Tips and advice for an Oxford Geography interview. What do the tutors really want to see from a prospective University of Oxford Geography student?
Oxford Geography Interview Tip 1: Understanding and potential beat knowledge
One thing that many Oxford Geography applicants worry about is that they feel they know less about human geography than physical (or vice versa). Or perhaps they have never learned about certain topics at GCSE or A Level and so would come unstuck on any questions about them.
I was particularly worried that I'd learned nothing about glaciers before my Oxford Geography interview.
"I don't know enough about human geography"
This is not a cause for concern. Tutors expect most Oxford Geography applicants to have at least some kind of preference for either physical or human geography. This is taken into account by interviewees having at least two interviews – one physical, one human.
Furthermore, it is to be expected that there will be gaps in your knowledge, as Geography is so broad. So don't stress if there are certain topics you feel clueless about!
What tutors are really looking for in Oxford Geography interviews is evidence that the student has a good general understanding of Geography. You might prefer one side of the discipline over the other, but as long as you can talk relatively comfortably, or at least demonstrate you can understand, most of the basics on both sides, you will come across well.
Oxford Geography Interview Tip 2: Be aware of current geographical issues
Another important thing tutors are looking for in Oxford Geography interviews is whether you have an interest in the present issues facing Geography. Many of these are large-scale worldwide headlines, such as climate change and natural disasters, but they can also be more local in scale.
Physical Geography Interview Example:
I was asked about climate change and 'climate proxies' – the technical term for pieces of evidence that can be used to give information about past climatic conditions. I remembered seeing a news segment about ice cores from the Arctic. The gas bubbles inside can be used as evidence of past climate conditions, so I was able to talk about that.
Human Geography Interview Example:
I was asked to describe a human geographical issue or problem affecting my local area or region. I was able to talk about some classic A-Level human Geography such as urban regeneration, retail quality, and out-of-town shopping centres, while linking it to the specific context of my area. That way, I could demonstrate that I had considered the geographical features of my surroundings before.
Geography is about the world around us – so use it!
As such, one of the most useful tips for an Oxford Geography interview is to try to see geographical issues in the world around you in the run-up to your Oxford interview. Identifying such issues in your home town area is especially useful. Chances are, you will be able to speak about it confidently and in more detail than the tutors would!
For the larger-scale problems, it is definitely worth keeping up with the news, and reading up on any Geography-related events that have occurred immediately before an interview.
Oxford Geography Interview Tip 3: Show you can apply your knowledge to new problems
Now the tutors have seen your general geographical knowledge to be sound. They've also noticed evidence of your keen geographical eye when identifying issues in both sides of Geography at larger and smaller scales. The next thing to consider is if this knowledge can be applied to new situations.
This is perhaps the essence of an Oxford Geography interview. Applying what you know to new situations rather than just being able to spout facts is one of the most important things to demonstrate to the tutors.
This is also what interviewees can often find intimidating – the dreaded "look at this picture, and tell me what it is" part of the interview. Similar questions feature across many subjects at both Oxford and Cambridge.
Look at this picture…
It is important to not be afraid of this kind of question. Instead, see it as a chance to show off your ability to think outside the box and put your geographical knowledge to good use. These questions may appear daunting, but they often involve simply bringing together knowledge you probably already have from different parts of the subject.
It is not uncommon in an Oxford Geography interview to be shown some kind of unlabelled map and asked to talk through what you think it shows.
An example I remember, however, is being shown a photograph of an exposed cliff-side, with what appears to be a boulder lodged within.
"How did this get there?"
- This can seem difficult to answer, particularly if you are not as confident with physical geography.
- A direct answer, though, is not what the tutors want – they are looking for you to make suggestions based on your existing knowledge.
- In this example, you might think "Ok, so how do rocks end up in cliffs?", or "how are rocks moved?".
- This can lead you on to thinking about how rocks get moved – perhaps by water? A river? How does a river move rocks?
- And once you have considered how the rock or boulder got there, why can you now see it? What erodes cliffs? How? What in the photo shows this?
As you can see, by really thinking about the geographical features of this scenario, I have ended up at the basics of sediment transport and coastal erosion. But now, I can work back 'up' through the problem.
