Friday, 23 December 2011

PPE Interviews

Having spent the last two weeks trying to do everything except reliving interviews, some of the details have admittedly drained from my head, but hopefully my ramblings can still be useful!

Experiences at first college:
I felt strangely calm right before I went for my interview. I waited around in the JCR at 9:30am in the morning, as instructed, not knowing what to expect as I was to be the first candidate to be interviewed. However, after a little while, one of the interviewers came to pick me up, and I was led to a comfortable office to be met by four interviewers - two for Economics, and one each for Politics and Philosophy.

After we were all seated, the questioning began with Economics. I immediately stumbled over the first question - 'What are you studying in economics at the moment?' because I was unable to remember the unit titles, and so went off on a rambling spiel about how we were doing Unit 4 before Unit 3 as Unit 3 has more technical stuff in it so it would be preferable to do it closer to the exam. I suspect this was just a 'we're going to make you feel comfortable and able to talk' question, because I'm pretty sure I came across as an idiot. We swiftly moved on to 'what is the difference between a public and a private good?' This is a specific technical question, and if you're not studying Economics and are applying for PPE, don't worry - they ask separate questions depending on your background and you wouldn't be expected to know anything about this. I said something about public goods being paid for by the taxpayer, and when pressed to give examples, I said a lamppost, with a private good being a watch. My thinking was gently led around by the tutors, and they informed me that the technical definition of a public good is one that is 'non-excludable and non-rival,' which was something I had certainly been told before, yet hadn't remembered. I was then asked to apply this to the workplace, which had something to do with trade unions negotiating pay for a union member that also benefitted the non-union members.

We then moved onto politics - 'What is your primary news source?' My immediate choice as a primary news source was Twitter - I believe it's completely fantastic yet largely stereotyped in the media as being nothing but 'I had a toasted sandwich for lunch' sort of platform. I talked for a long time about how interested I was/am in the sharing of news, and the potential to hear things from different perspectives, and to observe the direct development of a story, mentioning the death of Osama bin Laden as an example. I was then asked to explain why I felt Twitter was a news source and not just a news aggregator, and also how it was a preferable source to a paper such as the Guardian. I then had to round off this section of the interview by sharing my thoughts on the disadvantages of Twitter, to which I said something about how the 140-character nature of it can mean it is difficult to get a full flavour of a story, and is rather like reading headlines instead of full articles, unless of course you bother to click on the link.

Philosophy, I'm pretty sure I messed up. I remembered reading an mock interview question, for law, talking about whether it was right to have the death sentence as a punishment for driving too fast if it successfully stopped people from speeding. The answer people were supposed to give was 'maybe - it is effective as a repercussion as it stops people from speeding, but it may not be just as it is not proportional to the crime.' Therefore, I immediately leapt on 'is it ever morally justifiable to torture someone?' as similar sort of question, and so rambled on for a while and again probably seemed like a complete idiot, largely ignoring the philosophical side of things. The tutor was kind enough to push me in the right direction by asking me to counter what I was saying, and so I was able to give a more balanced, broad answer, but it still wasn't very good anyway. The part of the interview I most enjoyed was the logic question at the end, a variant of the unexpected hanging paradox. This was based around a surprise exam due to be set one day Monday-Friday that apparently could not happen following the set logic that the students would not know the night before that they would have to do the test the following day. The solution was (apparently) that if the teacher had not set the test by Thursday night, you would know the test would have to be Friday, so it could not be Friday, and therefore once you got to Wednesday night and the test had not been set you would know it was Thursday, so it could not be Thursday, and therefore once you got to Tuesday night and the test had not been set you would know it was Wednesday as it could not be Thursday or Friday, and so on. The teacher then set the test on Thursday and could still claim to have been telling the truth as the teacher had anticipated them working this out, and so come Wednesday night they had in actuality not been expecting the test, and so it was fine using her logic to set the test on Thursday or indeed on any day.

Overall, I enjoyed the interview, and it was nothing like the horror stories tell you it will be. They didn't try to trip me up (or at least, I noticed nothing!) and if I was going in the wrong direction at times, they seemed to be coaxing me back on the right path. It's very important to remember, I believe, that they're testing the way you think, rather than your actual knowledge.

Experiences at second college:
The interview here seemed much more firmly based on problem solving. I'd only found out I had another interview that morning, and was therefore feeling equal parts surprised, grateful and petrified. One thing I quite liked was that the interview was conducted around a table, with one of the tutors on each side with a space for me on the remaining side. It felt like a conversation, rather than an interrogation!

