Demystifying Oxbridge education (II)

May 17, 2022 11:41
Photo: Reuters

So! Here comes another round of myth-busting.

Prior to that, however, let’s be very clear here – I do not take issue with mentors and advisors working with students through the university application process. Indeed, I’d like to think that truly qualified and adept education consultants, with their students’ best interests in mind, should and must be commended for making the admissions process more accessible and understandable to thousands and millions who otherwise lack the wherewithal and institutional knowledge to navigate the quagmire that is contemporary university applications. The root of the problem lies not with the industry – especially not with the benign folks who do their jobs dutifully; it lies with those who seek to turn the entire enterprise into an unduly exorbitant and extortionary process, one driven by avarice and malicious lies, as opposed to generosity and truthfulness. Professionalism calls for accuracy, not fabrication.

This takes us onto the first myth to tackle in this piece: that the interview is deadly, ghastly, and as daunting as the iceberg that the Titanic hit. Nonsense. Firstly, no one’s going to ask you to “jump through this hoola hoop of fire”, or “solve the Goldbach Conjecture thoroughly”. The mythologisation of the interview has given airtime and space for such blatantly outlandish claims to foment – but let’s be very clear here, interviewers aren’t here to “get you”; nor are they here to request that you engage in i) irrelevant, ii) impossible, and downright iii) inappropriate acts. Perhaps the worry, then, is that they’d request all sorts of academic and intellectual gymnastics from you, in areas in which you have minimal knowledge. Yet even then – the interview isn’t seeking to see if you know the answer. That’s not the point. The point, instead, is whether you have the candour and dexterity to try the question, to attempt engaging with it in a methodologically clear and precise manner. As cliched as this may be, tt’s not (just) about the answer, it’s about the process!

A corollary, is that the interview shouldn’t be treated as a showing-off/shock-and-awe exercise. You’re not there to impress your interviewer. Nor are you there to lecture them on the flaws and demerits of a theory that you have only just read about (quite literally the night before, and which turns out to be the bulwark of what they study). The undergirding ethos of the interview process is to simulate an actual tutorial, and to determine if one is suited to the distinctive and highly empowering tutorial methodology that constitutes the Oxford/Cambridge way of teaching. The tutorial is the central piece of the Oxbridge education – and it is one that has been extensively referenced and adopted elsewhere; reason? It works, and it works through stimulating students to become confident and self-driven learners who are willing to defend and adapt their theses against and in response to challenges and pushbacks from their peers and mentors, tutors and professors. Similarly, one most certainly will do better in an interview if one exhibits, ceteris paribus, more openness and willingness to take on board advice and prompts, as opposed to digging (and diving into) a grave-hole of erroneous half-truths.

I have spent years working through the tutorial system – and this is where the second myth I’d like to tackle arises: one must be a superb debater and interlocutor, in order to survive the ‘grilling’ and gruelling tutorial. Having been on both sides of the table, and as someone who’s spent decades debating and coaching debate, I can assure you, my dear reader, that this is downright untrue. Most of the top academics and students at Oxbridge are not debaters – debating is neither a necessary nor sufficient (you’ll notice this phrase recurring rather often, please bear with me on this front) condition for one to perform well in tutorials. What tutorials are in fact about, is less adversarial and cursory jostling over arguments, and more collegiate and amicable cultivation of deepened understanding and mutual recognition of arguments between tutors and pupils. Tutors don’t rock up to tutorials expecting heated debates – they expect, instead, clear and demonstrable signs that the students are prepared to learn, to receive new ideas, and to offer new arguments and counter-arguments in response to the shortcomings and limitations of the tutors’ knowledge. That’s how we learn. So don’t equate excellence at Oxbridge with superficial, discursive confidence. Bluffing doesn’t get one very far (at least, it shouldn’t!).

The final myth to address in this segment, concerns admissions tests. To be very clear, whilst most Oxbridge subjects (and colleges) request them, it is not the case that all subjects require them. Moreover, these tests are NOT knowledge tests. They are not designed to interrogate you exhaustively for how much knowledge and information you could recall. And whilst they most certainly can be prepared for, the key rests with honing and improving upon one’s examination technique – as opposed to brute knowledge. More on this later.

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Editor-in-Chief, Oxford Political Review