Getting into Oxbridge: Drop the Act

We hear a lot about ‘performance’ these days; too much, if you ask me. Perhaps it’s my disciplinary jealousy as a historian, but I blame the social scientists with a taste for literary criticism who talk about the ‘performative construction of social reality’. We’re ‘performing’ all the time apparently. Lately, though, you’re just as likely to hear this sort of stuff from an HR guru proffering interview advice. We’re told we have to ‘perform’ success to be successful. Ask what this ‘performance’ involves, and you’ll hear about ‘charisma’, ‘assertive body language’ and other elusive characteristics. This approach to interviews may, as I say, have obscure origins in academia, but it’s not supported by my experience of conducting undergraduate admissions interviews at Oxford. 

Don’t believe the story of the Oxford candidate who set alight the newspaper from behind which his interviewer was ignoring him and was rewarded for his chutzpah with a place. Neither interviewers nor candidates have time for such performances. For humanities subjects at least, interviewers have half an hour to assess a candidate on their interest in and talent for their subject. To succeed, a candidate must use their verbal language to demonstrate these qualities in conversation with the interviewer. It’s a straightforward task but not an easy one; and I hope the following tips will be helpful for those beginning to prepare their Oxbridge applications. 

The best way to demonstrate your interest in your subject is to read about it. This might seem obvious, but you’d be surprised. If you’re unsure where to start, have a look at the further reading recommendations in your textbooks or reviews and articles in specialist magazines like The New Scientist, History Today, and The Times Literary Supplement. As well as reading about particular areas of your subject, you might also want to read about its theory and method. Start reading now and you should have plenty to say in your personal statement.

If reading about your subject demonstrates your interest, discussing this reading fluently and compellingly, in both your personal statement and your interview, demonstrates your talent. Reading alone is not enough: you need to analyse and criticise your reading materials, making judgements about them and connections between them. The many essay competitions run by colleges and universities for sixth formers over the summer offer great opportunities to do this. They encourage you to structure your reading and articulate your responses. Success in a competition will also enhance your application, especially if it’s run by the college or institution you’re applying to. You also demonstrate your talent for your subject in any written work you submit with your application, and you should select this work carefully. Not only is it assessed by admissions tutors; it may also form the basis of a conversation in your interview. You should be prepared to defend and answer questions about the work but also to reflect on how it relates to your wider interest in your subject.  

By approaching your Oxbridge application as an opportunity to deepen your engagement with your subject you’ll find it to be a rewarding process whatever the result. If you’re called to interview in December, you should even try to enjoy it. It may be the only interview of your life for which no ‘performance’ is required. 

Written by Matthew Ward

Matthew has a History DPhil from Oxford and has held admissions and teaching positions at St Hugh’s and the Oxford History Faculty. He has also held a fellowship at Christ Church where he worked with the college’s access and outreach team.

Matthew supports our work at Next Step Foundation, Registered Charity 1191176 as well as the Bonas MacFarlane Higher Education team.