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Last Updated: Monday, 16 October 2006, 13:20 GMT 14:20 UK
Unveiling the Oxbridge interview
Oblate ellipsoids?

By Henry Mance and Daniel Sokol

As the popularity of The History Boys shows, the admissions process for the UK's elite universities continues to perplex and fascinate. So, as applicants prepare themselves for the new interview season, does the process deserve its mythic status and is there a recipe for interview success?

Oxbridge interviewers are notorious for asking bizarre questions: How many aeroplanes are flying above Oxford at this moment? Can a slug think? What shape is an egg?

The idea is not to elicit the correct answer - roughly oblate ellipsoids in the egg case - but that candidates should show clear reasoning. What does it mean to think? What "equipment" is needed to think? Do molluscs have such equipment?

The surprises may not end with the questions. Some applicants have been caught unawares by eccentric interviewers. One applicant was welcomed into the room by a scruffy philosophy tutor wearing no shoes. His big toe was protruding through one of the many holes in his socks.

Only very rarely do we choose entrants who find themselves out of their depth
Dr Hartmut Mayer

Another male candidate was startled when his interviewer, who avoided eye contact and expected a female applicant, addressed him as "Jane".

In such situations, the best hope is a stiff upper lip, although applicants may secretly wonder whether they want to be taught by such unconventional types for three or four years.

Such quirkiness, however, is rare. "I've never asked an off-the-wall question in 30 years of interviewing," said one Oxford don. Tutors are free to choose their own questions, so long as they don't infringe equal opportunities.

They now focus on more predictable topics, particularly those listed by the candidates in their UCAS form. "We want to see that people are motivated and can respond to challenges," says Dr Hartmut Mayer, a politics tutor at St Peter's College, Oxford.


Emily Corp, who studied medicine at New College, Oxford, spent half her interview discussing political history, an interest she had casually included in her personal statement.

For some humanities subjects, tutors give candidates a poem or passage to read a few minutes before the interview (a top tip: think structure, as well as content). This provides a way of comparing candidates using a common text.

Candidates also need to show they'll benefit from tutorial teaching, the vaunted centrepiece of an Oxbridge education. Whether candidates are asked about egg-shapes or the cognitive abilities of slugs, they should try to develop a rapport with their interviewers. Ultimately, tutors select people they want to teach.

Magdalen College, Oxford University
The Oxford dream
Contrary to the myth, interviewers try to relax students - not intimidate them. "Candidates are usually petrified," says Christopher Wells, a modern languages tutor at St Edmund Hall, Oxford. "To reduce this, we have a coffee meeting before the interview."

For some candidates, no amount of reassurance will dispel the fear. One music candidate recalled seeing the girl before him emerge from the interview room in tears, causing him to wonder what vicious ogres lay ahead.

The competition against other students is fierce and candidates need to differentiate themselves. "To be honest, they're competing against each other, not against the interviewers," says Mr Wells.

Nearly all applicants have excellent A-level grades, so places are increasingly awarded for original answers in interviews. It's worth actively engaging with the questions (without being rude or confrontational), rather than tiptoeing around to avoid mistakes.

The interview process is becoming serious business. A growing army of interview coaches offer advice to candidates, even developing databases about past questions and individual tutors' areas of interests.


Some companies offer private consultations (250 for a home visit) and "interview preparation weekends" (850 including food and accommodation) to Oxbridge applicants, as well as unlimited support in drafting personal statements.

Can money spent on such coaching effectively buy places? Dr Mayer is sceptical. "The coaching may eliminate the worst mistakes - for example, candidates claiming to have read books they haven't - but, to be successful, you need more than that."

The interview is Oxbridge's ultimate test in selecting the best students. Does it work? According to Dr Mayer, "only very rarely do we choose entrants who find themselves out of their depth".

Another don estimates he has selected the right candidates in about 80% of cases. This may reassure some applicants that there is method behind the myth. Whether or not slugs think, successful applicants must show that they do.

Henry Mance is a journalist and alumnus of Christ Church, Oxford and Daniel Sokol is a lecturer in ethics at Keele University and alumnus of St Edmund Hall, Oxford.

