The Oxford History Interview: Making Sense of the Myths

Digging through the Internet, I wouldn’t blame you for feeling terrified at the prospect of being interviewed for a place to study History at Oxford.

There are plenty of unhelpful myths and misconceptions about the Oxford interview still doing the rounds, and potential applicants can easily feel deterred from applying altogether. In Oxford, access and outreach work is underway to break down those perceptions and demystify the application process for all subjects.

In any History interview, the likelihood is that you will discuss the things you have been studying at school, your wider reading, and your personal statement. The important thing to remember is that tutors aren’t trying to ‘score’ you, but to see how you operate (and hopefully thrive) in a tutorial-style discussion and give you the chance to demonstrate all the things you know.

How colleges conduct History interviews can vary, which – if you progress to the interview stage of admissions – is why it is important to consult the information provided on the university website, as well that of the college(s) you’d like to apply to.

Ignore the scary stories

Buried in the internet are horror stories of tutors setting fire to objects, hurling cricket balls at interviewees and asking random, daunting questions that reduce applicants to tears. Tales abound of tutors favouring applicants from elite schools and judging candidates based on their achievements on the rugby pitch.

When it comes to History, academics are serious about their subject and they want to teach people who share that passion. Stories are almost certainly just that – stories, which support dated, sensationalist and misleading perceptions of what Oxford is really like.

It’s a History interview

Tutors aren’t there to pose impossible or vague philosophical questions that are unrelated to what you’ve been studying, reading and writing. It’s a History interview, at the end of the day. Thought-provoking questions will emerge from the discussion, but tutors would gain little from trying to blindside you with out-of-context

Chances are, you’ll be asked about the content of your personal statement at some point: the books you’ve read, topics you’ve studied at school and beyond, and the conclusions you’ve managed to draw. If you’ve had to submit an essay as part of your application, you may be asked to talk about that and the topic for which you wrote it at school. In preparing for your interview, think about all the possible questions they could ask about your application

You may be presented with a question that you hadn’t considered before, one that really gets you thinking. If you’ve been studying the causes of the Russian Revolution, perhaps tutors could ask you to make a comparison to another revolution you know about. Maybe they could ask you whether it really constituted a ‘revolution’ at all.

It’s not a test

Tutors are not interested in tripping you up, nor are they seeing how many things you get ‘right’. Interviews should be a mutually beneficial experience, giving you a taster of History teaching at Oxford, and allowing your potential future tutors to see how you think and operate in a tutorial-style environment. It should be a conversation, not an interrogation – much like tutorials themselves.

Being wrong can be good

If you say something that you aren’t quite happy with, going back and rethinking what you said shows a dexterity and flexibility of thought that tutors are looking out for. Remember to pause, breathe and think about your answers but also think out loud – it will let your tutors see into your thought process and understand how you come to conclusions, even if you don’t necessarily have the ‘right’ answer. A ‘wrong’ answer with a detailed, comprehensive thought process can be far more interesting and open up new avenues for discussion. It’s also okay to say ‘I don’t know’, or to ask the interviewer for clarification and guidance (for example: ‘what exactly do you mean by that?’).

Tutors probably won’t ask about your hobbies

Or perhaps they will, as a conversation starter and if it’s on your personal statement. Alternatively, if you spend your spare time, say, working in a museum or visiting historical sites, tutors might be interested to know how your experiences have furthered your understanding of certain time periods or topics.

But the number of trophies you’ve won or school societies you’ve chaired probably won’t help tutors learn about who you are as a historian. It’s good to know your personal statement like the back of your hand, but most of your preparation and thinking should be about the things you’ve been reading and topics you’ve studied at school.

Don’t read too much into being ‘pooled’

Sometimes, applicants are ‘pooled’ to another college in Oxford to have an interview there – whether before arriving for interview, or after having been interviewed at your college of choice. But it is impossible to fully know how the system works or why tutors have decided to pool you.

It is impossible, then, to work out your chances of success based on whether or not you’ve been pooled. If you can, simply treat it as another opportunity to talk about all things historical with people who really know their stuff, and avoid hunting for statistics online.

Tutors don’t expect to be flattered

If you know where you will be interviewed, or who will be interviewing you, a quick Google search can always be interesting. It’s unlikely, however, that tutors will ask you to explain why you picked their college – indeed, you might have been pooled there and it says little about how you operate as a historian. Nor do you need to talk about your interviewers’ careers or specialisms, unless they happen to have written something that is relevant to the topics you have studied.

Yes, tutors are all different

Tutors all have different personalities and the tutorial system allows you to experience being taught by a huge variety of people. Some tutors will seem ‘friendlier’, while others will seem more formal. Don’t read too much into it – what you do need to know is that the people interviewing you will be passionate about history and want to teach people with whom they can have an engaging discussion.

The interview isn’t everything

Most advice about interviews will remind you that the interview is just one component of a lengthy and thorough application process. How you perform will be compared to your grades, History Aptitude Test (HAT) result, personal statement and teacher’s reference. Don’t assume that the interview will ‘swing’ it and, if you can, try and put it all out of your head over the Christmas holidays: you will have done your very best and you’ll deserve a serious break!

Many come back from their interviews for History and Joint Schools and reflect on the experience as a positive one. Your History interview will likely be far more straightforward than the horror stories of the internet suggest: if you’re enthusiastic about your subject and you know your stuff, you will be well set up to have an enjoyable interview experience at Oxford.

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