My Interview Experience

When you apply to Oxford, you begin a series of stages which come to define the autumn months of application season. September is the writing of a personal statement, October the sitting of an entrance exam. November is when you submit an essay and sit nervously waiting for word, and then December (if you’ve been fortunate) is the scariest part of all.

The Interviews.

Interviews at Oxford, at least in my experience, are a strange affair. You leave home for a few days (in my case four!) and get to live in your desired (or assigned) college. You spend the vast majority of the time meeting people from around the country and around the world, forming the mayfly friendships that only intense exposure can forge, and generally getting excited about being in a city which has just been a word on your UCAS form for the last six months or so. But, crucially, for several twenty minute slots, you are ripped away from this cosy excitement and placed in front of a world expert in the subject you hold dear to demonstrate your worth and decide the nature of your next three to four years.

It’s bizarre, to say the least.

With the interviews creeping ever closer, I thought it might prove a good time to reflect on my own experiences of them to see if there is anything that may be of worth. I had three interviews (one of my personal statement, one on the Modern History essay I submitted, and one on Ancient History) and wasn’t pooled (sent to another college for interviews there) so I recognise that it’s not universally applicable. But I do think that the lessons I learnt from this are useful to everyone.

If you’re reading this, though, there is one important piece of advice I absolutely have to share but any other: It’s okay. You’re where you’re meant to be. Just try to enjoy it as much as you can, and be yourself. There’s no point in getting into Oxford if it’s not as your own person.

Interview 1: Personal Statement

At Merton, the interview timetables were posted on a huge board in the Common Room. I spent so much time, waiting for updates on pooling or dismissal. You’ll have to get used to this!

This was the first interview I had at Oxford and, honestly, I adored it. When the time came (10:20), a friendly student ambassador led me from the JCR to Grove, a beautiful part of Merton in the far corner. There, I was asked to sit outside an office- Dr Grimley would be out for me in a second. So I sat, and I waited, and seconds seemed to stretch for as long as it takes a hummingbird to peck away a crystal mountain. And then the door opened and he led me in.

This interview involved going through my personal statement. Not in an interrogative way, where I was asked to justify every line I’d written (although I was completely prepared for this) but in a much stranger fashion. I’d written about Suetonius and Plutarch, and Dr Grimley asked me to explain who they were as if he’d never heard of them. And so I did, sharing the things I found interesting- not impressive, or particularly intellectual, but just interesting. This was an opportunity to show why I enjoyed those two writers enough to put them in my personal statement, and in that sentence enjoyed is the key word.

Occasionally, I’d prompted with interesting questions- how did they write their history? What’s the impact of that? I spoke about how they both took a biographical approach, and I took the risk of bringing up their influence over Shakespeare. The conversation, like a river, began to naturally bend in a new direction. No body knew the destination, we were just enjoying sailing.

After a bit, Dr Grimley said, “Well, I think we’re about to run out of time.” The other gentleman in the interview (there’s always one or two extras, to make notes whilst the main interviewer questions. Don’t worry- they’re all rather friendly) kindly pointed out we still had five minutes left.

The feeling of having had such an engrossing conversation that the interviewer lost track of the time was perhaps one of the most euphoric of my life. After that moment, I felt as if I was on a cloud- he asked me simply to explain Blackpool’s local history (I’d mentioned it in my personal statement). I don’t think it was to particularly find anything deep, just to give me an opportunity to show what I was enthusiastic about.

This is the first thing I think is important to know about your interviews. You’re not there to show off how clever you are or how much you know- you’ve been doing that in admissions tests and essay submissions. The point, at least in my experience, is to show off your passion. Never forget- as much as you’re here because you want a piece of paper saying BA or BSc (Oxon), the reason you should really be here is because you love your subject.

This is the ideal opportunity to show it, with a nice excited chat!

Interview 3: Ancient History

Both myself and Rachel Lo got places at Merton, and now have weekly tutorials with Professor Prag in Fellows 4.7. It’s surreal.

I know I’ve skipped Interview 2 but we’ll come back to it- that way there’ll be a more satisfying narrative arc. This was my third interview, and it was different to the other ones in a variety of manners.

At the allotted time, I was led up from the JCR to the landing outside Fellows 4.7. The student ambassador gave me a piece of paper that held on one side an extract of an ancient source I’d never seen before, and on the other some inscriptions. (I’m not giving more information in case I spoil the surprise for this year.) I then had ten minutes or so to read them, and notice anything I found interesting or wanted to ask questions about.

Ten minutes of frantic reading and thinking followed, and then I was welcomed in. Any tension that may have been formed was instantly dissolved- as with Interview 1, the interviewers were rather lovely and the fact that I couldn’t stand up properly in the office (I’m 6’7 and Fellows 4.7 is the attic room of a building built between 1608 and 1610). Once seats were taken and all were comfortable, the interview began.

The first five minutes or so were spent with me just explaining what I’d thought about the piece of writing. No drilling questions, just comments on the text and the inscriptions, with occasional expanding questions such as ‘What does this tell us about the Romans in this time?’ Or ‘Why do you think this detail is included?’