My answer for the politics question - 'explain the difference between economics and maths to an alien' - was something about how maths is generally seemed to be composed of universal rules, whereas we still don't know pretty much any of the rules of economics after thousands and thousands of years. Also, maths is more prevalent in economics, generally, than the reverse! I probably left out the 'to an alien' part quite a bit, but at the end I was asked to sum up my explanation of the difference again, which helped me focus on the question a bit more probably. I had to solve a puzzle for philosophy, which asked me to explain why one of three arguments, all composed of two premises and a conclusion, was unlike the others. I explained it somehow using Venn diagrams for the first two and then said this could not be applied to Argument C as it used the identity 'numerous' rather than 'European' and 'healthy' as with the others, and numerous is quantitative not qualitative. The use of 'any' in the question came into it somewhat and I was asked to introduce it - unfortunately I've forgotten exactly where 'any' was in the puzzle - and I had to rework the grammar of 'People over 10 feet tall are over 5 feet tall' by introducing 'any,' so to 'any person over 10 feet tall is over 5 feet tall' which took an embarrassingly long time!

The economics question I quite enjoyed. I was first asked to read a problem sheet, and then summarise what I had read - I don't know if I was allowed to look down at the sheet during the summary, but I didn't, so I guess that part was a test of memory and understanding. The sheet was all about two bidders with two different maximum prices of £200 and £100 for an item, and three different types of auction the dealer could choose between in order to maximise his or her profits; you had to explain which one the dealer would choose, the final selling price and the winner. If I remember correctly, I argued for Ascending bidding as this would go for £110, assuming the bidders were rational. £110 this would be the point where Bidder B, with a maximum bid of £100, was unable to pay for the item. I chose this over Sealed First Price as in this scenario Bidder A, maximum bid of £200, could guarantee winning at £100.01 so it would be an inferior option for the dealer, and I decided Descending was also slightly less preferable in case Bidder A decided to take his chances and go for £100 rather than £110 as he would still have a 50% chance of winning the item. No idea if any of that was right, but it's what I said! I was then asked how I would change my answer if Bidder A mistakenly believes that Bidder B's maximum price is £50, not £100, and Bidder B is aware A has this mistaken belief. I chose Descending, with a selling price of £70 won by Bidder B. This would be because Bidder A would see £60 as his lowest price at which he could guarantee winning the item, which Bidder B would anticipate, and therefore would bid £10 higher, at £70.

I hope all that was helpful! It's probably a little vague, and my answers were probably way off the mark, but I thought it would be useful to share for people who are anticipating interviews anywhere in any subject, but particularly in Politics, Philosophy and/or Economics. As for whether I got in... last Saturday my dad rang me up while I was on holiday to inform me that two envelopes, one thin and one fat, were waiting for me at home. The first, from my first college, said something like 'we regret we are unable to offer you a place, but we have heard that another college is likely to accept you.' The second, from my second college, offered me a place! I'm so happy and I feel so grateful to have been given this chance. I now guess it's time to start studying...

As always if you have any questions or comments please leave them for me below and I'll get back to you as soon as possible!


Sunday, 11 December 2011


Well, it's been a busy couple of weeks. I had a lovely time in Oxford for four days doing interviews. The people were fantastic, as was the food (very important) and the city as a whole. I'll do my best to relate my experiences in the hope that they may be useful for those who are still due to head down there this week, or indeed are thinking about applying next year.

I arrived at my college at just before 6pm on Sunday, and I wasn't feeling all that confident. Being thrust into a pressurising situation amongst a whole group of people we have never met before isn't something many would see as being a walk in the park, and it was the same for me. I gave my parents one last nervous wave before they drove off, and stepped through the intimidatingly elegant doorway to meet the porter. He handed me my key (and remained lovely and helpful throughout the rest of my stay). So, I trooped off to a room where the student helpers were waiting to take us to our rooms.

There is no danger of getting lost around the college. You are equipped with a map of Oxford and of the college itself, and the student helpers are always around to guide you (they were distinguishable from the applicants at my college because all the helpers were equipped with pink scarves). I was taken up to my room, then whiled away the last few minutes before dinner.

