Oxbridge application season is upon us. Over the weekend there was some controversy over recent BME statistics released by Oxbridge. I’m not going to comment on that here other than to say irrespective of the role that universities should or should not play in redressing the imbalances these statistics suggest, some schools are significantly better than others at preparing their students for Oxbridge. This is due to a huge range of factors which obviously includes school intake but also encompasses long term decisions about curriculum, stretch and challenge for students and high expectations about the universities students are capable of being accepted to. I imagine that in an average classroom at (say for the sake of argument) Westminster School, it is assumed from the lowest years upwards that a great many students will be applying to Oxford or Cambridge and that this impacts significantly on learning within the school (I’m obviously not saying it is as simple as ‘high expectations’ but it is undoubtedly a factor).
All schools have as much a duty to support high-achieving students applying to these universities as they do any student in their school and the best way of doing this is through long-term support. However, what I have tried to do here is to suggest some short term ‘quick fixes’ that may help teachers preparing students for Oxbridge over the coming weeks. These are not gospel by any means, nor are they silver bullets that can replace years of hard work from students and teachers alike. I’m sure that many others have different approaches to this and it would be great to hear about them. I would love for as much discussion, debate and transparency was geared towards Oxbridge preparation as in many other areas of education. Whether or not universities have a role in addressing inequalities in education, schools undoubtedly do. This is my contribution to that debate.
Quick note on my background I studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford 2009-2012 and studied for a Masters in Education that was primarily sociology-based. I work closely with Oxbridge applicants at my current school and help oversee the whole application process along with the Higher Education advisor and a range of willing subject mentors. I now teach maths so am able to support (to an extent) both arts and science applicants (although, as I write below, the core of any support should be from subject specialists, or as close as subject specialists, as possible).
I firmly believe in the power of shared terminology so I’ve shared a lot of the names I use for these ‘techniques’ and ideas here. It makes things easier when asking a student “have you prepared your ‘hit them for six’ answers” or telling them “for the first question you did really well to answer your question like an essay” or “why didn’t you use your five sentence summary here”.
1. Encourage students to pause, think and plan before answering.
Students are often reluctant to do this but taking five or perhaps even ten seconds to plan an answer (time that can seem like an eternity to students) is time well spent. This time should be spent gathering one’s thoughts, checking if clarification is needed, identifying any immediate problematic areas that might arise and deciding how the question will be tackled and help give the impression that the student is a thinker rather than an individual with a tendency to rush in and answer without considering the full implications of what they are saying. Of course this can be taken too far- pausing for too long can could also give a negative impression as being prepared to roll up the sleeves and get stuck in is an important part of the interview process. However, in my experience most students tend towards not taking enough time to think rather than taking too much. (It is also worth pointing out that this does not apply to each and every question- a five second pause isn’t necessary if the student is asked how their journey was or to reconfirmed their name- always gets a laugh when I tell students that…..)
2. Verbalise the thought process- especially when things get difficult.
This is probably my number one tip and is a difficult skill to master. However, for both arts and science studnets it can go a long way both in terms of helping students plan effective answers and cementing the impression that they are a logical thinker. Students find this easy to do when they know what they are doing. Ask a candidate to sketch the graph of y=1/x and doubtless they will talk through the shape of the graph, the location of the asymptotes and why they are at y=0 and x=0 and perhaps talk about whether the function is odd or even. However, when students are asked to sketch the graph of y=e^sin(x) students often go silent as they try to work out what is going on. While some pausing and thinking is good (point 1) interviewers are keen to see what a student is thinking and the only way for a student to do this is talk. For science students carrying out a graph sketching question I encourage my students to develop a bit of an algorithm they can talk through that will give them a good starting point in most cases:
“First I’m going to think about whether there are any values that the function can’t take [student then talks through this process writing down their findings as well as verbally communicating] now I will need to identify what happens as x approaches infinity and negative infinity….how will the function behave around the maximum and minimum points etc.”