Easy solution. Turn up to do Maths or Physics. These subjects are crying out for students. If it doesn't work out, you might be able to switch to another subject anyway.
John Airey, Peterborough, UK

A friend told me the (probably apocryphal) story of the successful Oxford candidate who parried with "Is this an answer?" when asked, simply, 'Is this a question?". My own advice would be for Oxford applicants to invest in a pair of earplugs - if staying overnight for interview - as the bells of the 'dreaming spires' are not conducive to sleep.
Matthew Greenland, Haywards Heath, W.Sussex

I failed to get a place at Oxford to study history, after some off the wall questions including whether I liked milk, and if so why. I gave up on academia and learning after that for the next decade or so, which may be evidence that the bizare interview technique was successful at weeding out those with enough intelligence to get to that stage - but not enough commitment and persistence. Nonetheless I now support Cambridge in the yearly boat race! Yours bitter and twisted. Simon
Simon, Weybridge

As a Cambridge student, it's become pretty clear to me that only a small number of people get asked silly questions at their interviews. Most of the interviewers don't wish to catch people out. Save your 850!
Ben, Cambridge, England

I'm a little puzzled by parents willing to spend (a lot!) of money on coaching for their children. Surely the interviews are in place to select appropriate candidates? If a student needs to artificially enhance their performance for the interview, then they will almost certainly struggle when it comes to doing the degree!
Lucy, York

My daughter has just started her 2nd year at Cambridge University where she is studying Natural Sciences. In the blurb she received from her college before going up for her interview, she was categorically advised NOT to try to 'rehearse' for the interview, as most 'practice sessions' were thought to be at best irrelevent & at worst imbued a false sense of confidence or irrational fear. The dons all say they can tell instantly which potential students have cribbed & many of these will answer a question they have practised rather than the question they are actually asked. In my daughter's case, she was asked to arrive a little early so that she could study some bones. The interview consisted of the panel asking her to talk about the bones, among other things. She had none of the wacky questions alluded to in the article.
Sarah Allen, Somerset, UK

I lost my voice the day before my Cambridge interview and asked to re-schedule but I wasn't permitted to. When I arrived I was made to wait on a freezing cold step in for half an hour as the interviews were running late. By the time I got ot he interview I had lost the will to live! Unsuprisingly I didn't get in
Annika Cooper, Letchworth

Myself and a friend had a 2-day interview to study English at Jesus College, Oxford in 1998. My first interview was conducted by an owl-eyed tutor sat hunched behind a desk in one corner, and a buxom female tutor sat on a sofa on completely the other side of the room. I was sat on a rigid chair smack in the middle. I didn't know which way to look, and didn't help my case by admitting to them early on that I read footballers' autobiographies in my spare time. I felt as though I was turned down the second I said it. The second interview was equally unsettling. As I walked in, the male tutor flung himself onto his chaise longue and conducted the whole interview from this decadently reclined position. No place at Oxford then, but some great memories!
Andy Stevenson, Newbury

"Ultimately, tutors select people they want to teach." This statement pretty well sums it up and a University version of the 'X' factor show would probably be not be very far off.
Niel, Gosport

I am a first year PPE student at Christ Church, Oxford. You really have no idea what the tutors are looking for. One of my friends who got 5 As at A-Level, was head boy, involved in Drama, charity work and debating did not get into Oxford. Who knows why? But maybe he just didn't fit what the tutor was looking for. I remember my two interviews well. They were very different, but both challenged me to look at ideas from both sides and engage in debate, i.e. they were an idea of the tutorials to come. You can do so much preparation for interviews, but really it's down to your tutors taste. Just stay calm and be yourself.
Isla Kennedy, Loughton, Essex

Muddled thinking or poor expression I think! I challenge the assertion that the don "selected the right candidates in about 80% of cases." It is more likely that he was satisfied with his choices in 80% of cases but highly unlikely that he selected the 80% of the best candidates that were interviewed.
Martyn , Oakham

An egg is more like a prolate ellipsoid than an oblate one.

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