English University Interviews - Criticism

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You’ll spend much of your time reading criticism as part of a Literature degree, and as such having viewpoints on criticism itself, and what it means to be a critic, is vital to succeeding at interview. This article looks at three questions on criticism that have previously been asked of students interviewing at Oxbridge.

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Do you consider yourself to be a reader or a critic? What’s the difference?

The key to a good answer here is realising that you can, and should, be both. Consider the motivation of the reader vs the motivation of a critic. The reader is motivated by the story – they will enjoy reading it, and while they might be driven to understand the themes of the work, they are primarily eager to find out what happens next, find out how the characters change or develop, and to otherwise involve themselves in the work without digging too deeply. Meanwhile, a critic sets out to understand – they need to deconstruct the narrative, consider the context, and of course consider the work of other critics as well. A literature student should be able to swap between being a reader and a critic. You should be able to read to relax, and also read a work as anyone else would – sometimes being able to simply read a work, without thinking too deeply, might reveal why the work is popular. There are times where putting aside pretensions and more intellectual outlooks can be of use.

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Have you read criticism, and did it change your interpretation of a text?

You must answer that you have. Anyone looking to get a place at Oxbridge or UCL for Literature should already be using criticism in their work in English, and should be reading criticism in their free time as well to better understand texts. If posed with this exact question, then choose a work that you know well, as you’ll be expected to debate this at some length. It would be best to focus on a fairly well-known work that a) it’s relatively straightforward to find criticism on, and b) that the tutor is just as likely to be well-versed on. You could choose a work from the Canon, for example. It would be a good idea to avoid a work on the A Level syllabus, to show that you not only take the time to read beyond the syllabus, but that you delve into criticism and the context of works as well – i.e. that you don’t just read, but that you study.

Do you think there’s a point to reading criticism?

Again, this is a question where you really must answer one way, but must temper this answer with the alternative viewpoint. In other words, you have to explain that there is a point to criticism. You could start by defining what criticism is – it’s opinion, on a work or group thereof, and draws on evidence from both the content itself and the context in which it was written. It will further draw on the work of other critics, and in doing so paint a broader picture. You can therefore use criticism to inform your own interpretation of works, and better your understanding of them. You might find that good criticism allows you to unlock new meaning that you otherwise would not have been aware of. However, you should also question whether sometimes becoming overly reliant on critics can be harmful. If your instinct becomes to reach for criticism immediately, rather than trying to digest the work yourself first, then it might be time to rethink your attitude to criticism versus reading. You should also point out that criticism is really only there for people that want to study a work – not for the average reader. Perhaps sometimes it can be more enjoyable to read a book on its own merits, and enjoy it for what it at first appears to be, rather than delving deep into criticism and others’ opinions. No matter what you say, make sure to explain that you do find criticism important, and try to provide an example of some particular works of criticism that you have found particularly informative. The best ‘reader’ will read, digest, formulate their own viewpoints, then compare and contrast this to critics – but not rely blindly on critics. Remember, a critic can be just as wrong as you – if you disagree with a critic, then build out your viewpoint and use the criticism as a counterpoint.

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