How to get into Oxford?

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Now that the admissions circus is largely over I’m finally free to write an article about it without it being over-analysed by petrified sixth-formers. For the record it’s largely reliant on discussions with candidates, rumour and amusing posts on the studentroom.co.uk forum, as is all recent journalistic ‘research’ into the subject.

As an interview helper I was bombarded with questions ranging from “will showing cleavage help or hinder my chances” to “should I wear a musk or citrus based cologne?”. By far the most common however was “why can’t it be like Cambridge?”, where interviews only take a day. The possibility that the Tabs are getting the jump on the best candidates, by simply being lazier interviewers, is horrifying.  We’ve finally banished myths about the university, yet the admissions process is still the stuff of legend. It’s time to cut the crap.

I for one have reasonable faith in our tutors’ abilities. While horror stories abound, I believe the majority make decisions unrelated to boob size, accent or the time left until lunch. I hope that they are interested what people have to say, not what they look like or where they sit. Though all subjects have different requirements it tends to boil down to ability, potential and passion for the subject. It should be relatively simple. Yet the procedure remains a mystery to those who got in and an arcane waste of time to those who didn’t.

While some may enjoy the sight of interviewees squirming, I can assure you the novelty wears off. Days spent stressing in a crowded JCR raises one’s blood-pressure, rather than ability. We will end up getting the calmest rather than the best. It also doesn’t endear one to Oxford University itself. You can talk for hours about the joys of Kukui but the interviewee will probably come home imagining Oxford as a place where worried sociopaths drink tea. They will tell their friends and we’ll end up with a university which reflects this ideal.

The problem is everyone’s got an opinion. Teachers, parents and current students all ‘know’ how to get in. The vast majority is frankly bullshit. Teachers will reach for the tattered files of past prodigies and cite a genius who was a gifted sportsperson and also fluent in the Inuit tongue. On the other hand many parents seem to see a Brideshead-era accent as a critical requirement, best combined with a dodgy comb over. Current students tend to believe their success was an accident and often claim to comprehensively understand their tutors. Yet the attempts of candidates to exploit these perceived traits can go horribly wrong. A simple ‘they’re a nice person’ should suffice, especially if they’re not.

When one finally believes they have emerged from this quagmire of superstition and idiocy another problem rears its ugly head; the recently introduced A* grade. Personally I think it’s a tragedy that sixth formers have yet more pressure piled upon them, turning their ‘golden’ school days into grinding brainless revision. Yet we have to realise that the cream of the crop, so to speak, are being pushed towards A* grades in all their subjects. Thus the university may well be correct in introducing it as a requirement for sciences, where working hard is not just an excuse to avoid seeing ones parents but a way of life.  Let’s not imagine that ruthless efficiency covers all the bases for humanities however, and it is also important we limit the A* grade to where it is really needed. If, god forbid, it becomes a standard Oxford hurdle cheerful sixth form students will become a distant memory.

It’s vital we introduce some transparency and some sanity into our admissions procedure. Applicants need to know what we want, so they can show us if they’ve got it. The university is definitely making progress here, with the internet podcasts and recorded interviews. Yet the length and somewhat random nature of our interview days wind people up. The whole system of extra interviews at other colleges may give talented candidates another chance, but it adds even more confusion to the mix. More relevantly for us, at a time when the university makes a habit of claiming how skint they are, why not save some money by reducing the time spent by interviewees in free accommodation on free meals?

A rather old and drunk fellow once joked that ‘we take the candidates’ photos and throw them down the stairs. If they land face up, they’re in’. We all know that the system clearly isn’t like this. The problem is, do candidates?