Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Cambridge interviews pt.2

This is the second part of my 'Cambridge experience'. The first part is here.

As I waited for my second interview in a waiting room, I listened to a conversation between two interviewees. They discussed Mill and utilitarianism; one of them said they'd asked her about it during the interview completely out of the blue. This worried me.

After being called in, I sat down on yet another sofa. This room was even cosier than the last and there was a fireplace with that weird fake fire. Again, I had Googled the interviewers: Dr Juliet Foster is Director of Studies in PPS and seems to focus on mental health, i.e. the psychology component of PPS. Dr James Warren is Director of Studies in Philosophy and a Classics lecturer, which concerned me slightly before the interview as I know nothing about Classics. Fortunately, none of that came up.

As usual, the order of the impending interview was explained.

Then James Warren began:

"Why do you think AV failed?", he asked.

Not again… But I came up with different answers, as it was after all a different question, and I spoke about how the timing was wrong and it was simply a Lib Dem attempt to justify their role in the coalition. Now more than ever, it's the economy (stupid) that matters to voters, and the 'Yes' camp failed to link constitutional change with economics - or any practical necessity for the electorate. The debate was overly theoretical, for political pundits only - a Westminster bubble. I also mentioned the unpopularity of Nick Clegg and how a 'No' vote was seen by some as an opportunity to express their anger at him specifically.

Juliet Foster took over, and asked the rather neat question of how my A-Level subjects (English Literature, Economics, Government & Politics) related to the Cambridge course - apart from Politics, obviously. I touched upon the importance of voters' psychology in politics and psychology in literature. The reader is offered an insight into the writer's psychology, while the writer must explore the reader's psychology in order to provoke reactions and emotions. I suggested that theories in psychology are illustrated by characters and, as we are currently studying 'Othello' in English, how the relationships between Othello and his wife, as well as with Iago, is a prime example of this.

James Warren presented another hypothesis for me to consider.

"A group of people go on a camping trip. Each person brings an object: tent, stove, pans, etc. They use each other's things without asking for payment. Shouldn't all of society be based on this?"

What a bloody strange question. Firstly, I thought it was clear in my personal statement that I was a fluffy lefty and I therefore suspected they'd stun me with right-wing arguments. Yet this was the most socialist question I could imagine. Secondly, I thought he was going to say that one person didn't bring anything and they all let him or her use their things anyway. But he didn't.

For some reason, I felt a bit cocky and annoyed with the question. Accordingly, I told him that the more interesting question would have been, as I wrote above, if one person hadn't bought anything to share. Following from that, I clearly remember saying,

"I would dispute the premise of your question. There is a payment, it simply isn't a monetary one. It is more similar to a barter system: they are each exchanging the use of their own good for the use of someone else's."

He looked a little shocked as I realised my tone wasn't wholly polite - and definitely not shy. Somehow, this turned into an argument, in which I argued that all people are selfish and the number of good deeds done by someone relates to their level of compassion, not their level of selfishness. Although he completely disagreed with me, he wouldn't argue back, he'd only say,

"You have a very pessimistic view of the world."


"That's very negative."

It's not negative, but he wouldn't listen to my reasoning. That pissed me off.

Juliet Foster handed me a piece of paper. The first half was covered by a series of drawings: owls, then cats. She informed me that it was a study by someone called Bartlett (I'd never heard of the guy), who asked a number of Cambridge students to replicate the previous drawing. She asked me to explain why he did this experiment and what it showed.

I looked at the little drawings. She told me that the first one was of an Egyptian owl; it was white. The drawing had evolved, ending up as a black cat and acquiring a little bow along the way. From this, I said that Bartlett was exploring the psychology of perception. She nodded vigorously. Phew, I thought. It's the only type I've read about. I followed this by saying that the psychologist was exploring how much of themselves the students put in to how they perceive things. For instance, I speculated that the students were more accustomed to seeing cats than Egyptian owls, and that was why they drew an animal that was more recognisable to them.

"Is there anything else you can see?", she asked, as if I was looking into a crystal ball.

"I can see that one participant decided to introduce a bow around the animal's neck. A modern trend is to humanise one's pets."

For some reason I made a joke about Paris Hilton and dogs in tracksuits. I actually said the words Paris Hilton. Bit embarrassing, so I made up for that one by trying to think of a long word: "There seems to be a fashion nowadays of anthropomorphism".

On the bottom half of the page was some kind of superhero mask that didn't look like much to be honest. She asked me to guess what the next drawings would be, if the Bartlett's experiment were enacted with this particular drawing. I noticed something:

"On the bottom are the words 'Portrait d'homme', which is french for 'portrait of a man' or 'man's face'."

