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.