Meals are the best time to chat to everyone and to get to know people. This was especially the case for me, as the PPE students were the first batch to arrive. You realise that everyone else there is just like you - perhaps a little unsure of themselves, eager to make friends, and there's a lot of cameraderie as people prepare for interviews. Some of them might be your competition, sure, but they're so lovely and obviously amazing that this doesn't really cross your mind for a moment. I had a great first evening there, getting to know people's different backstories, reasons for applying, and personal interests.

After dinner, I went off to check the JCR noticeboard, where interview times are posted. The JCR is the centre of the whole experience - you'll spend lots of your time in there, chatting and just generally relaxing. I guess it depends which college you go to, but at mine there was a pool table, games, and the whole thing was decorated ready for Christmas. This contributed towards making the whole place feel very homely, and it was obvious the student helpers had spent a lot of time making it look nice for us.

Anyway, I discovered - to my horror - that I had the very first interview of the day on Monday. 9:30am sharp. Having convinced myself this was an awful development, I whiled away the evening with the fellow PPE students at G&Ds, the local ice cream shop. The helpers will organise an activity every evening - this could be a quiz night, a film night, a games night - and, as it was for me, these activities can be exceptionally useful in terms of getting your mind off things. Following this, I returned to my bedroom to start preparing.

If there's one ultimate piece of advice I could give, it would be to advise everyone to bring a pair of warm socks. I couldn't sleep at all that night - all the facts I'd just reread during my preparation time were whirling around in my head for what felt like hours, and I became convinced that the reason I woke up about two hours before my alarm went off was because my feet were cold. It's best to prepare for any eventuality, I suppose! Anyway, next morning dawned, bright and early, and I trooped down the hall to have a shower and to try not to expire with fear.

As it turns out, the tutors could not have made it more comfortable for me. You have to remember that they're really trying to get the best out of you and to see how you think, and as long as you keep calm, you should be able to enjoy the experience. I'll do a separate post in a week detailing the exact questions, which may be particularly useful for PPE applicants. Yet I think my main emotion after I walked out of the office where the interview was held was relief that the whole process was over.

Or so I thought. Given that I had had the first interview of all 22 interviewed applicants, by virtue of my surname being high in the alphabet, I had a lot of free time. I spent it shopping, chatting, visiting the library, relaxing, and just generally enjoying the opportunity to spend a couple of days in such a beautiful and inspiring location. And so, Wednesday morning dawned, bright and early; I would be departing in just two hours; and I made my way to the JCR to check to see if I would be among the group to be given a second interview at another college. It wasn't particularly likely, but you don't want to be the one who has left the county by the time you get a call from College X asking why you have failed to turn up.

As I expect you have guessed by now - I had been given a second interview. I calmed my rapidly resurfacing nerves by reminding myself how lucky I was to have been given this second chance. So, I made my way to the other college and went through the same process again. It seemed that my first interview hadn't been the exception, but the rule - I can't stress this enough - they do try to get the best out of you. If you enjoy yourself as much as possible, you'll be comfortable enough to think quickly. Whether or not I get in, being interviewed was an incredible experience that I was very grateful to have, and one that I will not forget in a hurry.

Have a happy holiday! As always, if you have any comments or queries, don't hesitate to leave them below.


Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Down Time

The phrase 'work hard, play hard,' can be applied to the final year at school like no other. We have more responsibility than ever, as a consequence of this have more maturity (ish) than ever, and when we get up in the morning feel less willing to raise ourselves from our lazy stupor than ever.

What I'm trying to say is this - as much as this is a turbulent time in our lives, we need to make as much time for eating, sleeping, and putting our feet up, as for anything else. I know, it sounds a bit naïve to just blithely delcare that this is what we ought be doing. My mum is perhaps the biggest proponent of this sort of advice and my most common response is, 'I would if I could!!!' followed by a sullen expression whenever anyone mentioned the word 'work' or begins a sentence with 'you ought to be....' What's the point in going to bed early when you won't finish your work, right? What's the point of having a proper lunch if you don't have enough time to eat it because you have two study meetings, right? Why relax when you get home when it'll just mean you start your work later so get to bed later so wake up grumpy and less willing to overcome the day's problems, right?

My advice, to myself as much as anyone else, it to chill. Ignore external pressures, focus on yourself and what you need; stay aware of the fact that almost everyone else is going through the same process as you and will be there to help out if you want a chat. Finally, remember this - the most important comforting variable that certainly didn't apply way back in September - it's almost the holidays!

This time next week, I'll be staying at Oxford for PPE interviews for four days attempting to not sound like a complete idiot. I'll be sure to give you a detailed recap including all the gruesome details! In the meantime, if you have any comments, don't hesitate to leave them below.