Again this is very easy to do when the question is easy but is difficult to do when the material is more unfamiliar. When I ask students about why they aren’t talking the response is generally “I don’t know what to do” or “this is difficult and I don’t want to say something wrong”. However the process of talking through their thoughts often leads to a “lightbulb moment” and even if it doesn’t it shows the interviewer that they at least have the intellectual confidence to attempt to tackle a difficult problem and makes it easier for them to provide a teaching point about what they need to do which will hopefully set them off in the right direction.
In arts subjects, I often encourage students to ‘answer like a mini essay’: tell them what you are going to say (aim for 3 or maximum 4 points-along with the thinking time this helps form a coherent answer) and define key vocabulary, say it and then tell them what you have said, ideally using the wording of the question asked.
An answer of this form might look like this:
“So in considering how a utilitarian might consider the ethical issue of driving without wearing a seatbelt we could consider three things: firstly, what harm could come to the individual not wearing the seatbelt, secondly what pleasure can be derived from wearing the seatbelt, and thirdly what harm (and if appropriate pleasure) may come to others as a result of this choice. So in terms of the to the individual making the choice [talks through the issues] secondly ……and thirdly…… So on balance the utilitarian could consider these issues when deciding whether or not to wear a seatbelt whilst driving and may reach the following conclusion……”.
This skill is difficult. It involves planning and speaking almost simultaneously. However, students can and will get better at it with practice and the payoff is high. It both helps students plan effective answers that don’t ramble and, given how difficult the skill is, shows that the candidate has the capacity for ordered, logical thought (for an indication of how difficult but also how useful this skill can be, try it when driving home a point at the next department meeting). This isn’t a call for students to get on their soapbox and speak uninterrupted for five minutes however and they can and should expect to be challenged at any point. However, by having an initial structure for an answer formed, students are able to answer more lucidly and clearly than they otherwise would. Again, this may not be applicable to all questions and overdoing it may sound contrived. However, surgically and subtly deploying this technique throughout an interview can be powerful indeed.
3. Scientists and Economists must practice sketching unfamiliar graphs.
Time and time again these come up in interviews. Your mathematically minded colleagues, or failing that Desmos, are your friends here. Students should develop an approach to sketching these that is systematic and efficient. Good follow-up questions may include asking students to differentiate the function and using the result to confirm that the turning points are correct, integrating the function or transforming it in some way. Students must be proficient at this skill and fortunately it is something that can be easily practiced.
4. Develop the skill of one and five sentence summaries as ways of responding to textual or graphical stimuli.
Presenting students with an article or graph is a common interview technique but often students get bogged down in the detail of the piece without taking a ‘helicopter view’ first. I encourage, students to attempt to summarise an article and to an extent a graph or table, in one and (roughly) five sentences when first reading it and using that summary as part of their answer.
For instance, a few years ago in an article discussing how legalising cannabis in a state in America may have national implications , when I asked a student to talk me through the article (an easy opening question I thought) the first thing they said was “Representative Jones from the state legislature said that Cannabis should be legalised because xyz and Representative Evans disagreed on the constitutional lists of this because….”. They got so bogged down in the detail of the argument that they missed the real point of the article. This is something that is not uncommon.
By explicitly encouraging students to form a once sentence summary and or a five sentence summary they are more likely to get a handle on the big picture of the argument which they are then able to use in their answer. This isn’t to downplay the role of close reading and detail (as we know, this is often where the devil is), but students should gain a sense of the big picture and general themes before “drilling down” into the details, as well as of course evaluating the arguments and considering possible implications and drawing parallels when necessary. By forming a one or a five sentence summary however, the process will be considerably easier and allow candidates to see the wood from the trees before they venture in!
5. Insist on high quality verbal communication and make students aware of how they look and sound whilst being interviewed.
Candidates should be assessed on their intellectual ability/potential rather than how they speak. However, for a number of reasons how candidates sound, as well as how they conduct themselves during interviews, will inevitably form part of the decision-making process. Hopefully a whole school approach towards high quality verbal communication has been taken already but you can only work with what you have now. It isn’t about eliminating accents or suppressing individuality but it is about appreciating that there is a standard way of using the English language and that students use it in that way. There are two primary reasons I insist on this, firstly interviewers are well-meaning but they are human. If every fourth word is ‘like’ or if students aren’t using the correct syntax in fairly basic cases this does create a poor impression irrespective of how good their subject knowledge is. The second point relates more to essay based subjects. As my colleagues in English often say “if you can’t say it then you can’t write it”. There is a correlation between quality of speech and quality of writing and given that the interviewer may be reading (or enduring!) an essay a week from the candidate, they want the essays to be easy to read and mark.
