Before the critical moment of being seated in a chair opposite an Oxbridge don, it is essential to ensure that the steps leading up to this day have been tactically considered. First and most importantly, owing to the steep competition of an overwhelmingly high number of able applicants, acceptance can be something of a lottery. Therefore, in terms of preparation, nothing could be more important than tailoring your application to the right location. Cambridge colleges, for example, insist that all candidates submit raw module marks for AS levels preceding the interview, thus implying that figures on a page are as influential as academic flair in a discussion. If two candidates equally impressed the interviewers in person and they have the same alphabetised grades, often Cambridge dons make acceptance decisions based on the only other variable, that of higher examination percentages. Given this system, if a candidate’s AS percentages are respectable but do not reflect the best of their ability, it would be invariably safer for them to apply for Oxford, rather than Cambridge. Equally, a candidate ought to put much consideration into the specific college they choose to apply to. Every year, a table is drawn up showing the number of places for each subject per college. If a candidate wishes to increase their chances of acceptance, logically they ought to apply for a college with more places offered for their subject. Fundamentally, before selecting the institution and college, a candidate must assess where their strengths lie. If they excel when put on the spot under the heat of probing and sometimes abstract questions, it is wiser to choose an Oxford college as the interview process takes place over a course of days, with call back interviews holding much influence over the final decision. If, on the other hand, a candidate’s strength is in raw module marks but they have confidence issues at interview, a safer option would be Cambridge. All in all, although both institutions are looking for high achievers with glossy grades, they are also looking for intellectual thirst, a nerdish interest in the chosen subject and the ability to reassess preconceived concepts with mental flexibility. All of these facets can be demonstrated on paper or in person, so it is up to the candidate to decide which medium can communicate his qualities most effectively.
Once these different factors have been seriously considered, then a candidate can proceed to prepare for the actual interview. The format of the interview will largely depend on the subject a candidate is applying for, so I shall impart some tips tailored to English applicants, although the same principles apply across a range of subjects. In Alan Bennet’s play ‘The History Boys’, the Oxbridge prep tutor famously tells the boys “A question is about what you know, not about what you don’t know.” To me, this thought is at the crux of staying calm in a stressful interview situation, and applying your knowledge in a methodical way to the problem presented. Naturally, it is important to read around your subject before an interview, however it is impossible that you will know about everything the interviewer could potentially bring up. If you are asked, for example, about Greek tragedy but have never read Oedipus Rex, it would not be a bad thing to admit your ignorance but then follow it up with “But I have read Hamlet, and can tell you why I find the genre of ‘Revenge Tragedy’ so interesting…” Dons are not asking you questions to catch you out. They are looking for moments when they can be impressed, when you can shine, and to a large degree will let you direct the discussion to your areas of interest. In my Cambridge interview, I was asked directly about what I found interesting in ‘King Lear’, and after a moment of brief panic I blurted out ‘The ending!’, even though I had yet to read the final scene. If, for some reason, an answer comes out which you do not wish to expand on, it is far better to correct yourself instead of soldiering on along a weak line of argument. By preparing and reading up on a handful of topics or works across a broad range within the discipline, a candidate should be covered to apply their knowledge in a coherent and interesting answer. For an English applicant, it would be useful to have a general working knowledge of the periods throughout the literary canon, with about two eras studied in detail and a strong familiarity with a few works from your selected periods of speciality. A question should always be answered with specificity rather than generality, so it is crucial to brush up on details as supporting evidence for any line of argument offered in an answer. Finally, it is important to have considered before the interview some of the more ‘abstract’ questions surrounding your subject, such as ‘Why is English literature important?’ or ‘Why do you want to study this subject?’ Obviously, there is no one answer to questions as vague and terrifying as these, so it is essential to come up with some ‘rehearsed’ responses before the interview. The most important thing with these questions is not to be thrown by their vast expansiveness. Although answers should never be ‘parroted off’; it is best to have a ready and concise answer to apply to variations of the same question. It may sound like I have suggested to ignore the exact question asked and just give your own prepared answer. This is not the best way to answer a question, but the ability to answer a range of questions comes from a detailed grounding of knowledge that can be applied with flexibility in different directions.
Oxbridge Interview Tips was written by a Tavistock Tutor