So you've been invited to interview...

published 25 November 2016

How I learnt to stop worrying and love the interview.


With unalloyed joy, you’ve just learnt that Oxford found your application plausible enough that they’ve invited you to interview. This means you must have done OK on your TSA test too. Perhaps you’re not a complete imposter, after all? Your elation has lasted, oh, minutes now but wait, what’s that nagging feeling? The interview is only ten days from now? Not distant enough to forget about it for a while nor soon enough to ride the wave of adrenalin. Oxford interviews are infamous for surreal, ‘out there’ questions from other-worldly dons who haven’t left their ivory tower for the past fifty years, aren’t they? If they haven’t worked it out yet, they’ll surely now discover that you’re an imposter at interview, won’t they?


Well, no and no.


It’s easy to feel unworthy at this stage and fall prey to the thought that your entire life will soon be defined by a short set of exchanges with some people who may well be the world’s authority in an area of research so impossibly specific you’ll struggle to remember the title of their doctoral thesis. How could you possibly impress them? The admissions interview is something that Oxford and a precious few other universities offer and is something to seize hold of and cherish. Every applicant to Oxford has excellent A levels and has written a reasonably literate personal statement but neither of these is likely to have given an admissions tutor much of a clue as to what you’re really like. Be glad you have this opportunity to show them who you are.


Let’s move from the second person to the first. The foregoing describes exactly how I felt. After the initial thrill of the invitation to interview, I was wracked with anxiety: the perfectly excruciating wait before the event; the hanging around in college with other nervous (and occasionally cocky) candidates while waiting for your name to be called, followed by the ham-fisted attempts to appear relaxed when you finally sit down on that harmless-looking armchair of destiny. 


But wait, five minutes into my inadequate attempts to justify my thoughts on some aspect of the workings of democracy it dawned on me, I’m enjoying this!


The reality is that should you be offered a place, you will be there to learn. Of course your interviewer knows more about the subject than you. You might think that the interview is all about you and for once, that’s mostly true, but your interviewer is also doing their best to imagine what it might be like to tolerate your presence for repeated tutorials together over the next three years. Are you interesting and interested? Can you think around an issue and not simply regurgitate a received view? When an argument you considered so carefully-wrought is forensically dismantled in front of you, do you relish this or withdraw into your shell?


Abandon any notion that you can act your way through it. Your interlocutors have seen it all before. This is liberating. Enthusiasm, engagement and intellectual flexibility will stand you in good stead. Dogma and rigidity of thought will not. Listen to their questions with great care and take a moment to break the question down. What are they trying to get at? Ask your interviewer if you don’t understand something: seeking clarification is a sign of an enquiring mind. Don’t hurtle in to an insufficiently developed answer but equally, don’t be afraid to change direction if you find that your response is heading down a blind alley. The interviewer wants to see how you think and exploring your thoughts aloud is very much the equivalent of showing your working on a maths paper. Doing so gives the interviewer an opportunity to steer you in the right direction should you be veering off-course. 


It’s tempting to think that in such elevated surroundings, a flamboyant and virtuosic display of mental dexterity is somehow required to distinguish yourself from the rest, when usually, all that’s being sought is sensible, considered clarity. Precision and rationality are rarely best-expressed with florid language. 


While the stakes probably seem higher than at any previous moment of your academic life, try, if you can, to forget this and enjoy the moment. It’s a privilege to be there and you’ve done very well to get this far. By embracing the interview, you’ll be fully yourself. Afterwards, there’s an unavoidable temptation to pore over the entrails and beat yourself up over what you might have said differently. Try to think about something else entirely, it is nearly Christmas, after all. And you might be getting some good news soon.

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