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 www.admissions.ox.ac.uk/courses/criteria.shtml) 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.