Dr Sophie Duncan is Fellow in English at Christ Church, University of Oxford. She works regularly as a historical advisor and as a dramaturg for theatre, TV, radio and film. She likes theatre, detective fiction and cocktails.
Today was my last seminar class at Somerville. Despite having got the mad dash up St Giles down to a fine art (soy latte from the bigger Pret on Cornmarket – the only place that doesn’t charge extra for soy…), the terrible weather means that it’s not something I’ll miss. I will miss the college itself, though. Vaughan Building (where we had our seminars) may be a bit of a cancerous growth as far as architecture grows, but the red-brick buildings are beautiful, and I’ll never forget being urged by the porter to ‘look for the magic hedge’. Somerville also has a college cat (a sleek, disdainful college cat), which is to be applauded.
We were also privileged to witness two of our three American postgrads eating their first mincepie (one of them, the v lovely L, had previously emailed us all in consternation to ask whether mince pies contained ground beef, ‘Because that’, she said, ‘is just nasty‘). They approved. I then had a rather manic half-hour BUYING THINGS in town (Christmas things. Including, er, a Christmas tree. A pink one), before setting up camp in the Upper Reading Room, trying to make my essay work.
This week is already going better than last week, when I got hideous hideous food poisoning and joined the ranks of the sick already massing in Oxford. M’college, my much-loved but occasionally alarming seat of learning, seems to be slowly killing the first years. One staircase now has the air of a tenement building – everyone on it seems to have been ill at least once, and it’s also the centre of the JCR Mumps outbreak. A particularly nasty picture of What To Look For now adorns a lower landing. I think people will be mostly glad to go home. Before the lurgy descended (but not just before, there’s no cause-and-effect), I had my first dinner at High Table. Privileges of a postgrad, &c. This was v good fun, apart from a) some consternation about how, exactly, to drink the water (Answer: from the enormous silver tankards, which made me feel like I was a doll using a giant’s tea-set) and b) the fact that, when seated on the huge carved chairs, my feet don’t actually touch the ground. I felt like Goldilocks at some medieval birthday-party (I was also, as it happened, at the foot of the table). Processing in to a silent, standing hall, was a bit surreal.
Last night was the Christmas Carol Service no. 1. I did a reading – the one about Joseph being minded to put M privily away. On account of him having, it seems, slight doubts about the provenance of her unborn son.
This is the last week of full term at college – next week, most of the undergrads will go home, and their potential replacements will arrive, for the joyful/chaotic/hideous experience that is the Oxford Admissions system. Candidates are finding out now whether or not they’re being called for an interview (cue incoherence on the interwebs) and hopefully most will be pleased.
There’s been plenty of talk about interviews & admissions already in m’college’s MCR – some senior postgraduates have been helping to mark the written work & test scores that undergraduate candidates submit, while some of the Rhodes & Marshall scholars currently pursuing postgraduate study are getting emails from their prospective successors. I came up for interview three years ago next week, and my strongest memories of the process (back in December 2005) are, now:
1. The brand new coat my mother had bought me, and my terror of spilling something on it.
2. Almost being eaten by my tutor’s then-sofa (it was an ancient green affair with no springs – the kind where, when you sat down on it, your knees immediately hit your chin).
3. The terrifying girl who brought her scrapbook on the War Poets.
4. Forgetting how to spell the word ‘plain’, and
5. Playing some very competitive Scrabble with other candidates, the next morning.
I was extremely frightened, and – as I thought – made an idiot of myself. While my first interview was hugely enjoyable (and flew by), my second interview passed in a blur of brain-fudged horror, wherein I forgot everything I’d ever known and cowered beneath the (as I thought) well-meaning sympathy of a tutor who’d just discovered an idiot. I staggered out, thinking ‘Well, that’s that gone, then’ and was offered AAB a week later. Just goes to show. This was of course back in prehistory, before ELAT and mandatory AAA offers and written letters of acceptance (my tutor phoned me, and got cut off halfway through his message on our machine), but the principle remains. It’s not a dreadful experience; an interview that feels like hell can be a surprisingly good omen, and nobody, nobody expects you to know everything (or why would you be here?). Two girls from my old school are being interviewed for my subject this week, at different colleges (Brasenose, I think, is one) and I’m v excited for them. Fingers crossed. Also, whether or not you win at Scrabble makes no difference (I think I genuinely believed that the JCR might be bugged to detect our intellectual ability as some sort of, I don’t know, tie-breaker). So they claim.
The whole process is still shrouded in secrecy, though, with the Guardian asking in 2006 ‘How did you survive your Oxford interview?‘ (Oxford, not Oxbridge – is Cambridge seen as more civilised?) and plenty of interview horror stories out there on the web (Merton JCR has even felt moved to comment on this, telling students ‘You should not regard your interview as some sort of unnatural horror‘). I do think that some individuals and companies have a vested interest in making the process sound much worse than it is: one article in The Times, linked here, has a list of fairly awful-sounding interview questions (nobody I know was asked anything along these lines – although, incidentally, I’d rather be a novel, to answer q1) and amounts to a thinly disguised puff for a company that tries to help students pass the interviews (er, and none of the comments are by me). Some organisations do do very good work, however, in preparing candidates – the Sutton Trust has, for the past eleven years, run summer schools to help Year 12 pupils who might not otherwise apply to university (e.g. those with no family background of university, but with high academic potential themselves) experience university life. Their subsequent Oxbridge success rates are near-legendary (see the Facebook groups).
From within the university, there’s actually a 2007 blog run by the Oxford Director of Undergraduate Admissions, which seems to me to reflect the care and attention that colleges put into the Admissions process – not just in terms of selection, but in making sure all the candidates (who, let’s face it, are all pretty impressive 17/18/19 year olds) have as painless an experience as possible. One successful candidate, reading Modern History & Politics at Merton, wrote about his experience here. Some interview candidates even have fun, although for god’s sakes, don’t have too much fun – yes, there are lots of pubs, and yes, probably you’ll know/get to know some fun people, but this is your Oxbridge interview, just go to bed and read a book.
If, after that, you’re still looking for a formula for success, here’s a list of 20 top tips for surviving the Oxford interview – by graduates.