My hands shook as I waited outside the tutor’s door. Another applicant was currently in there. I could hear two older male voices and one timid female voice. There was a long pause and the door opened.
A young girl with big glasses came out, clutching her book bag to her chest. Her head was down, she burst into tears, and scurried down the stairs and out into the autumn Oxford air. I waited. Then I heard something that made me 1000 times more nervous than I ever thought I could be.
They were laughing.
The two men behind the door exchanged cutting words about the young applicant and laughed hard. My throat was dry and I wanted to leave. They were going to eat me alive. Goodbye academic future. It was a nice dream while it lasted.
The door swung open and I was called inside. The man who would be my English tutor at Oxford stood up and shook my hand. He gestured for me to sit down. The tutor sat down next to another man. He introduced him as the editor of the OED (Oxford English Dictionary). It seemed as though the man’s role was to take notes. He observed me like a science specimen and noted something down. He poured me a glass of water but I was afraid to drink from it because my hands were shaking.
‘Ready to begin?’ the tutor asked. Dear God, no, I thought.
I had been told ahead of time that one of my interviews would center around a discussion of a list of books of my choosing. I had many weeks to prepare my list and I gave it a tremendous amount of thought. I made sure that these were books that I was very familiar with. I made thick wads of notes, read analyses and commentaries online, and discussed them non-stop with anyone who would listen.
I wasn’t in the best position to get into Oxford but this interview would be one of the victories that ensured my success.
I was incredibly strategic about which books I chose to discuss. I knew what 99% of the other candidates had chosen to discuss and I knew that I should not be one of them. I also knew one simple thing:
This was one of many chances to set myself apart.
This interview began with the tutor asking me to list the books I wished to discuss. So I did. One by one I listed them and he wrote them down. Next he went down the list and asked me this question for each one:
Self-chosen? Or classroom?
He was asking whether I came to the books on my own or whether I had to read them as part of a classroom syllabus. After each and every single book I said:
Every time I said self-chosen, the tutor put a little tick on his paper. Every time I said self-chosen, his smile grew wider and wider. By the time I had said self-chosen for every single one, the tutor’s smile was wide. It had worked. I was in.
I knew right then that I was in.
I will tell you how I knew that this was an effective plan. This is something I knew before the interview process from talking to many candidates and this is something I had confirmed after the interview from talking to tutors.
99% of candidates do not deviate from their classroom reading.
Back when I was applying to study English Language and Literature at Oxford, the list of books on the A-level syllabus for English (in a large majority of schools) were these:
- Life of Pi by Yann Martel
- Atonement by Ian McEwan
- Enduring Love by Ian McEwan
- Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
- Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
- The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
And guess what pretty much every single applicant included in their ‘personal’ list of books? Yes, that’s right. Those books.
After the interview was done, I sat in the dinner hall at my future college with a bunch of the other applicants and I asked many of them what books they discussed. Many of the applicants were perversely unwilling to let me know. But the ones who told me often gave me those titles. I heard Pride and Prejudice a lot. I heard Great Expectations a lot. I heard The Yellow Wallpaper a lot. And so on.
Don’t get me wrong. Those books are great. Two of them, in fact, are some of my favourite books of all time (Great Expectations and Life of Pi). But there was no way in hell I was going to discuss them, even if I loved them, given the fact that they were on the A-level syllabus.
So why is it a mistake to mention any titles on your school reading list? Because the tutors interviewing you will think you don’t read!
If you absolutely must include a book from your syllabus you better have a damn good reason for doing so. And you better know that book better than every other student. And you better have read all of that author’s other works.
Quick tangent: One question interviewers might ask you is ‘Who is your favourite author?’ And you know what answer they get more than any other? Something like this: ‘My favourite author is Jane Austen.’ Then they ask a follow up question: ‘What books have you read by Austen?’ The answer is invariably: ‘I’ve read Pride and Prejudice‘. Seriously? Your favourite author is Austen and you’ve read only ONE book by her? This is so common and tutors are sick of it. When they asked me my favourite author, I said Friedrich Nietzsche. When they asked what books I had read by him, I listed so many my voice went hoarse: On the Genealogy of Morality, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Beyond Good and Evil, The Birth of Tragedy, Human, All Too Human, and so on.
If you want your interviewing tutor’s eyes to go wide and mouth to smile, make sure that every single book on your list is SELF-CHOSEN.
I cannot stress this enough. I feel like this was supremely effective in giving me an edge and making me stand out from the other candidates.
Remember: The interviewing tutors are bored. They do these interviews for weeks on end, year after year, and they hear the same old answers all the time. Give them something different and they will notice you!
Without further ado, here is my list. However, this is my personal list and there will be nothing to gain from copying it unless you personally like the books yourself. I’m showing it to you to show you what a successful Oxford applicant’s self-chosen reading list looked like when he was 17 years old (which now seems like a scarily long time ago).
- On the Road by Jack Kerouac
- As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
- Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
- A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
- The Birth of Tragedy by Friedrich Nietzsche
- The Golden Bough by Sir James George Frazer
- Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
It’s funny. As I look back on that list now, I realise that my literary interests at Oxford, and the topics I ended up doing my final dissertations on (the Beat Generation and Joseph Conrad), were the same as the interests I had before I even enrolled at the university. But that’s a discussion for another time.
You want to know another thing I did to differentiate myself from the other candidates?
I brought the physical books to the interview.
I brought every single book listed there to the interview with me. I found out later that many other successful applicants did this as well. The unsuccessful ones did not. This is a great idea and I encourage you to do this because the tutors can take the books, flip through them, and you can analyse your favourite lines together (I remember analysing a random line from Hemingway and Conrad and this might not have been possible if I hadn’t brought the books).
And if you think this strategy only works with liberal arts students, you’re wrong. It doesn’t matter what you’re going to study, be it Biochemistry or French or History or Computer Science, bring hard copies of your favourite subject-related reading to the interview and try to show your interviewers.
Action Steps: What To Do Next
Answer this question:
What books have you read recently outside of your course requirements?
If the answer is ‘none’ or less than five, do this:
- Go research.
- Buy a big stack of books that interests you (physical books work best for this).
- Buy a notebook.
- Make notes on the books you read.
- Read about the books you have read and the authors who wrote them.
“I want to get into Oxford/Cambridge/Harvard/Yale but I don’t want to do any extra reading. How can I do this?”
I get this question a lot and my answer is:
“You can’t do this. If you are not reading a lot of good books for pleasure and for personal enjoyment of your chosen field, these universities won’t want you. You also wouldn’t be able to handle the workload if you did get in. I will show you one of my week’s reading lists if you want. Just looking at it will give you an embolism.”
Good luck to you! Get researching now and enjoy the experience. If you have any questions or comments, please let me know. I will be happy to help you further.