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.


Anonymous said...


I never applied for Oxbridge myself, but I've always been interested in the application process. This blog is fascinating! Thank you for going to so much trouble.

Anonymous said...

As a parent of a child who heads off to Oxford today to undertake the rigours of Maths exams/ interviews etc I have found your commentaries very interesting and informative. They too have gone some way to making this an experience to look forward to rather than dread.

DH said...

As a parent of a student likely to be applying next year, I am finding your blog both fascinating and really helpful. I do hope you will be seeing the Science/Engineering interview process as well and commenting on these.

Anonymous said...

Hi! I'm a first year law student at Oxford and found your post very interesting. However, you spelt Gandhi wrong :S

Alexander said...

I got back on friday from being subjercted to the rigours of an oxford college application process, and i would like to add to what has been said.

The questions i faced were perhaps the most difficult i have ever dealt with, but from a seemingly impossible position the interviewers' sharp minds helped tune by intitially broad arguement. It is true to say that given the constant updates from other candidates (excluding infomation about the interviews... well we weren't going to let someone else get that cherished place were we?) gave me the impression of being in an equal and stimulating intellectual environment.

The difference between my interviews and some of the other lawyers from other colleges i talked to was the lack of any of the reasonably generic questions at the start; we only had a short period of time and it was clear that my interviewer meant buisness. Additionally, i was not asked to form an argument based on the conditions of a specific statute i had been given, but on a more moral/philosophical and logical basis.

Athena said...

I'm a first year at Oxford, and seeing interviews from "the other side of the table", so to speak, is really interesting, although I'm still not sure what I did that got me a place instead of others! It's also interesting that those you spoke to didn't see otehr pallicants as competition - I did! With only two places for my subject, I foudn it hard to be friendly with my fellow applicants because they all wanted the same thing as me and we couldn't all get in :( I did make some very good friends amongst the other applicants, however, and it was good to get to Freshers' Week and meet up with them again and hear people say "I remember you!". I think that's an important piece of advice for applicants called to interview - make friends with those around you, perhaps with people doing other subjects if you're competitive like me, but don't just sit in your room hiding!

Anonymous said...

i had 2 interviews for law as well. first one went alright, nothing really tricky, more of my thoughts and opinions as well as the case that we were given. but honestly, i didnt think i was confronted with weird "oxbridge" style questions - the questions i was asked were pretty straightforward. the second interviewer was harsh on me - he pushed me and kept on asking me harder and harder questions! but i really did enjoy the 2nd interview - it did feel more of a discussion where we were exchanging views, and i was learning from the tutor as well. great experience!

Anonymous said...


First of all congratulations for the blog. It is really useful and interesting.

I would like to apply the next year to Law at Oxford and I am researching a bite about it. However, I would like to get in touch with some ex-student or current student to talk about the interview, the colleges... I leave here my e-mail ( and if someone can agree me will be great!

Paula Caamano Sambade
UWCAD 06/07

Anonymous said...

I had my interviews for Law at Oxford this December and would like to add a little information to what has already been said by the others.

I had one subject interview at my first choice college. It lasted for approximately 35-40 minutes and, although highly challenging, it was also very interesting and mind stimulating. I did not come across any "weird" Oxbridge style questions and found my two interviewers to be very friendly, welcoming and helpful. I am not denying that the application process was indeed a stressful one, however, it was just as equally rewarding. Throughout the few days which I have spent at college, I met some amazing people and made great friends, even with those applying for the same course as me!

To those who are thinking of applying to Oxford, I would give only one piece of advice-do not allow yourselves to be scared off by the many "myths" you hear about Oxford! It is an amazing place and the experience of interviews will be one that you will never forget, regardless of what the final outcome may be.

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