Most of the top educational establishments worldwide require students to take an interview, having their brains probed by experts in the field which they wish to dedicate themselves for the next few years. For those who have not been interviewed before in an academic environment, it can seem to be a very daunting prospect. From a state of nothingness, the prospective student finds themselves surrounded with other students with the same aspirations as them, and acknowledge that their success shall be another’s failure.
Interviews at other universities are often conducted to see if you would be a right fit for the course. Interviews in Ivy League and Russell Group universities have a different purpose. They are designed to find out whether you are good enough. The number of highly intelligent and deserving candidates who have been turned away by these institutions is alarming, if not unsurprising.
This series of articles seeks to provide individuals with a better understanding of what it is to be a good interviewee who managed to succeed at the very highest level. This shall cover a full range of approaches and skills, all designed with the aim of ensuring that you will be at your very best when it comes to the day itself. Of course, the usual themes of clear presentation and confidence shall be covered in this series, but I shall also aim to shed light on less examined aspects of interviewing. Flexibility is one such overlooked component.
Of course, this does not refer to the ability for someone to contort themselves. Rather, it refers to the ability of an individual to adapt. Most specifically to the introduction of new arguments and information presented by the interviewer. The ability to adapt is something which is important in all top university interview processes, but the concept is most valuable in reference to Oxford and Cambridge interviews in the humanities. Tutors in the physical sciences often aim to push interviewees to the point where they can no longer give an informed answer. By contrast, tutors in the humanities want to look for an individual who adapts their stance on the basis of new information.
There are a number of reasons to remember why flexibility is so important. The first is because Oxbridge tutors are not looking for those who are the most talented at the point of the interview. They are looking for those individuals who have the greatest potential to grow into world class minds. Flexibility is, in part, a natural trait of those who have a thirst for learning new things and adapting their outlook accordingly. The second reason is slightly more self interested from the point of the tutor. They have a syllabus that they need to teach you, which requires you to understand and engage with concepts which you might instinctively disagree. There is a greater chance of success if they believe that the student is open minded and willing to change their mind.
There are two ways in which you can train this skill of the purposes of an interview. The first is through self criticism. First, find something which you believe yourself to have an informed opinion upon. Sketch out that opinion on an A4 sheet of paper. Then, attempt to read the arguments made by those of an opposing view. Revisit the framework you set out at the start of the task, and see what of your worldview ought to be amended in light of knowing the counterfactuals. The second way in which to do it is to practice arguing in favour of proposals which you would not personally endorse. Both these methods provide you a key characteristic for students of the humanities. Perspective.
It is this perspective that ought to help contribute to making you stand out from the crowd. But all this good work is lost if you are seen to be arbitrarily folding to any new proposal made by the interviewer. Instead, try to hold your ground in such a way which suggests conviction. A good rule to follow is the rule of 3. Defend your position for the first two times, but ensure that you keep yourself open to changing your mind when faced to the third challenge made towards opinion. This helps to convey another important character, that of intellectual confidence. The best way of doing this is by tending towards a central compromise which incorporates both your personal view on a topic and the view of the tutor. This provides an opportunity for originality which has the potential to make your interview memorable to those who matter.
One of the most difficult things which intelligent people struggle with is the idea that they are wrong. This flexibility is not something which shall come to you straight away. It is one of those things that shall only ever come with practice and a genuine attempt at intellectual curiosity. However, if you get it right it really can give yourself the edge in having some control over the direction of the interview. In what may well be the most important interview you ever do, this control is priceless.