History 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 History interviews.

I had two interviews. The first focused on the essay I had sent in and a source I had just looked at. The second started with a brief chat about what I was looking at in my A-Level course and then a discussion of the two sources (one an extract from a book and the other an image) I had been presented before the interview. I struggled with the first interview as I wasn't prepared to answer questions about the essay I had given in, I should have done a little bit of revision. The second interview went a lot better. It was challenging but there was no real way to prepare. You just had to analyse your source and say what you thought. The tutors might ask some trying questions or tell you a bit more information and if you change your mind because of it, thats okay. You don't have to stubbornly commit to one viewpoint. It is better to take your time and verbalise your thought process.

Lucy, Magdalen, student from 2013
Lydia Gibson

I had two source based interviews which were probably the hardest - they give you 10 minutes to read a source (longer than I expected) and analyse it, then the interview began with a conversation about it and led into some wider discussion. The other was based on my personal statement and the essay I had submitted - mostly the essay, so make sure you know what you're talking about! There were absolutely no curve ball questions and not even a "why history/ why Oxford" question which I was expecting, just very focused on the sources and my essay. They're not trying to catch you out, in fact they were very patient and encouraging, so don't worry about those interview horror stories!

Lydia, St Peter's, student from 2013
Kirsty McLeod

I had two interviews. In one I completely blanked and in the other reduced both tutors to laughter. Looking back I think one of the main things they are gauging is your enthusiasm and openness to new ways of thinking, things don’t have to run perfectly. Tutors probably prefer it that way.

Kirsty, Worcester, student from 2012

Two interviews both 20 minutes each. One was based on my knowledge (specifically catered to what I studied in A level) so they just asked me questions which normally wouldn't have been asked e.g. So what do you think the Pope thought about Isabella of Castile doing that?

Second interview: based on a source I read 45 minutes before in a separate room. I was given an excerpt of Tocqueville (translated of course) about democracy and religion (basically political philosophy). I think it was about testing my comprehension and seeing how I could apply this to what I had learnt. Current affairs were quite helpful with this too. They also asked me a little bit about my personal statement in this one

Zoe, Christ Church, student from 2013

One of my interviews was based around pictorial sources. I think they were from a medieval manuscript on the topic of 'advice to kings'. The only one I remember was a picture of a wheel with four kings on the four points of the compass on the wheel. There was a woman standing next to it who looked like a queen. It was something about the rise and fall of kings. Unfortunately I thought the woman looked pregnant and made 20 minutes of notes based on this. When I went into the interview they quickly told me it was just the style of dress and that she wasn't pregnant at all! I panicked for about 10 seconds, but they gave me prompts and I came up with new ideas about the picture (eventually I said something about it seeming like they believed in historical inevitability which they seemed to like). They aren't trying to trick you out, just trying to get you to think more creatively and follow through your ideas.

The second part of my interviews at Magdalen was supposed to be about my personal statement and/or my submitted essay. The tutor interviewing me didn't speak about either! This shouldn't put you off though. Instead we somehow ended up talking about other things that didn't relate at all, but gave me the opportunity to think on my feet, reason through my ideas, and the tutor encouraged me to think of supporting evidence.

My top advice is to always be honest in interview (they asked me if I knew anything about modern Russia and I just said "no". That's fine.) Also, be prepared for the 'good cop' 'bad cop' thing to be used - one of my interviews was quite pressured and intense and I had to sit at a table opposite two unsmiling professors, the other was very laid back (I was sat on a sofa, offered water, and one of the professors sat in the windowsill!)

student from 2013 Magdalen student
Georgia Herde

Always say something, even if you aren't one hundred per cent certain, as there are no wrong answers. Tutors are trying to understand how you think and how you approach difficult questions - you aren't expected to have the perfect answer. The sources interview requires you to look at a few sources in advance and then discuss them. They are supposed to be pieces that you have never seen before so don't worry if you don't know the context, it is an attempt to make you engage directly with a text or picture. Avoid silly mistakes like not reading the inscription on the bottom of the painting which you've been set to look at..

