The interview X factor: the elusive 'potential' that dictates success

The admissions process seeks applicants with indefinable qualities, deemed able to develop critical, questioning minds, writes Mary Evans

December 10, 2009

At this time of year, the universities of Oxford and Cambridge begin the process of selecting for interview sixth-formers who have applied for admission. Given that only those with the highest grades at A level will be offered places, much remains to be decided by the "potential" that prospective students show at interview.

In much of the discussion about who is admitted to Oxbridge (or other elite institutions), "potential" seems to be a considerable factor in separating the successful from the unsuccessful.

At highly selective interviews, admissions tutors have to recognise this "X factor" (curiously systematically present in some parts of the British class structure) among a cohort of 18-year-old applicants. Oxbridge (rightly) defends its right to choose its own students and not be party to what Alison Richard, the vice-chancellor of Cambridge, described (in common with many others) as "social engineering".

(However, critics may note that some sorts of social engineering are more welcome than others: in 1999, Cambridge established the Margaret Thatcher professorship of enterprise studies, a form of social engineering not always distant from enabling the rich.)

But what is the meaning, and what are the social implications, of the word "potential"? One question is inevitably about what (or who) the potential is for: the information that has come out of Oxbridge interviews suggests that although applicants are no longer always asked to answer obscure academic queries, they are tasked with questions about popular culture or those brain teasers once put before putative army officers: "Given a box of matches and a piece of string, how would you get three men across a ravine?"

This is not to say that all questions asked by interviewers for elite institutions are absurd, and of course the predictable ones ("Why do you want to come here?"; "What do you hope to get from your years at university?") could be defined by any competent applicant or teacher.

But the very predictability of these questions makes the judgments arrived at even more difficult to understand: applicants will no doubt have rehearsed answers about a passion for a particular subject, a desire to be taught and tested and so on, and it is on the basis of these conventional questions that choices are made. Yet in those closed interview rooms a mysterious process takes place, which has the result of separating those with "potential" from those without it.

Given that at least some of the questions asked will have an element of surprise about them, it is useful to ask what kind of characteristics one may need in order to show "potential".

First, applicants must be able to think quickly and (as the expression has it) "on their feet". Second, they must have the ability to respond in ways which suggest that they are confident in making instant judgments and can answer what may be an implicitly aggressive question with a degree of calm.

In this, at least in part, a process of recognition is at work: applicants need to be (albeit in a very youthful form) a version of what we (the interviewers) are like, people who are engaged daily in the development and the influence of our ideas.

But suppose applicants have no idea how to answer the questions, let alone what the questions are about. Suppose they have not been taught (or exposed to) that verbal table tennis which is the mark of so many academic exchanges. Suppose they are so overawed by being in the oldest buildings they have ever seen that their "potential" is not going to emerge clearly.

Being "bright" or having "potential" does not come in any one format; feminists have long pointed out that women are often disinclined to be academically aggressive and that what is described as the "cut and thrust" of debate is alien to those who can recognise various sides to a question.

So in those interview rooms (be it at Oxbridge or elsewhere) where interviewers have to tick the box marked "potential", it may be useful to ask them how they themselves define that word.

Aside from the obvious cliched answers about "original" or "critical", it may be the case that an answer emerges in which the potential of the applicant is the potential to reproduce the culture that they wish to enter.

That culture has many obvious strengths, but among those strengths the ability not just to think critically but also to question the authority, as well as the meaning, of the questions themselves may become a possibility ... should the applicants eventually sit in the chairs of the interviewers.

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