Tell me about the ‘dismal science’?

You walk into your Oxbridge Economics interview, not really knowing what to expect, and the Professor of Econometrics and Mathematical Economics in-front of you cuts into the conversation, with a faint smile and a gentle shrug: “So, tell me about the ‘dismal science’?”

Now, if all is well, you will happen to recall that it was first Carlyle who coined the phrase the ‘dismal science’ in reference to the discipline of Economics. And with that as a starting point, you go on to dissect the phrase: examining why Economics may be deemed ‘dismal’, and exploring the sense in which Economics is an inexact science.

But surely it would have been almost impossible to prepare for such a question in advance? I agree. Nonetheless, I believe that there are a few things you can do to increase your chances of success…

  1. Make sure that you really work on your Personal Statement, in terms of getting across your interest in the subject and conveying a sense of competence. More importantly, sending off the Personal Statement is not the end of the matter! Oxbridge interviews will very often hone in on certain elements of your personal statement. So if you mention a certain book you’ve read (e.g. Stiglitz’s ‘Globalisation and its Discontents’), or a specific theoretical point (e.g. the ‘multiplier effect’), be prepared to talk about them.

  3. Try to develop a good grasp of a broad range of basic theoretical topics in Economics (if possible), and be comfortable with Mathematics (some Cambridge colleges place more onus on A-level Maths than Economics). And try to delve a little deeper into technicalities if possible, and be exact with definitions. For example, ‘the dead- weight loss of a tax is the amount in excess of the tax revenue that the tax-payer would pay for the removal of the tax’.

  5. Follow current affairs, so that if a question comes up relating the current economic climate, you would be prepared to present a good answer.

Above all, Oxbridge interviewers are trying to see how you approach and think through questions. So it is important that you present your ideas and thought processes in a clear manner. Even if you get a question wrong, a good direction-of-approach and logical steps to solving the problem may be more favourably received than a correct answer without demonstration of genuine understanding.

Stay confident, keep your composure, and may luck be on your side!

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