Oxford Interviews: An Updated Guide

Hi everyone,

As the invitations to MML interviews have been coming out this week, I’ve been receiving lots of questions about them, so I thought I’d make a new blogpost about the experience and what you can do to prepare. There’s some MML-specific advice in here, but the rest is just general. I’m going to add the regular disclaimer that this is all my personal opinion, that every interview is slightly different, that experiences differ between subjects, tutors and colleges, and please not to sue me if what I say doesn’t match up with your experience. Thank you. I have also included some of my friends’ top tips for interviews, so keep reading!

You may remember the post I wrote detailing my experience some years ago – I had my interviews in 2011, which is 5 whole years ago, meaning I currently feel incredibly old. This post here is an account of my German and Spanish interviews at Magdalen College when I was in Y13, so I’d suggest you read that first.

Getting there

Your email will tell you the days you need to stay in Oxford: yes, you do need to stay for the full four or five days. In my case, I had both my interviews on the first day and nothing thereafter, and this may be the case for you, but you need to stay just in case you need to be interviewed at other colleges. I know school is really busy at the moment, but your teachers will understand. If they don’t, then that’s their problem. You shouldn’t need to take time off school to prepare, but – off the record – I’m aware not everyone is coming from similar backgrounds: I had to work at the weekends all through sixth form and wanted even just a day to pack and to read through my personal statement, my written work and the books I’d mentioned, but my school kept saying “Well, you have the weekend,” as most of my peers didn’t have to work. I ended up “calling in sick” and using that time more to give myself a bit of a mental and emotional breather before the hectic interview experience, which I found really valuable. In terms of actual preparation, though, most of you should be fine not taking any extra time off school.

If you have any access requirements – like a condition that prevents you from walking for very long, for example – please make sure you let your college know as soon as possible so they can make appropriate arrangements, like organising taxis to other colleges. If you’re coming from far away, you can usually request to arrive the night before: the college only has limited space, though, so if you can reasonably make it early in the morning (as I did!) then try to do so. Make sure you have the right contact details with you in case you’re travelling on Southern Rail or something and you’re delayed significantly. In general, whatever your requirements, don’t be afraid to ask your college in advance: it’s what they’re there for!

Most places are walkable from the train station, but Google Maps does recommend a number of bus routes to quickly take you from the station to various places around the city, if walking is not an option for whatever reason (say, if it’s raining). There are also taxis at the station which don’t normally cost too much: you should have change from a tenner.

Don’t feel silly for bringing a suitcase, especially if you’re staying multiple days, but equally don’t worry if you forget something. There are lots of shops and supermarkets where you can buy things like tights and toothbrushes. Check the weather before you come: in December 2011, a hideous storm was raging the week I was here, completely destroying my umbrella, so definitely be prepared for both freezing cold and torrential rain!

Staying in Oxford

You can bring heaps of work if you want to, but you may not get very much done – it’s a unique opportunity to explore a new city, make friends and hang out with interesting people. See what events your college is putting on and try and attend if you can – I’m not sure I attended any (and if I did I can’t really remember), but most people really enjoy things like the movie nights and ice cream trips! The majority of the people you’ll meet are lovely, intelligent and a little bit nervous, and will generally welcome someone brave enough to smile and introduce themselves. Hopefully you won’t meet anyone who is deliberately intimidating or nasty, but, if you do – as I did – try and give them the benefit of the doubt by remembering that everyone is a little bit on edge and thus not quite themselves. It’s definitely not a competition, nothing you do in your free time is being assessed, and the tutors don’t care who sounds the cleverest during your intellectual conversations over breakfast. Don’t worry about people who make a point of talking about how much they’ve read or how clever they are – they’re either just really excited to be around similarly intellectual peers and haven’t quite learned to tone it down yet, or they’re just overcompensating (just like those people who enjoy telling social media about how they’ve been revising for 14 hours straight!).

(The mean people didn’t get offers, anyway.)

Oxford is a very safe city and you should be fine walking around at any time of day or night by yourself. It can be a little confusing, so make sure you have Google Maps or a physical map to get you back to college if you wander off! Try to check the noticeboard a few times a day. At Magdalen, we were given meal tickets for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and keys to our rooms, so try not to lose anything you’re given! Keep your belongings safe by remembering to lock your door.

