What will I be asked in an interview for an English degree?

What will I be asked in an interview for an English degree?
Find out about the types of tasks that could be set and what kinds of questions you’ll be asked in an interview for an English degree.

Interviews for English degrees vary from university to university; some take a whole day and consist of several stages, and some are more like 10- to 20-minute discussions with one or more admissions tutors. Some universities – including the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge, and University College London (UCL) – interview all prospective English students who make it through the application process before making any offers. Most other universities only interview some English applicants, for example those who are returning to education after a long break. At first, the interview process may seem intensive but there are ways to prepare.

What tasks might I be asked to complete before and during the interview process for an English degree?

A few universities require English degree applicants to complete practical tasks as well as attending a traditional interview. Some need to be completed before the interview process and are used to help admissions staff decide who to invite to interview. The rest are completed during the process.

Tasks to complete before the interview process

  • The English Literature Admissions Test (ELAT)

Students applying to study English at the University of Oxford or the University of Cambridge must take the ELAT, a 90-minute written test. ELAT candidates are given six poems or prose passages and are asked to write an essay comparing two or three of them. When writing, you should focus on features such as language, syntax, form and structure.

If your school or college is registered as a test centre, it can register you for the ELAT. If it is not, you’ll need to find an external test centre. The ELAT is free to sit but some centres may charge an administration fee.

  • Written work

Some universities – such as the University of Manchester – set a specific written task for students to complete. This often involves analysing a short poem or prose passage, focusing on aspects such as tone, language and form. This usually isn’t a timed exercise, but there will be a submission deadline.

The University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge ask applicants to submit marked essays, such as A level coursework. These should not have been rewritten after marking – a member of staff is required to confirm this. It’s best to send work that meets the universities’ A level (or equivalent) grade requirements.

Tasks to complete during the interview process

  • Observed class discussion

For this type of task, applicants are given a set amount of time (typically 20–30 minutes) to read and make notes on a piece of text. This is then discussed with around five other candidates, under the observation of one or more interviewers.

You can prepare for this by participating in class discussions at your school or college; this will help you get used to articulating spontaneous responses. You’ll also learn to consider the views of others, and to identify how these engage with – and perhaps even change – your own interpretations. Using secondary criticism (critics’ literary essays) is a significant part of any English degree, so it’s important to show that you have developed this skill, or at least have the potential to.

  • On-the-spot text analysis

Your interviewer(s) may give you an unseen piece of text to read aloud and analyse on the spot. They’re likely to ask for your initial thoughts, but may also lead the discussion onto more unfamiliar ground to test your spontaneity.

To prepare, you should practise reading out loud, paying close attention to the pauses and sounds in the text. This is particularly important when reading poetry. Don’t read too fast – this will sound clumsy and nervous.

Brush up on your ‘close reading’ skills; choose poems or prose extracts that you haven’t read before and practise spotting interesting themes and devices (eg metaphors, similes, imagery) on demand. You should also make sure that you can explain how and why these are effective.

  • UCL admissions test

The UCL admissions test for prospective English students often includes a timed close reading exercise, for which applicants are asked to write a short critical commentary on one or more unseen passages of prose or poetry. To prepare, it’s worth attempting a few A level English literature past papers – these often follow a similar format. You can also practise writing essays in response to any literary texts that you haven’t come across before.

NB – while UCL is currently the only university that openly states it uses this type of test, be prepared in case other institutions ask you to do it too.

What questions will I be asked in my interview for an English degree? How can I prepare?

There is no definitive list of interview questions for prospective English students. However, there are a few common areas that you should prepare for.

  • What texts have you been studying at A level (or equivalent)?

This question is often seen as a way to ease you into your interview. Having studied your A level texts in depth, your interviewer will assume that you’re used to discussing whichever ones you mention. Therefore, you should make sure that you’ve finished reading them all before the interview. Take the time to note down any key themes and literary techniques as you read. Feel free to consult your class notes, but also try to form your own opinions. What do you like or dislike about each text? How do you see the characters?

  • What literature have you read that wasn’t on the course?

This is a good opportunity to prove that you’re an avid and independent reader. A genuine passion for English is often considered to be just as important as your academic record; therefore, it’s advisable to have around ten non-A level texts that you’re prepared to discuss.

Oliver Harris is a professor of American literature at Keele University. He advises: ‘A strong applicant will have done wider reading, so this is a crucial question that indicates whether they can do more than pass an English A level by jumping through all the hoops. However, if the only answer is Harry Potter, I’d press the “UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES” button! For a straight English degree, I might ask about older literature – Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth etc – and although there’s nothing wrong with preferring modern works, it may be more impressive to show an interest in and knowledge of such writers. But again, if the answers all sound like they’re parroted from Wikipedia or eNotes, I’d just think the applicant knows how to pass a test rather than has the beginnings of their own original engagement with a text.’

  • Why have you chosen to study English at this university?

Try to avoid referring solely to the university’s prestige. Consider its choice of modules, its specialisms, and its teaching and assessment methods, and think about how these match your interests and way of learning. You should also be aware of the university’s literary history. Check if there are any writers among its notable alumni, and – if possible – be prepared to talk about their work.

If you apply to Oxford or Cambridge your research should be specific to the college that interviews you as well as the university as a whole.

  • How would you define ‘literature’?

When asking this question, your interviewer isn’t looking for a ‘correct’ answer – they’re looking for a well-reasoned argument. To prepare, perhaps start by looking up existing definitions of literature. Rather than simply memorising what you read, decide which definitions you agree and disagree with and then draw your own conclusions. Your interviewer may challenge your response, but often this is an invitation for you to strengthen your claims with more evidence. However, you should still show that you’ve taken their view into account – even if they’re playing devil’s advocate.

  • How is literature linked to other art forms, such as music and media?

There’s a lot you can talk about here. You could discuss how well your favourite books translate into films and television series. You could think about what it is that unites or separates poems and song lyrics. If you’ve been to see any plays, consider how ‘page’ translates to ‘stage.’ How do individual directorial choices – such as movement, costumes, props and line delivery – make the performance unique?

Professor Harris comments: ‘As well as asking what students enjoy, I’d ask for some sense of why it matters; a good prospective English student has an awareness of what literature can “do”, even if there’s a lot of room for debate about the answer to that one – such as reveals the past, helps to create the future, affects individuals, changes society etc. They should also know how and why it is a part of life, rather than something separate from it.’

What should I do after my interview for an English degree?

Take a little time to reflect. Think about what went well and what you could improve on – this should help you prepare for your next university interview. However, try not to dwell. Even if you don’t get a place at your top choice university, you should still look at the interview process as a valuable experience. The skills that you practise and develop throughout – spontaneity, a critical eye, discussion, good use of evidence – will all come in useful when you come to sit your English A level exams, as well as in future job interviews.

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