“Tell me something interesting you’ve read recently” – the question (well technically statement) that can make or break your Oxbridge Interview.
This part of the Oxbridge Interview offers a unique chance to take charge and move onto a topic you want to talk about. This double-edged sword can be a great opportunity to flaunt your extra-reading, or, show a distinct lack of interest in the subject you are applying for. Here are a few dos and don’ts that will help you prepare.
How to choose what to read
Firstly, though this may seem obvious, pick something you’ve actually found interesting. No matter how good an actor you are, the Interviewers will be able to distinguish between genuine passion and interest, from someone trying to fake it. Find an interesting article/paper/recent discovery/topic to talk about in the weeks before the Interview. This shouldn’t be too hard and there are plenty of places to look.
When searching for an ‘interesting topic’ there are some places we would recommend starting before you plunge headfirst into literature searches, review articles and research papers. Start with BBC News. This will give you recent developments in brief detail with quick summaries. This can be a good starting block for further reading. Another good starting point are pop-science magazines like New Scientist. These give you nice overviews of current ‘hot topics’ and more detailed summaries of modern developments.
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How to read into the topics further
The next step is to read into the topic further. This doesn’t have to be extensive, but you want to be able to give a brief explanation of what you’ve read and, most importantly, why you have found it interesting. I would also recommend reading around topics related to your chosen topic and the ethical and legal complications it may have. This reading should be more general and does not have to be in too much depth.
The aim of this is to prepare for the Interviewers who will use your topic to explore your wider knowledge of the field or use it to pose an ethical/legal question. An example of this for Medicine could be an ethical question such as “should new expensive cancer drugs be funded on the NHS when they can only be used to treat a small group of patients?”.
Answering the question
Tell me about a novel you’ve read recently
A weaker candidate will simply summarise a text, whereas a stronger one will analyse it. For example, if a candidate has recently read ‘Oliver Twist’, they could discuss it within a context: for example, how does this book differ from other Dickensian novels or Victorian novels, or even modern novels the candidate has read? What do they think of the story’s use of comedy or perhaps the characterization of Nancy or Oliver himself? Why do they think this is considered a ‘classic’? How do they think the structure affects the story and does a consideration of the novel’s roots – as a serial printed in instalments in a magazine – affect the way the candidate reads the novel as a whole? Does the movement from segments to a single volume improve the work or do they think something has been lost in the translation?
A candidate is invited here to show the thoughts that have arisen through their reading and to make a judgment. They can explain what they find interesting or enjoyable, or why they disliked a work or found it uncomfortable. Beyond simply having a reaction to the text, a stronger candidate will also explore their reaction to the text: if they felt frustrated with a certain character, why do they think this was? Was it the author’s intention or a limitation in their skill? Does the context of a work affect its reception – do Dickens’ idealised characters charm a certain audience and not another, and is this due to different time periods or social, economic or religious contexts?
Whatever time or location a text originates from, consider it on its own in comparison with other things you’ve read within its context, and consider why and how it elicits a reaction from you as a reader.
The answer does not necessarily have to mention all these different aspects, but it should mention the title and then an analysis of the text, showing what the interviewee finds interesting about the piece of literature, whether he or she likes it or not.
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Avoiding pitfalls and final words
There are also some easy pitfalls that are worth avoiding. Don’t tailor your topic to the Interviewer’s area of interest (if you are able to discover this prior to the Interview). Though you may think this is a great chance to show a shared interest and score some brownie points, they are likely to see through it and use it as an opportunity to grill you on the topic. Make sure you still understand what their expertise is though, questions outside of reading may be related to it.
If you genuinely are interested in their area of research, then go for it – just be prepared. Also, don’t pick something from the syllabus unless you have read into it outside of an A-level textbook. Picking these topics makes it look like you aren’t interested enough in a topic to keep up-to-date with current developments and shows a lack of originality.
This truly is an example of ‘fail to prepare and you prepare to fail’, but used right, it can make you stand out from the crowd!
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