A complete guide to Oxbridge interviews

oxbridge interviews

By Eloise,

The interview process at Oxbridge can be a daunting one, particularly for those subjects that don't normally interview at other universities. The interview myths commonly propagated by the media, suggesting that 'tell me about a banana', 'is the moon made of cheese?', or being asked to throw a brick out of a window are commonplace, have placed the interview process under a cloak of oddity.

But do Oxford and Cambridge university interviews really deserve this treatment, and are they really so daunting? Well, no! This guide is designed to unveil the true nature of these interviews, break down the wall of myth and get you prepared.

How to prepare

Every interview is different and this makes it almost impossible to prepare for. There are no special tricks, formula or even a magical spell for it. Despite this there are a few things you can do which might help you to feel more prepared

'Why did you apply?'

It is important to spend some time before the interview thinking about just why you have applied and any other obvious questions you might be asked. Know why you applied for your particular course. Although you probably won't be asked this, it is a useful place to start and something you will want to be prepared to answer.

Re-read

Reading over your personal statement and any submitted work before the interview is critical. It is important to remind yourself of just what you wrote in your personal statement as explained in our guide to applying to Oxbridge, the details of  which are probably be a little hazy after a month or two. In some cases the interview may be centred around your statement - so be ready to talk about what you wrote, to have your ideas challenged, and be ready to think about factors from a different perspective. The same is true for any work that you submitted prior to interview.

Top tip - It might be helpful to get a fresh pair of eyes to look over your personal statement and submitted work.

Read around

Reading is likely to be a large part of your degree, so start early! For interview (or anytime really) this does not mean consuming the entire literary world. However, you should think about particular topics that are of interest to you and delve right in. In science subjects, read around the subjects that particularly interest you, whether that is in scientific journals, popular science books or in newspaper articles. For arts subjects you should read something outside of prescribed texts and think critically about what you have read -what is the author’s argument, why was the text written, etc?

Practice

Practice talking and answering questions about your subject and interests; after all, that is what the  interview will be. You can practice this easily by talking to your friends, parents and teachers. If this seems daunting, maybe start by talking to yourself  and thinking critically about things. 

Top tip - It would be a great idea to set up a sort of 'practice interview'. This could be with someone who does not know you especially well, but is familiar with your subject, so you can practice expressing your ideas, opinions and interests to a stranger in an unfamiliar environment.

Top tip - There are many companies out there which claim to hold the secret to interviews, helping to prepare you for the experience - but they will do so for a handsome fee, usually running into hundreds of pounds. These companies have no more access to information about the interviews than you can get freely on the internet or by asking admission officers. Take advantage of all the information available to you without being taken for a ride.

'Do you have any questions?'

It is a question that is always asked, but every time it manages to throw people, so get prepared.  If there is something that you want to ask or know about, which has not been covered, then this is your chance to find out.  If you have a question you are itching to have answered, ask it! However, do not worry if  you cannot think of anything and you should not just ask something for the sake of it - if anything this could give a bad impression especially it  if is a question that you could easily answer yourself.

Getting there

So you have been offered interview and it has been on your mind for weeks. The next hurdle is actually making it there. Now for some it is easy enough to just hop in the car or book a train - you might even be lucky enough to live in Oxford or Cambridge - but preparation is key. The experience of interview is nerve racking enough so organising how you will get there will help reduce the pressure.

In some cases you might need to stay at the college for interview. This is most common at Oxford University where the interviews take place over a few days. It will typically involve you spending one to three nights in a college, where you are provided with accommodation and food, along with other interviewees. Staying over is less common at Cambridge University, but it you have come from far away or need to take an exam before the interviews you may need to stay. Although this may seem a little daunting and sleeping in a strange bed odd, it is part of the experience, it is a great opportunity to see a little more of life at university, and it can be a great way to meet new people.

If you are travelling up for the day make sure you leave plenty of time to get there - you do not want to be outwitted by leaves on the track or road works. If the journey does not go to plan though, do not panic! Make sure you have the admission office's phone number on you so, if you are delayed for any reason, you can contact them as soon as possible. If this happens, stay calm - the college will have procedures to reschedule your interview.

Top Tips

Bring some emergency money with you for a taxi to the college if you get a little lost - it can get very confusing!

