History Oxford interview questions

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The second part of History Interview questions at Oxford by one of the BYT Tutors.

Oxford History St Catherines College; interview by Tom Pickles and Gervais Rosser together and by Marc Mulholland and another professor who did not teach at St Catherine’s.

My first interview was with Gervais Rosser and centred around the Italian Renaissance, one of his specialist areas and a subject I studied in my final year at school. His first question was simply, ‘What do you think the most important things you have read? My response was what he summarised as a ‘lightning quick tour of the Italian Renaissance historiography,’ as I simply rattled off a range of works without commenting much on any of them.

I began by referencing Jakob Burkhardt and progressing through to writers of the mid-twentieth century such as Gombrich, Baron and Holmes before spending some time on Quentin Skinner’s analysis of the city republics in the quattrocento. He then asked me what I made of the period as a whole, did it really constitute a ‘re-birth’ so to speak? I responded that in terms of culture, art and architecture, I believed it did, citing the fact that the duomo in Florence had lain unfinished for somewhere in the region of two centuries as no-one possessed the requisite knowledge to complete it. Brunelleschi’s undertaking the work, under the patronage of the Medici, represented the notion of ‘re-birth’ of the knowledge and skill of classical art and architecture.

I also discussed the clear portrayal of christ and his disciples as human figures by Massacio in his frescoes in Santa Maria del Fiore and Santa Maria del Carmine as reintroducing a more realistic depiction of man and how after that point we see an almost complete halt to the ‘Byzantine’ style of painting that had previously characterised the work of the region. He then asked, ‘Do you think there was also a Renaissance in terms of the politics of the era?’ I, rather foolishly, said that one could also perceive a ‘re-birth’ here, with writers such as Leonardo Bruni and Pico della Mirandola, and later Ficino then Machiavelli using the classical texts of authors such as Livy to extol the virtues of republicanism. Gervais was rather dismissive of this view, and suggested to me that the period, in practice, represented the dominance of oligarchical government rather than republic given the influence of significant individuals in both Florence’s and Venice’s ‘city republics’ at that time. I tried to respond by suggesting that by the time Machiavelli was writing his infamous ‘The Prince,’ which I said was an almost satirical text designed to demonstrate the corrupt nature of dictatorial government, that the virtue of republicanism was well established, even if it did not always apply in practice. Gervais then rather more firmly dismissed my point by noting that Machiavelli had been exiled from Florence for failing to capitulate with the Medici regime. I had some discussion with Dr. Pickles over the crusades, in particular on why they represented an attractive endeavour for so long and for such a great number of people. The conversation was somewhat basic on my part, as it was not area I had studied recently, though in general Dr Pickles was rather sympathetic to this and didn’t take issue with anything I had said. This portion of the interview really was more of a ‘conversation,’ as we simply talked about the relevant issues, one of us expanding and developing what the other said. My interview with Marc Mulholland and another professor was much more abstract and theoretical. Almost the entire interview stemmed from a question along the lines of ‘Why do you think the concept of Kingship developed in early medieval England?’ I was rather foxed by this question, never having studied the period in question nor any English history. I began by tentatively suggesting that it provided an effective societal focal point; a common allegiance to one individual had the effect of unifying a community. I said that in conjunction with the trade off of offering services in return for protection and a degree of government, that we might say Kingship developed in England as it did because it represented the most expedient way of organising society which benefited the majority of those concerned in some way or another. Marc and his colleague then spent some time teasing out that idea; posing questions such as ‘what constitutes a good King?‘ I suggested that someone who was perceived as strong enough to repel invasion and provide a degree of government would likely be seen as an effective King by his subjects. This interview was similar to the portion of my first interview with Dr Pickles, being more a two way conversation than a ‘question and answer’ format. Toward the end of our discussion, Marc asked if there was anything else I would like to talk about. Simply because he was Irish, I suggested the troubles in Ireland as a topic; I was at that time completely ignorant to the fact that he is one of the most highly regarded authorities on that particular topic. He asked me, ‘Why do you think the troubles in Ireland carried on as long as they did?‘ I approached this question by dividing the issue into two parts; I began with the plantations of Ulster and the development of penal laws against Catholics, suggesting that where a people are marginalised in their own country that does much to embed notions of division in a society. I moved on to consider the nature of the troubles that reached a peak prior to and just after WWI, suggesting that where so much bloody was spilt over an issue where both parties were convinced the other was in the wrong that the very notions of division introduced by the plantations of Ulster could only be more firmly entrenched. Marc then expanded on this a little, bringing in political analysis to my rather basic portrayal of the issues before concluding the interview.”

Advice for future candidates:

In general, I would advise future candidates to make sure they are comfortable and calm; do not concern yourself with putting on a suit or ‘smart’ clothes, wear whatever you feel most comfortable in. The situation is very different from a normal interview and they are concerned only with how you think and how you engage with an issue, not how you present yourself. I wore a suit to my first interview and felt very self conscious indeed. I had thought my second interview was the following day and on returning to the college that evening was called for interview just moments later. I was much more comfortable and confident in the second interview, wearing some terribly ripped jeans and a t-shirt. In short, do not concern yourself with your appearance any more than you normally would. Probably the most important piece of advice I can give is for candidates to say what THEY think about a topic, not simply recount a historian’s views.

Even if you’re asked about an area you’ve never studied, just take a moment to consider what sort of issues may be involved and simply respond with what comes to mind. This, I believe, was crucial in my second interview when I had no knowledge at all of the areas I was asked about, but was still able to respond, even if speculatively. The tutors would much rather have you offer an opinion, really go out on a limb, so long as you have a reason for doing so and a little evidence to back up a position you take (though this will obviously be somewhat difficult if you are asked about an area you haven’t studied). In general, simply be confident in what you are saying; there will be a degree of disagreement from some tutors regardless of the position you take on an issue. They do this simply to see how you respond under a little pressure, and to test your reasons for taking the view you have. Do not worry if a tutor seems to disagree with everything you say; the harder the interview, the more capable the tutor likely thinks that you are. Just explain why you’ve taken a particular view on an issue and be prepared to disagree. I can say from three years at Oxford that if you’re prepared to disagree with a tutor, and can support your view with evidence or even theory, they will be much more impressed than if you simply agree with everything they say. Of course, I wouldn’t suggest going in looking for an argument, only that if they disagree, do not be afraid to argue your view on an issue.

Another history Oxford Interview questions blog post can be found here.