You have 10 seconds to impress me

Students can be called for snap interviews if their grades are borderline or they are being offered another course. Ted Wragg has some tips on how to prepare

There is a touching belief among human beings that we can sum each other up in a face-to-face interview. People you would not back with real money to tell an elephant from a hedgehog will swear by their ability to discriminate one person from another.

A tutor I once knew boasted that he could invariably recognise a first- class mind in interview. I always wondered whether he talked to himself much.

The evidence suggests that the interview is not quite the strong predictor of future success that is claimed. None the less, for many students it is still an important feature of their application to university. Having written about interviews from the standpoint of the applicant, and also conducted interviews as a university tutor, I can see a place for them, provided they are handled well.

When two people meet for the first time in an interview they process an extraordinary amount of information within seconds. Rapid decisions are made about the other person's age, demeanour, intelligence, social group, attractiveness, race, gender, personality, dress. Some judgements will be accurate, others misplaced. If people go on to meet frequently over the coming years, some first impressions will remain, while others will be modified.

When university tutors interview candidates they are usually looking for interesting people who will benefit from, and contribute to, the courses in their subject. In some desperate departments they may be seeking someone who is not actually on a life support machine to take one of their many unfilled places, so that they are not fined for under-recruiting, and can pay the rent, but that is another matter.

Most applicants nowadays have taken the trouble to read prospectuses carefully, but some still appear to be ignorant of the content of courses, or of their reasons for wanting to study a subject in a particular university. If they wanted to buy a car which would last them for three or four years and cost between pounds 10,000 and pounds 20,000 to finance, presumably they would be more careful.

The numerous handbooks, prospectuses and student guides reveal the problem. Thick tomes bulge with details about universities, institutes of higher education, and specialist colleges which teach the arts or prepare students for jobs in the armed forces. More than 100 places offer a degree in mathematics. If you want to turn your hobby into a career, you can even study brewing. There are far more degree courses than car marques.

Unwary interviewees, armed with little more than a suggestion from a helpful teacher, a map and a prospectus, can soon find themselves up Excrement Creek.

Most university courses are good, or satisfactory. A few are terrible. Some prospectuses seem to have been written by smart copywriters who used to work for estate agents. Having honed their craft describing an uninhabitable cesspit as a "desirable bijou town house" or a "cottage with olde-worlde charm", they have slid seamlessly into the same beguiling prose style in their prospectus writing.

Quotes you will not find in an official prospectus include: "When you hand in your written work to Dr Blandly-Smiling, don't expect to see it again before the early years of the next millennium", and "Some students have to live in accommodation to which you would not condemn your pet hamster."

The interview offers an opportunity for both participants to penetrate the smokescreen.

"So what sort of rating did this department get for teaching and research?"

"Er, look, we can get on to some of the tiresome detail later, but first let me tell you about our wonderful third-year necromancy course."

Some applicants come to grief on the most obvious questions: "Why do you want to study astrology here at Muckville University?"

"Gosh, I er ... I mean, I never really ... well, you know, I, er ... my teacher suggested it."

End of short interview. The true reason may be that they are a lifelong fan of the Muckville clog-dancing team, but the interviewer is expecting a flicker of enthusiasm for Muckville University in general and the astrology department in particular.

One applicant, when asked why she wanted to study for a degree in geography, replied that she wanted to join the Civil Service. Fair enough - a degree does have an instrumental value, which interviewers recognise - but the question was specifically about geography. Impressive candidates reveal a thorough knowledge of the content of the geography degree, and can give a convincing explanation of the reason why this particular course appeals to them.

One major interview pitfall is overselling oneself by quoting dead hobbies or interests:

"I see you're a stamp collector."

"Well, er, I used to be, when I was about eight."

"And you're keen on Russian music. Do you like Shostakovich?"

"Er, is he the bloke Manchester United transferred to Everton?"

