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My First Oxford Interview

‘Why English at Oxford?’

I had thought about this one, so it was a good start. I said that I was obviously passionate about the subject and loved how the Oxford course spanned so many centuries of English, from Beowulf to the moderns. I also felt that Oxford would attract like-minded, motivated people who I would thrive off and I thought it would be a wonderful environment to study in.

‘Now I see you are interested in Virginia Woolf,’ the first tutor said. The other tutor stayed relatively quiet until the latter half of the interview.

Yippee! I breathed a small sigh of relief. Virginia Woolf was a good start; she’d literally become my best friend in the last few months.

‘You just referred to Woolf’s narrative voice but is it a narrative voice?’ she asked.

‘I didn’t mean that, sorry’, I blurted out.

Now this is an example of the wrong way to answer an Oxford interview question. I should have thought about what exactly ‘narrative voice’ meant and reflected on the different voices at play in Woolf’s essay. Some parts are Woolf’s own voice, as she is giving a lecture, and other parts are fiction.

‘You’ve also read Orlando. How do you think Woolf explores gender roles?

I discussed the opening of the text and quoted phrases detailing the female and male signifiers and then talked about how Woolf breaks these down through the character of Orlando in the text. I felt pretty confident discussing this as I’d written my entrance essay on it.

‘It’s interesting that you’ve read Flush, many people deem it to be a ‘childish book’’

I told them how I could see that it contrasted with Woolf’s other works because of its simple plot but I felt that it highlighted the importance of language as a form of communication and showed me the difficulties one, such as Flush, would face without being able to communicate through words.

‘Now what about Mrs Dalloway. What was the significance of Big Ben?

Panic mode set in! I hadn’t starred this on the book list and had no desire to talk about it. I literally had no idea and came up with some garble about time in the book. I tried to discuss Mr Dalloway’s conversation with Septimus but couldn’t even remember his name.

The male tutor, who up until now had been very quiet, was a Shakespeare specialist. Now it was his turn to grill me…

How do Hamlet and Macbeth compare as characters? Are they both as bad as each other?

I’d only put Shakespeare down on my book list to show I’d read some but I hadn’t starred either Hamlet or Macbeth, so I wasn’t expecting it to come up. However, it pretty much took up the rest of the interview.

I discussed how they were both influenced to kill by others but Hamlet is seeking revenge whilst Macbeth is trying to improve his own position and control his fate. I discussed the three witches but was getting so stressed about talking about Shakespeare that I ended up calling them the ‘hags’.

Is Macbeth to blame or the witches?

I really had no idea; I had only read it once, I just couldn’t remember. It wasn’t something I’d read up on or analysed and I wished the ground would just swallow me up. I did though come up with an answer…albeit a weak one.

Why do we still read Shakespeare?

I talked about how he was a wonderful observer of people (something I had heard on a literature discussion on the radio) and we could, therefore, relate to his characters today.

I came out of the interview feeling that it had been so average. I needed the poetry one to be much better if I was going to be offered a place…

Top Tips

  • Say something! Despite not knowing a lot of the answers, I always said something which I think is better than saying absolutely nothing.

  • Take your time – you are allowed time to think.

  • Expect to be pushed out of your comfort zone – Oxford interviews are as much about seeing how you react under pressure, as your knowledge about your subject. If you crumble, you’re not going to be strong enough to withstand the weekly tutorials.

  • You will be challenged – it’s likely you’ll be asked about texts you don’t know so well or made to think about areas you’ve never come across before. You aren’t expected to know everything but try to respond to new concepts willingly.

  • Ask – if you don’t understand a question, ask for clarification.

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