Interviewing students the Oxford way


Magdalen College, University of Oxford

You made it! You have an interview at the top university in the world! You will meet in person with several professors or other academic staff from two or three of the colleges. One of them might be the cloistered Magdalen College at University of Oxford. How do you prepare? What will happen? Is their interviewing technique useful for the rest of us?

University of Oxford gets top place in world rankings. It is a quaint collection of different colleges, from medieval to modern, collected under a university umbrella. This means most faculty and undergraduates have two homes: their department and their college. For me from October through December 2016, Michaelmas, this meant the Zoology Department and Magdalen College, separated by a twelve minute walk along Longwall to South Parks, or a twenty minute walk through the Magdalen Gardens and University Parks. For now I want to talk about interviewing.

Interviewing is important. It is a time when we are judging others by their actions and speech in a compressed time. It is a time when biases can rear up, no matter how we fight them. So it is important to be prepared, whichever side of the interaction you take. Because this is so important, I have written about interviewing before. There are pitfalls of job interviews. There are best practices in hiring a technician. I have prior advice on interviewing prospective graduate students. You might start with a phone interview.

So, what is that Oxford interview all about? First, to get to this point, you must meet certain criteria. Often these have to do with how well you did on your A levels, or other exams. Of those they interview, actual admission varies with subject and with college. They try to balance this with various pools and matches in ways that sound really complicated. The most straightforward way to get into Oxford is to have an interview with a tutor of a given college and make that person want to teach you in weekly tutorial meetings. It is an understatement to say it is highly personalized.

The interviewing is packed in a week or so right after classes end. It is really tough on the faculty. One professor described the feeling after interviewing as “broken.” Why should it be so tough? It is because you are not judging people you will never see again. You are judging people that will become part of your life. A failure to choose well will visit you every week as ghosts of those not admitted hover in your mind.


In Christ Church meadow after the interview.

The Oxford interview does not involve asking you about your interests, about what you hope to get out of college, or what you might contribute that it is special. There are no essays about important people in your life, or about academic challenges you surmounted. Instead you get straight to work. It is like an exam in a way, but the goals are different. I know what some of the questions my colleagues asked their prospective students, but I don’t think it would be helpful to reveal them here, so I’ll formulate a question I might ask.

Here it is. I work on a social amoeba called Dictyostelium discoideum. It is a eukaryote that has two interesting life stages. For much of its life it eats bacteria and divides by binary fission. It can crawl around the forest floor in the way amoebas do. But when it starves, it forms an aggregate which first moves as a coordinated multicellular slug, then ultimately forms a fruiting body. In the fruiting body, about 20% of cells die to form a stalk which the remaining cells flow up and form spores at the top. That is the background. The question is why might this life style have evolved and what challenges might it present the organism. What kinds of data would you like to see?

I hope the student can give some kind of an answer to this question. But what I would be most interested in seeing if I were interviewing the Oxford way, is what they do when I say something they propose is actually incorrect and say why. Do they keep going on their line of thinking or do they pause to think and come up with something different? Do they show intellectual receptivity and plasticity? Are they creative? Do they listen? This is one of the things you can learn from a more fact-based interview. I know this rewards the unafraid who can think on their feet. The rest of us should practice.

Others at Oxford were more interested in what students actually already knew in addition to how well they could think about new problems. I guess both are important. What I heard less of was questions about how motivated they were, why they wanted to go to college, or this college, though those might have happened. My sense was also that the interviews were conducted by two or three people at a time, perhaps one taking notes, and that there was little effort to watch them interact with their peers.

I just want to end by saying that where you go to college matters, but not nearly as much as you think it does. You are still you. Work hard, find what you love, and make a difference to this troubled world of ours.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Graduate school, Interviewing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Interviewing students the Oxford way

  1. Thanks for a very interesting post! We’ve just gone through reviewing applications at UC Davis, and very often I was left with a desire to see greater passion for basic ecological questions in the admissions essays (vs. simply listing lab/field experience).

    Quick question: how good do you think a metric of one’s ability to “think on their feet” is in predicting future performance in academic research?

    I certainly agree it’s better than (mostly irrelevant) things like standardized test scores or aggregate GPA, but I’m also wondering if there’s a better alternative – for example, professors glancing through an abstract of students’ prior research (eg an honors thesis) and asking some related questions (eg, would the mechanism you’re studying in system X happen in my system Y?) to see how deeply they have thought about a problem. This seems a bit less stochastic than randomly picking a topic students may/may not be familiar with (e.g., I could only reply to the amoeba example because I was lucky enough to be exposed to ‘storage effect’ ideas as an undergrad in ecology).

    • I think the best predictor of graduate school success is how well the student did in prior research experiences. So I agree with you that your questions would be better. The amoeba one I offered could be answered I think by anyone thinking about non-relatives cooperating. The stress of answering a question could prejudice against some. For grad students I plan to ask about research and look for passion and curiosity, in addition to smart focus. I’m not sure we learn that much in the interview at all though. The letters should be more telling. We interview next week for the next batch of grad students. I’m very happy with the ones we got last year.

  2. µ says:

    (1) interesting read! Missed your posts for a few months now (last one was in early Nov).

    (2) great advice/synthesis; agree totally: “I just want to end by saying that where you go to college matters, but not nearly as much as you think it does. You are still you. Work hard, find what you love, and make a difference to this troubled world of ours.”

    (3) what about diversity criteria for admitting students at Oxford (or any other such graduate programs, actually)? When “going straight to work during an interview”, students from different backgrounds will have different approaches to solve research problems. Do they consider diversity, and balance diversity, when admitting students?

    • I poked people a lot on the diversity issue. One student looked up the statistics for black students and found that they were not much different from the population which is itself very low. My friends on the faculty were most engaged in getting students from high schools that did not normally send students to Oxford. They are working hard in trying to change the culture around Oxford admissions. It is a big effort since many high schools discourage even their best students from applying, saying the students would not be happy there. So outreach and efforts to change the culture look different there, but they are strong at least among my biology/psychology/anthropology friends at both Zoology and Magdalen. I agree that the interview process is a point of vulnerability for diversity.

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