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.
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...