Physical tics are less important and whilst they shouldn’t play a role in determining a candidate’s success or not interviewers are not robots and on a subconscious level seemingly small things could make a difference. A few quick fixes encourage students to tie long hair back if they have a tendency to fiddle with it or if it falls across their face, if they are standing up working on a whiteboard and they have a tendency to shuffle slightly or rock from side to side, get them to stand with their feet 15cm wider than they otherwise would (try it yourself it works wonders), if they have a tendency to fiddle with their hands, encourage them to grasp a thumb in the palm of their opposite hand and if they fiddle with their sleeves/cuffs, get them to roll their sleeves up. Whilst these shouldn’t make a difference to a candidate’s success, it would be wrong not to address these issues to help give students the best shot possible.
At this stage in the process it is difficult to make dramatic positive changes, however I often say to students that improving by 15 or 20 percent will make a noticeable positive difference. Encourage students to communicate formally in all lessons (students should ‘practice how they play!’) get in touch with their subject teachers and encourage them to correct students where possible. Film students to help them identify any verbal or physical tics that can be ironed out before the interview. This is often uncomfortable for students but can do wonders in identifying small changes they can make to help them be better presented.
6. Use subject specialist colleagues whether they have experience of Oxbridge or not.
Oxbridge interviews are academic and subject-specific. Whilst developing written and verbal communication can be done by a non-specialist, any benefits that might be gained from developing students’ subject knowledge. In an ideal world subject specific enrichment will have been ongoing for some time. Whether it has or not however, there is still time to ensure students get some exposure to subject-specific academic material that will benefit them in their application. Ideally this would probably take the form of a number (yes a number the schools with impressive Oxbridge success rates don’t rely on one or two mock interviews in late November) of subject specific interviews. I am incredibly grateful for the willingness and calibre of the staff at my current school in this regard. If your school does not have teachers with the confidence or experience of doing this then arranging a half hour conversation about an area of the subject about which the teacher is interested can still be very beneficial for the student, especially if preceded by some reading. A conversation about a dissertation they wrote, something the teacher themselves found challenging or regarding at university or a subject-related book the teacher is currently reading can expose the student to new ideas as well as get them used to formal academic discussion about their subject.
Of course if you have teachers that are both willing and able to give subject specific mock interviews then this is gold dust and is something that can really underpin a successful application (most scientists will have a maths component to their interview so your maths colleagues are an incredible resource here). The main take home from this is that subject specialists are a vital part of supporting a student in a successful application. Mock interviews and mini tutorials are brilliant but even just allowing students the chance to talk in an academic context about their subject in a way that goes beyond the A Level syllabus can be very beneficial. Furthermore, often staff involved find the process challenging and rewarding and it is great professional development for them.
7. Don’t start a sentence with ‘because’.
This has been one I’ve really pushed with students this year (the fact that they are beginning to groan whenever I make the point means I’m doing something right). Although to the best of my knowledge it is not grammatically incorrect, beginning an answer to a question with ‘because’ often leads to closed, short answers that lack depth. It also means that students are less likely to go through the process of verbalising their thought process discussed in point 2 and in my experience means that they are less likely or able to view all sides of the argument as they are honing straight in on one particular point. Again this won’t just happen and students should be encouraged to do this across all lessons.
