Monday, December 10, 2007

Setting the tone for Law interviews

One of the aspects of the interview that many applicants comment on after the event is how quickly the time passes. With usually between 20 and 30 minutes, even five minutes spent in giving general introductions cuts heavily into the available opportunity to engage with the applicant. One of the methods used by the interviewers to ensure that they can maximise the opportunity that the interview presents is to hold a pre-interview briefing for all of the students who are about to be interviewed; this enables all of the students within a subject discipline to receive the same information, and also allows general questions about the process and course to be asked up front.

In order to observe the effectiveness of this approach I was standing at 8.30 in the morning in front of 16 rather nervous and strained law applicants, listening as the law tutors introduced the interview team, and explained the structure of the day. Candidates would have two interviewers, and the focus of the discussion would be on some case extracts that the candidates would receive 75 minutes in advance of the interview. Candidates had a number of questions to answer, which were printed on the cover sheet of the extracts; knowledge of the law was not required, but the students would have to be able to interpret complex information and explain and summarise material.

The interviewers were very good at delivering what was an important message in a very encouraging manner. They were very straight-talking, emphasising that the interviews were only one part of the process in identifying the successful candidates, and stressing the importance to the interviewees of engaging in discussion - it was OK for a candidate to revise their views as a result of the interaction with the interviewers, as long as they could explain how they reached their conclusion clearly. The mood of suppressed panic in the room began to lift, and after 20 minutes the students were even beginning to smile. Then, disaster struck, as some one's mobile phone went off.

The ring tone of the phone was quite understated, and it wasn't immediately obvious what was causing the noise - gradually the tone grew louder; the interviewers to their credit ignored it, and kept on speaking, but it was clear that there was at least one person in the room who (internally at least) was going through a thousand years of agony in the space of a moment. Eventually the caller must have triggered the answer-phone, because the tune stopped, although we were then treated to a couple of loud beeps as the phone let its owner know that they had received an important message.

The briefing continued, the interviewers making a point about their intention to push the candidates hard, and in the supplementary questions towards the end of the interview they would ask about issues that had no clear right or wrong answer, but would require the applicant to take an ethical or moral stance.

Things were winding down, and the candidates were beginning to ask questions, when the mystery caller struck again - once more, the guilty party maintained a superb poker face, and let the call play out, although their self-control must have been at breaking point.

The Law Faculty typically only invites about 50% of their applicants to interview, following the initial scrutiny of applications, references and LNAT test results - for me the experience emphasised that the level of competition to do well and be successful for the candidates is so intense that a student will sit through the entire rendition of their most recently down-loaded ring-tone rather than indicate any possible fallibility on their part. It was a sobering thought. The silver lining however is that I guarantee that all 16 of the candidates in the room made sure that they were not going to fall victim to the same situation when it came to the real interview.

Friday, December 07, 2007

(Harris) Manchester United? Meeting the student runners at a special college

Standing in the Junior Common Room at Harris Manchester College waiting for the student runners I was scheduled to interview, I was struck by the very distinctive atmosphere that pervades the college. It is the only college I have visited where the annual photo of the undergraduate students routinely includes a number of their children, making it look much more like the portrait of a very large and extended (and diverse) family group.

Harris Manchester is the only Oxford College that is dedicated to mature students; the youngest is 21 years of age, but there is no upper age limit. It is also Oxford's smallest college, with under one hundred undergraduate students in total. This however contributes to the friendliness of the place.

I had turned up to speak with the student runners, who are employed by each college during the interview process to assist the applicants in navigating their way around the place, ensuring they find their way to the appropriate interview room and have the correct extracts to read in advance. They also keep the Common Room supplied with fresh tea and coffee and provide a sympathetic and understanding presence to meet and greet the applicants each day.

Geraldine (first year Theology), Karen (first year Law) and Toby (final year PPE) were united in their enthusiasm for the role they had in the admissions process. Karen was particularly keen to support the current applicants. She secured her place at Harris Manchester in 2007 after re-applying - she could therefore draw upon the experience of both being disappointed and successful in the Oxford admissions process.

Geraldine had volunteered to help because, having had a career and returning to study, she felt it important that the candidates saw that Harris Manchester was a destination for not only twenty-somethings.

Toby had helped out every year whilst a student - Harris Manchester has a significant pool of PPE applicants each year, and he felt that it was important for there to be at least one runner that could represent this area to the candidates.

While a group of candidates waiting for Law and History interviews relaxed by playing a few frames of snooker, Geraldine commented that the age differences between students at Harris Manchester were not the issue that many applicants believed it would be. The strong motivation to study, combined with the focus at Oxford on attracting students who show enthusiasm and potential for their subject discipline, provides, in her view, a common and uniting bond that transcended any age differences. This was a view echoed by Karen, who felt that the peer support and the wealth of life experience amongst the undergraduates made for a vibrant and non-judgemental community. Meals at Harris Manchester emphasise this; a casual visitor would be hard-pressed to identify who are the tutors and who are the students.

