How to get turfed out of a university interview

… or, at best, to feel the temperature drop, and to realise that the proceeding has been shortened.

In fact the boy (see earlier post) who was required to multiply thirteen by seventeen, and could not instantly do so, was asked the question at the very end of what had been promisingly long interview, and actually had his hand on the doorknob. But he was applying for PPE at Oxford; and only the year before, I had heard a member of that faculty avouch that they had some of the best mathematicians in the University.

When I related the event in the Common Room, it was good to see the Maths colleagues abruptly fall silent with eyes briskly revolving, as each competed to come up with the answer first.

We all sympathised with that student; but with others, one felt no surprise that they got short shrift from the interviewers:

  • the girl who, asked why she wished to read Spanish and Arabic, said she hoped it would help her business career;
  • the boy who responded to the first enquiry at his interview with, “That’s a good question…” He also entered the room with his hands in his pockets;
  • the girl who, applying for History, did not know who was monarch of England at the time of the Peasants’ Revolt, and indeed had not heard of the Peasants’ Revolt, which, she explained, was not on her A-level syllabus;
  • the boy whose personal statement mentioned that he had been on exchange at a school named after Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but he did not know who Rousseau was;
  • the boy, applying for Classics, who repeatedly referred to the Metamorphoses as an epic;
  • the girl, again an applicant for History, who could not point to Byzantium on the map, nor realised that Byzantium and Constantinople were the same place.

Not all these young people, mercifully, came from our institution.

Students may be reminded that an interview, of its nature, has the function of looking for straws that show which way the wind blows. University dons and tutors can be unforgiving; but they are looking for their successors—for people who will continue to widen the boundaries of learning. Every Crick needs a Watson.