English Interviews

The best place to start is Oxford's official information on preparing for interviews. But after you've looked there, read on to hear some students talk about their English interviews.

I had two interviews, each focusing around a passage of text which had been given to me to look through beforehand. We discussed these (one was a Dickens extract, the other featured two poems, one by Byron and one by a modern poet). Then we talked about what I was currently studying - by the time you get there your personal statement is a little out of date so they made sure we were able to talk about what I was working on at that point (The Tempest, Keats, tragedy) rather than what I'd been working on several months before. I found I was quite able to steer the discussion topic myself, talking about my extended project on Jane Austen and other ideas which occurred to me. It didn't feel like I was being examined or tested, more like I was just having a nice conversation with some people who know a lot about literature and who are always pleased to meet a young person who shares that interest, even if they don't yet have the experience.

Alys, Somerville, student from 2013
Beccy Swanson

I was asked to expand on a comment from my personal statement that I'd made about the function of literature. From there I was guided/pushed to back up my comment and argue my point. The interview felt more like a conversation where the two interviewers challenged every reply I made until we reached a conclusion. I was asked about parts of my statement that I hadn't considered vey important so it's well worth reading your own statement through and questioning your own opinions on what you've written.

Im my other interview I was given a poem to read and then discussed it with the interviewers - I felt fairly unsure of the points I was making and had to do a lot of thinking on my feet to keep up with the questions. This felt more like a traditional interview.

Beccy, Worcester, student from 2015
Catrin Haberfield

Twenty minutes before your interview you'll be given an extract or poem to analyse. Sometimes you can even have two to compare and contrast. Keep your annotation clear and simple, as the last thing you want in your interview is to have to pause and decipher your own handwriting! Colour coding based on themes and techniques can be helpful. This serves as the basis for the start of your interview. It's a good idea to make your way chronologically through the passage as you talk the interviewers through your thoughts. It's tempting to explain it thematically, but I wouldn't recommend that because you'll end up jumping all over the passage and they won't keep up with you!

For both of my interviews, half was about the prepared extract(s) and half was about my personal statement. It's more important to be open to new ideas than it is to stick to some idea that you've rehearsed beforehand. In one interview we covered so many elements of my personal statement I hadn't realised were even related! You need to be able to think on your feet. Don't panic about not having considered it before - I enjoyed discovering a new perspective on texts that I thought I knew so well.

In my other interview, we spoke about musical motifs in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, both in the text and in different productions. I felt a little guilty about talking so much about a film version, but if you can support your answers with evidence then you can't go far wrong!

Catrin, Somerville, student from 2015

I had four interviews in total: two at Christ Church and two at Hertford College, each was 20 minutes long. One interview of each set was based on an unseen poem, while the other was centred around other topics such as: my personal statment, my written work, and other reading I had done.

My first interview at Christ Church was based on an unseen poem. I was given a sheet with two to choose from. After my 20 minutes of making notes were up, I was led by a student ambassador to the tutors room for the actual interview. There were two tutors who firstly introduced themselves and then ran through how this interview would play out. First of all one of them asked me quite general open questions about the poem (i.e. What made me choose this poem?/What did I think this poem was about?/What did I think of the title?). I had actually struggled quite a bit with the poem during my 20 minutes preparation, so in the interview itself I basically tried to explain how I got into the poem and why I found it challenging. Then the second tutor piped up and asked me questions about my personal statement, more specifically about some extra-curricular stuff like drama and then onto early literature I had mentioned on my personal statement, such as Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. The questions were relatively straightfoward to start off, but nevertheless quite specific, and then became progressively harder, requiring me to compare texts, and interpret them in ways I hadn't previously thought of. Despite suprisingly finding the first part of the interview okay, I left after the second part almost in tears, thinking I had answered all the questions inadequately and that I did not know enough about what I professed to know about on my personal statement. Quite frankly it was horrible.

Thankfully the next interview at Christ Church was a lot better. This time there were three tutors in the room, two of which asked questions, and the other one wrote notes. It started off with some straight-forward questions from one tutor about my submitted written work on Heathcliff and 'Wuthering Heights' - the interviewer didn't seem to challenge anything from my essay, but just wanted to clarify my lines of argument. This tutor then kept on asking me what else I had read, quite persistently in fact. I first of all mentioned some further reading into Modernism, an area I had mentioned on my personal statement, to which she then asked me again what else I had been reading. I then mentioned Austen and she asked me some quite challenging questions, bringing in quotations from critics (from her memory I should add!) that she wanted me to respond to. We then talked briefly about my EPQ, as it included some Austen, in which she asked me about the disadvantages in comparing texts. She then asked me about any poetry I had read, to which I replied 'Hardy' and she didn't pursue this line for very long. Then the second interviewer began to ask me non-English related questions on managing my workload.

The next day I was notified in the morning that I had two more interviews at Hertford College. The first one was based on an unseen poem. Unlike my first interview, I was not only given the author and date of the poem, but also an hour to write notes. Similarly to the first one, however, there were two interviewers who asked very open questions. During this interview I felt very much that I had to lead the conversation, bringing in my own ideas, which the other tutors would then pursue and interrogate. At the end of the interview, however, I was asked to write a list of everything I had read in the last year in preparation for the next interview - from which the next interviewers would base their questions.They gave me a sheet of paper to write this on, and the page was divided between school related texts, and your own wider reading. I had around an hour to wrack my brains for this exercise, although the tricky thing about it was the various strategies you could use. If you wrote a long list of books, understandably your reading would seem wider, but you would have to be prepared to answer very in-depth and specific questions about every single one.

After my hour or so was up I went into the next interview, where there were two different tutors who used only this list as a basis for their questions. This interview in particular was challening in terms of how quickly the tutors expected you to jump from text to text. For example, they began by asking me about 'Julius Caesar' and then suddenly expected me to be able to compare a very specific element of the play with 'Macbeth'. We then went on to talk about some earlier Old English literature I had mentioned on my personal statment. Towards the end of the interview, one of the tutors commented that the list I made was full of quite established canonical texts and then asked me about any lighter reading I had done. We then had a brief discussion about what was considered to be 'light reading', which was very challenging. I left the interview feeling that, once again, I hadn't answered the questions in enough depth. Much like my other interviews, I kept on thinking afterwards of things I could have said, or what a better response would have been.

I ended up getting an offer (much to my suprise) from Christ Church, and in written feedback sent to my school I was even more suprised to find out that they thought my best interview was the first one that I came out of in tears! So even if you think you're never going to get an offer in a million years like I did, don't give up hope. Ultimately it would seem that the interviews are really about seeing how you think and how you use information in new ways. During my interviews one thing that particularly stood out was not how the interviewers tried to challenge you, but how they encouraged you to think differently about a subject you already knew about, opening up new lines of argument. In spite of all the work and interview practise I did in preparation, it would seem that the best part of an interview is when you are actually thinking something new through, aloud, and completely on the spot, rather than just repeating a passage that you've rehearsed a thousand times because your teacher told you it was 'correct'. No two interviews are the same. There is probably no such thing as 'The Perfect Interview', and the interviewers really don't expect you to be perfect. If you were, then what would be the point, from the tutors perspective, in teaching you for the next three years?

Annabel, Christ Church, student from 2015
Lily McIlwain

I had interviews at Worcester College and Jesus College for English, both of which were based around a prompt text (about half spent on the text and half on wider topics). Another college, St Catz, then decided they wanted to interview me when I was back in Leeds, so they emailed me some prompt material and then Skyped me for my interview! After the initial intimidation it's easy to relax and talk about the subject you love.

Lily, St Catz, student from 2013

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