Friday, October 13, 2006


It's getting close to that time of year again. With the application deadline for undergraduate entry in 2007 looming, the national press is looking to fill a few more inches with stories about the process, which they insist on portraying as either overly gruelling, capricious, or otherwise plain unjust. The first piece I've seen this year is in today's Times. It focuses particularly on how 'bizarre' the questions asked at interview might be. 'Are you cool?' was apparently set for PPE applicants at Oxford. The article does not make perfectly clear why such questions are asked, however, and there is indeed a rather good rationale for them. In particular, interviewers are interested in seeing whether an applicant has the potential to do well and is therefore trying to bypass any differentials in their schooling and the base knowledge they have to see whether what they know can be deployed in a novel circumstance. We are trying to find out whether they have the ability to pick apart the various factors involved in assessing a new situation and then build a cogent response to a surprising question. So it is not the case, for example, that when asked to put a monetary value on a teapot there is in fact a price the interviewer is looking for (it's not The Price is Right), but what matters is whether the applicant can think about how things are valued in a capitalist economy.

For my purposes, I was also interested to learn from the article that:
Utilitarianism by John Stuart Mill was also a must for philosophy students, with
38 per cent who had read it being made an offer.
This is interesting because rather a lot of applicants say they have read Utilitarianism. I wonder how many have actually read it and, more important, how many have thought much about it. There is a difference between tackling bits of it in an A-level Philosophy class and reading and thinking about it independently.

For more information from Cambridge University about interviews, go here.

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