A Point of View: The Oxbridge interview

  • 27 November 2011
  • From the section Magazine
  • comments
Trinity College, Cambridge

Mary Beard reflects on the purpose of the much-maligned Oxbridge interview and defends the "would you rather be an apple or a banana" school of questioning.

I am about to undergo a strange transformation. By this time next week, I will have ceased to be a decent, hard-working university teacher, attempting to educate and inspire the next generation.

Instead, if you believe all those press accounts, I shall have become a hide-bound, eccentric and slightly sadistic old don enjoying a few days humiliating some very bright and very nervous teenagers.

In other words, I shall be conducting Oxbridge interviews, posing all those unfair and silly questions that not even 27 A*s at GCSE could possibly prepare you for.

You'll find them listed with gleeful horror in the papers - "How do you know that California exists if you haven't been there?" and "Would you rather be an apple or a banana?"

A few weeks later, when we've made our decisions, there'll be the inevitable sequel - a front-page story about some impeccably qualified candidate (usually female and photogenic) who has been turned down thanks to utter incompetence on our part or outright discrimination.

The local MP will most likely be fighting her cause (out of a genuine sense of injustice, maybe - but Oxbridge-bashing is also a favourite sport across all political parties, and a reliable route to a headline or two, in the silly season after Christmas). Before long, there will be demands that these hopeless amateur interviewers get some training or that the process be taken out of our hands altogether.

Simon Hughes was suggesting earlier this year that interviews should simply be handed over to professional administrators - as if the choice of students to read Latin and Greek, for example, would best be made by people who knew not a word of the languages concerned. (And quite why university interviews are thought to be inherently unfair, whereas no-one bats an eyelid about job interviews, beats me.)

The good news, though, is that this media caricature is exactly that - a caricature. And most of the scare-mongering is plain wrong (just for the record, Mr Hughes, we do have interview training). Inevitably, I - or we - make mistakes.

Image caption Which would you rather be?

Nobody but an idiot would pretend that they had an error-proof way of choosing the "best" out of hundreds of perfectly qualified applicants - not for university or for anything. But interviews are a useful part of the process, and, whatever you read, they're really not full of those malevolently unanswerable questions like, "What happens when you drop an ant?".

OK, occasionally in the course of an interview I might bowl a googly. "What did the Romans wear under their togas?" is my equivalent of the "apple or banana" teaser. But actually it's to help, not to hinder, the interviewee. I usually pull it out as a last resort, when I've tried every other way of steering the candidate off her long, carefully-learnt speech about why Virgil (or Horace, or Tacitus, or whoever) is the best author the world has ever seen.

Look at it my way; my priority is to get the kids to talk themselves into a place, not talk themselves out of one. And as for those scandalous rejections, we know that it can feel very unfair to be turned down. But the headlines are only one side of the story. The local MP can say what they like - I cannot reveal the secrets of the interview room, beyond those platitudes, true as they are, about the intense competition.

But if these stories are so misleading, why do they live on? Partly because of the "Oxbridge myth". In real life, Oxford and Cambridge are two excellent universities, like many others in the country. They are full of highly intelligent, hard-working and quite ordinary students and teachers.

In our collective cultural imagination, however, Oxbridge means the dreaming spires - a kind of massive Bullingdon Club where rich undergraduates still flaunt their boaters and blazers, and dotty dons get sozzled every night on the college port (while hoping to avoid the Inspector Morse-style murders in the quad).

Of course, for most of us, this isn't remotely how it is (I've not tasted port for 30 years and, apart from bicycle theft, the crime rate in Cambridge is low). But truth isn't the point here. The "myth of Oxbridge" has its own momentum. It's a quirky fiction - fuelled by the British preoccupation with class, privilege and elitism, and by shared anxieties about inequality, exclusion and the function of education. Despite our best efforts, the whole process of applying has become part of the myth too.

Image caption Beware the "myth of Oxbridge" - with its dreaming spires

But it's not just about Oxbridge. We've come to take it for granted - but actually the whole business of university applications in this country, for any university, is needlessly tortuous. The end result might be OK - happily many kids get where they want to go.

But the route they have to take is more difficult and stressful than it should be. It relies on ridiculously minute distinctions between exam grades, it demands shameless self-marketing from the students on their application forms, and it operates according to a timetable that any outside observer would say was plain bonkers.

No wonder it all looms so large.

One of the odd things is the student's personal statement, which most universities - heaven help them - now rely on instead of an interview. Even when I applied in 1972, this was known to be risky territory. I still remember trying to dredge up something to write about from my frankly rather dull life as a teen-aged swot.

I had read quite a lot about the American Black Power movement and wanted to mention that. "Absolutely not," said my school, thinking it would make me look like a junior revolutionary.

Twenty years later, my elderly mother soon got the measure of the local school kids who would call on her looking for something "charitable" to insert into their personal statements. They would knock on her door in the autumn term asking if they could "visit" her. She had, she would explain, a very active social life not likely to be much enhanced by chats with a 17-year-old - but if they wanted to put "I visit an old lady" on their university application form, she was sure they could come to a temporary arrangement.

Today's statements are much less concerned with good works, and are often uncomfortably corporate in style - weaving together clever quotations from Shakespeare and Aristotle with carefully constructed personal anecdotes, to create an implausibly perfect impression.

They're so professional that they have to be put through "plagiarism detection" software - which apparently many fail.

Image caption Better find out what's under the toga before next week

I've also seen, over the years, a few nasty examples of dirty competition between the applicants themselves. The worst was in my first job, when the application form was not yet online, and when there was still a question on it about your proposed career. On the form of one applicant, some classroom enemy (or irresponsible jokester) had crossed out "lawyer" or "teacher" or whatever safe bet the kid had written down, and inserted instead - clearly in another hand - the word "gigolo".

You can imagine the flurry of embarrassed letters from the school when this came to light - and the punishment that must have been meted out to the culprit.

But more than anything, it is the bizarre timetable that makes the application process so preoccupying. When we say in January or February that someone "got in" to their chosen university, we don't actually mean that. We mean that they will have got in if they achieve the grades demanded by the university in their summer exam, which even if all goes well, drags out the nail biting for a good six months.

If it doesn't go well and they don't get the grades, they enter a whole new round of applications in August. This is a frenetic process, with applicants tracking down the remaining unfilled places by email and phone - then being given maybe a few hours to accept a place for a course they haven't really explored at a university they know little about.

The chief executive of UCAS, the body which runs the application process, has said that we really have to consider moving to a system in which most places are allocated not before, but after the crucial exam results are known.

It would involve more upheavals than you can imagine - from the impact on the university and school year and the timing of the exams, to the traditional family summer holiday and the arrangement of visas for foreign students. It may turn out be too difficult to arrange. But it's one big thing that would take the unnecessary heat out of the whole process.

And, me, I hope that the change might be brought off.

But perhaps you're wondering what happened to gigolo boy. Well, it takes more than a prank to derail a university department. He got in and did well, and must now be in his 40s. How he's earning his living, I wish I knew.