Recruiting the next Somervillians

I have spent part of the past week participating in the Admissions process, a revealing and impressive experience.  First, in order to be qualified to interview candidates for admission to Oxford one has to take a training course, which took up several hours on line.  The meticulous attention to every legal detail, e.g. adhering to all aspects of the Equality Act, is impressive in itself.  I am now well informed on issues like direct and indirect discrimination, and how to avoid them both.  Then, Somerville’s own procedures are extraordinarily thorough.  Students intending to apply to Oxford, and to Somerville in particular, receive step-by-step guidance on the process from our web sites, including sample interviews.  The decision to offer an interview to a candidate is governed by careful consideration of all the context: the school background, any disabilities, and so on.  Written tests are evaluated and marked with immense care, a procedure involving several days of work in itself.  Finally the selected candidates arrive in College, where they are greeted by a team of students led by the Junior Common Room Admissions officer, as well as the staff of our Admissions Office.  Somerville’s main entrance hall is a hub of activity: current students checking schedules and escorting candidates to interviews, often in other Oxford colleges if there is a chance that Somerville won’t have a place for them; providing friendly reassurance, helping them to feel at home, introducing them to the pool table and other amenities of the college bar, poring over fiendishly complicated jigsaw puzzles as one way of passing time, and munching on a range of snacks.  One  job of the Principal, I learned, is to produce a constant supply of chocolates for student helpers and Senior Common Room alike.  

I decided to take part in a day of History interviews, since History is my own subject, and I will also get a taste of some science interviews during the coming week.  My role has been strictly to observe, and then ask a wrap-up question, carefully standardised for all candidates.  This is no place to describe the high points of individual performances, except to say that the students (more than one) who mixed up Kings Alfred and Arthur, or who admitted to being in a state of terror, should relax. Their fate didn’t hinge on such details.   And I will cherish some insights and nuanced use of language that displayed formidable intellects at work.

The Fellows involved in admissions (and this means all who do not happen to be on study leave) go through three or more long days of interviews in their subject, including candidates sent on from other colleges; and the interviews are followed by further hours of conferring among the interviewers on marks for each candidate: the process is thorough, rigorously fair, and exhausting. 

Now that I have seen this process from the inside, I find it even more difficult to countenance the careless reputation-busting articles from politicians in the press, their facts unchecked and damaging assertions of discrimination, even racism, passed on carelessly without the slightest concern for their impact on candidates and University alike.  Assuming that, like most people, prospective Oxbridge candidates believe most of what they read in the press, it’s no wonder if they are deterred from applying.  

My own experience of the care and rigour, the personal attention, the agonising over individual decisions, that go into finding the very best students with the highest potential to succeed at Oxford, absolutely regardless of their backgrounds, has filled me with admiration for my colleagues.  Nothing in my experience at Somerville so far has impressed me more than this collective surge of meticulous hard work by a group of academics who are dedicated to finding and educating the next generation of high achievers.  For our applicants themselves, they should be reassured that the stress they go through to reach this point is matched by the care and hard work of their prospective tutors.  

….and, an Oxford moment

Life goes on, even during the Admissions fortnight.  So I walked my dog in the University Parks this fine Sunday morning.    A couple of people clad in Santa Claus costume cycled past.  A few minutes further on, there was a sign at the entrance to the Parks: “Santas this way >>”.  There followed a rush of runners, all dressed in Santa garb; and not just runners but walkers, a boy on crutches, people with small children (also dressed in Santa gear), and even dogs similarly decked out.  Hundreds of them, mostly wearing numbers, all proceeding round the Parks in a great loop at varying paces.  Later on, there were Santas shopping, Santas snacking in the local restaurants, and finally a group of Santas clambering on to a coach to take them home.  All was in aid of the Oxford based children’s hospice, the Helen and Douglas House.  What a great way to spend a pre-Christmas Sunday morning.  I hope they raised millions.


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