Tuesday, 22 November 2011

The Waiting Game

Preparing for interviews. It’s something that sounds so much less onerous than ‘preparing for exams,’ but really this is the last hurdle. You’ve handed in your grades, done entrance examinations, selected your very best written ramblings, and now the last thing waiting between you and rejection is a room, a faceless interviewer, and some horror stories about antics designed to throw you off your stride.

I applied to a university that involves interviews, and I’m finding out this week if I’m one of the fortune 60% of applicants who will be selected to go to college and be interviewed. That 60% will live in college for four days and three nights, explore the city, try to appear normal and as though we aren’t working through a perpetual panic attack, and then try not to fold like a cheap tent when questioned as to our intellectual curiosity and on-the-spot aptitude.

For people anticipating the possibility of an interview, it’s wholly helpful to prepare. The most important thing to do, in my view, is read. The main question to prepare for is ‘So, I’ve been reading your personal statement, and it’s good. You’ve read lots of great books. But I’m wondering; what else have you been reading?’ If you can’t answer that question, then your claims of deep academic commitment to the subject looks like a farce. Of course, it’s also important to refresh your memory of the books and topics you’ve listed there. For one, it looks bad if you can’t answer simple questions about your reading. For another, questions about your personal statement will be designed to ease you into the interview, and not to scare you, before the meatier quizzing begins. If you can answer those sorts of questions well, you’ll be left with a good feeling, and calmer as you prepare to tackle the rest of the discussion.

Like I mentioned before, there are rumours about questions designed to throw you properly off your feet. Having spoken to a tutor, this isn’t what most people aim for. My teacher gave me a purposefully unrealistic mock interview that was designed to be off-putting and distracting. I was disarmed by her comment that she was pleased I knew the world ‘fiscal’ and by the view that ‘girls don’t really do economics, do they?’ When my friend received a similar mock interview, my teacher jokingly put her feet on the table, read the paper, doodled, and walked over to open a window. Yeah, it sounds distracting, and it was. It was an amusing exercise to do, but no one is ever going to have an experience like that any more. The fact is that we’re much more likely to hear on the grapevine about alleged strange habits from years gone by than about the multiple interviews which are genuinely geared towards making the applicant as comfortable as possible.

Finally, make sure you know why you want to apply for a particular course, college, or institution. Sure, we all know why, but you’ll find it’s harder to put these thoughts into words when your heart is racing a thousand miles an hour. These are the easy questions, easier even than ones about details on your personal statement, and it’s really helpful to take a moment to jot down some notes beforehand about the university and subject, and what drew you to them. You’re less likely to be assessed on your responses here, but if anything, being sure about why you’re applying will help settle your own mind, and make you even more determined and enthusiastic if you enter the interview room with these ideas running through your mind.

The best of luck to anyone waiting for interview responses! Feel free to leave me a comment below if you have an opinion or a question.


Sunday, 13 November 2011

Application Status Notification

The Personal Statement is, in my opinion, the most important thing about your application that can be easily influenced. You can have 50 A*s at GCSE, AAAAAAAA at AS, and still run the risk of being rejected if your universities if you submit them a piece summarising your life that makes you seem like the most boring stick in the mud to ever walk the earth.

I started writing my PS in the summer and the first draft is pretty embarrassing. Having been afraid of plunging into the thing properly, I decided not to make it particularly serious and so the document began with "PPE is my aim, my dream, bla bla bla." In the margins I'd written, perhaps wisely, 'come back to this later...' Underneath that, I listed my A levels. Perhaps I was worried I'd forget them? Underneath that was a thick paragraph of books titles I intended to read during the summer (but didn't); following on from that was the details of an essay competition I intended to enter during the summer (but didn't); and the rest consisted of doodles, repeated statements, and excuses regarding why I'd failed to flesh the thing out.

When I started writing my actual Personal Statement, I didn't even use that bit of paper as reference material. I ended up preparing for my application by doing work experience during the summer and so it was much easier to get into a groove with that on my mind, instead of with what was essentially a 'To Do' list. Anyway, one thing I do know is that if I was as successful at trimming the fat in real life as I ended up having to be when writing my personal statement, then I wouldn't have to worry about binge-eating after completing a particularly successful trawl of the internet for rejection statistics. I started out at 5500 characters, and I tell you this - it can be rescued when it's that long. I managed to cut it down to 4000 without losing anything of value, mostly by getting rid of nothing-words like 'particularly' and 'really' and 'very' and 'relatively' as well as a useless joke at the beginning about how at the age of 7 I'd considered the words Philosophy, Politics and Economics to be indicative of extreme boredom.

