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No easy answers – Oxbridge interviews: The teacher’s perspective

  • 17 January 2020
  • By John Plowright

This guest blog has been kindly contributed by John Plowright, a former History teacher in an independent school and the author of various History textbooks, who has advised hundreds of pupils on their admission to higher education, including Oxbridge.

Oxbridge, despite the best endeavours to widen access by the two universities, constituent colleges, successive governments and the Sutton Trust, is still widely viewed as a bastion of elitism, with the Oxbridge admissions interview at the dark heart of the process perpetuating privilege.

The cases of Tracey Playle and Laura Spence certainly focused attention on the alleged iniquities of the Oxbridge interview. For any who don’t remember, Tracey was reduced to tears in 1997, after Dr Eric Griffiths allegedly mocked her ambitions and Essex accent at her interview to read English at Trinity College, Cambridge, whilst Laura, another state school pupil with excellent GCSEs and A-level predictions, was rejected for a place to read Medicine by Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1999, on the grounds that she was thought to have performed less well at interview than the other candidates.

Laura’s headteacher expressed the suspicion that her being from the north east of England had counted against her, and Gordon Brown made a speech in which he claimed that she had suffered discrimination by ‘an old establishment interview system.’It is still assumed in some quarters that the privately-educated applicant, having the benefits of received pronunciation, personalised tuition and practice interviews in architectural surroundings not dissimilar to Oxbridge by ‘beaks’ as eccentric as any Oxbridge don, need have no reason to fear the real thing.

Expressions of discontent with the Oxbridge interview system have not, however, been restricted to the left of the political centre. In 2001, for example, following a survey of more than 10,000 students from 460 schools conducted by the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference in conjunction with the Girls’ Schools Association, independent schools complained that many of their applicants suffered ‘rude, abrasive and arrogant’ treatment at the hands of their Oxbridge inquisitors. 

It seems Oxbridge can’t win. Short of equipping dons with bodycams, their interviewers are always liable to be accused of disadvantaging some applicants as the result of rank snobbery or misguided social engineering. 

This is not to say that unprofessional conduct never occurs or to condone it if it does but it’s worth reflecting that interviews are, in their very nature, highly unsatisfactory as a means of assessing people – even if they are rarely as disastrous as that conducted by Ed Kemper’s parole psychiatrist who judged there to be ‘no psychiatric reason to consider him to be a danger to himself or any other member of society’ at precisely the time when part of Kemper’s latest victim lay outside in the boot of his car. 

Oxbridge appreciate the limited value of interviews and have a battery of other means of assessing the suitability of an applicant, including: examination performance and predictions; submitted work; the UCAS Personal Statement and school report; and the results of tests taken during the interview process or beforehand, such as the Cambridge Law Test or Oxford’s History Aptitude Test. But it is also true that the difference between success and failure may ultimately come down to a highly subjective interview assessment of something as nebulous as an applicant’s ‘potential’. 

Any interviewer worth their salt knows an interviewee needs to be put at their ease if they’re to have a chance to perform well. But time is at a premium, notwithstanding the fact that fewer applicants are now called for interview (having been weeded out by written tests), and thus candidates should expect quite swiftly to be taken out of their A-level (or equivalent) comfort zone and tested on their ability to think for themselves. As the late Kevin Sharpe put it ‘interviews are not tests of knowledge, or even primarily of reading. They are intended to explore the potential of candidates, their capacity to make connections, to think broadly and freshly … to think “outside the box”.’

One problem is that questions designed to elicit candidates thinking outside the box can easily be seen, especially taken out of context, as impossible, esoteric or passive aggressive. A classic instance is ‘Tell Me About a Banana’, the subtitle of Rachel Spedding and Jane Welsh’s So You Want to Go to Oxbridge?: a guide to the Oxbridge admissions process, which offers many other examples of apparently bizarre interview questions. In fact, it appears that the seemingly random banana question arose from the fact that the candidate to whom it was posed had written about plantains on their personal statement. It’s worth remembering that several enterprises which present themselves as shedding light on Oxbridge admissions actually have a commercial incentive to retain the sense of mystery, particularly that which surrounds the interview.

Oxbridge have taken important steps to try to demystify the process by releasing sample interview questions (and answers), offering advice and posting mock interviews, although one suspects that the latter bear about as much relation to the real thing as Christopher Hitchens volunteering to be waterboarded.

In 1985, the BBC broadcast a ‘fly on the wall’ documentary series called Queens’: A Cambridge College. ‘Getting In’, the first of its ten episodes, followed students – both state and privately educated – through the admissions process. Although obviously edited, this recorded the questions and responses from actual interviews, as well as showing the dons engaging in post-interview reflections on what they’d seen and heard. This enlightening programme is still available via YouTube, although changes to admissions procedures have rendered it dated.

