Graduate admissions

The graduate admissions process is designed to ensure transparency, objectivity and consistency in selecting the most able from among the many excellent applicants to Oxford and in the process ensuring attention to equal opportunities and diverse needs.

A useful resource is the Graduate Admissions and Funding Online Handbook since it provides detailed information on all aspects of the admissions process. Currently, there are three main application deadlines (November, January, and March) after which some departments may continue to accept applicants.

Other useful background resources:

Generally, the interviewing process can be viewed as constituting three elements:

1. Pre-interview planning:

  • review criteria;
  • agree relation of criteria to the interview;
  • ensure questions address the criteria: It may be useful to create scenarios describing situations you know postgraduate students face. This facilitates easier comparison across applicants;
  • agree on ranking scale;
  • review questions that may not be asked.

2. The actual interview:

  • initial interaction between applicant and interviewers;
  • explanation of the interview purpose and its flow;
  • interview questions;
  • interaction - closing of the interview.

Ensure sufficient scheduling between interviews so that neither interviewers nor students feel rushed.

3. Post-interview:

  • review the process and make additional notes if appropriate;
  • make independent judgments in relation to the criteria and ranking scale before discussion;
  • agree on consensus rating ensuring that the principle reasons for acceptance and rejection are recorded.

While this structure provides a framework, there are as many challenges in admissions selection processes as there are with any assessment decisions and supervisors will have their own views about what is important in selecting a candidate, as this supervisor notes:

I’m all the more now of the view that a PhD isn’t about me. It’s about the student getting a PhD or a D.Phil… the responsibility is on us to really choose people who can do that… So just kind of their readiness to do something on the scale of a PhD that really requires going beyond … you know, getting your head around a set of literature or even having some ideas, but it’s actually being able to operationalise a set of ideas… people have to have not just a good question but a feasible methodology and material, and no amount of supervision is going to make that right if it isn’t right to begin with. (New supervisor, Social Sciences)

However, interviewers still attempt to bring as much rigour as possible to what is ultimately a judgement. Rigour can be addressed in a number of ways – taking into account, for instance, personal bias, the context, applicants’ personal circumstance that may influence them at the time of the interview.

Online self-study materials are available to address these issues. They cover the relevant legislation and the University's principles and policies underlying the admissions process. The materials include exercises to familiarise you with the different aspects of the selection process. Use your Oxford Single Sign-On to access these guidance materials on the Learning Institute's courses website. Go to Oxford Learning Institute Online Courses, click on All Courses and select Graduate Admissions Assessors and Admissions Staff Guidance from the Open Courses list.

While postgraduate admissions has been researched internationally for several decades; much of this research is in the fields of psychology and medicine. Issues addressed include:

  • the range of sources of evidence used in making admissions decisions;
  • the importance of ensuring criteria assessed align with the curriculum;
  • ensuring sources of admissions evidence are well aligned with the criteria so there is adequate evidence for a decision;
  • creating mechanisms to increase validity and reliability.

As regards the role of interviewing in admissions, research suggests that it enables the assessment of criteria not easily assessed from other sources, e.g. letters of reference, CV, research proposal. In particular it highlights personal traits and qualities such as interpersonal and communication skills, critical thinking, self-appraisal, integrity, potential as a future colleague. In this manner, the interview broadens the scope of assessment beyond academic achievement as measured in transcripts and standardized tests. In using interviews, the research evidence is clear that setting clear criteria, developing a structured interview protocol and training interviewers enhances reliability.

An interesting approach in medicine, which may have possible applications elsewhere, is the ‘multiple mini-interview’ in which there are a series of ‘stations.’ In each, one examiner and the applicant address only one aspect of the interview in a very short period with the applicant then moving on to another station. The results suggest the value of collecting ratings across multiple people spread over multiple interviews rather than by increasing the number of raters in one interview (Eva et al, 2009). This method has found to reduce the effect of chance and interviewer bias and was also more cost effective than traditional interview panels (Eva et al, 2004).

Still, Arce-Ferrer and Castillo (2007) note that despite an increasing interest in the use of face-to-face admissions interviews at the postgraduate level, there is mixed evidence as to the value given that impression management can influence applicants natural behavior with a negative impact on the validity of the scores. Thus, they suggest the decision to include or exclude interviews given the human resource investment is not straightforward. They conclude though that more research is required before disqualifying the use of interviews in postgraduate admission processes.

The above text was based on:

Albanese, M., Snow, M., Skochelak, S., Huggett, K., & Farrell, P. (2003). Assessing personal qualities in medical school admissionsAcademic Medicine, 78(3), 313-321.

Arce-Ferrer, AJ., & Castillo, I. (2007). Investigating postgraduate college admission interviews: Generalizability theory reliability and incremental predictive validityJournal of Hispanic Higher Education, 6(2), 118-134.

Eva, K., Rosenfeld, J., Reiter, H., & Norman, G. (2004). An admissions OSCE: The multiple mini-interviewMedical Education, 38(3), 314-326.

Eva, K., Reiter, H., Wasi, P., Rosenfeld, J., & Norman, G. (2009). Predictive validity of the multiple mini-interview for selecting medical traineesMedical Education, 43(8), 767-775.

Patrick, L., Altmaier, E., Kuperman, S., & Ugolini, K. (2001). A structured interview for medical school admission, phase 1: Initial procedures and resultsAcademic Medicine, 76(1), 66-71.

Salvatori, P. (2001). Reliability and validity of admissions tools used to select students for the health professionsAdvances in Health Sciences Education, 6(2), 159-175.