The drawing was rigid, made up of straight lines, which is why it resembled a mutant ninja turtle (the eyes were like those blindfolds with eye holes). I came up with the idea that the lines would be softer, curved, if a person drew it now. Essentially, I talked rubbish. That was the end of the interview.

The point is you will never guess what they're going to ask you. You have no power in that respect. All you can do is read widely and think about things critically. Oh, and actually read what you've claimed to have read in your personal statement. In her Oxford interview, my cousin was asked to quote from the book and, as she'd only read Sparknotes on it, she couldn't. She wasn't accepted - it probably wasn't down to that, but it can't have helped.

Cambridge interviews pt.1

Edit: This post may be better-titled 'How not to get into Cambridge' as I was rejected last week. Still, it's an idea of what kind of questions they ask.

I'm applying for Politics, Psychology and Sociology at Cambridge college Corpus Christi. I'm not expecting to get in, but I'm giving it a go regardless. My first interview was with Dr Sarah Fine and Ms Julie Walsh. A few weeks previously I had done a mock interview with a UCL Professor, in which I was advised to research my interviewers and look into their interests. I did this and, although it wasn't tremendously helpful for predicting their questions, it was comforting as I knew what to expect to some extent. Sarah Fine was, according to my research, particularly captivated by the ethics of citizenship and morality with regards to refusing immigrants. Julie Walsh seemed to focus on data and methods of collecting data.

I entered the small room and sat down on the sofa. Whereas I was expecting, à la History Boys, to be conducting this in a large room, in which I would sit on a solitary chair and the interviewers would bark questions from metres away behind a long desk, this was not the case. It was similar to a old lady's tiny sitting room: a wardrobe, lamps, armchairs and the sofa. We were less than a metre away from each other. Should I perch and risk looking uncomfortable and nervous, or should I lay down as if it were a chaise longue? I attempted to compromise and settle for a position that was neither scared nor arrogant.

Sarah Fine told me in which order the interview was to be held - first, your personal statement, then a question from Julie Walsh and lastly a question from herself.

"You say in your personal statement that you campaigned during the AV referendum. Which side was that on?"

"I was Yes to AV."

"And why was that?"

I gave arguments as to why I had been for a 'Yes' vote last May: fewer safe seats, giving the third parties a fairer chance (First Past The Post was only appropriate when we had a two-party system), the possibility of reducing voters' disenfranchisement, etc. All straightforward and frankly boring stuff so far. She obviously thought so too as she interrupted me and I was handed over to Julie Walsh.

"I'm going to ask you to imagine this situation. You are a researcher and the UN asks you to test the hypothesis 'globalisation makes people unhappy'. How would you do this?"

Oh. Dear. That's it, this is a disaster. My mind goes blank. What is globalisation - what is unhappiness, even? Wait, what was the question?

"I'm going to have to think this one through before I answer, sorry."

"That's fine", she says.

Right, globalisation and unhappiness. She's interested in data collection, that must be what she wants to know. How would I go about proving or disproving it? A survey is the most obvious answer, I think. But you can't simply ask people the question once, or you'd be testing their mood rather than their happiness. I remember that everyone tells you that the interviewers want to hear your thought process, rather than a short and polished answer - so I begin to voice my thoughts aloud. I spoke about conducting a survey, and how one may want to investigate long-term satisfaction with their lives as opposed to the mood they happen to be in. Therefore, you'd ask the question repeatedly… maybe.

The previous day's economics class came to mind, and I said that one could look at welfare indicators that already exist. Human Development Index, HDI, is one example - education, life expectancy, standards of living. Compare these statistics with the different ways and lengths to which each respective country is affected by globalisation. Then find correlations between them. I am blabbing and I sound moronic, I think.

She interrupts, "Should the government pay attention to people's happiness?"

"Yes, I think it is both necessary and right, and this is precisely what government is for: improving society."

Before I am able to elaborate, Sarah Fine interjects:

"Are countries like Egypt responsible for their own citizens' happiness?"

Hmm, why would she refer to Egypt specifically? Mubarak, of course, his being overthrown and his upcoming trial.

"Do you mean 'should Mubarak be tried at the ICC or in an Egyptian court?'"

She waves away my question, "if you like".

Why did I say that? I don't even know what my view is on that. I steer away from it, and instead reply by evoking the issues of humanitarian intervention. I posed rhetorical questions, such as whether Blair's wars (Afghanistan, Iraq, even Kosovo to some critics) did and are doing more harm than good, and said that the difference in the Libya intervention is that the rebels asked for help.

"Ok, thanks."

The interview ends after just 25 to 30 minutes, and I feel it went badly. The things I said were too obvious, too simplistic. Oh well, better luck at the next one...