Wouldn’t it therefore be a good idea for a new documentary of this type to be made? The number of applicants to Queens’ shot up in the aftermath of the series being televised and even those who didn’t get in at least had the opportunity to vent their spleen on film. Everyone would be a winner, not least those who still find the Oxbridge interview an object of suspicion and distrust.

HEPI’s work on Oxbridge includes How Different is Oxbridge by Charlotte Freitag and Nick Hillman

18 comments

  1. Colin McCaig says:

    Interviews measure social class background not intelligence or potential. Universities are there to educate not measure. There is no educational justification for interviewing candidates.

  2. John Plowright says:

    Colin, I’m glad that you agree that the highly subjective interview assessment of something as nebulous as an applicant’s ‘potential’ is a dubious enterprise. I would, however, query two of your assertions.

    Firstly, your claim that interviews “measure social class background” carries with it the suggestion that this is for the purpose of excluding persons of a certain (presumably working) class. If that were true then Oxbridge would not admit applicants from all classes, which is manifestly what it does, although we – and Oxbridge itself – might well agree in thinking that the proportions between classes could be improved.

    Secondly, your assertion that universities “are there to educate not measure” is one I’m sure all students and many teachers (at all levels of education) might cheer but what precisely would take the place of examinations?

  3. Charlie says:

    “… Tracey was reduced to tears…independent schools complained that many of their applicants suffered ‘rude, abrasive and arrogant’ treatment …It seems Oxbridge can’t win. ”

    What a strange conclusion. If both state school candidates and independent school candidates complain about the behaviour of interviewers, do you really think that means Oxbridge “can’t win”? Is not a move obvious conclusion that there is a clear problem with the behaviour of interviewers?

  4. “But it is also true that the difference between success and failure may ultimately come down to a highly subjective interview assessment of something as nebulous as an applicant’s ‘potential’.” I agree.

    In 1989, I was invited to attend an interview for a place on a law degree programme at one of the leading universities in England, professional courtesy forbids me from naming the university – the experience was horrific. When the professor interviewing me discovered that I was, at the time, working at one of Macdonald’s fast food restaurants in Gloucestershire for my keep, he abruptly ended the interview, declaring very loudly that I was wasting his time. He gave me a piece of his mind that I should concentrate on flipping hamburgers rather than entertain dreams of becoming a barrister. “The English Bar was not meant for people like you,” he said. Evidently, he was wrong in his assessment….

  5. John Plowright says:

    Charlie, thank you for your observation, I certainly try to avoid stating the obvious but I wonder if your own conclusion is quite as obvious as you claim.

    If you stated that “that there is a clear problem with the behaviour of certain interviewers” then your remark would be unexceptionable but to imply that there is a clear problem with the behaviour of all, or even most, Oxbridge interviewers is not, I think, borne out by the facts.

    What, after all, is the evidence for such a belief? Even a survey of 10,000 independently educated students is ultimately a compilation of hearsay. Hearsay, moreover, provided by people with a vested interest in blaming someone else for their own failure to win a place. My reference to bodycams wasn’t entirely facetious.

    As I hope I make clear in my piece, I’m not denying that there may be problematical interviewers, though I suspect the student who complained (in the aforementioned survey) of a don lying down on a sofa and pretending to go to sleep while their interview was in progress was more probably witnessing a moment of Rees-Mogg-style languor than an elaborate mind play and presumably (as they don’t state otherwise) the interviewee continued to enjoy the full beady-eyed attention of the other don in the room.

    What is deemed rude, abrasive and arrogant behaviour can be highly subjective. For example, how often will the strong contradiction of an interviewee’s argument – something bound to happen in any worthwhile interview – be misinterpreted in those terms?

    At the risk of repetition, I’m not saying that unprofessional conduct never occurs or to condone it when it does but my money would be on the late Dr Eric Griffiths being very much a rogue interviewer, in both senses of the word.

  6. John Plowright says:

    Stephen, I’m very glad we’re in agreement and obviously horrified to hear of your experience.

    I don’t think I’d be able to show your forbearance in not naming the institution concerned, although one hopes that things have now changed there.

  7. albert wright says:

    Interesting article. Given the important role an Oxbridge education can have on the fortunes of those who attend, it is good to learn about the range of factors taken into account and the methods used in addition to the interview.

    Achieving diversity in the mix of backgrounds of the student intake is important for social cohesion and on balance should deliver a positive benefit to all those involved.

  8. John Plowright says:

    Thank you, Albert, for your positive response, with which I wholly agree.

