Founder and Director, Oxford Political Review | Rhodes Scholar (DPhil, Politics) | Kwok Scholar | Nikkei, TIME Contributor | Co-founder, Oxford Policy Advisory Group | Hong Kong Debate and Speech Community Governor
As someone who spent three years at Ox for my undergraduate studies (BA PPE, First Class Honours), two years as an MPhil (in Politics, Distinction), and now reading a DPhil in Politics – here are some informal thoughts from me. These do not represent any organisations or universities, but are instead thoughts that I’ve assembled from working with students over the years concerning the Oxbridge interview process:
1) It’s less about what you know, and more about how you approach enigma, conundrums, issues, and questions raised by the interviewing tutor. Spend less time focusing on showing off your knowledge, spend more listening to and engaging with the questions and prompts being offered You’ll find that you end up answering the questions more precisely and concisely, as well as gaining more from the experience. Don’t bother with showing off – flaunting is unlikely to impress, and would only backfire.
2) Let your true colours come through. Ask questions if you’re curious, push back if you’re genuinely unconvinced, and admit your “ignorance” (in quotes because there’s no normatively laden connotation here) if you’re confused, baffled, or unsure. Be more specific with the questions you ask, but don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Treat interviews as mini-tutorials in which you learn to learn, to communicate, and interact with an at times obscure, at times hard-to-navigate, but fundamentally rewarding system.
3) Many have asked me if the Personal Statement matters. Knowing the Personal Statement is useful, knowing what you said in it is helpful, but what fundamentally matters more is that you need to demonstrably have thought long and hard about the issues at work in the Statement, and to have unpacked and wrestled with what you discussed in it with some degree of versatility and acumen. Tutors may not always ask you about your statement, but the very process of revisiting and thinking about the statement helps you think more deeply, as opposed to merely horizontally.
4) It’s not a debate. It’s not a grand-standing speech session. As someone who’s spent nearly a decade doing competitive debating and teaching it, too, I must confess – I walked into my first round of interviews 7 years ago, thinking it was a debate. That was a big mistake (one that I committed again in my first attempt at a scholarship, three years later… that’s another story). Not everything must be treated as an exercise of performative dramatisation. See the interview as an opportunity to have a two-way conversation with someone who is likely to care ardently about the field. See your relationship as one of intellectual peers, not one of preacher and mass, nor one of teacher and student.
5) The interview isn’t everything. Heck, Oxbridge isn’t the be all and end all. It’s easy and tempting to think that not getting in is THE END. But it’s not — take it easy, and you’ll smash it either way.