The support and assistance that the runners offer appears to be appreciated by the applicants. Toby has, over the years he has helped out, built a number of friendships with people he has met during the interview period, who then, having received an offer, kept in touch with him in the remainder of the year prior to starting the course, whilst Geraldine had a clutch of e-mail addresses from this year's applicants who wanted to let her know the outcome of their interview.

Harris Manchester, like all of the Colleges, will typically invite interview candidates for two or three days - during the periods when candidates are not being assessed, the runners arrange visits to various parts of the city, or evening entertainment. Toby feels that this is a key part of the process, particularly for those candidates that are not familiar with Oxford. In particular he sees that many of the candidates who have returned to study, especially those currently at Further Education Colleges, have many misperceptions about the College and the University, and having forty eight hours to address these concerns and issues ensures that the applicants leave with a much greater appreciation and understanding of what Oxford is and is not.

As the group broke up to go and take the Law students to their interviews, I couldn't help but think that if Harris Manchester didn't exist, then it would have to be invented. It fulfills an important, if sometimes under-publicised, role in ensuring Oxford can attract and welcome applicants regardless of their background.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

A literary conundrum - making 5 out of 27

How do you decide between twenty seven interview candidates who, on paper, all appear to have the same level of academic attainment and potential, when you only have five vacancies to fill? That was the dilemma facing the tutors for English at the College that I visited.

The College concerned was making every effort to make sure that candidates were appropriately briefed and prepared. Upon arriving at the porters' lodge I was handed a pack telling me about the interview times, accommodation, meals, entertainments planned for the period, a list of all of the 29 student runners names and their subject disciplines, a map (showing all of the rooms in the colleges being used for interviews, as well as such key locations as the TV room, library, and laundry) and a set of guidelines, including the reminder that candidates under the age of 18 shouldn't purchase alcohol (illegality not being viewed as a positive characteristic), and those 18 and over also encouraged to refrain on the basis that it could affect interview performance.

This level of care and attention to detail followed through into the interviews. As well as a briefing that I had been sent in advance, I had also been sent a breakdown of the interview programme. The College interviewed all twenty 27 twice - the first interview was a general discussion to assess the candidates on their love of literature, commitment to the subject discipline, ability to think clearly about texts, and discuss new concepts and ideas. All of the candidates had been asked to provide the interviewers with a list of books and authors they wished to discuss. The second interview required the candidate to analyse and discuss a piece of poetry that they would receive an hour in advance - each candidate was given an individual text to assess, that had been selected in response to their comments on their personal statement and in their reference.

I was sitting in to observe the second interviews. The candidates had received a very broad range of poems, ranging from a Shakespearean sonnet, through a Thomas Hardy poem (which took me back to my A-level English course), AE Houseman, Louis MacNeice, GM Hopkins, to Craig Raine. In all cases the candidates were initially asked to read the poems aloud, so that the interviewers could make sure they had comprehended the sense of the piece - the high point for me was the applicant who threw themselves dramatically into the part of an Irish Navvy, accent and all. The candidate's then had the opportunity to confer with the interviewers on any vocabulary they were unfamiliar with - one or two obviously were concerned at demonstrating a lack of knowledge, but the interviewers were adept at making sure the candidate had fully understood the piece, asking them to explain particular words or phrases. Any lack of understanding at this point was not a mark against them, and one candidate had made the most of the preparatory hour by looking up any words he was not sure of in a dictionary!

The interviewers then took it in turns to go line by line through the piece with the candidate, focusing on the meaning, the form and grammatical structure. Those I observed were all confident in their ability to analyse the content and express their views, and were prepared to engage in debate with the interviewers over the sense and meaning of the texts. As someone who has studied English, it was a particularly stimulating and invigorating three hours - in all of the interviews I found myself looking at the poems in a new light from my initial reading, and it was clear that the candidates all felt at the end of the process that they had gained a new perspective on the work under discussion.

At the end of the interview the candidates all had a chance to ask any questions that they themselves had - two main themes emerged; the first focusing on the opportunity to study Course II (Old and Middle English language and literature) in years two and three of the degree, the second on how the interviewers had selected the poems that were under discussion.

The seven interviews I observed were the last of the 27 - as I left the College the four tutors were convening to discuss their assessments. I left them to what seemed to be an unenviable task, particularly if the previous 20 candidates had demonstrated the same engagement and interest in English that I had just observed. Even with the English test results, essays, personal statements, references and interview reports I suspect they were in for a long night before they had their final list of five.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Opium of the Masses? Theology at Oxford

In 1193, Alexander Neckham from St Albans gave a series of biblical and moral lectures in Oxford. It only took until 1423 to begin construction of the Divinity School (planning permission being less of an issue back then than it is today), making it one of the oldest University buildings (and forever immortalised as part of Hogwarts in the film version of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire).

