Studies site at

Tomorrow, to add a bit of variety to the unrestricted diet of helpful interview advice, I turn my attention to the vexed issue of interior design.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Awe-inspiring or inspiring? The Oxford interview deconstructed

Well today is one of those defining moments in life - would I be able to observe an interview at Oxford and not feel intellectually diminished?

A significant aspect of my role at Oxford is to support the undergraduate admissions process, and therefore in order to better understand why and how applicants are selected, I have requested the opportunity to sit in and observe a number of interviews over the next week. This morning I had the chance to watch as four candidates for English were put through their paces at one of the smaller Oxford colleges.

I arrived at the interview in good time for the 10.15 briefing, and sat in the waiting area. One of the college's student helpers (known as runners) was also present, carrying a message from an applicant to the interviewer indicating that they had been delayed by traffic. Alternative arrangements were made and the runner sent off to ensure that they received a written briefing note about their interview when they fought their way through the cars on the Cowley Road.

The selection of applicants for English involves the use of a number of different criteria (all of which are published for potential applicants in advance and can be found at including GCSE profile and provision of two pieces of coursework which are then marked and graded by at least two academics from English in advance of the interview. On the basis of the initial assessment a number of candidates are "de-summoned" (a rather quaint term which means that they are not invited to come to Oxford for an interview). Given that English this year has had almost 1200 applicants for the single honours degree (an increase of just under 100 from last year) and the College was looking to interview approximately 50 students for nine vacancies, it is clear that there is an element of pre-interview selection required if the interviews are to be of a decent length to allow candidates to develop and express their thoughts.

In advance of the interview the candidates were briefed together by the two interviewers in the room that was to be used for the actual activity (one of the candidates even got to sit in the interview chair!). The opportunity for all the candidates to receive the same information at the same time, and also ask questions to clear up any uncertainties was valuable, and appeared to set them at their ease. They were also warned that they would receive a piece of poetry to analyse as part of the interview process, so that it wouldn't come as a total shock. Finally the group were told about the shorter second interview later today or early tomorrow that would be a one-to-one with one English academic, and would be an opportunity for the candidate to develop any of the issues that they felt were not fully explored in the initial session.

Over the course of the morning I then witnessed a number of interviews; each lasted thirty minutes, and had a clear focus on academic aptitude and potential (no questions about a candidate's hobbies or interests unless they specifically linked to the study of English). The interviewers were working to an agreed range of questions, and recorded their thoughts using a standardised report form. In each case the initial questions were focused on the pieces of work that the candidates had chosen to submit, and then the interviewers developed the discussion to include a broader look at the subject. They had clearly read each candidate's personal statement and referred to it during their questioning; it is clear that successful candidates should be able to sustain a conversation about the texts and authors that they themselves have singled out in their application material.

The provision of an unseen poem also allowed the interviewers to determine how successful candidates were at engaging with unfamiliar material. Applicants were handed the excerpt, and allowed a few minutes to look at the work (a pen was provided to allow them to make notes). They were then asked to comment on the piece. They were not expected to be able to identify the poet, or even when it was written - instead the interviewers wanted to know what they thought of the language and the content. Initially the questions were very broad in their scope, which gave the candidate the chance to develop the discussion in directions of their own choosing; the least appropriate response (in my opinion) was a very literal line-by-line deconstruction and analysis of the work. The interviews are are important element of the admissions process as they provide an indication and opportunity to assess their potential in their chosen subject. It is not (at least in English) dependent upon the candidate's ability to regurgitate stored knowledge, and the interviewers were very skilled at moving on from any "rehearsed" responses.

After thirty minutes the agony for the applicants was over. The interviewers ran back over the arrangements for the second interview, and suggested areas (where appropriate) that they would want to follow up on with the candidate. After the applicant had left the room, there was a few moments of discussion, and a score (out of a maximum of ten)for the interview was recorded. That would then be used in conjunction with the interview notes and other information about the applicant in a subsequent discussion later in the week once all the candidates has been seen to identify the ones who receive offers from the College.

So, back to my initial question - did I leave the interviews feeling inferior? In a word, "No", although I do realise that the additional twenty years experience that I have had since I was in the Sixth Form probably allowed me to be fairly confident that I could undertake the process.

Do I now have any additional advice for a potential interviewee? The key things seem to be that the candidate needs to know their subject and be clear as to their motivation and interest. They should have enough understanding of relevant material relating to their academic discipline to be able to talk confidently for ten minutes each on two or three different aspects, and they should certainly keep a copy of, and re-read, any work that they submit. The interviewers I observed were very approachable and clearly were keen to see the candidates do well. There were no hidden agendas, and no attempts to trip up candidates with vague or trick questions.

So, if you do get called for an interview at Oxford, don't panic, don't feel that you have to know everything about your subject, and don't feel you need a dozen new interview outfits to be successful. Echoing yesterday's advice from the student helpers, just relax, and be yourself.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Where is everybody?

