To shake hands or not to shake hands, that is the question. Along with the conundrum of whether you turn up wearing a suit, or go all out Oxford in brogues and cords, clutching a teddy bear named Aloysius under your arm in homage to Sebastian Flyte. Or perhaps all you need is a conspicuously well-thumbed copy of Das Kapital just to show that you’ve been there, done that, and not yet turned eighteen…
Oxford had a milestone moment when it recently published a press release detailing sample questions. Good move given that it’s easy for prospective students to feel fazed by the grandeur of a university, whose reputation precedes it by nine solid gold centuries. Libby Purves wrote elegantly in the Times this week about the need for the state sector to encourage more children to have a bash: to understand that they are as entitled to try for a place as anyone else. That said, even students who have had a succession of friends and family members trot through those hallowed quadrangles are likely to feel intimidated by the university’s dreaming spires as the interview dates creep steadily closer.
Oxford University has been working like a Trojan to fight off its outdated reputation for elitism. In fact the rigorousness of the Oxford assessment process is key to ensuring that the system is capable of considering each candidate on his or her own merits. Tutors are well aware that the interviewees’ respective educational backgrounds play a determining part in their performance on paper, whether in terms of their grades, essays or personal statements. That is why the interview system is so vital – it is as much an assessment of future potential as it is of past performance.
So, as I said, thumbs up Oxford for publishing sample questions. But how are aspiring students supposed to answer them?
The most useful tip that I was given, when I approached my own Oxford interview (unsure, amongst many other things, of whether or not I should proffer my hand for a shake) is that tutors are looking for students that are teachable.
Remembering this fact stood me in good stead when, during the course of Interview Number 1, all of my straight-A sixth former understanding of Jane Eyre as a Victorian novel was debunked (how are you so stupid?* quote unquote, was one amongst many of the challenging questions I encountered that morning). Other than testing my ability to hold back the tears, with retrospect, it was clear that my capacity to think flexibly; to revise preconceptions; to follow the tutor’s lead; to challenge back were also being assessed. The tutor would have been happier to see Bronte’s text classified as a Romantic text.
By the time I was knocking on the ancient brass-studded door for Interview Number 2 I was comfortable in the assumption that I’d shortly be receiving a diplomatically worded rejection letter. With this in mind, I was undeterred by my cluelessness as to the interviewer’s key question: the identity of the ‘alcoholic defector’ in the unseen poem I was given for analysis. The tick-box answer to the question was that the poem was about one of the Cambridge Spies.
Given that, I failed to provide the ‘correct’ answer to either of the questions proffered me in each stage, I must conclude that the interview is a test of the candidate’s ability to be taught, and to show a willingness to learn, as much as it is about the capacity to pull the right answer out of a hat.
This year, Oxford came out top dog in University world rankings. No mean feat, given the comparatively vast funding that supports the Ivy League establishments to perform at the cutting edge.
The tutorial system in place at Oxford, in which one or two students are given the privilege of trying not to squirm as they have their work scrutinised under the steely gaze of a high-class academic on a tri-, bi- or weekly basis is the secret weapon ensuring its competitiveness. As one Don told me, the greatest disrespect they could be paid by one of their students, is that of being bored by them. High-minded perhaps, but at the time, it seemed incredible to me that a lofty professor expected to learn from, as much as to teach students during the tutorial process.
At Oxford, the relationship between students and tutors is based upon the Socratic method: a dialectical tug-of-war designed to stimulate critical thought. The mystic Oxford interview is based upon the same principle: with this in mind, perhaps the best answer to all of those open-ended questions released last week is to treat them as a learning process, a means of exploring the capacity to be taught, rather than a spot-lit performance.
*Prospective interviewees, a caveat: most interviewers make more of a habit of pulling their punches.