There are a lot of cute cafes and shops in the city centre – some of them have a card limit, though, so don’t forget to have cash on you! Check out the Covered Market and the Broad Street Christmas Market if you have time, and try not to spend all your money in Blackwell’s!

Interviews

First of all – wear. what. you. want. Within reason – please don’t freeze – but no one will care whether you wear jeans or a suit. I promise.

Try and arrive a little early just in case you get lost. I’d recommend bringing a small bag with a pencil case and some water – I found it very helpful to make notes and annotations on the texts I was given to read. Make sure you read the instructions carefully and don’t just dive into the text – also make sure that you know how much time you have and have a watch that works!

Don’t panic if you don’t understand a word or two: that’s completely normal, and it doesn’t mean that you’re not good enough. If it’s crucial to your understanding of the passage, try and ask for the translation of the word in question when you begin the discussion of the text in the interview.

Be nice and friendly: you’re nervous, but the interview helpers are usually also running on lots of adrenaline and very little sleep, and the tutors aren’t far off! Try and relax: it’s more enjoyable for everyone if you’re not absolutely terrified! Remember, the tutors already like you! They gave you an interview, and they’re looking for the people they’d love to teach next year. They won’t be trying to trip you up or make you feel silly – sure, they may catch you off-guard and challenge you, but don’t take it personally! Part of the process is to see whether you can think critically about your own ideas and adapt them based on new information you’re given, and if you take every comment that doesn’t immediately agree with you as an insult, you won’t be able to do that.

The most important thing to remember if you’re a bit neurotic or anxious is to really listen to the tutors while they talk. If you’re an anxious person, it’s really easy to run the risk of listening more to your internal monologue than to the person interviewing you, which will mean you won’t be concentrating properly! Try and relax and really be present in the conversation – it doesn’t last very long!

I mentioned tips for literary analysis in the previous blog post: it’s not a disaster if you don’t know how to talk about rhyme and metre, but you still may be expected to have an opinion on how the “beat” or the sounds of the poem have an influence, even if you don’t know what dactylic means or what anaphora is. Whether it’s prose, drama or poetry, think about how the writer used different elements to create a certain effect on the reader, and why that might be, rather than just focusing on what the text is “about”. If the text is funny or gruesome, what about the text makes you feel that way? Think about your favourite – and even your least favourite – works and why you have those opinions. Learning to think about the building blocks of literature and to think quickly when someone challenges your opinion with “Well, what if I told you this?” are way more important than how many mock interviews your school gives you.

Think about things that drew you to the course and what you’d be particularly excited to study next year – a certain writer? Film? A certain period in philosophy? You will never be asked about your college choice, though, and your “chances” aren’t different if you’re only interviewed at one college as opposed to three.

Try not to overanalyse when you’re done, and most of all – enjoy it! The tutors are (usually) extremely normal people who are just like you, in that they also really like books and languages. Don’t hype them up to be either scary posh monsters or weird ancient aliens who have never seen a smartphone or heard of the internet before, as some schools do!

I also asked a few of my friends to give their top interview tips on Twitter, and you can see the thread here. Their take:

don’t be afraid to ask about vocab, even english vocab, was asked about hyperrealism and had no idea what the word meant but my interviewers were really nice about it and helped me pick it apart and figure it out

– @minyingh

unseen texts and a checklist of things to look out for- e.g. sentence length, language (alliteration, metaphor etc.) I was not prepared for this but could very easily have been!

– @lidiafanzo

prep wise – read read read everything in personal statement and know it inside out – more important than a levels for now! and in the interview, that it’s ok to not be sure/to get things wrong. I think one of the best bits of my German interview was when I drastically misinterpreted a genitive and therefore the whole meaning, and then managed to work it out and correct it…and then laugh with my tutor-to-be about my mistake! She was glad to see the thought process I think

– @ellahrld

That’s the advice that I’d give you for now – enjoy your stay in Oxford (or your Skype interview) and make the most of it! I love this beautiful city and this bizarre yellow university, and I hope you do too.

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