Georgia, LMH, student from 2013
Briony Allen

I had two interviews, one on an essay I had sent in, another on my personal statement.

The one on my essay was on American civil rights, where my essay argument had been that changing attitudes had alleviated conditions. I was then asked 'Isn't America still fundamentally racist today?' and other questions which challenged my argument and forced me to adapt or defend it. I conceded that America was still racist, but the outward practice is far more condemned later in the period than earlier. Overall it was an interview I really enjoyed.

My other interview on my personal statement was shorter and less focused. I was thrown when talking about Elizabeth I as my interviewer suddenly said 'Didnt you know the Roman Catholic Church is matriarchal not patriarchal?' I admitted I had only self-studied the time period as part of an EPQ, and we moved on. I felt awful about the interview but it clearly wasn't as bad as I thought.

Also I did really stupid things: wore new jeans that dyed my hands blue during my first interview; and taking my interview room key home. I worried about those for weeks afterwards, but clearly they made no impact and were really not worth worrying about.

Briony, Hertford, student from 2014

My first interview was about my written work that I had submitted, there was a man who asked all the questions and a lady who made notes throughout. I'm a girl and I wouldn't have expected myself to be intimidated by being interviewed by a man, but I found that when I wasn't sure about my answers I would turn to the lady to answer and I think someone had clearly thought about how best to make the interviewees comfortable. I had revised the topic I wrote my essay on before I attended this interview and it definitely helped.

My second interview was on some reading we had been set about a Muslim Moroccan society who I'd never heard of before. The article was very confusing and used lots of foreign words, but as soon as I sat down the interviewers (a man and a woman who both asked questions) told me not to worry about pronunciation and to feel free to look at the reading whilst I answered. At one point when I was answering my mind went completely blank and I had to say "I'm sorry but I've completely forgotten the question and what I was just saying". They were really nice, they told me the question again and prompted me with what I had just been saying. Also, one question they asked was how I could find out information about women's status in Muslim society who were the topic of the reading. I said that they could look at their artwork to see how women were portrayed compared with their holy objects. The interviewers then informed me that this society did not paint people ever, but that it was an interesting idea anyway and so it didn't matter that I was completely wrong.

student from 2015 Queen's student

First interview: the discussion revolved around a topic chosen by me (I chose to base it on the essay title submitted as written work) with the questions being fairly standard at the beginning, like 'why did you think this was the case?' to expanding to questions which required more thought. I felt the questions became harder as the time ticked on but in hindsight I realised that the interviewers were testing my thought process and challenging it to answer questions that during your normal A-Level study you would never delve into much. A question regarding a text I'd stated in my personal statement arose in the closing minutes of the interview and having read the text (this is important) I bumbled a response out via verbalising my train of thought on the topic. Also never be afraid to ask the interviewers for clarification or to repeat the question. I know it certainly helped me understand what I was being asked.

Second interview: this interview revolved around examining an article based on a period I had no knowledge about. I was given some time before the interview to annotate the article and then was poised a question about what I could derive from the article about the nature of history and its study during that period. What made this interview more challenging than the first was that new information was being added after I had given an answer and I had to decide whether this new information affected my argument in terms of weakening it or strengthening it. This interview largely revolved around me processing new information and adapting my argument in light of it and there were quite a large number of pauses (not necessarily a bad thing) which allowed me to gather my thoughts and attempt to verbalise my answer in a logical way.

Aisha, St John's, student from 2015
Anna Gatrell

Firstly, I would advise that nobody worry about what their interview ought to be like. I had been told that the harder, the better, because interviewers were testing you to your limit, and if the interview was easy it meant they didn't believe you to be capable. Therefore, when I found my interviews fine, I was really worried when there was no need to be!

