My interview process for Oxford lasted two days and presented me with a strong mixture of exhilaration, exhaustion, and fear. Those two days were the culmination of a year’s work and I want to share with you here the preparation I did and what worked for me.
These tips will be for before and during the interview process. I will also talk about the interview experience itself and how it was a unique experience in my life and one that I will forever treasure.
1. Lots of Practice Interviews
One of the best decisions I made was to move from one of the worst secondary schools in England to a top sixth form. If I had stayed at the bad school, I would have gained no encouragement or knowledge during the application process for Oxford.
I went to St. Martin’s Sixth Form and had teachers who were ready and willing to coach me through the application process. They helped me with my UCAS personal statement, arranged meetings to check up on my progress, and just generally rooted and cared for me.
It is incredibly important to feel like you have people in your corner.
Getting into Oxford/Cambridge/Harvard/Yale/[insert your top school] is not easy. Support makes all the difference.
One great way that the support manifested itself was in practice interviews. I was drowning in practice interviews. My teachers, my parents, even my friends, sat down and gave me mock interviews multiple times a week.
The funny thing is that 99% of the questions they ask you in mock interviews will not actually be asked in the real interview.
I stayed behind late at school many nights a week, sitting in the library while it grew dark outside, and had to wrestle with questions like…
- What’s your biggest weakness?
- What was the most defining experience for your character?
- What five people, living/dead/fictional, would you most like to meet and why?
- How long is a piece of string?
None of these questions came up in my interviews. No questions that you would typically expect to come up actually did come up.
In the interviews, I just ended up having nice conversations with nice people about my favourite books and why I wanted to study at Oxford.
You can steal my answers for “why I wanted to study at Oxford” if you like…
My reasons for studying at Oxford were
- The tutorial system which uses Socratic methods of educational discourse.
- The Bodleian Library which has a copy of every book printed in England.
- The prestigious alumni and the people I will meet.
- The fascinating range of extracurricular activities.
- The beauty of Oxford.
The real value in doing lots of practice interviews is not in having answers to every question. The real value is simply getting used to talking in that sort of environment… Which leads me on to my next point.
2. Don’t Memorise Answers
So many applicants stressed themselves out because they tried to cram memorised answers to a million different questions (all of which never got asked).
The tutors interviewing you can tell if you have memorised your answers or not anyway. They see it all the time. Believe it or not, they don’t want to have a conversation with a robot.
They’ve read your personal statement, they’ve got your test scores, now they want to find out about you… Which leads nicely into my next tip.
3. Be a Real Person
It’s a pretty tall order, I know. But if you take away just one thing from what I tell you, remember this:
The interview is primarily in place for the tutors to discover whether they can work with you for 3+ years.
When you walk into the interview room and sit down, the tutors are wondering about…
- How friendly you are
- How much fun you will be to have dinner with (because you have a lot of dinners with tutors in Oxford – you even go to their houses sometimes)
- How eager you are to contribute to and construct an intellectual conversation.
The tutors want to know whether you are a good fit for them. So how can you do this?
Ask THEM questions!
99.99999% of applicants don’t do this.
Most applicants are nervous, self-absorbed, and desperately trying to ‘pass’ the interview…. As if having social skills is some sort of test.
Banish the thought that there are any right answers.
This is not a test. This is a conversation. A dialogue.
Dialogue = two people, right?
The way that you become a good conversationalist is by asking people questions about themselves. And be sincere about it.
Let’s compare two example applicants.
- The first applicant, Johnny Jonah, sits through the 30-minute interview completely rigid, sweating, and answers in short sentences and waits for the next question.
- The second applicant, Cathy Charmer, is a bit more open, she uses hand gestures (even though she’s sweating and shaking – it’s okay to be nervous!) and for every three questions the tutors ask her, she asks two!
Which applicant is going to leave the interview room with the tutors saying ‘how charming! how lovely! I want to work with that person for 3/4/5 years!’ ?
Here’s an example of how I asked questions in my interviews. In one interview, the one about my favourite books, I asked the tutors’ opinions on the books in question. Here’s how that looks.