Theology remains a significant subject discipline at Oxford with both Theology and Philosophy & Theology recording over one hundred applications each this year, resulting in about three applicants for every offer made.

The interviews that I attended were towards the end of the day. In the failing light I was struggling to identify the particular door that I had to go through, but my obvious confusion acted as a beacon to the passing student helper, who immediately stopped and directed me to the room of the tutor concerned.

The interviews were a mix of Theology and Philosophy & Theology joint scheme applicants, and the structure was designed to ensure that the candidates had a variety of opportunities to demonstrate their interest and potential. Ten minutes were spent looking at candidate motivation, including the deceptively simple question "Why are you interested in studying this course?", ten minutes were devoted to a discussion on a piece of text that the candidates were given to study in advance of the interview (with candidates receiving one from a number of possible texts), and then, if time allowed, candidates were provided with the opportunity to discuss an ethical or moral dilemma, on issues as diverse as euthenasia, religious freedoms, and animal experimentation.

So, what key lessons did I pick up? Firstly, if you are applying to do a degree, have a clear idea why. Don't assume that just because you may have answered the question on your personal statement it won't be asked again. If you get flummoxed in answering this, then you will feel on the back foot for the rest of the interview. The tutors were particularly keen to address the issue of motivation and interest for the applicants for the Philosophy & Theology course - Oxford doesn't offer Philosophy as a single honours degree so a student who is not fully committed to the joint course has a very limited range of options available to them if they find the Theology aspect is not for them.

Secondly, on the ethical issue, it was very clear that the tutors were not expecting the applicants to engage in abstruse theological debate on the number of angels that can stand on the head of a pin, but were drawing their examples from issues that would be familiar to anyone who had a basic awareness of current affairs. What separated out the candidates was their ability to look at the question posed to them from more than one perspective.

Finally, the piece of text proved to be a very effective method of assessing the candidates. The thirty minutes allowed for preparation gave enough time to read through the text and make some notes, but the problem was that rather than reading the text in detail, and making sure they understood the terminology and sense of the entire piece, the weaker candidates were focusing on half a dozen words or phrases that they felt were key to the understanding of the extract, and then building (overly) complicated views and theories that they struggled to sustain when asked to relate this to the entire passage. The pieces chosen were deliberately not that complicated (the tutors being well aware that with only ten minutes or so there is a limit to how much discussion and evaluation can be crammed in to the time available).

The tutors were not seeking to trap or trip the candidates, but unfortunately for some of those that were interviewed, they were looking for layers of complexity where they didn't exist. This view was confirmed by my colleague Helen , who observed Theology interviews at another college, and found that the stronger candidates demonstrated flexibility when answering the ethical questions they were posed, seeing that there were several perspectives on an issue, rather than dogmatically sticking to one point of view.

As a final aside, Helen noted that when she entered the tutor's room where the interviews were being conducted, one wall was entirely taken up with books on the New Testament - there were, in her view, probably more books on this topic in one room of one college tutor at Oxford than you would probably get in the entire library collection of most other universities.

Return of the Oxblogster (for two weeks)

After a year of inactivity on the blog, and with the interview period upon us again at Oxford, it seemed appropriate to reactivate the Oxblogster account, and once again provide some insights into the selection process. Over the next two weeks, I will be observing a number of subject interviews, including law, medicine, theology,English literature, and that almost unique of Oxford combinations, PPP (Psychology, Philosophy and Physiology), as well as providing some more general musings about the admissions process.

To start with, I would like to draw your attention to a couple of other recent developments within Oxford admissions information. The first is the series of podcasts, which you can access at The podcasts cover all sorts of areas relating to undergraduate admissions; of particular note are the discussions about the interviews for medicine, law, biological sciences and history, conducted with tutors.

The other web-based resource is the site developed by Oxford University Students Union (OUSU) which includes all sorts of material about admissions from the perspective of current students. In particular I would want to draw your attention to the case-studies on interviews written by some of Oxford's current undergraduates. The OUSU admissions site can be found at

Finally for today, one of the questions that I am sometimes asked is "Why can't an applicant apply for more than one subject at Oxford?" The answer, which should become clear as the blogs mount up, is that the tutors at Oxford are focusing on the applicant's engagement, enthusiasm and potential for success in their subject, not the applicant's wish to study at Oxford. If an applicant applies for two or even three individual subjects, it doesn't give a convincing impression that they have a genuine and focused commitment to the subject discipline.