8. Ignore, or at least handle with care, lists of interview questions released by Oxbridge.
In an effort to increase transparency, Oxford and Cambridge periodically release lists of interview questions. The latest batch are here. In the best case scenario, these are accompanied by a short commentary on the question and ways that a candidate might tackle the answer and things that interviewers may be looking for. Often, when reported second-hand, this commentary is ignored. Context is king and in both these cases, to lesser or greater extents, context is lacking. In the link above, the question presented for a Modern Languages applicant is “what makes novel or play ‘political'”. Despite the short paragraph of commentary provided, this is still an intimidating question and the lists do not give due acknowledgement to the fact that these questions will almost certainly be part of a discussion that has come before. Perhaps the interviewer led into a question referencing something an applicant made in their personal statement or had given the student a piece of text about political works of fiction to analyse beforehand. What is unlikely to have happened is for this question to be asked straight ‘off the bat’. Schools with staff with significant experience of Oxbridge are probably aware of this and are able to use these questions to their advantage in their mock interviews as make students aware of the possible drawbacks of viewing these questions out of context. For schools with less experience in this area, the questions can be unfairly intimidating or off-putting to students in a way which they would not be if the proper context is given.
There is a better way. A quick search on YouTube reveals a significant number of mock interview videos (of varying quality). These are more useful to get a sense of the style and format of interviews and get a sense of how an interview develops over the fairly short space of time in which it takes place.
9. Ensure students have their five or six ‘hit them for six’ answers ready, although they probably won’t use them.
Trying to guess Oxbridge interview questions in advance is folly. Upon being offered and interview students often scour college websites looking for their interviewers research interests and areas of teaching but ultimately this is likely to be a waste of time. The level at which the interviews are pitched and the academic calibre of the interviewer means that the range of topics covered is often incredibly broad and not necessarily linked directly to their research interests.
However, I do emphasise for students that there are certain questions they should prepare for. Many of these are unlikely to be asked other than as a bit of a ‘settler’ as they aren’t particularly academic in nature (though it might lead down a particular academic avenue) but if they are asked these questions, they should be prepared to ‘knock the ball out of the park’ as they are the only questions to which they can plan their answers in advance. They include:
- Why this course?
- Why Oxford (very unlikely but again it would be foolish not to prepare an answer)
- What have you covered recently at school that has interested you and why (this one does come up and is often used as a jumping off point for discussion)
- ANYTHING relating to their personal statement. What do you mean by…..what did you think of ……..book etc.
10. Remember that interviews are just a part of the process.
Interviews are a vital part of a successful Oxbridge application but they are just a piece of the puzzle. Pre-interview tests, references, predicted grades and personal statements all help tutors develop a picture of the student as a whole and can both help tutors sift out students before the interview stage or make up for a slightly below par interview performance. Pre-interview tests in particular have over the past 9 or so years increasingly become an important part of the evaluation of candidates (a fascinating fly on the wall account of the admissions process at Oxford can be found here).
This has two implications. Firstly, don’t focus solely on interview work. All of the tests can and should be prepared for and specific knowledge is needed to succeed on them. This is despite the Admissions Testing Service’s Website making the utterly false assertion that the Thinking Skills Assessment, used for a wide range of arts courses at Oxford and similar in style to a number of the Cambridge pre-admissions tests, “is a test of skills and aptitudes that students already possess”. This is a statement that damages the prospects students applying from schools less familiar with the Oxbridge application process. For instance, off the top of my head, I know that amongst other things, the TSA requires knowledge of:
- The definition of a conclusion
- The definition of a premise
- The definition of an assumption
- The definition of
Those more in the know (rightly) prepare students specifically for the tests.
Bonus: Encourage any arts student to subscribe to The Economist or at least try to ensure your school’s library offers it. They offer both a print and a digital subscription (with a pretty nice app for the smartphone generation). This really is an investment. The quality of the articles is high, the breadth of reporting consistently amazes me and the analysis is generally very sound and covers both technical economics and finance as well as politics and current affairs. Like any publication it has a political and economic bias (free market capitalism, pro free trade and globalisation and generally fairly social liberal) which it is worth making students aware of but in terms of how much students can gain from reading it, I’ve yet to find a better alternative (pair with a quality daily paper for maximum efficacy). I’m not on commission honest!
As stated above, these are short-term ideas and quick wins that can support students applying. The real work takes place in the medium and the long-terms. However, with interviews being around 6 weeks away, hopefully a few of these ideas could be useful to you if you are supporting students applying to Oxbridge. Any further suggestions, comments or ideas get in touch!