I was preparing for my Cambridge interview in the common room of my Manchester comprehensive school when my English teacher handed me a newspaper cutting.
The article depicted a worthy, Alan Bennett-style state school applicant, flat cap twisted in shaking hands, stumbling into the imposing surroundings of his prospective college, only to be stymied by the famous Oxbridge interview ‘horror questions’.
How do you know if 2 + 2 = 4 in the past? Is the moon made of cheese? Why is the universe like a banana?
I discussed these questions endlessly with my friends. Surely we stood no chance against our smarmy Etonian counterparts? I was certain they must have been drilled in soft fruit/solar system juxtaposition from birth by their Swedish au pairs.
It would be nice to think that the media have the best interests of promoting equal access at heart when they illustrate articles about Oxbridge with endless images of toffs in top hats on a punt swigging £200 a burp Champagne. As if dedicating reams of column inches to how daunting and elitist the applications process is wasn’t enough, they print and reprint usually de-contextualised ‘horror questions’ like ‘would you rather be a seeded or a seedless grapefruit?’
All this achieves is to yet further mystify the interview process to a bunch of already intimidated 17-year-olds. Those at the earlier stage of deciding where to apply for university risk being put off the process entirely. But these supposed ‘horror questions’ are precisely what opens Oxbridge up to state school students.
Unfortunately I never was asked anything pertaining to the philosophical implications of the fruit bowl. I was asked about Gide and Moliere and Colonialism, none of which I knew much about. It was really hard. It was also a lot of fun.
Enjoying the intellectual challenge of your interview is so important. ‘Horror questions’ are there to allow you to demonstrate your intelligence. Just because you don’t have the specific information to craft a perfect answer doesn’t mean you’ve failed. The point is to enjoy thinking creatively. To use information you have accrued in your interview prep to confront an idea you have never encountered before. Engage with it. Enjoy it. Don’t be intimidated by the person sitting opposite you.
Ascending creaking stairs to your interview room in what basically amounts to a castle doesn’t tend to scream conviviality. But stained glass and creeping ivy won’t damage your chance of success. The academics interviewing you are not yet fused to their dusty armchairs. They don’t want you to fail. They want to find people who are excited about the subject they spend all their time studying and teaching, someone who will enjoy the rigorous process of an Oxbridge degree. They are asking you surreal and difficult questions to provide you with the intellectual stimulation necessary to succeed.
Oxbridge interviews will always be scary and stressful. But decontextualising and hyping up interesting questions, and turning state school applicants into warriors in some weird class war will suck all possible enjoyment out of them.
We’re not all Rudge from the History Boys. Most state school kids applying to Oxbridge are smart and shrewd. This interview is not beyond you. Chances are if you survived year nine rounders as that nerdy one with the ball-shattered glasses, you know how to think your way out of a tight corner. You’ve read independently, probably in the toilets at break time. You’ve thought for yourself throughout your school career.
No one can be trained to love a subject, no matter how good their Oxbridge admissions coach is. Nor can you be trained to make up something creative about a grapefruit. Interviews are a chance to distinguish UMS scores from genuine ability for creative thought. ‘Horror questions’ are just a way to facilitate this. They are not your path to failure; they’re your route to success.