What are Oxbridge admissions tutors really trying to assess during the famously gruelling interview process? Dr Matt Williams, Access Fellow at Jesus College Oxford, shares “four Cs” used to gauge candidates’ suitability for a much sought-after place.

Oxbridge interviews have taken on near-mythic status as painful reckonings. The way they are sometimes described, a trial by ordeal sounds more appealing. 

I used to think as much, before I became an interviewer at Oxford. I’ve worked on politics admissions for several colleges for years now. And “work” truly is the verb here. Admissions tutors and officers at Oxford and Cambridge work very hard over months to ensure they choose the best applicants, and do so fairly. It’s honestly heartening to see how committed tutors are. 

It is not even remotely in our interests to put candidates under emotional strain. So a mythic sense of interviews as tests of psychological resilience is nonsense. At Oxford and Cambridge we invite prospective students to come and stay in our colleges, eat in our dining halls and chat with our students and staff. As you’d hope from any professional job interview, the process is friendly, transparent and focused on encouraging the best performances from candidates. Below I’ve outlined a few concrete ideas as to what we are looking for, and how students can prepare. 

In the interviews we tend to scribble down notes as the candidate is talking. But what exactly are we recording? What makes for good, mediocre and bad performances at interview? I record lots of data during interviews, which can be collated under four Cs. These help us gauge, accurately, a candidate’s academic ability and potential. This ultimately, is all we are testing at interview…

1. Communication

Candidates do not need to be self-confident and comfortable in expressing their ideas. Our successful candidates are mostly just normal people, with the sort of self-effacing humility you’d expect from a randomly selected stranger. As such, candidates should not be put off by cock-of-the-walk types who seem instantly at ease in our ancient surroundings.

We are not judging candidates by their ease of manner, but we do judge candidates by their ability to communicate. Meaning that candidates need to be able and willing to share their thinking as clearly as possible. Even if a candidate nervously glances at the floor and speaks softly, provided they answer our questions and help us understand their views they will be performing well. 

More specifically, we are seeking answers to the questions we pose. There may not be a single answer, but it is not terribly helpful if students try to wriggle out of responding to us. As an example, the following question doesn’t have one correct (or even any correct) response:

“Can animals be said to have rights?”

Candidates need to avoid the temptation of saying either that the question is unanswerable, or sitting on the fence. Such responses are, to be blunt, intellectually lazy. We commonly have candidates “challenging the terms of the question” and thereby not answering the question at all. That is easy. Anyone can do that. Far harder is sticking your neck out and offering a solution, however tentative, to a very complex puzzle. 

That said, we’re not expecting candidates to alight on their preferred solution immediately. So candidates should “show their working” and talk through their ideas as they coalesce into a solution. They can challenge aspects of the question and enquire about the wording. It may take the whole interview to come up with an answer, but at least an answer of sorts is being proposed. 

2. Critical thinking

The question as to whether animals have rights is contestable. We will challenge any answer a candidate offers to see how they can defend their position. We are not expecting the candidate to drop their resolve and agree with us, but nor should they cohere rigidly to their position if it is clearly flawed. The important point is that candidates are open-minded to the possibility of other, perhaps better, solutions to the puzzle at hand, and a willingness to critique their own thinking.

Often candidates feel that they have done badly when they face critical questioning. Far from it. This is normal and reflects the fact that they have answered the question and given us (the interviewers) something to explore further.

3 and 4. Coherence and Creativity in argumentation

When posing critical questions we may encourage the candidate to identify incoherences in their case. Let’s say they argue that dogs have rights, but racing hounds do not. This could be a category error and we might ask whether they meant to say that all dogs except racing hounds have rights, or if they have made a critical misstep in the case.

Again, having a point of incoherence identified is not a bad sign. What matters is how the candidate responds. If they fail to recognise or resolve a true incoherence, that could suggest an inability to self-critically evaluate an argument.

Creativity, meanwhile, is something of an X-factor. We’re not expecting utterly original thinking in response to our intractable intellectual puzzles. But we do appreciate a willingness not to simply parrot ideas from A-level, or from the press. We appreciate a nascent (but not fully formed) capacity in a candidate to stand on their own intellectual feet. 
This is where candidates can (but don’t have to) draw on wider reading or other academic experiences they have had. A lot of candidates are keen to show off what they know, but we’re testing how they think. So, we don’t want long quotes from highfalutin sources, per se; we want the candidates to come up with their own ideas, even if those ideas are half-formed and tentatively expressed. 

The bottom line is that we are not looking for perfection, or else there would be little point in seeking to educate the candidates. We’re looking for potential, and it is often raw potential. Therefore willingness, motivation and enthusiasm all play a big part in the four Cs as well.
Dr Matt Williams is the Access Fellow of Jesus College, Oxford University. That means he is an academic, and works to open up the university to students from under-represented backgrounds. He came to Oxford in 2006 to take his Masters and Doctorate in political science. He has since held lectureships at seven Oxford colleges, and has written on uses of language in politics. You can follow Matt and the Jesus College Access team on Twitter @jesus_access.

Find out more…
Join Dr Williams on 25 April for a webinar exploring the independent thinking and learning skills needed for success at a leading university, and how schools can help young people develop these. Log in to our members’ site for details and to book your place.
Monday, April 15, 2019