Dreaming of Spires - Oxbridge Interviews
In a month or so, thousands of students will be facing that most terrifying of prospects: their Oxford or Cambridge interview. I remember my own interview well. The nerves were overwhelming. In my bare, unfamiliar room in the Meadows Block of Christ Church, I didn't sleep a single wink the night before. Waiting in a book-filled ante-chamber, I asked the girl before me how hers had gone. "It was a bit unnerving," she said, ashen-faced.
In fact, my interview - though challenging - was not quite as brutal as I had expected. I remember feeling a hint of disappointment, as I boarded the train back home, that I wasn't returning laden with tales of academics lighting essays on fire, or throwing rocks through windows, or insulting me horrendously - the stuff of Oxbridge interview myth. Mine was perfectly civilised. "That's because you prepared well," my supportive English teacher said, and fortunately, a few weeks later, I got my place.
In fact, I did prepare a great deal, and I found two key approaches really worked. I always pass these on to my own students. I studied English Language and Literature, so I'm afraid these may not be gold-dust to the Maths or Chemistry candidate... although I expect there are parallels to be drawn.
This was the big one for me. I spent the weeks running up to my interview making massive mind-maps in which I forged connections between all the books and poems and plays I had ever read - the more disparate the better. It's relatively easy to comment on similarities between say, Joyce and Woolf, but if you can make links in your interview between 'Northanger Abbey' and 'Six Characters in Search of an Author', or analyse how 'Tess of the D'Urbervilles' foreshadows Arthur Miller, you start to score points for originality of thinking. Moreover, the ability to come up with connections allows you to drive your own interview. If they surprise you with a question on Pope you can deftly shift the conversation onto Nabokov, if you've pre-prepared the right associations in your head first.
The second thing to do before an Oxbridge interview is to practice flipping every argument or interpretation that you are happy with on its head. This especially applies to any essays you have submitted: ask yourself, what's the exact opposite argument? Even if it seems ridiculous! I had submitted a piece on 'villainy' in Shakespeare, with much focus on Iago, and the Christ Church tutor I faced insisted that it was Othello himself who was truly villainous in nature, while Iago was a sympathetic victim. With every student I've mentored for Oxbridge, I've suggested that they think about flipping the accepted reading of things and arguing the reverse - and almost without fail, that very question has indeed arisen. It's about mental agility and being open to an alternate view.
So, if you're dreaming of spires, see whether you can apply these two rules to your own subject. And one extra platitude to take away: be yourself. Schools sometimes have a tendency to give out nonsense advice. Some of my teachers warned me not to mention that I wanted to be an actress (too lightweight). I said it anyway, and the Oxford professor was thrilled; the connection between theatre and literary study made total sense to him, and he had taught a fair few actors in his time. A student of mine was told not to dwell on her passion for contemporary American fiction because the Oxford course doesn't include a great deal of it. I'd say its better to voice the passion than try to flatter the syllabus. My husband Matt talked a lot about Japanese literature in his interview: not much of that gets studied at Oxford, but I bet it didn't half make him stand out.
Wishing all of our students the best of luck in December. It's a bit like queuing for a rollercoaster, really. The scariness is all part of the fun. And if it's really horrible, you'll have a good story to tell.