Oxbridge still has face-to-face meetings to select students, but most universities have stopped. Marya Burgess looks at how choices are made and what to watch out for
More and more universities are scrapping the face-to-face interview as part of the procedure by which they decide which students to accept for degree courses. The argument is that interviewing is too costly in terms of staff time - and that it is not a particularly reliable way of judging who will be a good student. But is this true?
Oxford and Cambridge still insist on interviewing would-be undergraduates, as do tutors on very competitive courses, such as the creative writing course at the University of East Anglia. Mature students with non-traditional academic qualifications can find themselves being called for interview before being offered a place, as will all would-be medics and many art students.
So what are the risks of cutting interviews from the admissions process? How can you truly assess the prospective potential of students without meeting them; without comparing performances? Is it fair on the student? Or on the admissions tutor, many of whom must now base assessments solely on the form all university applicants have to fill in as part of the system run by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service?
Nowadays, when reading the UCAS form, the first points on the admissions tutor's checklist are GCSE results, choice of A-level subjects and schools' predictions of A-level grades. Academic qualifications and predictions of good A-level grades count for the most in deciding whether to offer a candidate a place on a degree course.
Next comes the portion of A4 containing the applicant's "personal statement". This provides admissions tutors with the biggest clue as to an applicant's aptitude for a particular course. "The personal statement is so important now that so few universities interview," says John Charnley, director of admissions at the University of East Anglia. "It must convince the selectors that 'I'm the one'."
Because most applicants are aware that listing extracurricular interests such as reading and stamp-collecting is unlikely to thrust them to the top of the pile, the personal statements tend to make interesting reading.
Barbara Maher, admissions officer in the school of environmental sciences at UEA, is looking for "real evidence of enthusiasm for environmental sciences, such as genuine involvement in conservation - not just 'saving the whale' - and other evidence of motivation, such as commitment to school activities like sport, music, prefect systems. We want outgoing people."
But how, when faced with reams of pages detailing expeditions to Outer Mongolia, voluntary work in leper colonies and medals won for scuba diving, does the admissions tutor separate actuality from aspiration without meeting the candidate? At Oxford, an important part of the interview refers to the personal statement, says Robin Osborne, professor of ancient history and admissions tutor at Corpus Christi College, Oxford.
"We follow up claims made about outside reading or related activities. If they are not genuine, that counts against the candidate." But Oxbridge is in the enviable position of having the time and resources to retain the interview as the single most important factor in the admissions process. At Corpus Christi, more than 90 per cent of candidates are summoned for a face-to-face quizzing.
Yet critics of the interview point to Oxbridge's retention of it as one possible reason both universities continue to accept large numbers of expensively educated, private school candidates. The interview system, they say, is subjective. It inevitably favours students who are socially skilled and confident, and the high ratio of independent-to-state school pupils admitted to Oxbridge (about 50:50) is evidence of this.
Professor Osborne agrees that "the interview is treated like a mini-tutorial, with the tutors introducing subject-related topics and looking for people who understand the issue, have a grip on it and can take it further". But he says it is not a means of favouring candidates who have been educated privately. "Obviously there are those who are nervous and say very little. But in my experience, many of those it's hard to get anything out of are from independent schools, and there are plenty of good, confident state school candidates who interview very well."
Anyway, many universities that interview a much smaller percentage of candidates than Oxbridge admit almost as high a proportion of private-school pupils. At Bristol University, where 41 per cent of admissions are from independent schools, David Speedyman, admissions tutor in earth sciences, interviews only those students to whom he intends to offer a place. "It is a waste of time and money to invite others along. We hope it confirms what we think, and the main purpose is for them to get a feel for the place."
Selection is a two-way process: not only is the university selecting a student, students also need to suss out if they will fit into a particular department and get on with their tutors. Universities that have scrapped the interview have devised a way of enabling candidates to get a feel for the place - arranging open days. They no longer interview for the BSc in early childhood studies at Bristol, but use the open day to get across as much information as possible so that, as admissions tutor Julie Selwyn says, "students self-select".
With a careful reading of the personal statement for evidence of commitment to improving children's lives, such as humanitarian trips to Romania or Africa, Selwyn claims "research evidence shows that we are as likely to get the people with a bit of spark and the ability to think critically who we want, as we would through interview".
The other bit of information the UCAS form provides is a reference from the applicant's teachers. But academics have found from bitter experience that they cannot rely on what teachers say about their pupils. "They tend to be the same for every candidate," Selwyn says. At the University of East Anglia, Dr Charnley's experience is that: "in a tight corner, teachers' references matter a lot, but they do all tend to say 'this is the next Einstein'. You get to know that this school's references can be trusted, but that at that one they say the same thing for everyone."
In Dr Charnley's view, being an admissions officer is a bit like playing Russian roulette: "You first see the candidate's A-level results months after you have offered the candidate a place, and you just pray that you got it right. You make about four offers for every place, on the reckoning that at least one will not come, another only has us as insurance, another will not make the grade, and the final one will come. Twenty years ago, when candidates had to rank their university choices in order of preference, our job was easier."
ADMISSIONS TUTORS MAKE MISTAKES TOO
Robin Osborne, admissions tutor at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, admits that even with the college's rigorous interview system, he does not always get it right.
"As a college, we take 60 students a year, and we'll make two or three mistakes. In the past few years, two have been more obvious than others.
"The first was a question of believing too firmly in the candidate's record. On paper, it looked wonderful, but there were some misgivings at the interview. But the feeling was that we could not let an indifferent interview performance override an excellent academic record. We were wrong."
The second case was the reverse: "The candidate did well at interview and had submitted good written work, suspiciously good in retrospect, but did not quite make the grades asked. Yet we decided to take the person - we should not have."
At the University of East Anglia 1 per cent of students drop out, mainly because of personal problems. In admissions officer Barbara Maher's experience, these are frequently mature students, whose other commitments may distract them "from throwing their lot in on the course". Then there was the Swedish student who "could not bear to be away from his girlfriend a moment longer".
Dr Maher does acknowledge one mistake: she was persuaded to accept a candidate against her better judgement.
"There was a non-traditional, mature applicant, with no record of academic work for a number of years, who was extremely persistent. In the end I decided to give her a chance. She lasted six weeks - I should have known."