I had two interviews at the college I applied for – one in physical geography and one in human geography. The interviews took place at the college in early December, and I was required to stay in college for at least two days. I was also told that I might be required to stay for a third day if additional interviews at other colleges were requested (this wasn’t the case for me but is quite common at Oxford).
Both sessions lasted just over an hour and had two interviewers per session – a college fellow in geography and a DPhil (PhD) student. The interviews were fairly casual in the sense that I wasn’t expected to wear formal clothing or address the interviewers by anything other than their first names – academics in the UK generally prefer not to be called by their professional titles of doctor or professor, though there are a few exceptions.
There were no pre-interview assessments – while I was told there might be a paper for me to read beforehand, this was down to the interviewers’ discretion so in my case wasn’t used. The discussion in the physical geography interview was wide-ranging, from being shown an image of a coastal spit and being asked to explain why it was there, to a discussion of the evolutionary adaptations of the trilobite, and what we can learn about geography from how natural disasters in the Global North and South receive very different media coverage.
This interview was quite informal and friendly in tone, and felt more like a discussion than an interview – the aim of this was to give me a flavour of how tutorials work, as these are intended to be discursive rather than just question and answer sessions.
The human geography interview was more like a debate. The interviewers started off on a combative note as we discussed the causes of and possible solutions to the UK housing crisis. The interviewers took strong positions and expected me to do the same – this was initially a little intimidating, but I soon got into it and enjoyed the debate. While both interviews were intellectually challenging, at no point did I feel like the interviewers were asking me trick questions or trying to catch me out – they seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say and the arguments I made. There was little or no reference to my personal statement.
There were a number of surprises for me at interview. The first was that I my first interview was scheduled only a couple of hours after I had arrived at college, so I didn’t have long to prepare! The second surprise was how little preparation was actually possible – there was no reference in either interview to my personal statement or grades beyond a request to talk through my slightly unusual choice of A levels in the human geography interview.
The interviews themselves are very much designed to test how you think rather than what you know – cramming facts and figures beforehand won’t be of much help in Geography interviews, since the interviewers know everyone who has made it to this stage have studied very similar topics at school and have got excellent grades. The main surprise, however, was how much I enjoyed the experience – staying in college, meeting other applicants, and exploring the city with new friends was extremely good fun, and I’m still friends with people I met at interview a full 6 years later.
I didn’t do an awful lot of preparation for the interviews if I’m honest – my school did do a mock interview with the Geography teachers, but as my school had no experience of getting people into Oxbridge for this subject, I didn’t find that particularly useful. I made sure I knew my personal statement inside out, but the interviewers didn’t dwell on it – however, I talked about a book I had read in my statement which came in very useful during the physical geography interview and which I drew on to form some of my arguments.
I would advise doing this – it’s normal to mention reading around the subject in a personal statement, and rightly so, but make sure you really know the text – re-read it in the week before the interviews if it helps. Also make sure you’re up do date with current affairs – current (geo)politics, natural disasters, and other topical events are common points for discussion in interviews. I stay up to date with politics via the Guardian and BBC, and with environmental and philosophical issues through the websites Earther, Grist, and BLDGBLOG, and would recommend any of these sources as useful material for candidates.
Before the interviews I would recommend doing something that helps you relax – I lay on my bed and listened to some soothing music for about half an hour before my first one, which helped calm my nerves.
Interviews are a whirlwind of new ideas, experiences, and people. While I was initially daunted by the prospect, I actually enjoyed myself immensely, due to the many new and like-minded people I met and the fascinating discussions we had.
The experience of living in the historic college and having an insight into the tutorial way of learning made me realise that I would fit in at Oxford and reassured some of my worries about the attitudes and people I would find there.
Go for it and don’t listen to any voices saying it might not be for you or that you’re not good enough for Oxbridge. Go into the interviews with an open mind and make sure you talk the interviewers through your thought process.
Don’t be tempted to try to impress them with grandstanding and rhetorical flourishes – instead, talk about things that you’re interested in and passionate about, rather than what you might have preconceived notions that an Oxford professor would want to hear. Above all, enjoy it!