Posted: 9 October, 2014

Getting a headstart on Oxbridge preparations

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The day began at 9:30 with an introduction from Olivia and her team of Oxbridge Applications tutors. Each tutor had graduated from Oxbridge at degree level and many were working on further qualifications. The hour that followed contained many valuable pieces of information. We were each handed a subject specific booklet containing a case study of a student at Oxbridge as well as past interview questions, such as “Is the gender of the protagonist important to the novel” and tips for interviewing. After reading these we were encouraged to share stories of interviews we had heard before. These included a tale about a girl being interviewed by sock puppets whilst the tutor hid under the desk, and a case of a student being handed a human skull and asked to talk about it.

During this session we were also given the opportunity to answer an interview question, “How many piano tuners are there in New York”, in groups. The aim of this exercise was not to come up with a concrete number but to acknowledge that when faced with these questions you need to respond calmly and begin by qualifying each part of the question. For example, ask the interviewers “What is a piano tuner?”or “Does this relate to the state New York or the city?”. We were informed that often the answer you give is less important than the path you take to get it and what skills you use to reach it.

After a quick break we were grouped into subjects. Each group was led by a tutor who had studied the given subject at Oxbridge. My group was led by Jemma who had studied English Literature at Cambridge and was working towards finishing her phD. For me this session was invaluable because it was a chance to branch out from the school curriculum and talk about something completely different with someone who was incredibly knowledgeable in that field. Our discussion stemmed from extracts given; much like you would be given to consider in an interview. We started with a passage from an Ian Fleming novel (Casino Royale), before comparing a Shakespeare sonnet with a Simon Armitage poem and concluded by looking at an extract from the literary criticism Death of an Author by Barthes. The latter was fascinating, especially as it had only been written in the last century and was completely different from anything I had ever looked at before. Our conversation moved from the role of the author in his work to the relevance of the novel and on to fabulation in fiction.

The final group session focused on the process of the interview. We were advised on the importance of body language and the difference our posture could make in an interview. We also were split into groups of four and one person was interviewed by another whilst the other two analysed the interviewee. This was surprisingly challenging especially as we had to talk about our subject in front of our peers for the first time which made you feel oddly vulnerable. For me the most valuable part of the session was when a tutor from an Oxford college spoke to us about how the interviewers feel during the process. This was very enlightening especially when she revealed that for the first year she interviewed students she too was nervous. Another anecdote that she shared particularly resonated with me. The tutor told of how she had interviewed a student for law who had managed initially to get every question posed to her wrong. However, despite this the student was the first to be offered a place for that course because she demonstrated the ability to take on new information from the interviewers and verbalise her thought process which showed her incredible reasoning skills.

The last, and most nerve wracking, part of the day was a one-on-one interview with a tutor. Although I definitely felt nervous during my interview it was also really interesting. I was asked to discuss a Larkin poem called Summer is Falling which went well at first but I became confused when asked about the meaning of the line “Their beauty has thickened” and had to be helped out. We then had a more general discussion about literature which was really stimulating and forced me to consider things in more depth than I had before. I walked away from the interview feeling less nervous and also that I had slightly redeemed myself.

Overall the day was invaluable and thoroughly enjoyable. It went into detail about every aspect of the interview process and eradicated most of my qualms in each area. It also persuaded me that whilst it is a difficult process it can also be an interesting process. I feel the skills I have gained mean even if I don’t get into Oxbridge it will not have been a waste of time at all. I would recommend to anyone considering applying to Oxbridge to go for it, even if you have some doubts, as you never know what you are capable of unless you try.

Gina Marsh, Deputy Head Girl

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