To anyone who has yet to write theirs, these are the most important things to remember. Firstly, utilise all 4000 characters. There's an urban legend about a pupil applying for Geography who made their personal statement into the shape of a tree using appropriate spacing. It's funny, but the content suffers. Also, instead of just listing your various achievements and endeavours, every university stresses how important to reflect on these experiences and really demonstrate what you gained from them that makes you a more prominent applicant. Particularly, show that you aren't just someone who is content to sit in lessons and not exhibit academic curiosity. Talk about your studies and reading outside class. However, it's still important to link your current studies with your future studies, and show how they stimulated your interest in the course. If you're applying to different courses at different institutions (like me - I'm applying to one which does not involve Philosophy), make sure the PS is entirely relevant for each, and that the courses are sufficiently similar that your application does not suffer on both fronts. Most importantly, don't lie. You'll regret it later, and it's unfair for the thousands of others applying entirely fairly up and down the country. Most of all, enjoy it. It's an opportunity to show who you truly are academically and it gives you a chance to draw together everything you've done. It might end up surprising you - you may have done more than you think.

In the middle of writing this post, I absently flicked onto Gmail to see that I had a new email lurking in my inbox. Having now experienced it for the very first time, I can confirm that there really is nothing that matches the thrill of fear that runs down your spine when you see the (1) and the words 'UCAS Application Status Notification.'

I clicked on the email and sort of skim-read it in a panic. There was no point, really; I already knew what it would say. You are cordially informed that, "This change may for example be one of the following; one of your choices has made a decision about your application; you have received an invitation; you have withdrawn from a choice; your reply to an offer has not been received at UCAS by the deadline given."

Having read this, I engaged in an internal monologue with myself in which I debated the merits of either logging on to Track, or instead of deciding not to log on to Track ever again and just postpone university indefinitely. Anyway, a minute or so of hand-wringing later, I logged on. I have an offer!

Sunday, 6 November 2011


Chocolate really is the most important thing about applying to university. After all, research has shown that it can boost cognitive abilities. The last few months have made me believe it.

I had a mock interview on Friday. It's probably a little bit silly to drive yourself crazy with nerves about something that doesn't matter in the long run, but naturally, I did. Afterwards, I convinced myself that it's in some ways preferable to have a mock interview that went hilariously unfortunately than one that was a doddle. Anyway, after said mock interview, I thankfully got to enjoy some chocolate I had secreted in my bag, and was free to wander back to the common room, make some tea, and essentially ride out a sort of 'nerves hangover.' I'm sure we all know the feeling.

For me, there are a number of moments during the process so far that have been the most nerve-wracking. Number one - realising I'd clicked 'send' on my UCAS form despite the fact that it contained a massive, gaping error. Here's some advice - don't send it when you know you won't be able to contact your referee for an extended amount of time afterwards, for example, over the weekend. I learnt that lesson the hard way. Number two - attending an Oxbridge conference and being blown away by the number of people there who literally spewed genius. Sitting in the corner while someone quotes from Nietzsche's 'On the Genealogy of Morality' is a little disheartening, granted, but then again I doubt any potential interview is going to allow anyone time to recount every little facet of history about the subject. I suppose we can all fill half an hour with something other than inane mumbling.

Number three was realising I'm seemingly one of an extremely small number of people in my class who has not yet had the pleasure of receiving an offer. You can explain this away to yourself with a variety of very valid reasons. University A prefers to wait until all applications are received before doing anything with them. University B has a notoriously slow departmental process. University C allegedly only gives out offers every two weeks, so if you can avoid the rejection week in the middle, you're as safe as houses. And the other universities might not have got around to looking at your application yet. Even so, it's true that there are only so many times you can stand it when your heart leaps at the sight of a (1) in your spam folder, before realising that it's an invitation to buy a new laptop that's 227% off and comes free with a deal allowing you to sell your soul.

We all overanalyse it. It's university! It's the most exciting time of our lives! People are far more likely to be crowing exuberantly when they have an offer than when they don't, so it creates the false impression that we're all alone in the place-less world. Thank you for reading my first entry! I look forward to sharing more of the gruesome/exhilarating moments that develop from my application in the future.