After I’d explained my findings, I was asked if there were any questions I wanted to ask. My big thing at the time was understanding who historians (and how this influenced them) so I asked for that information. I’ve got to admit, my heart sank. Amongst the information divulged was that the piece was a contemporary account written in the second century BC. Although I love the Romans, at the time my knowledge began with Sulla and ended with Nero- anything around that was an amorphous blur! What on earth would I do?

Well, I spoke about things fairly generally, and whenever I faltered I asked for clarification or for more information. It was gratefully given and from that I could base all my observations on either the texts I’d been given or the information handed over. It felt that like I was being shown different paths, and it was simply up to me which ones I decided to proceed down.

The great part about this was that, if none of the paths looked particularly appealing, I could choose my own. The conversation, in time, began to bend around towards Cicero, towards Augustus’ forum and the Lares (my northern accent and the interviewer’s received pronunciation admittedly clashed over this particular Latin word). I was completely free, when I was confused or unknowledgeable, to move towards things I understood better.

I think, at least in the interview preparations provided to my sixth form by outside source, there was a mentality of the interviewers trying to catch us out, a call for us to know everything, to be able to outfox any question or inquiry. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The interviewers are looking for people they’ll enjoy teaching: let them guide you if needed, or watch you in pride when you have a good idea. It’s not a chance to prove your knowledge so much as an opportunity to demonstrate your capacity to learn, and to learn you need to embrace the fact you don’t know everything.

Socialising At Interviews

So, the interviews are the most important part of the process but the most time consuming is actually socialising. As everyone is in the same boat (disorientated, nervous, excited, inspired), you quickly forge close alliances with lots of people- I can only liken it to the whirlwind friendships of school trips where for a week you become soul bonded with them and swear you’ll be mates forever, and then as soon as you’re off the coach back home you never speak to them again. It’s strange and it’s wonderful and I encourage you to make the most of it!

The JCR during the interviews, where you’ll spend most of your time waiting, playing Uno (which is such a good game, I discovered) and making friends

It’s also a taster for the Oxford experience as a whole. Because a high percentage of the people you meet at interviews get in, you’ll inevitably make friends at interviews that you can hang out with in Fresher’s Week whilst you find your feet (or, alternatively, all term in the case of my college wife who I spent most of the last day of interviews talking to about French new wave- hi Liv!)

The thing I would say about socialising is that you shouldn’t take anything too seriously. A lot of people at interviews are like peacocks- covered in bright colourful feathers, but actually just an elongated chicken underneath. When conversations inevitably arise about things you don’t know about (French new wave, TS Eliot, playing Uno, any classical music in my case), you have two options. Be a peacock and show off the one fact you know as if you’re an expect, or just roll with the opportunity to learn new things- you’re in a crowd of incredibly clever people, you can’t possibly know everything. I left with a new found love of Eliot’s Four Quartets, happily enraged memories of the Uno switch card, a desire to check out Holst and confidence in my distaste for Le Samourai (sorry Liv!)

Interview 2: Submitted Essay

The reason I left this to last is because it was the one that didn’t go so well. Coincidentally, the interviewer happened to be an expert on the subject my essay was on so that certainly didn’t improve matters much, but even detached from that the interview was hard. The essay had sought to prove Thomas Cromwell was the largest factor for the reformation in England- the interview asked why not Henry VIII, why not Anne Boleyn, why not the European Protestant trend? These were all valid arguments, and I’d considered a couple of them in my essay, but the depth here considered was out of my comfort zone and out of my bank of A Level knowledge. I felt like I needed to have read dozens of books only a true academic would even know existed, I felt disaffected and lost and a tiny bit useless.

And so, when I received my offer of a place in January and received my interview feedback, I was very surprised to see that I’d got a 9 out of 10 for that interview- same as the other two.

A few weeks ago I was chatting to some of my historian friends about their experiences of the interviews and each of them had had one interview that seemed harder, harsher and less encouraging than the others, in most cases it was Interview 2 on the submitted essay. And yet, they all got places here at Merton.

Now it’s entirely possible that it’s just a coincidence. There’s always going to be one interview that isn’t as good as the other two, and perhaps the need to defend your argument rather than to simply share your passion is what defines the difference. Alternatively, maybe the interview is designed to stress you out, get you on the wrong foot… I don’t know. But what I do know is this: lots of people have one experience that isn’t fantastic, that is far from fantastic even. I’ve met a few people at Merton who actually cried during their interviews, had to outright admit they had no idea. And they still got places.

The interviewers aren’t looking for you to know everything about anything, but rather to be willing to give it a go. As long as you are interacting with the questions or the material the best that you can, as long as you’re trying with as much enthusiasm as you can muster, there’s nothing more than can be expected. And if you think it’s all going horribly wrong… chances are, it’s probably not. After all, what I thought was my worst interview was as good as any of the others.


So, I think the biggest tip I can give for the interviews is to just enjoy yourself. It’s stressful and strange and there is no way you can truly prepare for it, but it’s also wonderful. You get to meet likeminded individuals, you get a taste of independence, you get a chance to share your passion with people whose career has been built on that same feeling. The interviews will be a memory that’ll be with you forever. Make it a good one, and the chances you’ll get the opportunity to make many more.

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