English Language And Literature @ Merton, Oxford in 2012

Interview format

3 x 30-60 min interviews

Interview content

My advice would be to have a few texts up your sleeve that you're happy to talk about and that aren't on the A-level syllabus!

Best preparation

Mock interviews

Final thoughts

Thinking out loud is good because it gives them an insight into how your brain works

Remember this advice isn't official. There is no guarantee it will reflect your experience because university applications can change between years. Check the official Cambridge and Oxford websites for more accurate information on this year's application format and the required tests.

Also, someone else's experience may not reflect your own. Most interviews are more like conversations than tests and like, any conversation, they are quite interactive.

Interview Format

Test taken: English Literature Admissions Test (ELAT)
Number of interviews: 3
Time between interviews: I was in Oxford for a total of 4 nights
Length of interviews: 30-60 minutes, plus time with unseen poems/extracts
Online interview: No

What happened in your interview? How did you feel?

My first interview was the most intimidating. I was interviewing at Merton college. It was held in a comfortable study with squashy arm chairs, hundreds of books filling the shelves and piled up on the floor. There was nothing to prep and it was a general conversation with the jumping-off question 'what have you read recently in addition to your a-level texts?’. I knew that the tutor leading the interview was a Virginia Woolf expert as I had looked this up on the college website the night before, so my mind went immediately to 'Mrs Dalloway' which he responded to enthusiastically. Unfortunately, I hadn't read the whole of Mrs Dalloway, I had just skimmed it and read the Wikipedia page but knew enough to blag some stuff about the one-day novel, time, regret and love. I came out of the interview certain that he had seen straight through me. I phoned my mum and told her I had absolutely blown it. My advice would be to have a few texts up your sleeve that you're happy to talk about and that aren't on the A-level syllabus! My second interview was also at Merton with two other tutors, who were also very friendly and put me at ease. I had been given a poem to study for half an hour beforehand called Heronkind. In the half-hour I annotated it to death with everything I could think of, even some quite tenuous ideas - they are looking to see how your mind works and what connections and inferences you can draw. I knew I was good at this so felt more confident going into this interview, which focused half on the poem and half on Shakespeare. After the two initial interviews, many of the other English candidates had been told they could go home but I was left hanging around for what felt like a long time but was only actually a day or so. I had been told in my prep sessions that it was a good sign if I was invited to interview at another college and this didn’t necessarily mean that the college I was staying at had ‘passed’ on me. The following year as a student volunteer I learnt that this was true: sometimes a college liked a candidate but wasn’t sure yet if they would have capacity for them and so recommended them to another college. The exact process is still somewhat mysterious but in any case being invited to interview at another college at the very least means you haven’t been outright rejected. At the time, when I was invited for an interview at another college I had never heard of - St. Hughes - I thought for sure this meant Merton didn’t want me. This third interview took place on an evening and was quite a long walk out of the centre accompanied by a student volunteer. I was given another extract to look at before the interview and coincidentally it turned out to be more Virginia Woolf. specifically, an extract from one of her diaries. After my Woolf-related mishap from my first interview, it felt like someone was playing a trick on me. Nevertheless, I found this interview went if anything better than the other two. We discussed modern fiction including one of my favourite authors, Kazuo Ishiguro. At the end of it one of the tutors asked me if I would like to attend St. Hughes if Merton didn’t make an offer. I said ‘yes please’. As this interview was later in the afternoon and ended after 6pm Merton sent a taxi to pick me up from St Hughes. However I got back to college late and missed supper so ended up eating a packet of malted milk biscuits in my room. The next day I was told I could go home and got the train back up north. A few weeks later I received an email congratulating me on receiving an offer from Merton.

How did you prepare for your interviews?

I went to large state sixth form that had an in-depth Oxbridge application support system (every year about 100 students applied to Oxbridge (out of 1000) and 30 students were accepted). I was prepared by weekly group oxbridge prep sessions (a bit like out of the history boys) where we did brain puzzles, discussed current events and each chose a topic to give on which we gave a presentation, e.g. I chose sleep in gothic literature. We also had evening sessions with everyone applying to oxbridge grouped into subjects and had visiting tutors come and speak to us about the application process - my main takeaway from this was to view the interview as a conversation, and if you were finding it tough that was a good sign as they were pushing you. On top of all that we also had 2 mock interviews each with teachers unfamiliar to us, previous Oxbridge students and professors brought in from nearby universities. this was good practice and they also gave really useful feedback on interview technique. 

If you took a test, how did you prepare?

I practised by reading 4-5 poems and extracts that were new to me and then spending an hour writing down as many ideas as possible about them, particularly the ways in which they approached or presented similar themes, making connections and drawing distinctions between pieces. Essentially I got very good at working quickly to compare and contrast pieces.

What advice would you give to future applicants?

I would tell myself not to be so intimidated by the other applicants (many of whom seemed really posh) and the current students. Don't let the whole experience of being at an Oxford psych you out and remember that you have been invited and you belong there! Remember that the tutors interviewing you aren't trying to catch you out - they just want to see how you tick. Don't be afraid to ask clarifying questions or take some time to think over your response - equally thinking out loud is good because it gives them an insight into how your brain works.