Perfectly imperfect: university interviews

Shahidha Bari on the flawed, yet fascinating, admissions process

October 30, 2014

“You are shrunk to the height of a 2p coin and thrown into a blender. Your mass is reduced so that your density is the same as usual. The blades start moving in 60 seconds. What do you do?”


If you’re a tired and jaded academic and have ever thought, in an idle moment, of working for Google instead, then you had better start thinking hard about how to scramble out of sundry kitchen appliances. The question above is, apparently, the sort you might be accosted with if you were to seek employment at that sunniest of search engines. Sadly, the cheery “There is no right answer” attitude of the humanities won’t do here. A half-baked hypothesis that has you fashioning a rope out of your jumper is unlikely to win you a pass to Google HQ, so you might as well say goodbye now to your dreams of creativity-corner beanbags and rainbow-lettered technostuffs.

I remember Google’s brain-bending conundrum and various other nightmare interview anecdotes around about this time each year when my own department begins to interview student applicants. During the seasonal onslaught of righteous indignation about Oxbridge selection, it’s worth remembering that the interview remains a part of student admission in many institutions, serving different functions, not only sorting wheat from chaff. In my own department, we cling to interview as a preferred method of recruitment, even as the volume of applications increases perennially. We regard it as a mark of our distinction, demonstrative of our engagement with each student as a person, in the round, rather than as data on a paper. I sincerely believe this to be true and embark on the process with great seriousness, and yet my certainty about the value of what we seek to do by interviewing is in equal proportion to my doubt that I could ever have the measure of any of the variously eager, anxious, bright-eyed and terrified students who stumble into my office.

I just couldn’t work out what the interviewers wanted and knew only that I desperately wanted to be there even if I didn’t quite know why

I offer up the Google example flippantly, of course, and there is something irritatingly self-satisfied in the certainty with which the corporation asserts its judiciousness, but I wonder if our own selection processes are not also underwritten with a similarly unwarranted confidence. Do we even know to what ends we ask the questions we do? By what measure do we find a candidate adequate or wanting? And how far does a student’s sense of the encounter marry up to our own? My own recollections of being interviewed at Cambridge as a student consist mainly of feeling bewildered by a girl at Newnham replying to my question as to why she had applied (“My family have always come here”) and then hitting my head on a tasselled lampshade on the way out. I just couldn’t work out what the interviewers wanted and knew only that I desperately wanted to be there even if I didn’t quite know why. But I vividly remember, too, how at 18, rejection is so utterly demoralising, how much seems to hinge on this decision, how beyond your power the control of your own fate seems, how difficult it is to understand that 20 minutes in proportion to the rest of your tremendous life. I remember how keenly you feel it whichever way the decision goes.

Sometimes, figuring out what a student needs and how far your institution is capable of providing that feels little more than wild guesswork. Selection is a hazardous minefield even for those treading carefully. We might be alert to the “value-added” brought by applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds or troubled schools, but how do we assess something as intangible as capacity for happiness? Is that even my responsibility when a candidate appears before me with a scoresheet of gold stars and a passion for Victorian novels? Frustratingly, references prove so rarely useful here, mostly issuing platitudes and even withholding vital information that a teacher takes to be undesirable. Ucas statements provide little relief, being a special kind of torture reserved for admissions staff. Perhaps it is harsh to judge students (especially 18- to 20-year-olds) on their (in)ability to write an original sentence. Yet there can be redemptive exceptions, too, like the student who tells you the plainest truth: “I love learning” written at the end of an application, the last one read at the close of a long day.

The failings of references and Ucas statements make the case for interview. And interviews can be for much more than selection, even if that is their ultimate purpose. They can be an opportunity for gentle enquiry, a peeping under the surface that a young person has never permitted before and in which they can be startled by the depths they discover they possess. It can be a teaching by stealth, in which a student brightens with a dawning idea, grasps the stem of your understanding and makes it blossom under the power of their own inspection. Most importantly, it can be a meeting of grown-up minds, independent of the gaze of parents, peers and teachers, something often happening for the very first time in the life of a young adult. And this encounter is not just the foundation stone of the subsequent teaching that comes in an undergraduate degree, it is a building block for life – the moment when another adult addresses you on equal terms, without the prejudice of familiarity, and requires your serious response in turn. Maybe there is an argument for the impartiality of more computational selection by data. But perhaps it is that partiality that makes interviewing so interesting. Certainly, interviewing for admissions is a flawed process. I don’t know how we make it less imperfect – but I doubt that anyone at Google knows either.

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