In this way, you don't need to know specific or advanced Geography, just that you can identify evidence and apply the basics to new scenarios when they are placed in front of you.
Oxford Geography Interview Tip 4: Show you can apply your knowledge to more abstract scenarios
So far, so straightforward, right? Well, it wouldn't be an Oxbridge interview without a few 'out-there' questions.
This is the most challenging part of an interview in any subject – the kind of questions which might make you initially think "what on Earth are they on about?!"
However, the purpose of these questions is not to catch you out, or to try to make you look foolish. Instead, it's to push you in to applying your knowledge to seemingly-unrelated or novel scenarios. They test your ability to think on your feet.
Consider this question, which was asked in my physical geography interview. It initially seems quite bizarre, and not exactly a standard geographical question:
"Imagine every human in the world was wiped out today. If some aliens came in their spaceship in 1000 years and looked down at the Earth, what would they see? What evidence could they observe of past human life?"
When asked such questions, you should mentally take a step back, and think about the purpose of this question. What parts of Geography are they trying to make me think about? I probably took the 'think out loud' advice too far for this one, and immediately asked "how good is their telescope..?"
But then, from what I remember, I mentioned that many urban areas would become overgrown again. Then only the remains of the most permanent structures would be observable, and other things like that.
"And what about in 10,000 years? Or a million years?"
Again, think Geography. What is different about this timescale? Well, when talking in tens of thousands or millions of years, we're approaching geological timescales. And thinking about geological evidence gave me a brainwave and brought me back to something I'd discussed right at the start of the interview (see above). The trapped gas in ice cores could provide evidence of industrial greenhouse gas emissions in times of human life.
In this way, the tricky abstract questions can be tackled by constantly considering why they are being asked, because it is not to make you look stupid, but it is to further test your ability to apply geographical knowledge.
It is also worth remembering that Oxford Geography interviews, particularly when they involve questions like these, are never straightforward question-and-answer, but take the shape more of a discussion. Tutors will give you prompts and respond to what you say as you work through it. Finally, if you are asked really difficult questions, it probably means the tutors are impressed and think you can handle it!
Oxford Geography Interview Tip 5. Be adaptable!
It might be apparent from the previous two points on applying your knowledge, but the tutors are looking for geographers who are adaptable. This means not just knowing facts, but being able to use what you know to understand new things.
The purpose of this is because this is often what degree-level geography involves. We take previously-established knowledge and then apply it to contemporary geographical issues in order to understand them.
To help with this, and also to help with applying your knowledge like in the previous two sections, try and consider how geographical events, issues or problems you see in the news are similar and/or different to ones you have previously learned about.
For example, suppose you see a news report on a hurricane from last week. See if you can remember the key facts about a previous tropical storm you know of. Was the recent one more or less deadly? Did it cause more or less damage? Why might this be?
Oxford Geography Interview Tip 6: Demonstrate passion and interest
It goes without saying, but in an Oxford Geography interview the tutors are most definitely looking for people who are passionate and who really do have a interest in the subject.
This doesn't mean you have to love every bit of Geography equally, though. It's okay to be fascinated by the dynamics of climate change, but to have very little interest in the economics of globalisation!
It's important is to convey your passion for the general discipline of Geography. But, if the opportunity presents itself, try to steer the interview towards your favoured topic(s).
It is likely that many tutors will aim to allow you to talk about your favoured topics in Geography for some of the time, to give you the opportunity to show how enthusiastic you are and to let you speak about something you are comfortable with. If this happens, go for it!
Furthermore, don't try to pretend you really love certain areas of Geography just because you think it will impress the tutors. Be honest, because it is so much easier to talk about things you are genuinely passionate about.
The main things that tutors are looking for in any Oxbridge Geography interview are the skills needed to apply geographical knowledge to new issues and problems. However, it is important not to forget that they want to see people who are genuinely passionate about the subject. They want to teach students who love Geography!
To help with this, try and make sure you know the very basics of the major geographical news stories going on in the world. Try to apply Geography to things you see around you in your home area, so you can demonstrate your enthusiasm and adaptability.