Interviews from the inside

“Do not sleep with the candidates,” wails the Home Bursar. “When you take them to their rooms, prop open the door and get out of there as soon as you can.

“People do silly things when they’re nervous. Do not be alone with them. Always travel in pairs.”

This is not, in fact, a snippet from the sex ed class in Mean Girls. Actually, it’s an excerpt from the post-bop, hungover excitement that was the admissions volunteers’ briefing. And I’m happy to be able to report at this juncture that – to my knowledge – we made it through admissions without actually sleeping with any of the candidates (though I guess his concerns are legitimate; I can’t help but wonder if, given the nervous, bordering-on-desperate tone in the Home Bursar’s voice, he’s actually speaking from past experiences. But I digress).

In my final year, I’m one of the oldest to be ‘doing admissions’, and possibly the only person in my year to be doing it for the first time. But being a finalist (which, I am reliably informed “in college family terms, is akin to being a grandparent”), I kind of feel vindicated in being a massive cynic, and going off on a minor rant about what I believe is my new pet hate: cocky interviewees.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that all candidates should be quiet-as-mice, humdrum little boys and girls. But just picture this:

Mr Smug strides purposefully out of his interview, his arms swinging by his sides confidently. The next interviewee is sat, awaiting her turn. Let’s call her Ms Anxious. My assurances that the tutors are “actually really nice” have, seemingly, fallen upon deaf ears in this case: Ms Anxious hands are nervously pressed together in her lap. Perhaps she is reflecting on the personal statement she is about to discuss. She might even be praying.

The door has now swung shut behind Mr Smug – behind the door, tutors are conferring on their impressions of him. But Mr Smug knows – thinks he knows – how he has done. He pauses in his strides alongside Ms Anxious, he turns, and with a smug grin on his smug face, smugly whispers: 

“I aced it.” 

As he marches away, Ms Anxious’ jaw drops slowly in disbelief. We exchange looks that say the same thing: “conceited bastard”.

Being an admissions helper, saying the right thing really is half the battle (the other half is, incidentally, sitting in the Lodge, sipping tea, waiting for the appearance of a distressed candidate whom you can mother. But, again, I digress).

What you say genuinely has a noticeable impact upon how distressed interviewees are. Naturally, some are going to be more nervous than others, but, as I discovered to my detriment, as a general rule, when anxious candidates come to you with tales of what happened in their particular interview, it is perhaps best not to fall back on your own experiences. In the first place, to them, you’re living the dream. You’ve pulled it off, you’re at Oxford, and whatever personal interview experiences you share, they’re going to read into it that by comparison you’ve done something right that they’ve done wrong.

In the second place, in the heat of the moment, you might just say something incredibly stupid, as happened in my case, when I was asked by a student if tutors ever hint at how well a candidate has done during an interview. My (instinctive, but nevertheless foolish) answer was: “Well, my tutor said ‘I’ll be seeing you again’ at the end of my interview”. I couldn’t really have done much worse if I had laughed in her face and told her that the tutors thought she was an idiot.

 

In fact, my advice to anyone working in admissions is this: If you really must fall back upon referencing your own experiences, tell them that your interview was a disaster, and you’re fairly certain that your tutors got your names mixed up and were mildly surprised to find Mr/Ms Dim turn up on the college’s doorstep in Freshers’ Week.

So when Mr Smug comes along and decides to share the oh-so-wonderful experience of his ‘aced’ interview with the next anxious candidate, everything you’ve just said to them just goes out of the window. Buddy, it’s not clever, it’s not smart. You’re just making someone else more anxious, and that’s just mean. And at least I felt bad about my gaffe: I later came across Mr Smug in the JCR, boasting to his fellow interviewees about how confident he was, and I have it on good authority that there was a repeat performance of the above after his second interview.

I often wonder how tutors make their decisions. Talking to just a sample of the interviewees from my own subject, they seem knowledgeable, talkative, and just, well, nice. In fact I’d go so far to say that, for me, actually experiencing the interviews process as an Oxonian from the inside, it seems a lot more mysterious the second time around. Sure, I wasn’t in the interviews themselves, but what it’s taught me is that there really isn’t an Oxford ‘type’.

I guess you have to trust in tutors’ judgement somewhat, because, well, they picked us, didn’t they? And presumably we think that we kind of (at least sort of) deserve to be here?

But as for Mr Smug? I really hope he doesn’t get in.