The Cambridge University Admissions Interview is a gatekeeping encounter in which academic staff members question, and evaluate, prospective undergraduates on the subject they have applied to study. It is politically controversial as admittance to Cambridge (or indeed Oxford, which uses a similar admissions interview) brings unparalleled educational and professional advantages, yet candidates from non-fee-paying schools do worse statistically at interview than their privately-educated peers (Zimdars 2010). In order to understand why this might be the case, among other issues, Cambridge University audio-recorded, compiled, and entrusted the researcher with a corpus of interview data across a range of subject areas. This paper uses interviews from English Literature to explore whether or not "linguistic capital" (Bourdieu 1991), the mastery of the standard register of language typical of a country’s traditional ruling class, is what determines the chances of gaining admittance. Using the techniques of interactional sociolinguistics, including interviewers’ evaluative notes, the paper finds that a successful interview performance is determined by a candidate’s ability to manage the (sometimes opposed) requirements of being both a responsive student and a convincing peer academic. Such requirements are shown to cut across, and problematize, the direct relationship perceived to exist between socio-educational background, linguistic capital and success at interview. The paper further suggests that a more transparent account of the interview’s interactional requirements would both improve interviewer practice, and demystify this encounter for future applicants.
Daniel Weston, University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong