48: Really Scary Interviews

48: Really Scary Interviews

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Teens Talk Getting In...To College

Really Scary Interviews

There are very few monsters who warrant the fear we have of them.

~André Gide

Getting into Oxford University is tough. At the College I was applying for the odds of getting a place were sixty to one for the English course. Round One was an application form and two essays; Round Two was a grueling three-day interview process. To get to Round Two, I somehow had to convince a tweed-jacketed professor, his mind honed and perspectives inconceivably distant from my own, that I was worthy to study under him.

To have a chance, I knew I had to say a lot in those two essays. I struggled for weeks trying to decide what to write about, how to infuse a mere 4,000 words with the magical spark that would shoot off the page and ingrain my name in the tutor’s mind. I asked teachers and friends for ideas but their advice seemed deeply unhelpful. “Write from the heart,” one person said. “Choose something you’re interested in,” said another. What I wanted was for someone to tell me the formula, the topic, even the line of argument that would win me that place. Normally a free thinker who hated to use other’s ideas, my creativity was rendered rigid in the face of that blank page and what it represented.

Late one night, exhausted with nervous tension, reality hit me as I stirred my coffee. I sat there staring into the still brown surface and I realized I was trying to predict the unpredictable, to reach into the minds of these learned scholars and work out how they think and what they like. If I could do that I wouldn’t need a university place—I’d already be set for life.

So I cleared my desk, turned off my phone and began to write. I didn’t stop to look at lots of textbooks, but I stopped to think—a lot. I wrote about what I like, squeezing out my own opinions in my own voice. One paper on Conrad, one on Shakespeare’s Tempest. I asked a teacher to check them through and, sensitive to my delicate state, she was completely positive. I checked the mailing instructions, posted the essays off and tried to forget about the whole thing.

I got through to the Second Round, and was invited up to Oxford to spend three days living in college and trying to convince the course tutors I could handle anything they could throw at me. I settled into my fourteenth century college room with about thirty-five other hopefuls, all of us trying to navigate the awkward border between camaraderie and competition. On day two I had my first interview, where I watched in disbelief as the jovial-looking tutor tore my precious Conrad essay to pieces without batting an eyelid. “You didn’t think of this... consider that... read this... write that....”

I made a handful of hopeless contributions through gritted teeth and welling eyes. Although I managed to hold it together in the interview room, the tears were flowing before the door closed behind me.

“I’ve got no chance,” I wailed down the phone to my mum. “I might as well come home.” With the gentle, well chosen words that only my mum could have found just then, she convinced me to stop second guessing, hang in there, and go through with the rest of the interviews. Her last piece of advice was the only flawed one. “Go shopping,” she said, “give yourself some calming retail therapy.” Gravitating to the book shop, all my positive thinking crumbled when, in the literature section, I caught sight of the piercing eyes of that heartless interviewer staring from the cover of a Conrad biography. He was a Conrad expert, it turned out. What did I do? Let’s just say that the phone bill was horrifying.

In my final interview with the Shakespeare professor, my Tempest essay wasn’t even mentioned. By this point, I was sure I’d already been rejected and this was the final nail in the coffin. Clearly they were just going through the motions with me; they probably hadn’t even read the second essay. I left Oxford in mourning; having both fallen in love with the place and become convinced I would never get the chance to study there.

The letter of acceptance came a few weeks later, and my first year of studies whirled by in a rosy haze of disbelief at my luck. I passed the first year exams, and on the last night of term the English department met for a celebratory dinner. I ended up sitting next to the tutor who had so heartlessly destroyed my Conrad essay. When, emboldened by the relaxed atmosphere, I told him how I had felt at the interview he just laughed. “I remember your essay,” he said. “You argued an interesting case. It was completely wrong, but it was interesting. It’s the interesting part that got you the place.”

The Shakespeare professor chimed in. “We don’t expect much knowledge in school leavers,” he chuckled, “It’s curiosity we’re looking for in those essays. We want to see that you can think for yourselves.”

“So why were you so abrasive?” I asked with obvious irritation. “You reduced half of us to tears!”

The Conrad expert nodded. “Of course,” he said. “I needed to see if you would hold your ground, answer back, if you could sustain a conversation with me. You’re all here because you saved the tears for after the interview. University can be the longest, most important conversation you’ll ever have. You need brains — everyone knows that — but you need courage too. We don’t have space for people who don’t dare have something of their own to say.” I left the restaurant in a thoughtful mood, only to have my reverie interrupted by the Shakespeare professor poking me in the ribs. “I enjoyed your Tempest essay, by the way,” he muttered with a bashful grin, “but we were having such a good chat about Hamlet, I clean forgot to mention it!”

~Andrea Gosling

More stories from our partners