Introduction to Oxbridge interview preparation
Ok, so you’ve got the best part of another month at least to prepare for interviews – great that’s loads of time! I only started a week before mine (albeit during the half-term holidays when I had not much else on my plate). Unless the world of Economics at University has changed drastically in a year, it is only Oxford and Cambridge (Oxbridge) that interview so this article will be tailored to Oxbridge interviews, but could make for useful reading regardless of where/what your interview is for.
First things first – get some sort of exercise book – buy one, make one, steal one from school, whatever will do.
For Oxbridge candidates who have applied to a certain college (i.e. not an open application), have a look at who your tutors are (Google them) and see where their interests lie. It’s highly probable that they will ask you questions based on their research interests. If you can, skim through a few of their papers too but don’t worry if you don’t understand it all (especially economics which will be filled with ugly looking algebraic stuff) – I certainly didn’t/possibly still wouldn’t understand it all. Just jot down a few points in your purchased/hand-made/stolen exercise book about what these research interests are. Don’t go overboard, you don’t want to know every single thing about them. I only had 3 points (i.e. no more than 4 words per point) for each (of two) tutors.
There’s no set structure but the next thing I’ve got written down is some information about a society that I was really looking to join. Again, only about 5 points but enough to be able to talk about what the society did (guest speakers, workshops, networking events etc.) and why I wanted to join. I didn’t really get a chance to speak about this in interviews but definitely think it’s worth doing.
The different aspects of an Oxbridge interview
I then decided I’d have a double page spread reserved for jotting down any interview questions I thought up and to think about how I’d answer them. This was subdivided into 4 categories – University/College choice, the course, subject matter/academic Qs, Me. (Luckily) For me, there were no questions in section one asked during my interview (i.e. why I picked that particular university and college). As you can probably tell, I’m quite a lazy person so I only had 1 question under section 2 – “What do you want to gain from this course?” This was pretty much me imaging where I wanted to be after graduation and what skills I would have in that position – question answered. Not wanting to break the whole lazy thing, I had nothing under the 3rd question but hopefully the rest of this website (hint: The Economist articles discussion) should give you an idea about this. Finally, under the 4th category of ‘Me’ there were 3 questions that I thought up – future ambitions, A-Level subject choice and what I can give back to the university. These were pretty easy since my personal statement covered all 3 so it was just a matter of elaborating on this trying to think up a joke or two I could use if any of these questions were asked. (Un)fortunately, they weren’t.
Next up, I had almost a full page (most writing I’d done on any single topic!) about the course – the structure, modules, choices and this helped me formulate a general idea of what elective/optional modules I would take come second year. Again, it wasn’t asked directly in interviews but I’m sure it helped in one way or another. Also, rather cheekily, I lifted out some quotes from the prospectus to give me an idea of what they (the university) thought the course would deliver.
Current events and philosophical questions in management and economics
Next, we get onto the real juicy stuff. Current events, recent developments and some more fundamental, almost philosophical questions.
Page 1 – I thought I’d write about an article I’d read in The Economist about a psychologist called Simone Schnalle who claimed to have found that ‘washing with soap and water makes people view unethical activities as more acceptable’. (Don’t ask, Google if you wish.)
Page 2 – Hotly debated current event: BANKERS PAY! The main thing here is to get both sides of the argument down and form some sort of opinion. I won’t go into the specifics of for/against but the conclusion I came up with was “Very political – during crises people want to be able to point finger at 1 group and this bankers have got the short end of stick…” then words to the effect of: politicians chirping in and fueling anger towards bankers, could just as easily blame US mortgage salesmen/mortgage holders and so on, very rough but you get the idea. If you want to learn more, see the Econ At Uni briefing on bankers’ and executive pay.
Relating books and theory to your interview preparation
If you’re at all an avid reader of Econ@Uni, you’ll know that I’ve written about Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘The Tipping Point’ quite often. I really liked his 3 rules so thought I’d think about these for a bit: Law of the few and Stickiness Factor and the Power of Context (read the book, if not, Wikipedia it to find out more). I also copied out a paragraph referring to a type of person he termed a ‘Maven’, just for the sheer fun of it… (Apologies for the unconventional language, but speaking formally does get rather boring after a while). Oh and also because I thought that this would be relevant to mention (you’ll probably understand this only if you’ve read the book). Oh, speaking of books, you’ll notice a shiny new thingy on the right hand side of this post showing you books I personally recommend reading for all prospective economics applicants. I’ve actually read (or am in the middle of reading) all of these books and these are personal recommendations – you can see why by reading the comments underneath each one.
What is economics? What is management? Etc.
Next, I have the heading “What is/why economics?” It doesn’t make a lot of sense but I’m sure you can extract some sort of meaningfulness from it. Here, I’d actually just written the traditional definition (allocation of resources etc.) and below written the Freakonomics definition (i.e. science that provides necessary tools to answer ‘interesting questions’). Obviously these are my ideas and interpretations and I don’t really care if you copy them, but it’ll be a lot better if you can come up with your own.
Ah, then the topic I used to love discussing shouting about in economics lessons – what other than MONOPOLIES! :O
For this, I’d had some basic ideas (I’m the only person in the class who didn’t have an irrational hatred for big companies by the way) about why they weren’t always bad. Then I went on the internet to get some examples and theories to back up my ideas/opinions. To cut a long story short, my view was that generally the goodness/badness of a monopoly depends on how the monopoly was created. Political ones (e.g. Deutsche Post – they tried to increase German minimum wage for postal workers, this is an interesting case so research it if you want and then try and justify the actions taken by DP and rivals using some of the economics you’ve learnt – hint: costs) are bad and economic ones are good. Obviously this isn’t a coherent argument and leaves lots left to be discussed but this is good- as long as you’re prepared to discuss it and add weight to your opinion.
Oh wow, that’s it. The rest of the book is devoted to maths practice. Speaking of which, basic probability, logarithms, geometric/arithmetic sequences, calculus are worth running through – you won’t have done them all in huge depth but make sure you know what you have done pretty well if you can).
A quick note – a lot of the stuff I wrote about didn’t come up at all in any of my (4) interviews and the chances of the exact stuff you prepare coming up are unlikely too. There is a lot you can do to control the path of the discussion but don’t worry if you don’t speak about any of topics you prepare, looking back I don’t think I really did. However, it’ll probably do wonders for you mentally to have that feeling of being prepared so it’s worth it just for that if nothing else.
Feeling ready to have a go at a mock interview? Or perhaps you might benefit from some interview practice and mentoring? Once you’re done, make sure you can answer these 20 possible interview questions for economics and management.