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.
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.