"Thank you. We'll offer you a place conditional on your getting five grade As at A-level. Next, please"n

The writer is professor of education at Exeter University and the author of four students' guides to A-level, Higher Education, Vocational Education and Returning to Learning (Addison Wesley Longman, pounds 2.99 each).

Hitting the phones

Do

ring up yourself - don't let your parents do it

ask your headteacher or careers adviser to call the admissions tutor and plead your case

consider offers to switch courses

use a fax machine for letters or supporting material

Don't

anticipate rejection - check it out

worry if you sound nervous on the phone. Admissions tutors expect that

be rude or off-hand

be discouraged if you seem to be getting nowhere

Lucy Hodges

`How applicants present themselves on the phone can make a difference'

Dr Duncan Bythell, admissions tutor in history, Durham University

In some years we have to say "no" to everybody who doesn't make their grades. In other years there's some leeway for us to say "yes" to some and "no" to others.

Durham doesn't normally go into Clearing. We work, like most popular universities, on an offer factor. You make so many offers to fill so many places, based on previous years' experience. Because we receive the results before the students, we know by the time the phones start ringing whether we can consider marginal candidates. We have 1,500 applicants for history. But our target figure is only 100. We make offers to 400 of them, and our standard offer is ABB. We don't require people to take history A-level, although in practice pretty well all of them do.

We have a lot of candidates applying who are also trying for Oxford and Cambridge. This year we seem to have an unusually high number of people holding us as their insurance offer. We don't know how many of those people will come to us, and this in turn means that we have to be cautious in accepting near-miss candidates.

If we get a phone call from an applicant who really wants to come to us but has just missed his or her grades, we may have to advise them to hang fire until our own position is clearer. If that applicant hasn't met their insurance offer either, we would suggest Clearing.

It isn't frenetic here after results come out, because we're pretty much on our target number of students. At most, we would only have a few places to fill from near-misses, so weighing one candidate against another is tricky.

How applicants present themselves on the phone at that stage could make a difference. If two near-miss people get on the phone to you, your reactions will be part of what makes your mind up. And, of course, teachers and parents also call you up. I would rather parents didn't call, because it can be counter-productive.

Ideally, you want a reasonably objective view from the school. The school, after all, can explain why students' grades weren't as good as they were hoped to be. There may be real circumstances there that they haven't previously told us aboutn

`My advice to students is not to hold more than two or three offers'

David Odell, admissions tutor for biosciences at the University of Hertfordshire

We have students phoning in who hold conditional offers with us, as well as other students who are anticipating Clearing. It is a few days of bedlam, on the day of the results and probably for two or three days after that. The phones go constantly. Also, students and their parents come in to see us.

We have an army of people staffing the phone lines. We want to give places to students who have selected us and are motivated to come here, so we reduce the requirements where we can. Or we may pass their names to other admissions tutors in the faculty of natural sciences, or more widely in the institution. We will often reduce the requirements substantially, depending on the number of places, so my advice to students is to phone their first choice institution if they have missed their grades, and find out. We welcome the contact. With students who have failed their A-levels, we offer a foundation course at one of our associate colleges in the county. If you pass that foundation course, you can gain entry to degree courses.

We have 120 places for first-year degree and HND students. We fill most with first- and second-choice applicants and have around 10 to 15 places on offer in Clearing. It's important that students don't enter Clearing until they have been released by their first- and second-choice institutions. Sometimes students ring me holding eight to ten verbal offers. We are pleased to receive calls, but students should say what the situation is, clearly and honestly. If we make an offer, we want to know if they're accepting that.

My advice to students in Clearing is not to hold more than two or three offers. It's far easier to decide from a short-list. If they haven't considered the institution before Clearing, they ought to visit. It's easier to visit two or three than ten. On the Saturday of the Bank Holiday weekend at the end of August we invite prospective students, particularly those with offers in Clearing, and their parents, to visit and meet staff, and see if this really is the place they want

Interviews by Lucy Hodges

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