So, you’ve received an invitation to interview at Oxbridge – congratulations! Below is an outline of what to expect, along with some guidance and advice to ensure the best chance of success at interview.
“How can I prepare when the interviewer could ask me absolutely anything about History of Art?”
By understanding how the interview works and, crucially, what it is that the interviewer is looking for. The interviewer is not looking to catch you out, but rather for you to demonstrate your curiosity, knowledge and passion for History of Art.
One interview will normally focus on the candidate’s submitted work and personal statement. In the second the candidate will be asked to discuss photographs of works of art, buildings, or other artefacts. Candidates will not be expected to recognize the objects, which are generally not well known. Candidates will be assessed on their ability to engage intelligently in visual analysis and to make connections where relevant between the objects and their historical and cultural context.
Just before your interview, having arrived in Oxbridge …
Most applicants will be invited to stay at the College to which they have applied for the duration of their interviews. This will probably be your first taste of the ‘Collegiate’ lifestyle, living, eating and studying in close proximity to your peers. There are usually some social events planned for interested interviewees; to be honest, your stay is just whatever you choose to make of it. It is unavoidable that you will mingle with other interviewees at some point during your stay, so it’s important not to be intimidated by any applicants of a more pompous nature, especially if they have already been interviewed. Everyone has received the same invitation to interview, so – even if it doesn’t feel like it – it’s a level playing field for these few days. On the day of your interview, dress in whatever clothes you feel comfortable and confident wearing. Interviews are inherently contrived situations, and a three-piece suit might just add to your uneasiness if you’re not used to wearing one.
At home, before your interview …
Oxford requires you to include a response to an art object, of no more than 750 words, in your application. It’s worth starting this at the earliest opportunity so that you have plenty of time to draft and redraft it. Hopefully, this should be a reasonably pleasant exercise, not least because you’re not counting the words you’ve written; you don’t have the same agonising frustration of counting characters like in your Personal Statement. Pick any artwork you like, but try to abide by these two criteria: (1) you actually like it (or at least feel some emotion towards it), so you can talk about it enthusiastically at interview; and (2) it’s relatively local to you, so you can make multiple repeat visits to view it – for my response, I selected a painting displayed in a free exhibition held at my local town hall, so I returned to it after school several times. It’s important to view your chosen piece more than once; not only is it amazing just how many aspects of a painting you can either invent or omit without repeatedly viewing it in the flesh, but this is also useful for checking the accuracy of your writing. You’re aiming to record some sort of gut reaction which the painting has instilled in you, then attempt to break down exactly how the painting has caused this reaction; such reactions occur much more readily when viewing the original of your selected work, rather than a photograph or reproduction of it. If you’re struggling with your response, I’d highly recommend getting hold of Sylvan Barnet’s A Short Guide to Writing about Art (multiple editions; second-hand copies currently available on Amazon for around £6, but also available from other reputable sources!) – not the most highbrow of books, but I’ve long regarded it as my ‘secret weapon’ and it should prove invaluable for the purposes of completing this response. Be sure to clearly explain any context to your work: my chosen painting’s exhibition was intended primarily for the enjoyment of visually-impaired people, so visitors were encouraged to touch the paintings which had been specially created with textured media. I remember at the interview, therefore, having to clarify parts of my response, so startled were my interviewers at the thought of me touching fragile exhibits!