This year’s interviews are drawing to an end, and so I thought I’d write up some of the advice I compiled this year for people asking questions about how the process works. It’s important that information get out to everyone, not just people who can pay for admission tutoring (of which there seems to be a booming industry among graduates. Here I’ll answer some FAQs about interviews in history at Oxford and Cambridge, and hopefully put some worries to rest. Do remember, of course, that I’m not some kind of interview Guru (if such a thing exists!) and there is no better approach than to go in ready to think on your toes and with a love for history: this article is to reassure nervous candidates and give some pointers, not a cheat-sheet.
Interviewing for the humanities at Oxford can be a daunting prospect. With a bit of sound advice, however, it can easily turn into quite a fun experience, allowing you to discuss topics you find genuinely fascinating with some of the top experts in the world. Most crucial, and the one most important overarching piece of advice, is to not overthink the interview. You hear all sorts of ridiculous myths about mind-games and stunts pulled by Oxford interviewers: these are all nonsense. Arrive ready and willing to discuss a subject that you love, capable of listening and responsive to debate, and you will do well.
The interview is designed to mirror the format of tutorial-based teaching at the university: tutorials in the humanities largely consist of extended conversations with tutors around the topic, and a dissection of written work you have produced. As much as testing your knowledge, then, the interviewer is testing whether you would be a good fit for Oxford’s system. Are you comfortable talking about your ideas and expressing them in a rational manner? Are you a lively contributor and an enjoyment to teach? Keep this in mind as you prepare for interviews and during them – don’t become so engrossed in your academia that you come across as stand-offish, or so concerned you hardly open up. Academic interviews are conversations rather than a one-sided trial-by-academia.
Traditionally, you will receive (at least) two interviews – one will focus on your submitted work, and another on a ‘blind’ source/article/poem etc. The first is traditionally where candidates feel most comfortable, given they are of familiar ground. Re-read the texts you mention in your personal statement – nobody expects you to know them word for word, but be comfortable with their central arguments and ideas. Nobody wants to be asked a question about a book they’ve referenced and realise they haven’t read it in months.
Equally, refresh your memory on any submitted work. Try to bring new questions to them: why did you have these thoughts, what was the process behind arriving at them? The best advice here is to zoom out in scale; think about broader themes and theory. If your reading is on witch hunting in a small German village, begin thinking more broadly. Is this micro-scale case-study of value in our overall study of the period, or of Europe, or of humanity? What of gender studies and anthropology – how does these interact with ‘history’ as a discipline? After all, during your time at Oxford you will undoubtedly study a huge array of topics, and part of what they’re looking at here is your general ability as an academic. Always remember, they’re testing your ability to think as much as your ‘knowledge’ on a topic you have written on. Their questions will tease this out of you, but thinking about these broader questions beforehand will give you an advantage.
Even with the best practise, question will come up that take your reading in new and exciting ways. Don’t be afraid to think out loud when covering new ground. You do not need to feel pushed to a quick and rash answer, but minutes of awkward silence are not ideal. Equally, it is no sign of weakness to ask for clarification on a question that includes terminology you are not clear on. It is far better to do so than to blindly stumble through an answer.
Because you will be familiar with your personal statement and submitted work, practice mock interviews are extremely useful. Even chatting through the process and arguments with friends who aren’t particularly knowledgable on the period is useful, as the practise of articulating your written ideas in a succinct manner is helpful. However, as a word of warning: it is possible to overdo mock interviews. You don’t want to sound like you are simply regurgitating scripted lines – they’re testing to see if you can think. Equally, the interviewers will likely develop discussion you’ve never considered before, and to simply fall back onto rehearsed arguments seems unproductive. So certainly do mock interviews to make you feel more comfortable in the context, and to start drawing together your thoughts, but be willing to act on your feet in the interview, and respond in relevant and meaningful ways.
The ‘blind’ interview will comprise of a set amount of time to read a prescribed source, and then questions about that source evolving into a wider discussion. It might be a primary source/ work of literature/ set of data or it might be a secondary work of criticism or analysis – there is no way of pre-guessing anything. This will likely be deliberately different from the area of expertise you have expressed in your submitted work and personal statement. Here, even more than with the interview on submitted work, the aim is to test your reasoning skill rather than for you to simply parrot back the information you have learnt off by heart.
In preparing for the interview, certainly don’t worry about trying to read so broadly that you’ll be completely comfortable in any academic topic – that isn’t the point of this exercise. Instead, hone the skills behind the interview. The source may well be much longer than you are used to reading in a school setting – when I interviewed, I was given a 20-page double-sided article to read in an hour. Practise reading articles before the interview to feel more familiar with being faced by something completely new and out of your comfort zone – if your school/sixth form has access to JSTOR, try searching for a topic/time period/ genre you know very little about, and selecting an article at random. Can you articulate the major concerns and themes of the work having read it? Can you begin to pick out interesting points for discussion?
When you get into the reading, keep an eye on the clock and make useful (but not overly in-depth) notes. If you begin to run out of time, know what to prioritize. Article abstracts often provide useful summaries, and the conclusions are naturally the most pressing when determining their arguments. Don’t waste too much time trying to predict the question the interviewer might ask, but do think about the broader themes and ideas that emerge. If it’s startlingly obvious to you that, for example, that the extract you are reading represents a Marxist interpretation of history, be prepared to bring this up in discussion. Also think (perhaps counter-intuitively) about the more basic points in the article – could you summarise its general ark or argument? Can you remember the names of the major figures and events in the article in order to discuss them later? Certainly you don’t need to have everything learnt off by heart, and your college might well let you bring the article or a page of notes into the interview, but it is far easier than you think to ignore the basics when trying to be over-clever.
In the ‘blind’ interview, it’s important to remember that, unless you misinterpret or misquote some evidence, your answers are unlikely to be ‘wrong’. The interviewer might well ask some scathing question of your stance, but if you feel comfortable with the reading and the context, be willing to defend your arguments. Again, they’re trying to understand how you think – you’re never going to be an expert on a topic after an hour’s reading.
More generally, it is worth remembering to look after yourself properly during the interview process, which lasts a couple of days – you can’t think to the best of your abilities if you are in a poor mindset. Most colleges will offer some kind of evening activities (quizzes, movies etc) along with meals. Try and get out of your room and interact with other people, not least because if you do get a place, these will be your coursemates for 3 or 4 year!. You’ll be surprised how much a conversation with others kicks your brain into gear. Oxford and Cambridge are also beautiful cities, and with everything within walking distance, a destressing walk is not a bad idea. If you do, however, make sure you have familiarised yourself with how the college will get in contact if extra interviews are suddenly scheduled. However you chose to go about it, make sure you don’t simply wallow in self-pity in your room. Very tempting I know, but a bad plan.
A word or two on extra interviews. Unlike Cambridge, which brings pooled applicants back at a later date for re-interviewing, Oxford undertakes all of its interviews over a couple of days. If you are deemed of a high enough quality overall, but your original college of choice cannot fit you in, you may be given interviews at another college with more spaces. However, these extra interviews alone are not something to worry about. Colleges often pass around candidates who excel, fall in the middle of the pack and at the very bottom in order to standardise the interview process; to illustrate to other colleges the average quality of the candidates they have given places to. If you receive extra interviews, then, there is no way of knowing how you have done – don’t worry about it, relax, and treat it simply as another example to show off your ability.
As always, I’m happy to answer any more specific questions anyone has about the process (anything to avoid doing any actual research) – head over to the contact tab above if you have anything to ask. I’ve also written a handy guide on how to pick an Oxford college, which can be found here.