I returned back to Oxford last night at about ten o'clock, and instead of the usual Sunday night bustle in the College where I have my accommodation, the place was wreathed in silence. Whilst it is now out of term-time, there should still have been some students around, including eighty or so interview candidates. Had everyone pulled out of their interviews? Had I got the date wrong?

I shouldn't have worried - this morning, as I was eating my breakfast, the relative peace was disturbed by a very animated group of at least forty interview candidates going mob-handed to the dining hall. It was encouraging to see that they were so enthusiastic, and had obviously started to bond with each other. They were being led by a guide, dressed in an eye-catching red t-shirt, with a couple of minders bringing up the rear.

Given how nerve-wracking it must be to come for an interview, I was interested in talking to the student helpers (some of whom must have been going through the process only a year ago) to find out what support (if any) they provide to the applicants. I wandered over to "mission control" (a couple of large seminar rooms) and after introducing myself to the Junior Common Room President (who seemed to be masterminding the process whilst also writing an essay on theoretical physics, an impressive example of multi-tasking) I received a tour of the facilities. The dominant feature is a set of notice boards, which display the times of the interviews, along with print outs of e-mails providing amendments of alterations to the programme. There were also lots of maps, and some discretely placed notices for Nightline (the student version of Samaritans) for any candidates who were suffering the strains and wanted a sympathetic voice to talk to. There were also a couple of computers, stacks of newspapers, and an abundance of refreshments.

I was approached by one of the red shirted helpers, who was checking I was ok - when I explained my purpose she invited me over to talk to a group of five students. They represented a mix of subjects (Engineering, English, Psychology and Physiology) and experience (first to final years) but they were all very enthusiastic and keen to answer my questions.

I started by asking them what roles they had to perform - it was clear that they saw their main responsibility as being to support the applicants, making sure that they were able to direct them to their interviews, answer questions about the programme, and serve as friendly faces at such a time of uncertainty. They had organised a quiz for the interviewees on the first night (though at least one of the group thought that the general knowledge questions were really tough, and stressed that the actual Oxford interviews were more about subject-specific material), and were organising trips to the cinema, and also roller-skating (the visions of candidates the following day with their legs in plaster I kept to myself).

They were also very clear that whilst the requirement in most Oxford subjects to attend multiple interviews (generally at least two, but in the case of Psychology and Physiology there were three) prolonged the experience, with some candidates required to remain at the College for four days, it did provide them with a "second chance" - in most cases they had felt that this was more of a psychological comfort, and at least one of the group found the second interview harder than the first, even with the benefit of the initial run-through. A couple of students had come from schools that provided some form of interview training or preparation - one girl (an Engineer) felt that the training (provided by a private company) had been of little value; whilst it left her with a lot of hand-outs and reading lists, the experience proved to be nothing like the real thing. Another student, reading English, had been at a school that had been visited by the Oxford Access Scheme - she was interviewed by a Oxford student as part of the programme and indicated that it was a very useful and relevant experience that gave her the confidence to feel that Oxford was an achievable aim. I also asked if they felt they had been in competition with the other candidates at their interview - all of the student helpers indicated that this was not the case, and felt very supported by the group.

Finally, I asked if they had one piece of advice about the interviews - they were unanimous - "Be yourself!"

Throughout the period talking to the helpers, which must have lasted thirty minutes, they kept disappearing off to deal with queries or resolve concerns. They were calm, professional and obviously had a great deal of empathy for the candidates. In what may be a very trying period for an interviewee, it is good to know that there are some supportive souls around who know exactly how they are feeling.

As I left the JCR President was trying to assist an applicant who had left their keys in their room. From theoretical physicist to amateur locksmith in the blink of an eye.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Behind the scenes at Oxford interviews

Over the next couple of weeks almost 10,000 potential students will be undergoing probably some of the most taxing and challenging interviews in the country (or maybe even the world) as they seek admission for courses starting at Oxford University in October 2007.

There is a lot of mystique about the admissions process at Oxford, and therefore as this will be my first time viewing it I thought it would be interesting to record my observations and thoughts on what actually goes on. Hopefully it will assist those who would consider applying to Oxford in future years to get an insight into what actually happens, from a perspective that would not normally be open to public scrutiny.

The views that I will express will be my own, and I will not be mentioning individuals or revealing information that would allow the progress of any particular applicant to be identified. It will be more an opportunity to give you an overview of what is happening at Oxford over the next couple of weeks, and why it happens this way, and also indicate what goes on behind the scenes to enable the Colleges to make just over 3,000 offers to the successful candidates. I'm aiming to make at least one post each weekday, starting from Monday 4th December - the content will to some extent depend on what I will be doing each day. I'll summarise my thoughts overall in a final post on Friday 15th December.

I hope that you find it useful and interesting - if you have any comments feel free to post them. If there any questions then I'll try and answer them, and if it is something related to the admissions process I may even be able to find some useful web-links to provide you with more information.