A survivor’s guide to the Oxbridge interview

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Trying for a place at Oxford or Cambridge? Harry Mount offers expert advice – and explodes some myths – about the interview.

Twenty-four years after I took the coach up the M40 for my Oxford interview, I can still recall the terror.  At Merton College, Thomas Braun, an ancient history fellow who specialised in Herodotus, tied me up in agonisingly tight knots. He asked me to imagine a parallel world where short people went to war with tall people.

I rambled on about the tyranny of small differences, before Braun interrupted.

“But Dr Richardson’s taller than me,” he said, gesturing towards the rangy Homer expert next to him, “And I get on with him very well. Are you saying I hate him?”

A silence descended over the dimly lit, oak-panelled study overlooking Merton’s crenellated, medieval walls; a silence occasionally punctuated by my scrambled attempts to remain in a fantasy shortist world, while not insulting either tutor.

I didn’t get into Merton but I did make it into Magdalen, my first choice. Applicants have two to four interviews and may well be interviewed at other colleges than their first choice. I don’t remember much about the Magdalen interview, except how nice Dr Robin Osborne, an expert in fifth-century Athens, was. You remember the miseries of life better than the good times, don’t you?

These days, the interview really isn’t that scary. Gone are the legendary encounters when dons hurled rugby balls at you to see if you’d make the First XV. Was there really ever an interviewee who, when the don said “Surprise me!”, set fire to his newspaper?

“There are many untrue myths about Oxford interviews,” says Professor David Clary, president of Magdalen College, Oxford. “There are no trick questions and the interviews are arranged to be as fair as possible to all candidates. They aim to assess academic potential and give students the opportunity to demonstrate a genuine interest in the course they have applied for.”

Dr Julia Paolitto, an Oxford University press officer, says: “The interview is a chance for the tutor and prospective student to have a relatively brief but intense academic conversation. Sometimes interviewees think it’s gone badly because they were forced to think so hard, but in fact that’s a useful thing. An interviewee will be taken beyond what they’re expected to know, to their intellectual limits. Quite often, the questions will be out of left field, not to throw the students off, but to probe the way they think.”

Oxford released some of those questions last year: questions such as: “Would it matter if tigers became extinct?” “Why do lions have manes?” and “Ladybirds are red. So are strawberries. Why?” The questions are designed to make you stretch your brain in your subject area. So Stephen Goddard, a French don at St Catherine’s College, asked: “In a world where English is a global language, why learn French?” Steve Roberts, a materials science academic at St Edmund Hall, asked: “How hot does the air have to be in a hot-air balloon if I wanted to use it to lift an elephant?”

The position is much the same at Cambridge.

“Speaking for myself, the basic rule is that I am trying to get the candidate to show me how good they are,” says Mary Beard, professor of classics at Cambridge, fellow of Newnham College and presenter of the BBC series Meet the Romans. “I’m not trying to trip them up. What would be the point?

“What you have to remember, though, is that getting the kids to do their best can sometimes involve surprising them. If someone is just coming out with a long speech on the wonders of Virgil they have learnt in advance, you do sometimes have to throw a googly – the 'What did the Romans wear under their togas?’ style question – just to rescue them. Unsettling as it might seem, it’s helping them out.”

Interviewers are not necessarily looking for a right answer, but one that shows inquisitive and dynamic on-the-spot thinking. Norman Stone, former professor of modern history at Oxford and a former director of studies at Jesus College, Cambridge, says of successful interviewees: “You could always judge them by the flash of the eyes.”

A popular technique for biological sciences applicants is to give them an unrecognisable animal skeleton. Recent favourites include a porcupine spine and an otter’s skull. You look at the bones for half an hour, before trying to identify them. You are not expected to get it right — but you will be rewarded for, say, working out that the skull belongs to an aquatic mammal, that the porcupine spine is a backbone.

The terror may have now been extracted from the interview. But there is still quite a lot of insider knowledge about the process that you will find worth ingesting.

“Places like Eton and Westminster will tell you the buttons to press but you can learn them elsewhere,” says Woody Webster, co-founder in 2007 of Bright Young Things Tuition, which specialises in preparation for Oxbridge interviews.

“If you do lots of mock interviews with recent graduates, it insures you against melting down and your brain turning to mush on the day.”

Bear in mind, too, that there is still a big academic difference between the different colleges. The best way to work out the difference at Oxford is to look at the league table of finals results, the Norrington Table (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/norrington_table). In 2012, Magdalen came top and Lady Margaret Hall bottom of the 30 Oxford colleges.

“If you want to go to a particular university, don’t apply to the hardest college,” says Woody Webster. “It’s easier to fly to the moon than read history at Magdalen.”