When Harry Potter and his friends realize dark and dangerous times lie ahead, they organize a group – Dumbledore’s Army – where they can practise defensive magic to prepare themselves for battle. However, as Hermione so keenly remembers, the most important advice Harry offers the DA is that no amount of rote learning can protect you from the unexpected: ‘You said it wasn’t just memorizing a bunch of spells, you said it was just you, and your brain and your guts… well, wasn’t that what Snape was saying? That it really comes down to being brave and quick thinking?’
When applicants ask me for Oxbridge interview advice, this is always the quote that springs to mind (primarily because it means I get to compare myself to The Boy Who Lived.) It is tempting to believe that X amount of baggy Victorian novels consumed, or Y amount of historical dates learnt by heart, will be the golden ticket which opens the door to your dream Oxbridge college. Sadly, this is not the case, at least for Humanities subjects. What Oxbridge tutors really want is to see you think on the spot, and to see courage in your suppositions – for you to be ‘brave and quick thinking.’
Let me give you an example. Before my first English interview at Oxford, I made the mistake of asking the previous candidate how it had been. She shrugged uncertainly – ‘Oh, he handed me a prayer to read…’ Before I had time to consider whether I had now unwittingly broken the rules, it was my turn to face the music. Offered the same poem, in my nerves I barely took in the paper, and immediately blurted ‘a prayer!’ when asked to define it. The tutor looked quizzical. ‘More specifically?’
I looked at the poem again, more slowly this time, and recognized with surprise pretty much the only poetic genre I knew – a Petrarchan sonnet. This answer went down better, and from that point on I had the confidence to share what I really thought, rather than what I thought these tutors wanted to hear. Later, when faced with an unintelligible poem by someone called ‘Hopkins’, I did my best to guess for a nightmarish, uninterrupted ten minutes at its themes, rather than trying to redirect the interview toward a place I was comfortable.
Of course, as Harry Potter also says, it’s always down to luck in the end – with another text I might easily have bombed. But you increase your chances of success a thousand fold if you resist that tempting urge to regurgitate prepared information. This is NOT AT ALL to say you can’t prepare – but this focus should shape your priorities. Instead of mindlessly slogging through War and Peace every night, debate texts you’re passionate about with your friends and parents: what does the success of Harry Potter novels tell us about Britain today? What is the difference between writing for children, and writing for adults? Should a book be studied, just because it is popular?
There’s no doubt that you need to read widely and well before your interview. Equally, you should develop special interests outside your A level syllabus, acquaint yourself with poetic techniques, and know a few early modern authors besides Shakespeare. But don’t forget to read literary criticism, too – and to discuss these new modes of thought out loud. All you can do is encourage yourself to keep thinking, so that when the time comes, you’ll be brave enough to think on the spot. And not even a perfectly executed Bat-Bogey Hex is more impressive than that.