So, you’ve got past the first hurdle, and you’ve got an invitation to interview. How, then, can have any idea how to start to prepare for your interview? In this blogpost, you can find our tips and guidance on how to prepare for an Oxbridge Philosophy interview.
If you’re applying for the Oxford Maths and Philosophy degree, you’ll find that getting ready to prepare for an Oxbridge philosophy interview is a very different process to preparing for a maths interview – take a look at our guide to preparing for maths interviews to compare. The interview itself will be very different in style, and they’ll be looking for a different skill-set.
In a mathematics interview, tutors are looking to see you think methodically, employ your natural ability, and implement the concepts you have learnt over your studies to date. In a philosophy interview, they are looking to see how you adapt to new concepts. Although methodical thinking is also important, so that your thoughts don’t become confused and lost, they want to see interesting and original thought patterns.
Here are my four top tips for preparing for a philosophy interview:
1. Think about your ideas.
The most important part of philosophy is thinking, so I would recommend spending a lot of time just thinking about your own ideas. Try and construct your own arguments about some topics, and just think about philosophical theories you have read. Think about how you would deal with abstract questions, without getting stressed and overwhelmed. Just spend some time thinking and reflecting on things you don’t often think about, such as:
- What am I?
- Where did “I”, not just “my body”, come from?
- Is there a world outside us? Can we know this?
- Does God exist? Does it matter either way?
My first philosophy interview began with a really abstract question. I was asked “How do you know the chair you’re sitting on is blue?”. It really helped that I had already spent some time thinking about these kinds of questions in my head, and working out about approaches to think about them. I carefully went through why I thought I knew there was a chair below me at all, and then why I thought it was blue, linking in some of the reading I had done of Descartes’ Meditations, and also thinking about why it is problematic to just assume the existence of an external world.
2. Talk about philosophy.
In the same way that thinking about philosophy is a really important part of developing your philosophical skillset, it is important to practice composing your ideas and formulating them out loud. Ultimately, the interview is your chance to impress your tutors in person, so you need to express yourself concisely and clearly.
Philosophy is complicated and confusing, and it can be difficult to formulate arguments that seem clear in your head, so practice this. Over dinner, talk to your parents, your siblings, or even your cat. You don’t need a response (don’t expect one from the cat), you just need to practice vocalising your thoughts. Even if it’s just in the mirror, I would definitely recommend spending some time expressing your thoughts about philosophy out loud.
Also, read a chapter of a book and try to summarise it in under a minute. This will hone your communication skills. Although you’d ideally choose a work of philosophy, you can also develop this skill by summarising a novel.
3. Practice constructing your philosophical thoughts clearly.
This is definitely easier said than done – philosophy is hard to think about!
As well as talking through your ideas, I would recommend spending some time writing them down. Get a big piece of paper and draw a flowchart of your thought process, how you got an argument from (a) to (b). This will help you see that you have either understood an argument you have read, and that the argument is valid.
Before my philosophy interviews, I bought lots of flashcards. On each one I wrote a stage of an argument I had read, and then I stuck them onto a flowchart on my wall. I could then visualise the argument moving from (a) to (b), and also just look over it whilst I was getting ready for school. I also did this with key philosophical terms and a couple of philosophers’ theories and ideas.
4. Build a bank of interesting concepts and philosophers.
This bank does not have to be huge – the interviewers will not expect you to know loads and loads about philosophy! But it is good to have a general idea of the main issues, main philosophers, and how philosophy roughly fits together as a subject. To get an idea of this, why not take a look at our guide to further reading for philosophy?
I would recommend trying to get all of your concepts and philosophers onto an A3 sheet the week before your interviews, then just reading it over a couple of times before the real thing. You don’t need more than this, and it’s good to have it all concisely in one place!
Hopefully, these four tips will help you prepare for your Oxbridge philosophy interview. Remember, the most important thing is to stay calm, and not to panic. The tutors don’t want a ‘correct’ answer – they want to see how you think. Practise talking through your ideas and your thought-process, and you’ll be well on the way to a successful interview.