History is an extremely competitive subject to study at Oxbridge, with only around one in four applicants to Oxford University being awarded a place. However, some 75% of students are invited for an interview, so it logically follows that the interview is an exceptionally important part of the candidate selection process. This week’s genuine Oxbridge interview question, from admissions tutor Ian Forrest at Oriel College, Oxford, proves that the history interview is not testing prior knowledge of any particular area of history, but your intelligence and analytical skills as a historian. “Is violence always political? Does ‘political’ mean something different in different contexts?”

Play to your Strengths

Forrest makes it clear that he intentionally uses this question for admissions interviews specifically because it may be used to relate to any period of history and to the history of almost any place in the world. This should debunk once and for all the common interview fear that a question might come up on something you don’t know or haven’t studied. The whole point of the interview, Forrest explains, is to understand how a candidate works as a historian; how they analyse the question and bring different historical and political ideas to bear on it. So it is extremely important to take advantage of this opportunity the interviewer is giving you to focus on whichever area of history you feel most confident discussing.

It is unbelievably common for an interviewee, nervous and expecting to be caught out in their ignorance, to panic and think that an open-ended question like this demands a period-specific answer. They might try to think of a particular historical period when political violence was rife, or a geographical area where it has been particularly common, leading them into deep water if these are not areas they have particularly studied.

Remember, if the interviewer asks such an open ended question, they are not trying to ‘catch you out’! They are asking you to guide them to the area you feel most comfortable discussing, so if your course has focused on the pre-Tudor period in English history, then use the Wars of the Roses as an example of political violence. If you have studied 20th Century South African history, then use the violence of apartheid as a basis for answering the question.

Above all, if you haven’t studied a period that you feel is relevant to the question, then rather than trying to waffle about an area you know nothing about, it is much better to focus on the question itself and simply answer it in reference to general knowledge and modern or current affairs. Forrest himself agrees that this particular question “could also be answered extremely well from contemporary, current affairs, knowledge,” proving that a candidate who chose this option would not be disadvantaged in any way.

Challenge Pre-Conceived Notions

One thing you can assume the interviewer may be trying to do in an Oxbridge interview is get you to either accept or challenge pre-conceived ideas and definitions. Many of the sample interview questions released show examples of interviewers casually presenting candidates with questions that make an assumption about the meaning or application of a particular concept or phrase, to see if they will just accept it and carry on, or whether they will first interrogate the definition of the question. Here, the interviewer is hoping that the candidate will question the definition of “politics” and what constitutes “political violence” at all. A good candidate would also consider other applications of the phrase – such as whether the concept of “politics” can also be applied to other historical situations apart from the usual ideas of kings and governments.

Give a Rounded Answer

It is very rare for an interviewer to hope that a candidate will come down robustly on one side or the other of an argument – or indeed for them to provide a question that invites such a response. Usually the most successful approach will be a well-measured, carefully constructed assessment of the question, where an applicant explores positives and negatives on both sides. In this case, it would be useful to begin to create a scale of “political violence” where certain incidences of violence might be categorised by the candidate as more or less politically motivated than others. Considering other motivations for violence would be another useful way to interrogate the question and demonstrate an awareness of its complexity. It would be useful, for example, to consider an instance of violence whose motivations were clearly mixed, with some evidence for political influence and some for other factors. The recent London riots would be a fascinating example.