“Oxbridge” Interviews . . . And the 5 Why’s

This past Saturday I spend a couple of hours at my daughter’s high school in London conducting mock interviews for senior students applying to university.  They call them “Oxbridge” interviews since many of the students are applying to either Cambridge or Oxford University, as well as other top tier UK universities, such as Imperial College and London School of Economics.

I am not an Oxbridge graduate, having gone to Harvard instead, but I do remember, vaguely, the entrance process during my time (closer to the Middle Ages) so I was anxious to meet this young generation of scholars and help in any way I could. I must confess that my wife volunteered me for this duty, but it turned out to be both interesting and enlightening.

I interviewed two senior students, one from the British Section and one from the French Section (our school is the French Lycee in London, in which up to high school all courses are taught in French according to the French national curriculum, but at high school level they have a choice of remaining in the French system or converting to the British high school system).  Both were extremely bright, hard working “A” students in all their subjects, and having ample extracurricular activities as well.  On paper, the perfect Oxbridge candidates.

While I am not qualified to delve deeply into the subjects these two students were focusing on for their college education (Neurosciences and Statistical Analysis), I have conducted hundreds of interviews over the course of my business career and I believe I understand what college admission officers are looking for in terms of capabilities and character.

I am certain that both these young people will be accepted into a top university, but I found an interesting, and I believe important, difference in the way they approached their education.

The first candidate was extremely serious, studious and very well read on the subject of neuroscience as it relates to how the brain understands and processes music (if you don’t know anything about this subject, like me, then a great TED talk by Dr. Charles Limb will fascinate and educate you).

However, as I started probing into why she was interested in this subject and what she saw  herself doing in the future after graduating, the responses seemed very superficial.  During the entire 40 minute interview I kept looking for the critical thinking that usually goes behind the reading and learning of a scholar.  Not just reciting facts and studies, but a critical assessment of the reading.  What does it mean? Where might there be inconsistencies in the current knowledge of the subject? How might you use this information?  If I were an Oxbridge interviewer, I would be more concerned with the candidates ability to challenge and question the current knowledge than just be able to recite it back.

The other candidate was perhaps less well read on the chosen field, but I was impressed with the depth of questioning and critical assessment of the material.  And what impressed me even more was the ability to then experiment with that knowledge in order to better understand it.  For example, she told a story of having read about the power of verbal communication to sway opinion and instead of taking it for face value, she did an experiment in the school Debate class to try and sway the opinions of the audience from a very popular position to a very unpopular position.  The goal of this experiment was to use various channels of communication (verbal, emotional, visual, factual) to influence a highly negative audience towards her subject.

To me, this curiosity and willingness to experiment with knowledge learned from reading signals the type of intellectual agility and curiosity that today’s universities are looking for.  In a world where everyone applying has A’s and A-star grades, curiosity and willingness to question and experiment is a differentiator.

The advice I gave both candidates at the end of the interview revolved around the importance of continuously asking “Why” and not being willing to settle with the first response.  One of the key fundamental principles of lean thinking and process improvement in business is the 5-Why technique.  Asking Why five times in order to get to a deeper level of understanding and to uncover the real issues.

When I explained this concept to one of the students, she got it right away. “Oh, that works with relationship as well, doesn’t it?  When someone is angry, it’s usually not the first reply that is the real issue, but by asking Why several times it is easier to help the person see the real source of their anger.”  Bingo!

Tight Lines . . .

John R Childress


About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at john@johnrchildress.com or john.childress@theprincipiagroup.com
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2 Responses to “Oxbridge” Interviews . . . And the 5 Why’s

  1. Required reading for high school students. Great post John


  2. Raunak says:

    I started asking Why everytime a desire for something arose in my mind. By the 3rd “Why” the desire had disappeared. “Why” is a strong tool in the pursuit of spiritual freedom as well.
    Great post John.


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