What did the Romans wear under their togas?
If you teach at Oxford or Cambridge, you get used to the regular bursts of outrage about “the Oxbridge interview”. I posted a few months back about the myth that we are all a load of upper-class twits who use the interview to pick students just like ourselves. Wrong on both counts.
Just recently a different variant was doing the rounds: the one about all those weird, donnish and – this is the subtext – UNFAIR questions we ask at the interviews. Just to make sure the poor squirming candidate never feels at ease. A whole list of them were reeled off in the press and even on the Today programme. “What percentage of the world’s water is contained in a cow?” (Veterinary Medicine, Cambridge) “Are you cool? (Philosophy, Politics and Economics, Oxford). “Why can’t you light a candle in a spaceship? (Physics, Oxford). The Evening Standard even dredged up some celebs to have a go at answering them – not very well.
What did not get headlined was the fact that the survey that had brought all these questions to light had been commissioned, and then hyped, by a company which specialises in helping potential students prepare for their Oxbridge interview – for a fee. There’s nothing like a bit of media panic to send frightened kids (and their over-anxious parents) rushing off with their cheque books to get some “specialist” advice.
My thoughts on this will, I hope, be reassuring. More than that, they are free.
The first thing that any student going to an interview needs to remember is that we are wanting to let people in, not keep them out. Of course, it may not feel like that to the kid on the receiving end. And, of course, we have many more applicants than there are places. Not everyone can be successful. That said, we are trying at the interview to get each candidate to show themselves at their very best. We want to see how good they are, not how bad.
Sometimes this takes surprising forms, as with those odd questions. Everyone who conducts these interviews will tell you that over-preparation is as damaging to a candidate’s chances as under-preparation. I have often sat and listened to some hopeful reeling off, unstoppably, a prepared speech on the perfection of the Virgilian hexameter or why the Spartans won the Peloponnesian War. Bowling them a googly (“So what do you think the Romans wore under their togas?) is sometimes the only way of throwing them a lifeline – of giving them the opportunity to show that they can think independently, not from the prepared script.
So if I was giving one piece of advice to those preparing for an interview in my subject? Much cheaper than being professionally “groomed” – I would go out and buy (or borrow) a book about any aspect of the ancient world that interests you and one that is not a mainline part of your school syllabus, or takes you beyond it. Read it; know its title (you’d be surprised how many interviewees can only remember the colour of the dustjacket of their favourite reading matter); and be prepared to talk about if you are asked -- but no prepared speeches, remember.
Happily this is not entirely inconsistent with another aspect of the interview survey that did not get so much media coverage. Apparently almost 40% of the philosophy candidates who had read Mill’s Utilitarianism got a place…as well as the impressive 75% of all candidates (for any subject apparently) who regularly read The Economist.
By the way, I don’t think I shall be interviewing this year. So please don’t anyone go wasting their time trying to find out what Romans did wear under their togas. Anyway, sorely tempted as I have been, I have never actually asked the question. In fact, I don’t think we know the answer. But if I were to ask it, the point of the question (apart from stopping the unstoppable prepared script) would be to see if the candidate could begin to think through the limits of our ignorance about antiquity, as well as imagine how you might go about filling in the gaps. It wouldn’t be a “trick” at all.