  9. Sue Ridyard says:

    I was interviewed at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, back in 1975. The interviewer took one look at me and said “I’ve interviewed you already.” When I contradicted her, she insisted. When I contradicted her a few more times, her response was “Oh — it’s the hair. You all have hair like that. When are you going to get it cut?” Needless to say, this particular interviewer didn’t notice my potential. Fortunately, Girton College, Cambridge did, and I’ve been a professional historian (and friend of John Plowright) for more than 30 years.

  10. Aasia Shafiq Chaudhry says:

    Yes, I do agree that interviews are not the most appropriate way of judging the ‘potential’ of a university applicant. The outcomes of an interview can depend upon both the interviewee and interviewer’s personal nature. Some interviewees may be of a more reserved nature than others, and struggle to open up and communicate their thoughts and knowledge as well as other interviewees, perhaps due to nervousness or other factors such as a lack of experience in interviews, and therefore interviews may not always reflect an applicant’s true potential/suitability for a course. Of course, private (and grammar) school students also have more opportunities to develop interpersonal skills, such as during mock interviews, and this tends to put them at an advantage during the interview stage.

  11. John Plowright says:

    Thank you for your apposite observations, Aasia. The episode of the Queens’ documentary I referred to above certainly sheds some interesting light on some of the points you raise.

    This is, for example, an instance where one of the dons realises that a boy who stutters may be more inclined to abridge his answers by virtue of that fact: an example of a good interviewer being sensitive to the fact that a particular interviewee (albeit, ironically, in this instance a privately educated one) may be struggling to communicate effectively.

  12. Cath B says:

    The allegation that interviews measure social class not intelligence or potential could never have come from someone who’d seen an interview for maths or natural sciences – they are all about problem solving.

    Yes, it is undoubtedly true that some schools can really boost candidates’ chances by giving them substantial experience of such stretching questions. But that says more about secondary education than anything else – why do there exist schools where no maths teacher has a maths degree?

  13. Harry Hortyn says:

    John, thanks for a thoughtful piece – I strongly agree with the your point around the industry that’s grown up around helping people “get in” is often commercially drive. At Universify, we work with disadvantaged students and bring them to Oxbridge colleges for a summer school and Easter course to help demystify the process…

    We’d love to be involved in your documentary if anyone comes back to you on that!

    Best wishes,
    Harry Hortyn
    Universify Education

  14. John Plowright says:

    Sue – very much St Hugh’s and Oxford’s loss and Girton’s, Cambridge’s and my gain.

  15. John Plowright says:

    Cath B, thank you for your contribution. I think we’re in accord.

  16. John Plowright says:

    Thanks, Harry, for your positive response. Having just looked at your website I can see you’re clearly engaged in doing some really valuable work in broadening horizons and realising untapped potential. If any documentary film-makers are indeed reading this perhaps they’ll appreciate that your activities would make a very interesting programme in their own right.

  17. Nick Biskinis says:

    What astonishes me is that when it comes to seeking to widen the appeal of eg Cambridge to those from more disadvantaged backgrounds, Oxford and Cambridge see this purely as a question of rebutting images of elitism and not straightforwardly examining whether their own processes and procedures ensure people are put off. For example one very obviously outdated practice staring both universities in the face is that people cannot apply to both Oxford and Cambridge. And this absurd policy (which is only a relatively recent stipulation) simply perpetuates the notion of Oxford and Cambridge as problematic or restrictive as opposed to just competitive.

    In Cambridge’s case this rule also magnifies one of its disadvantages in the Humanities – the near total lack of opportunity to study a joint honours degrees – eg Philosphy and German or English and French. So it will continue to lose people who decide to go for Oxford (or KCL, UCL etc)

    So both universities have to advocate a positive reason for someone talented to apply at whatever level and indeed whatever age – not simply say ‘Apply to Cambridge /Oxford- we’re not all posh !’ and assume that in itself is a compelling proposition.

    One major feature concerning Oxbridge diversity or widening social background of students is the near absence of age diversity as a consideration; those particularly from disadvantaged circumstances may only develop their academic potential later on in life. Universities like Birkbeck realise this. Should the two oldest universities also not understand the benefit of later life students?

    A final reflection is that – possibly post Covid-19 the future undergraduate in the Arts at Oxford and Cambridge may be someone of 18 at a college. Or it may be a 37 year on line doing Honour Moderations or Part IA Tripos over two years. The latter would means a much more affordable opportunity that also would widen access without deprecation of standards.

    So Oxford and Cambridge will have to change more in the next 18 months than they have done since the war

  18. Paarul says:

    I think the whole “tell me about a banana” question adds a huge shroud of mystery to what is actually an academic conversation which is designed to see how you think, rather than catch you out. I believe that students (especially in STEM subjects) and their teachers need to presented with a realistic view of what Oxbridge interviews look like, if we are ever to level the playing field.

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