My first interview was just before lunch, lasted just over 15 minutes and focused on my personal statement. There was one interviewer and a PhD student taking notes. One question was about an essay competition I mentioned I had done and asked what conclusions I came to. Another question focused on a topic I mentioned about the Renaissance and what I found interesting about it. Then the interviewer said 'Okay, I'll move on to my research now.' This worried me because I thought he was bored with my talking. Anyway, he told me a bit about his research and then asked me about history and the environment. Fortunately, I found the question ok to answer! Then I left (but not before taking a packet of Maltesers that were on offer!)

The second interview was more scary and 'interview like' with three academics sitting opposite. At the beginning I was asked if my college room was ok (I think to settle me) but I digressed and spent about five minutes waffling on about how the heater smelled of burning so I didn't want to turn it on. Incidentally, I received some very helpful advice from the academics regarding this! Anyway, Interview 2 was based on my written work for about 15 minutes and then my AS course for the next 10. My written work was about Spain's monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella. I was asked where I was up to in the course and then a 'Top 10' achievements (or what were seen as achievements!) list, so I talked about the religious policy, e.g. the Inquisition. Then the tutor asked if I knew about the conquest of Granada and said 'Do you know the Spanish word for this?' I've never studied Spanish but had read ahead in my textbook just in case, so fortunately knew the answer (Reconquista). Then he asked for another achievement involving an Italian and I was clueless until an American academic hinted 'We study it a lot where I come from!' So then I figured it was the sponsoring of Columbus' expedition to the West Indies. We then moved on to my AS course (which I was a bit more wishy-washy on) and one question, to do with the enemies of the Pope, I had no idea about so guessed about 10 European countries/people before settling on France. Then I was asked about the Anabaptists and there was a bit more guessing on my part until I got the answer they were looking for. Then it was the end of the interview and I left, although I failed to successfully close the door.

The interview process was not as scary as I imagined and through three days in Oxford I only spent about 40 minutes being interviewed. This left lots of time for Christmas shopping! I would reiterate what I mentioned at the beginning, that there is no 'one typical interview' so comparing your interview to that of other people will almost certainly cause stress!

Anna, Merton, student from 2015

For the first interview I was given a source to read over and annotate for fifteen minutes before the interview began. The interviewers asked me to pick out what I found most interesting about the source. From there it quickly got very off topic very quickly and the interview was less about what I knew but how I approached the source.

The second interview was more fact based but still very much on thinking skills. For this one I got to chose the topic of the interview, I opted for Richard III, but many people just went with their A Level topics. The interviewer similarly seemed inclined to veer away from what I knew as quickly as possible and asked me all sorts of things which were quite obscure, giving me new information as it went on. To be honest this interview was a little terrifying and I was certain afterwards that they was no way I'd gotten in. I was very unsure in my answers but I tried to the best of my ability to link the new information I was being given to what I already knew.

Clemency, Lincoln, student from 2015

I had two interviews at my college. One was based on a transcript of an original historical document. I was given 15 minutes alone to study this before entering the interview. I was then asked questions as to what it said before guessing the provenance. The second was based around my personal statement and the written work I had submitted.

In my second interview, the first question I was asked was, 'What have you been reading in your spare time?' Follow-on questions were along the lines of: 'What did you think of the author's approach to the topic?' 'Did you agree with what all that was said and why?' Interviewers generally ask very open-ended questions - they want your opinion and to hear you defend it.

I was given three pieces of advice by my school before going to Oxford interviews:

  1. Think out loud. Let them hear the processes of your mind.
  2. Enjoy it. This is a great insight into Oxford University's tutorial system and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to talk to a world-leading expert. You have nothing to lose and much to gain.
  3. Show them your enthusiasm. Upon arrival at Oxford for my first year, I was told by my interviewer (now tutor) that one of the reasons I got into Oxford was my apparent love of the subject.
Tom, student from 2014

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