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How to Prepare for an Oxford Interview

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In 2009-10, Oxford University had around 17,000 applicants for 3200 undergraduate places. 10,545 of those applicants were invited for interview, a process that the university website claims “help us to identify a candidate’s potential” by providing evidence of “an enquiring mind and a passion for the chosen subject”. This article will provide guidance on what steps you can take to help you best prepare for an Oxford interview, in order to both maximise your chances of success and enjoy the experience while you are there.
READ WIDELY, THINK BROADLY || Thousands of people take the same A-level papers each year and come to their interviews having studied the same texts. So don’t come to an interview talking about how you love Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe (for example) because you studied it for A-level, as that doesn’t show a passion for the subject, just a sense of duty. If you love Doctor Faustus, then show it by reading Marlowe’s other plays. Read what Marlowe was reading when he wrote Doctor Faustus, and what else was inspired by it. Read what critics have to say about it and how it has been performed. Read the text and then read everything around it. Even if you hate the rest of his plays, it will at least make you enjoy the original play more, and give you something to talk about at interview! Intellectual curiosity is likely to be rewarded, because this is what tutors will expect from you in the course of your degree.
BE AUTHENTIC || Oxford tutors are looking for students who have a genuine love for their subject. The tutors who are interviewing you will likely have being interviewing prospective candidates for years, and they will be able to tell if you are showing off. If you hate a book that you have read, it is pointless telling a tutor that you loved it – much better to explain why you hated it, because then you will have proved that you can think for yourself. Don’t be afraid of having a strong opinion, provided you express it respectfully. The tutors who interview you are unlikely to be impressed if you boast about your achievements, too, whether or not you have started school newspapers or built orphanages – unless, of course, you can explain how this contributes to your studies. If they ask about these, it may be because they want to get a wider sense of your character and how you conduct yourself outside of your studies. If you wrote on your personal statement that you love to run, and you have only gone outside once in the past month, then your tutors are unlikely to be impressed by your commitment. Aim to impress your tutors with your character and your brain, not your achievements.
TALK TO SURVIVORS || Each year, thousands of people survive Oxford University. Especially when it comes to preparing for interviews, they are the people who it is worth talking to – both because they will give you a sense of what tutors are looking for and also because they have a perspective on what life in Oxford is like. Ask colleges if you can be put in touch with previous students or email them via. college websites, and talk to the current students who will be there helping out with interviews. They will help you to process your experience and will also help you to know what to expect. They will also give you the perspective that, for all its benefits, ultimately Oxford University is just a University. That reduces the pressure of interviews significantly, because you realise that the tutors interviewing you are just people, that the students are not all geniuses and the work that you are being asked to do is not impossible (even if it can often feel that way). It will also reassure you that if you don’t get in, then you will likely have an equally good time elsewhere.
DON’T LET THE PRESSURE GET TO YOU || Interview days are particularly intimidating because you are surrounded by candidates who are all apparently competing against you. Whilst this partly true, it is also misleading. The interview process is not so much a competition as it is a chance to show your tutors how good you are. You are not directly competing against the other students who are interviewing, simply making a case as to why the University wants you as a part of it. If you go in with the perspective that you have to beat the other prospective candidates, then panic will set in. That’s what leads some students to wear ridiculous trousers to their interviews or hand their tutors books of poetry “in order to stand out”. That doesn’t look impressive, it just looks silly. There are some students who will know more than you about certain subjects, and you will not be able to beat them. Don’t panic. In all likelihood you know more about another area than them, and you can talk about that instead. Remember that you will not see anybody else’s interview and don’t let your imagination run away with you – just focus on presenting yourself the best you can.
Oxford interviews are less about knowledge and more about your character and intellectual curiosity. So aim to go into your interview with a willingness to roll with the punches, and a view to presenting yourself as best as you can under pressure. Honesty is your best policy. Resist the pressure to fake it – because it will be glaringly obvious if you do. Then, even if you don’t get the offer that you hoped for, at least you have presented yourself as best you could.


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