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 http://www.admissions.ox.ac.uk/interviews/ 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.