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Pylons, Stairs and Comfy Chairs: my English Interview Experience at Oxford

I’m a first year undergraduate studying English at Oriel College, and I’m here to tell you (as best I can) not to worry, and to enjoy the interview experience!

Coming from a state comprehensive school in the North-West of England, where nobody had received a place to study English at Oxford before, it’s safe to say I had no idea what to expect. A year later, I can still remember much of my bizarrely wonderful experience, and want to help demystify the process as much as possible!

At Oriel College, every applicant had two interviews: one on an unseen poem, and one on some unseen critical prose.

My first interview was on the unseen poem, now famously referred to by my friends as the ‘Pylon incident’. Yes folks, it was on Pylons! We received the poem half an hour before our interview, and used the time to prepare and analyze it. There was no question attached, we just had to annotate it with what we found interesting. My best advice would be to analyze unusual or striking imagery (as you can imagine, there were a fair few of these in a poem on pylons), and make a few comments on its form and structure. Perhaps also think about the development of ideas throughout the poem.

When I arrived in the interview room, it’s safe to say I was terrified. You will usually be interviewed in one of your tutors’ offices, and two tutors will be interviewing you. My heart was racing anyway, but the interview room was up several flights of narrow, steep stairs (which I nearly fell down) so I was doubly out of breath!

The first question I was asked was: “tell me something interesting about this poem”. I panicked and picked the first annotation that caught my eye, but the tutors will try to develop this observation further and will ask you more questions about your thoughts on the material.

Discussion of the poem constituted half of the interview (which was thirty minutes in total), and in the second half we discussed my personal statement. Ultimately I’d advise making brief notes on all the texts you’ve written about in your personal statement, to ensure you can answer questions on them; perhaps just note down interesting characters, symbols, observations about its narration, context etc. I was also asked what I was currently reading (so make sure you have an answer to that!).

My second interview was discussing a short paragraph of critical prose on Shakespeare. Again, you receive this about half an hour before the interview, and this time I was asked to sum up the critic’s argument and then respond to it with my own thoughts and opinions. For this exercise, I found it better to have a fairly strong opinion on the critic (whether in favour or against), and to be able to pick apart their argument and assess its strengths and weaknesses and what that implies for literature more widely.

Similar to the first interview, discussion of the critical prose made up half of the interview, and we discussed my personal statement for the second half.

The next day, I had a third interview at a different college (St Hugh’s). This was slightly different, as I had around twenty minutes to prepare a short piece of unseen prose. Again though there was no specific question attached: I just analysed it methodically, noting any interesting imagery, patterns of language or intriguing points about its form.

Just like the other two interviews at Oriel, this was discussed for the first half of my interview (which again lasted thirty minutes, this time in an extremely squashy and comfortable armchair which was nice). The other half concerned my personal statement and much more general questions about literature and the course. I was asked why I’d chosen Oxford, and why the ‘English Language and Literature’ course specifically. I’d definitely advise preparing answers to these more general and obvious questions, because you will likely get asked one of them!

Overall, my main points of advice for English interviews would be:

  • Be enthusiastic!! – Remember that you are being interviewed by the tutors who could be teaching you next year. They will want to be reassured that you’ll want to delve into all the reading they set for you, attend all the relevant lectures, do the research and reading for the essays etc. And also remember that they have dedicated years of their lives to a subject they love, so they’ll want to see this enthusiasm in you too!

  • Be yourself! – This sounds horrendously cheesy (I’m sorry) but it really is true. Don’t try to pretend to have read something you haven’t just because you think it’ll sound good; you won’t be able to hold a convincing discussion about it in the interview and the tutors will see right through it! Talk about what interests you, and be honest with your analysis and judgements. Be prepared to have your opinions challenged and display flexible thinking, but also to defend your opinions and favourite texts!

  • ENJOY IT!!! – I had the best time at interviews, and made friends that I now live with in college! If it won’t stress you out too much, try to talk to and spend time with other people. You’ll soon find that you’re all as nervous as each other and will probably have loads of fun at the same time!

Finally, I wish you all the best of luck. Whatever background you’re from, no matter which school you’ve been to, it’s a huge achievement in itself to get an interview, and no matter what happens you shouldn’t forget that!

Any further questions about English interviews, English at Oxford or Oxford more generally, please feel free to get in touch! Comment on this post or email Tilly (the owner of this blog website) and I’ll do my best to answer your questions/dispel the myths!

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