Tutor: I’m quite intrigued to see that you’ve mentioned The Golden Bough as one of your favourite books.
Me: Yes. Have you read it?
Tutor: *smiling* Yeeeessssss.
Me: What did you think of it?
Tutor: I think it’s a great piece of work.
Me: What was your favourite section? I personally liked the part about Apollo.
Tutor: I liked the part about magic. Why did you like the part about Apollo?
*Conversation gets warm and it feels like we’ve known each other for years*
In another interview, I noticed an interesting picture on the wall. I recognized the picture and knew that many would not know what it was of. So I pointed at it. I said ‘great picture’.
The tutor smiled and asked me if I knew what it was of. The tone of his voice implied that he did not expect me to know. I asked if it was of Yeats and if it depicted his love of mythology and folklore.
The tutor instantly lit up. I had won him around within 1 minute of sitting down.
Do you want to know another reason why asking questions is such a great idea? Because it takes the pressure off of YOU.
You’re going to be nervous. That’s just a fact. But you can make yourself less nervous and give yourself time to breathe if you get the tutor talking.
You will also feel less nervous if you see the interview as a conversation, not an interrogation.
This really is one of the most important aspects in getting your foot in a very difficult door. It might be difficult for you to ask questions. After all, most people don’t ask many questions when talking to others. Most conversations are just two people waiting for their turn to speak about themselves. This will take some practice but this is a valuable lesson that will fare you well and help you to build great relationships all of your life.
I can’t begin to tell you the amount of times I have done nothing but ask another person questions for an hour and sincerely listened to them and they have told me I was a great conversationalist.
4. Read Deep and Wide and Have Varied Interests
This will help to make you a more robust person. Read deeply within your area of interest but also look into things that have nothing to do with your chosen subject.
For example, on my UCAS personal statement, even though I was applying for English Language and Literature, I spent most of the time talking about my favourite actors and also discussing my latest diet plan (it was a cyclical ketogenic diet, if I recall correctly).
If you are planning on doing a science degree or a maths degree, make sure you still read great books. If you are planning on doing a liberal arts degree, learn to play chess or something that will tax the other hemisphere of your brain.
Here’s some ideas for everyone to use:
- Do something physical: take a judo class, lift weights, do parkour, do yoga, play hurling, anything that gets the blood pumping.
- Watch classic movies, Ted Talks, watch documentaries: I will get you started. Classic movie recommendation: Citizen Kane. Ted Talk recommendation: ‘Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are’ by Amy Cuddy. Documentary recommendation: Jiro Dreams of Sushi.
- Do something cerebral but not related to your subject: Biochemistry students should read ‘The Old Man and The Sea’ and watch a Shakespeare play. English students should play chess or learn to build something with their hands.
5. Discuss and Debate with Everyone
This is basically all you ever do in Oxford.
To be honest, it got quite tiresome after a while. Every single conversation was an intense debate where each party tried valiantly to harness their arguing power.
This was a huge shock coming from my background. I spent years buried in books, reading philosophers like Schopenhauer, and watching classic movies like Guys and Dolls, but I never spoke about any of it to anyone.
I went to a bad school in Essex (one of the worst in the country) and I remember one time I had my head buried in Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra during a science lesson because the teacher was being terrorised by 14-year-old thugs. One of the kids grabbed the book from me, struggled for 2 minutes to pronounce the third word in the title, swore a lot, and then gave me the nickname ‘Shakespeare’.
When I arrived at Oxford, it was like arriving on another planet. It was an academy filled with people who had clearly been used to discussing grand ideas their whole lives (with their doctor/lawyer parents and their Eton peers).
So my advice is try and get used to debating before you turn up. It will serve you well.
6. Be On When You Need To Be. Rest When You Don’t.
This tip is specifically for during the interview process itself.
The process can be quite drawn out, spans multiple days, interviews take place at different times of day in different locations, and the whole affair is very emotionally and mentally draining.
This is what my interview process looked like:
- I turned up in a strange city that I had never been to.
- I was allocated a room to sleep in and I was shown to a common room where a bulletin board proclaimed names and times for interviews.
