Education: What are they looking for?

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The Independent Online
THOUSANDS of students will be interviewed for places in higher education in the next few months. According to admissions officers, some still arrive ill-prepared for the ordeal.

St Anne's sends out a leaflet to all applicants warning them what to expect in each subject. The college's general advice will be helpful to students wherever they are being interviewed. 'Interviewers will be looking for qualities such as intelligence, thoughtfulness, articulation, maturity, interest in the subject, curiosity, willingness to work, some awareness of your own limitations. Needless to say, no candidate ever fulfils all these criteria.'

Enthusiasm is the quality that academics consider essential for those wishing to study their subject. That means reading more than the books put in front of you for A-level. Interviewers are likely to ask what you have been reading recently and for critical comments on what you have read. If you have had to submit written work in advance, you will probably be asked about it.

Those who are simply well-drilled may find themselves struggling. Martin Speight says: 'What we are looking for is some flair. For instance, we should expect candidates for biology to have noticed the tree in the quad as they came in. They should be able to observe, to think and to be excited.'

It is better to have some thoughts about why you have chosen a particular college or university than to say that you took the advice of your parents or school. If you are applying to Oxford, Dr Speight advises against the growing tendency to state no preference for a college and to leave the application open. Institutions find it flattering to be picked.

Honesty is the best policy. Those who exaggerate their knowledge on the application form are likely to be found out. One politics candidate listed international trade as one of his interests but was stumped when he was asked about the latest round Gatt talks. You are likely to be asked about your interests outside work, but this is mainly to put you at ease. Universities and polytechnics make their offers on academic grounds.

Interviewers take into account candidates' nerves and may prefer the anxious to the glib. But they do like people who 'have a go'. Most are kindly disposed to interviewees. As Ruth Deech says: 'We worry about our decisions. We know it's going to change your life if we say yes or no.'

Finally, the interview is not everything. Mrs Deech recalls one brilliant lawyer who silently stared at her feet throughout the interview. She was admitted and got a first. Years later Mrs Deech asked her why she had been so quiet and was told firmly that the questions had been 'so stupid'.