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Friday, 26 May, 2000, 12:02 GMT 13:02 UK
I survived the Oxford interview

By Sara Hudston, writer and freelance journalist

Nothing beats the Oxford selection interviews for making you feel a fool.

I can still remember the absolute, numbing terror of being grilled alive by panels of dons, all red-hot on their subject.

When I applied to read English at St John's College I had no idea what a test I had set myself.



In the end I picked St John's because it had a lovely garden

I'd attended a bog-standard comprehensive then went to do A-levels at a state sixth form college. St John's was at the top of the Norrington Table - the league table that measured how many first class degrees each college achieved - and was arguably the best place in the country at the time to read English. Competition for places was extraordinarily fierce.

I was ignorant of all this at the time of my application. No-one from my family had ever been to Oxbridge before.

When my English teacher casually suggested that "Oxford was worth a shot" he left it to me to choose a college. I went on a day trip on a coach with my mum and we wandered around a few colleges.

They were all tremendously impressive and rather forbidding. Choosing one seemed like a fantasy game.

In the end I picked St John's because it had a lovely garden.



We had a nerve-wracking chat and I shivered throughout, horribly conscious of how stupid my answers sounded

My teacher was furious when I told him. "You've thrown away your chance," he told me. "St John's only takes students from public schools, and they prefer men to women."

He was amazed when I got an interview, even though I didn't do particularly well on the entry exams. I was called up just before Christmas and told I would have to stay two nights in college. It was snowing and the weather was bitter.

The night before my first interview I was too cold to sleep. The bed in the tower room where I was staying had one thin duvet. I huddled under it and thought of the poet Philip Larkin, who also went to St John's. His experience of the university included drinking parties that led to undergraduates "vomiting blindly through small Tudor windows".



I was told I was naïve and ill-informed. The truth is, I was

I looked at the mullioned windows of my room and wondered if I'd ever have the opportunity.

In the end the St John's dons were kind to me. Tales of candidates being forced to set fire to themselves to get attention, or made to sit on low stools while their interviewers towered over them proved untrue. We had a nerve-wracking chat and I shivered throughout, horribly conscious of how stupid my answers sounded.

Then I was sent for interview at Keble, my second choice. Here the gloves came off and my ideas were attacked and dismantled. I was told I was naïve and ill-informed. The truth is, I was.

I went home in despair. Christmas came and I'd heard nothing. That Christmas was agony for me and my poor parents. On 3 January a letter came. Against all hope, St John's had offered me a place.

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