In a new series of blogs aimed at demystifying the Oxbridge interview process, we will individually explore real interview questions released by Oxford University and consider ways to tackle them and use them as springboards for discussion in front of an admissions panel. This week we consider a genuine question posed by admissions tutor Lynn Robinson, of Regent’s Park College to students applying to study English Literature: “Why do you think an English student might be interested in the fact that Coronation Street has been running for 50 years?”

There are many different valid ideas an English student could bring to this question and it is important to remember that with these open ended questions the aim is to provoke discussion and raise interesting issues- so there is no single ‘right’ answer. Here are some different ways one might go about tackling the question:

Interrogate the Question

There is clearly a big difference between a popular television show and the English literary canon, so rather than dive straight into reasons, an interesting first step might be to think about the very different media of novels, print literature and televised drama; the different experiences they evoke and the different audiences they attract. It might be worth tackling some preconceived notions about the ‘types of people’ who are interested in literature and soaps, and whether these stereotypes are accurate or not.

Think Laterally

The popularity of a long enduring television show may be compared to the timeless appeal of certain novels and works of literature like Pride and Prejudice or Shakespeare. One could draw similarities between the way in which both Coronation Street and Pride and Prejudice deal with very universal questions, issues and ideas about the human condition and consider if this is the reason for their continued popularity. This could lead on to a discussion about the relevance of literary works and whether a text has the same ‘value’ if it does not directly relate to issues that are immediate and relevant to the reader.

Pay Attention to Detail

The question specifically asks why the student may be interested not in Coronation Street itself, but in the fact that it has been running for a long time, which suggests a specific focus on the reaction of an audience to the show, and what it is that makes a work of art popular and successful. This could result in a discussion of popular works of literature like the Twilight series, which are hugely successful and read by millions of people all over the world but are not necessarily considered ‘high art’ or ‘great literature’. Or of more demanding works like the novels of James Joyce, or the plays of Samuel Beckett, which are renowned for being difficult to understand and engage with, yet are considered to be of great ‘worth’ and high literary status.

Feed into Wider Issues

Admissions tutors will frequently use interview questions as a springboard to nudge a student towards a big issue or idea that is fundamental to the subject they are applying to study. Looking for ways in which the interview questions lead into such issues and showing that you are aware of them by widening the discussion is a great way to prove that you would be a perceptive and intelligent student to teach. In this case you might allow your discussion of the difference between ‘popular’ and ‘valuable’ television or literature to lead into the wider issue of whether popularity diminishes the value of a work of art, and whether an unpopular text should be considered less successful. A major literary question this could lead into would be the issue of the English canon – how is it determined whether a certain text should be included in the canon or not, and what is the difference between the ‘success’ of writers who achieve canonical status and those who achieve popular success?