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Cambridge Interviews: A Sheepdogger's Perspective

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This is an account of my stint as an interview helper (or affectionately referred to as 'sheepdogging') in the 2011/12 cycle at Peterhouse, Cambridge

The porter looked at the interview timetable, trying to scan for my name. He didn't have to look very hard for it as there were probably eight 'Pongpongs' printed on that single sheet.

"Wow, you're down for a lot of slots, young lady." He squinted at me and tried then at my absurd frog hat, and tried to discern whether I could cope with eight hours of sheepdogging. For five days.

I nodded and settled on the hard wooden bench in the Porter's lodge, waiting for the first wave of nervous looking interviewees to arrive. Though some of the luckier ones have parents accompanying them on this day, a lot of them were alone, and probably a jelly of anxiety. I am one of the students employed by the college to look after such a jelly, making sure they don't wobble so much prior to the interview, and also provide a friendly smile (and a potential cup of tea) if they come out and dehydrate themselves with copious amounts of tears.

At 8.05am (such a ridiculous time for a uni student!) a small girl wrapped up in dun slipped through the oaken doors. Here was my first sheep of the day. She was a local, from Slough, and was applying for English. Racking my head for books read in long forgotten literature classes, I gave her a friendly smile and asked her what was her favorite book. I gathered a mumbled mutter, something about an Atlas, and finally, a desperate "What were the interviews like for you?"

She was the first of many to ask me that. I don't remember how many nervous interviewees I've guided that day, or the four days that followed, but I do remember a sense of urgency behind the question each time it was uttered. It was as if they were seeking reassurance from me on whether this whole ordeal of entering the proverbial dragon's den as sacrificial lamb has a high survival percentage. I reminded them that most interviewers were quirky, nice and definitely human, the last time I checked. I told them that I was a quivery bundle of woolly hats and sweaters, too, two years ago. I told them no, I can't tell them what were my interview questions were, though I can tell them the issue of harems of nubile she-walruses was touched at one point.

The problem was that most of them were still expecting a rugby ball to be thrown at them when they enter the messy offices of a don with too little table space. There is this deep-rooted feeling that a Cambridge interview has to be 'special', therefore 'quirky', but like so many others, my one was a straight forward set of questions like the ones you get in A-level biology. Granted, we did talk about harems, but they expanded naturally as a result of conversation flow. The preoccupation with 'what-if' scenarios was probably eating away the nervous interviewees packed into the Porter's lodge. It got to the point where the tension was scoopable with a spoon, the head porter finally had enough of milling humanity and so he sent the lot up to the common room, in hopes of relaxing them.

Relaxing? The solution to this came, bizarrely, in the form of Jeremy Kyle. The terrible, terrible show depicting furious spouses accusing one another of sleeping with their in-laws actually cheered up the interviewees. I guess they were secretly glad that their lives weren't as messed up as those of the onscreen personas, even if they do have a nerve wracking interview to ace. Isn't it strange, we often feel better when there is someone worse off than us in a bad situation, especially strangers? You feel...relieved if you don't feel as horrible as them. There, in the Junior Common Room, I see more than twenty pairs of eyes, momentarily united to one screen of moving pictures, last minute notes forgotten.

I had to discreetly tap one to remind him a don was waiting in G staircase. That moment of tranquility lost, the sheep docilely followed behind me. He was one of the few that didn't ask me how my interview went. Maybe he was reminded there were worse fates out there, he didn't need my accounts of my badly botched second interview to bolster his confidence. I can't remember his face, but hopefully the calming of his nerves helped his performance.

In the lull between batches of applicants, the porter's lodge repopulated itself with an older demographic, usually consisting of middle aged women attempting nonchalant-cy, waiting. Towards the half hour mark, interviewees turned ex-interviewees would stream in, again. Some will have comforting arms to rush into straight away. Some will be in need of kind words, others in need of tea, and some will walk away, perhaps to pray again to a pagan god of Interviews. In any case, I offered them commiseration, a reassurance, a smile and advice not to think of it any longer - Just like a sheepdog had done a few years before, empathizing, when I was such a sheep, a long way from home.

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