An old joke goes, “Q: How can you tell if someone went to Oxbridge? A: You don’t need to, they’ll tell you first.”. I’ll prove it right by saying, yes, I did my degree at Oxford. It is university application season and coming into December, it is also the time when Oxbridge applicants will be girding themselves for the apparent ordeal of the infamous interviews.
In most areas, things will have changed so much over the years that personal experiences from the past will have little value. However, Oxbridge moves and changes slowly. From media coverage it seems that the interviews held by Oxford and Cambridge are not so very different now to what they were 22 years ago when I boarded a bus with a handful of others from my sixth form college to spend 3 nights among the dreaming spires.
I was fortunate enough to have attended a state sixth form college with a record of success at Oxbridge entrance that is beaten only by a couple of public schools. Being in Cambridge also meant that the risk of being architecturally intimidated by either of the two universities was low, even though at the time I attended most classes were conducted in temporary classrooms and huts some dating back to the 1950s and there was a frozen food distribution centre in the middle of the school which meant that what is now “the quad” was then during breaks a reversing area for lorries. There was also less of a feeling that competitive universities were not for “people like us” as some of the 1000 students were from academics’ families even if the vast majority were not.
Despite this, there was relatively limited support for applying to Oxbridge. Additional classes were available to discuss the entrance exams and teachers were willing to mark attempts at practice questions. The interviews themselves were not something which we got particular preparation for other than to expect them to be challenging and to try our best to answer questions. I have no recollection of what I put in my UCCA (as it then was) form’s personal statement or that I got any particular feedback or guidance on drafts and rewrites from anyone. I did become aware during one of my interviews that it might have helped if someone had told me it would potentially be a bad idea to have included a joint-honours course as one of my applications to another university: the interviewers at my first choice college picked up on my having chosen “Law and Accountancy” at Manchester to probe my commitment to Law in ways that they wouldn’t have done had I just put down 5 applications for single-honours Law. Hedging my bets for practical and career purposes was perhaps unwise when being assessed on my academic interest in Law by people who had devoted their lives to the academic study of the subject.
Other than that, the interviews I had did not really throw up any peculiar or intentionally obtuse questions. The few wintry days spent in the city and its numerous pubs did give a better feel for what it would be like to be a student there than open days, including the mild panic induced by the message in the porters’ lodge on my penultimate morning inviting me to an interview at my second choice college. That panic was mainly down to being rather hungover and the realisation that my only smart pair of trousers unfortunately rather smelled of the beer that one of my fellow interviewees had inadvertently spilled on them the previous evening in the King’s Arms. Perhaps my ability to perform moderately while hungover and underprepared was what swung it for me at that interview as a good indication of whether I’d cope with real undergraduate life!
The big difference between then and now is the entrance exam. This meant that there was somewhat less pressure in terms of wondering whether I was “good enough” while at interview as I would not have been at interview at all had I not managed the exams with some degree of credit. It also meant that there was something beyond my interview performance and application form for the tutors to see in order to gauge my writing style. Now, as the entrance exam has gone, there is a lot more pressure on candidates and interviewers to get more out of the interview than an assessment of whether either thinks they’ll enjoy spending three years in the other’s company.
Part of the problem with the entrance exam was that it was hard for those candidates who did not have any support or preparation for them. This was, perhaps, less of an issue in my case as I deliberately chose papers that did not rely on specific prior knowledge – having attempted past questions in Maths and Physics I realised that I hadn’t a hope of performing creditably in competition with those who were aiming for science degrees and that Law tutors would only be able to judge those papers on the basis of the marks received rather than seeing the answers themselves. As on this blog, being able to witter away on a number of random topics in two General Papers or to do some unseen English comprehension exercises was more my style and probably not too bad an indication of ability to process the vast amounts of argumentation involved in academic study of law!
Reintroducing the entrance exam would potentially be a positive move to open up access. The issue of the ability of schools to prepare candidates for entrance exams ought to be less significant now than in the late 1980s. This is because it would be much easier to provide more information about the exams, past papers and mark schemes now through the internet. The information advantage held by schools which have more experience of Oxbridge application would be significantly lower and possibly reduced towards zero. If there’s one thing which Oxbridge tutors can see right through either at interview or in entrance exams, it’s detailed and targeted but superficial preparation of “gobbets” like in The History Boys.
Oxbridge shouldn’t however, be fetishised. Oxford and Cambridge are excellent universities but missing out on a place or deciding that other institutions would be more suitable for good reasons is not a mark of failure either by candidates or the universities. There may well be several people in your year at Oxford or Cambridge who go on to lead illustrious careers in the public eye. You might even be one of them. Or, you could be like the vast majority of Oxbridge graduates and move on to mundane obscurity after having chosen not to focus relentlessly on networking and “hacking” in politics, drama or journalism and just getting on with studying and doing what countless other 18 year olds do around the country. Good luck to those who have applied and to those who have chosen to do something else that suits them better.