On navigating Oxbridge interviews

November 25, 2022 10:32
Photo: Reuters

The Oxbridge interviews process can seem daunting – and there are many urban legends perpetrated in relation to how they are conducted, for what exactly they are conducted, and the calibre of candidates that is most likely to succeed.

In my view, such urban legends are not only inherently non-conducive towards rendering the universities more accessible – perhaps that is part of the gameplan; they also render the application process unduly prohibitive for those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

As someone who has worked with a large number of applicants over the years – as well as been through the very process myself qua applicant and student at Oxford, here are a few thoughts:

First, the interview process is not about regurgitating others’ views or citing the literature that proliferates in your long preliminary and preparatory reading lists. As prospective tutors working with you, we are less interested in (and less likely to be impressed by) the titles and authors you can name-drop – and far more intrigued by the prospects of getting to grips with whom you really are: what do you think, what do you want, and why are you making these arguments the way they stand? It’s less about the ‘who said what’, and more about the ‘you said this’ that we’re genuinely interested in – so please, when in doubt, drop the name dropping, and focus on the here and now.

Second, you will be stretched, challenged, refuted, and hard-pressed. That’s completely fine – in fact, that’s the whole point. The Oxbridge interview methodology values individuals’ ability to respond under high-stress situations. Interviewers want to see and know how you’d react when under stress, as opposed to when you’re feeling at ease and prepared to rehash long-memorised answers. Feel free to push back and stand your ground – but it is equally valid for you to adapt stances, so long as your decisions are undertaken with rationale and sense, as opposed to with the intention of appearing bold (you’d look imprudent) or amicable (you’d not impress, either) before your appraisers. Focus on the arguments, not on the perceptions or what you think the interviews would like to hear.

Third, interviewers vary in how they handle you as candidates. Some may be more congenial and open-minded, as well as leisurely in their pacing and demeanour. Others could be more pushy and bellicose, taking you on and challenging you to think on your feet. Yet at the end of the day, what all interviewer want, ideally, is to see the best of you – and where room for improvement could still be sought. So don’t be afraid to ask questions, to show and reveal your weaknesses – so long as you can plug and address them, you’d be sorted. The interview process is all about testing your ability to work with and learn from different kinds of tutors – I, for one, tend to be far more combative and debate-oriented in my approach, than my counterparts.

Fourth, tell the interviewers what you’re thinking. This is key – we do not have access to how and why you’re thinking; nor can we accurately gauge what it is that you are thinking in face of unfamiliar challenges and settings. Yet this is exactly what is needed, in order to allow for us to parse and sift through the good candidates from the best – and the greatest candidates tend to be those who are cognizant and self-critical over the way they deliberate and reason, or decide upon what to do in tackling the problem sets or theoretical questions posed.

Fifth, treat the interview as a bidirectional conversation, as opposed to a mere monologue. Don’t lecture, don’t patronise – just as it would be awkward for them to do so, so, too, it’d be rather out of place and inappropriate if you were to turn your answers into mini-public speeches. There is no audience. Your interviewers are trying to work with you – not be dressed down by you. As a corollary, be frank and sincere – if you don’t know the answer to a question, guess; if you can’t guess it right, figure out what you need in order to answer the puzzle; if you still can’t do it, ask! There is absolutely no shame in asking when in doubt.

Enjoy the experience. You've already come so far in arguably one of the most competitive application processes on earth at your age. You are an impressive, valid, and thoughtful candidate – and absolutely no one could take that away from you. The future remains bright for you – if you’d seize it (carpe diem!). I wish you the very best of luck.

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Assistant Professor, HKU

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