Fundamentally, the biggest differentiation between Oxford & Cambridge (and a couple of other places) and other universities is the focus on dialogic teaching as the key focus of your student experience. As well as lectures, seminars and workshops that you’d have at any Geography Department, you’ll get regular discussions and debates in small groups. At Oxford, they’re called tutorials, and Cambridge call them supervisions. But at heart, you’re expected to be able – and willing – to discuss your ideas regularly with your tutor and peers, and hold your own in an academic conversation about the particular topic in question.
So, you need to be able to talk coherently about your subject. This isn’t really something that gets discussed in your initial application phases, but it’s the primary purpose of the interview phase.
Lots of resources are available through the Universities themselves:
You’ll find a lot of resources claiming to have a ‘definitive list’ of interview questions – and lots of candidates can spend a lot of time scripting and memorising the ‘perfect answer’ to some of these questions. It’s almost always wasted time.
First, the admissions tutors can spot prepared answers a mile off, and will ask another question or take it in a different direction. They want to see how a candidate thinks and talks naturally, and what they’re going to be like to teach. They can ask any questions they want, and take the conversation wherever they want to go for that!
Second, as I’ve argued earlier in this blog series, I believe the best way of preparing is through a ‘rich diet of Geography education’ from start to finish. We want thoughtful, engaged and enthusiastic Geographers in all of our lessons – and good dialogic teaching helps to model the scholarship and communication elements. The more students can hear and see what academic Geographical discussion looks like in their day to day, the less work they’ll have to do to prepare specifically for the application phase.
It’s really important to start this process early. You want to assume that candidates are going to be offered an interview, and prepare from late October. Don’t leave it late – it makes it *feel* higher-stakes and more pressured. Start early, do little and often, and it’ll be more positive and productive for all!
I’ve set out an overview of how to prepare for an interview, including a timeline of ideas and preparation phases, but fundamentally it comes down to these key qualities:
Able to talk confidently with an adult about an academic subject.
This is a really gradual confidence building exercise. Students need to start thinking of themselves as a ‘peer’ and talking in a more formal and academic register – and there’s always an initial awkwardness and discomfort. Push through that – you’ve got to get to high quality conversations about Geography with someone they know. Once you’re comfortable with 20-30 minute conversations with them, they need to be introduced to unfamiliar adults, and be able to do the same thing.
Pairing up with other schools, video interviews, sending your students to a school to be interviewed, while you interview their candidates – these are all great techniques of getting the student confident with turning up to a place they don’t know, and talking comfortably about their academic discipline with someone they don’t know. It’s always worth reaching out to the subject community – or me, if you can’t find people – to try and get these contacts in place as you start Sep/Oct preparations.
Able to respond to unfamiliar material (sources, data, ideas) and ‘show your working’ in how you integrate them in to your understanding
It’s common to be given something to respond to in an interview. Some Colleges might give you an article 30 minutes before the interview, and use it as a prompt to talk about. Others might give you data, imagery, sources, maps, or even physical objects to work with in an interview.
In your preparation phase, it’s important to include lots of unfamiliar material and sources. Print a good map, or image – what can you tell me about this? Print an article – give it to your candidate, and get them to read it for ten minutes, and then talk through what they’ve learned and how it fits with existing ideas.
It’s key for candidates to be able to “think out loud”. If they sit in silence for five minutes, and then come out with an answer, it might be good Geography, but it’s not great interviewing. So get used to “I’m looking at this, and think this… or I can see this pattern, which might suggest… or could this be why this looks like this….”
They should also build confidence in exploring options – “I think this means X… but can I check that this isn’t because of Y?”, “I’m reading this as Z, but can I check the scale? Because if it were ABC, I might reconsider…”
It’s okay to have uncertainty and want to discuss and debate clarification. It’s how a tutorial or supervision would work, and being able to discuss ideas is critical. Candidates need to okay saying “I don’t know what this means” or “could you explain this bit of it to me?” – they aren’t expected to know all of Geography and all possible routes through it!
Able to defend and debate ideas without becoming wedded to them.
Candidates often feel like they can’t say “I don’t know”, but they’re equally unlikely to say “oh, actually, I’ve changed my mind”.
It’s important that discussions can be free-flowing and offer the chance for people to develop their thinking. Yes, it’s important you follow a line of argument – but if you’re presented with new information, or challenged, you need to be able to accept that your original arguments, or ideas might be wrong. It’s okay to change your mind. It’s okay to say “so, looking at this, I might need to re-evaluate…”
Most of this advice works and would be transferrable to almost any humanities Oxbridge interview subject (let’s leave out STEM maths skills!). So it’s important that we add the final piece of the jigsaw – that this is fundamentally rooted in a Geographical understanding and scholarship. We need to talk about ideas that are Geographical – sustainability, place, space, interconnectedness. How are the candidate’s answers showing they are engaged with the Geography underpinning the individual topic? Having a look at some of the big ideas of the discipline (OFSTED’s 2021 research review series has an overview of some of the core literature, and Teaching Geography articles and debates, and resource from the RGS and GA can be really helpful) together with the students can be really helpful – and provide nice ‘language’ to be able to ‘talk like a Geographer’.