English, as you must have realised by now, is all about multiplicity and different interpretations: as such, there is no standard “English Interview”, and no one answer that will wow all our subject’s academics. They could ask about x, or get you to talk about y: it varies from one person to another. Having applied to one college and got pooled to another, and being accordingly interviewed by both, I can confirm there is no set pattern.
However, do not panic, would-be Englings: this is not a case for alack and alas. There are still some exercises and tips I can recommend, to make you feel more prepared, more calm and, in all, be a better student for this art. There is no such thing as wasted time in English; the skills you develop from, say, reading and thinking about one particular text can be used for another, completely different one. Think about this process as an investment in your academic future, not just quick cramming for some sort of test before you even start the course.
1. Do not rest on your laurels, keep reading!
Good grades are an excellent thing, but they are not enough on their own. You have to demonstrate not just that you are good at English GCSE/AS Level, but that you are invested in the subject. Are you still reading outside of your syllabus? Are you asking questions? Have you been thinking about the questions that riddle English? What makes something “literature” and something else not? Look at the university’s description of the course again and ask: why is it you want to study this particular course, why are you interested in the questions about literature it engages in? It is important to keep reflecting on your field, and to continue to expand on your reading. If this sounds like a chore now, how do you think it will be when this is your primary academic task?
2. Cover your bases
At my first interview, I was asked what poetry I enjoyed, and ended up blurting something out about not reading much poetry. I was then quizzed on why this was the case. I was completely shaken up for the rest of the interview. Please, learn from my mistakes! If you usually just focus on prose, pick up a poet. My interests are predominately drama and prose, but after three years I have not avoided the lyrical; it is simply necessary. See where any obvious gaps in your Personal Statement or submitted works lie, and address this. Pick up a poet, or novelist, or playwright. Figure out what you like and do not like about the individual, and if you hate it, search out and find one you like. Try to understand why the particular genre is so important to the canon. Also, why not try reading another Shakespeare? It is always a good thing to have read another Shakespeare, whether he comes up (as he did in two of my interviews) or not. You are going to have to get quite well acquainted with him by the end of your degree, in any case, so now is a good time to start.
3. Read well
Another graduate friend of mine urged me to explain the importance of reading well, not just widely: skimming the complete works of Dickens will not serve well in an interview, as you will have nothing interesting to say on the writer, whereas an informed, connected interrogation of Oliver Twist will allow for some interesting discussion and a chance to show your analytical abilities. There is a balancing act between expanding your knowledge and literary awareness, and still committing enough to individual texts, but this act will aid you well in your degree.
4. Consider other views
Think back to the texts you discuss in your Personal Statement and submitted works. Think of what you said about them. Think of how another person might disagree or argue with these points. Have you original views changed? Is so, why, if not, why not? It is possible your interviewer could draw you out into a debate. This does not automatically mean your point is viewed as wrong or stupid; rather, debates show that you can actually consider conflicting arguments, and learn to evaluate them. Show this: your powers of evaluation. Sticking to one answer dogmatically or quickly hiding from confrontation with automatic conceding will not impress. Take in what the other person is saying, and explain why you agree or disagree.
5. Always pause and think!
Interviews are nerve-wracking. They can have an effect on the cockiest applicant alive. Acknowledging this, realise it is the same for everyone, and the most important thing to do is to keep thinking before answering. You might be asked something you could not have expected, or have to discuss a text you have never seen before and that seems alien to your previous literary experience (in one interview I talked about a piece from Chaucer, whose language I had not encountered before). The interviewers are aware that you are most likely being surprised and are having to think on your feet. That is why they have chosen this method of interviewing, so they can see how you deal with new information. It is OK to ask to clarify a question or for some more information. Mistakes may well be made in this process. For example, I made a sizable error in my second round of interviews: when asked who the Chaucer piece was by, I suggested Robert Burns, explaining I thought this because the piece seemed to be in some dialect (actually, it was middle English). Of course, I was wrong, but this did not destroy my chances: ultimately, I got into the college. I showed an effort to figure things out, and explained my working. This was better than me trying to explain in a panic that I actually did love poetry and throwing out the name of T.S. Eliot as an example of one I admired. Knowing you are more likely to say silly things when under pressure, it is important to make sure you have thought before you have spoken! Make sure you are responding to questions, not simply rehearsing sound bites you have prepared before. Make sure that your answers show a clear, logical thought-process, not just a random collection of frenzied ideas that do not cohere. Moreover, be careful of the words you do use. English supervisors will be particularly alert to lazy language or clichés!
Oh, and as Urusula would say, “never underestimate the power of body language” in the interview room. Now go get into that dream Uni!