- We were told to check that board every couple of hours because it wasn’t updated until right before the interview and interviews could be early in the morning, in the middle of the day, or late at night.
- I would alternate between resting and reading in my room, going to check the bulletin board every 2 hours, and wandering around the city.
One day I had an interview in the middle of the day. Then I spent the rest of the day checking the board. My name never turned up.
So I went to sleep late, woke up early, and spent all day checking that damn board again. My next interview was at 8pm at night and it was across town in a location I didn’t know. I wasn’t given long to find the location and I was exhausted from mentally preparing all day.
You don’t know when your interview is going to be but you need to be on when it comes.
I bought some ProPlus caffeine pills (this is not medical advice – I haven’t used them since that time) and when I found out my interview time I took two pills 10-minutes before going in. It perked me up and once the interview was over I was ready to crash.
Quick note on the interviews: You will likely have more than one. You will have at least one with your chosen college (mine was Oriel) and you will have another with a backup/assigned college (mine was St. John’s). This is because your chosen college might not be able to accept you even though they like you. So they give you the chance to demonstrate yourself to another college. If both colleges like you and accept you, congratulations, you can get into your first choice.
7. Know What The Interview Will Involve
Obviously it’s going to involve lots of talking but each course has specific tasks for you to complete. For English Language and Literature, I knew that one of the interviews would take place after a 20-minute exam in which I was presented with a small selection of unseen literature and I had to make a commentary about it.
Because I knew this task would be asked of me, I did lots of practice versions where I printed out poems/play extracts/novel extracts and wrote all over them and discussed them.
Make sure that you quadruple-check what will be required of you ahead of time and prepare thoroughly for it. You don’t want any nasty surprises.
This is quite possibly the hardest suggestion on the list for most people.
I’ve always been quite good at this one (I’m naturally lazy despite being able to fight it well) but most people I’ve spoken to can’t ‘switch off’ or they feel the need to ‘cram’ and ‘pull an all nighter’.
I totally understand. You want to feel like you’re in control. You want to feel like you’ve done everything in your power to ace your interviews or exams.
The problem is, if you don’t relax and you don’t get enough sleep, you will not feel in control.
This is a stressful period of your life and you need your mind working at top-notch.
Here are my suggestions and these are non-debatable:
- Switch off your mind completely and turn off the computer screen ~2 hours before you go to bed. Exercise, get fresh air, call a friend or family member, read a book, take a bath, meditate. Do what you need to do to take yourself out of your head and forget about the little eye of the storm you currently feel like you’re sitting in.
- 8 hours sleep minimum. Normally I would suggest at least 7 but at this time of your life, a little more sleep is a necessity that will pay off big time. You could probably get 5 or 6 hours and function. But who wants to merely function? Get 8 or 9 hours and make sure you thrive. Give it your best. Cultivate an Olympic athlete mindset. You are gearing up for the academic gold.
- Eat well. Limit junk food to small amounts and just before bed. Digesting carbohydrates during the day does not fare well for your brain. Also you will get a sugar crash. You want to be strategic about your food. Save the cookies and ice cream before bed because you can use that sugar crash, and the good happy chemicals the foods trigger in your brain, to help you sleep. A great food to eat right before bed is a banana. It contains tryptophan which helps you sleep and boosts serotonin (the chemical that makes you happy and focused). Brain foods include coconut oil (this really is lubricant for grey matter), MCT oil, nuts (almonds, brazil nuts, walnuts are great choices with healthy fats), cruciferous vegetables (you know, broccoli and cauliflower), lean protein (grab some steak or chicken), and fruits (berries that include antioxidants like blueberries are a good choice).
- Limit caffeine consumption and balance coffee out with green tea. You are already going to be nervous, you don’t need too much Red Bull or Monster making it even worse. Have small amounts (or no more than you’re accustomed to) but balance it with green tea. Green tea contains l-theanine, which promotes relaxation and concentration and has anti-anxiety effects. Great choices of green tea include matcha, genmaicha, and gyokuro (you can’t go wrong with the Japanese stuff). Have a nice cup of green tea right before your interviews and reap the rewards of calm focus.