Make sure you have contact details for the college admission office and the porters saved in your phone - they will be invaluable if you face an emergency, get lost or will be delayed. 

What to expect

The format of interviews do vary depending on the subject and college you have applied to, but hopefully this general format will help to explain a little and put you at ease. You are mostly likely to have two or three interviews, each lasting anything from 20 to 45 minutes, primarily focused on subject specific discussion. The interviews are usually conducted by one or two academic specialists in your subject.

Now this does seem pretty scary, I know! Immediately images of victims being thrown into the lion's den spring to mind, or of helpless A-level students being pitted against world leading academics, I suppose. But it is really not like that at all!

The interviews are a great opportunity to engage in a challenging discussion about a subject that you are passionate about. The environment should help to put you at ease as well. Interviews are usually carried out in an academics office. These are not cold, sterile places but are often cosy and welcoming - with their walls covered in books and with large comfy sofas - which really does help to melt away fears. Finally you should remember that the interviewers know you will be nervous. They are not heartless dragons. They do understand!

So, what happens?

Subject specific interviews

Of course you should expect your interviews to largely be based on your subject - pretty self explanatory really.  The format of the interview will vary widely depending on your subject.

For arts applicants, one of the interviews is likely to discuss the content of your personal statement, submitted work and any pre-interview tasks you were set. This could range from asking questions about books you mentioned in your personal statement to questioning your argument in a submitted essay. These interviews are for the interviewers to see how you think - for them to understand how you construct ideas and arguments, respond to different ideas and if the supervision/tutorial structure will suit your style of learning.

In my case I had two interviews - the first was subject (History) specific. First, I was asked to discuss my thoughts on, and had to answer questions about the pre-interview material I was provided with. Next I was asked to talk through my argument in one of the essays I had submitted before interview. The other interviewer then went through my essay, picking out specific sentences which he asked me to explain further, to consider whether I still believed this viewpoint, and whether I could refer to other historical events which were similar or more relevant. The experience was challenging but was a great opportunity to explain my passions and interests.

For science applicants interviews are a bit different. These interviews are more likely to be based around specific problems or questions which you are asked to answer. The problems you are asked to consider, work through and solve generally require no specific prior knowledge. These are usually something you cannot prepare for, so do not panic if you see something unexpected, and remember everyone else is probably in the same boat as you. The interviews are all about seeing how you approach problems and would go about attempting to answer them.

Pre-interview tasks

In some cases, and more common for arts applicants, you might be given a problem to solve or text to analyse before the interview. The task will usually be on something that you have no prior knowledge of, and is something you cannot prepare for.

For example, I was given a passage on the formation of cultural identity in Norman England - I had absolutely no prior specific knowledge on the topic which is scary, but after considering it I was able to relate it to some of my A-level studies. After taking some deep breaths to calm me down I noted down my thoughts on the text, a few comparisons that I could make, and some questions that came to me when reading it.

The important thing is to read and analyse what you have been given. So make lots of notes on what you have been given, jot down your thoughts, first impressions and ideas, so you are ready to discuss it if you are asked.

General or college interview

You might be asked to attend a 'general' interview. In these interviews you may be asked questions on your personal statement, broad questions on your chosen subject, and why you applied. So make sure you can explain why you have applied and are ready to talk about your personal statement!

Tests at interview

In some cases you may be asked to sit a test whilst at interview. This is most common at Cambridge, as at Oxford these tests are sat before an invitation to interview is made. These tests can be an important component of your application, and depend on college and course.

For example, if you are applying for English at Cambridge you will be required to take a form of written test at all colleges bar Churchill, Corpus Christi and Gonville and Caius. Whilst Law applicants at most colleges need to sit the Cambridge Law Test.
 
You will be advised by the college before the interview if you have to sit a test, what is required from you and the arrangements for this.

Top interview advice

  • Think before you speak - take a few seconds to compile your thoughts and compose yourself, but obviously do not wait too long!
  • Ask - if you do not understand the question, ask the interviewer to clarify it for you. What is the point of wasting valuable time trying to answer a question you are not clear on?
  • Think out loud - the interviews are to see how you think and your thought process. The interviewers want to see your ideas and how you come to a particular answer, so talk through your ideas rather than attempting to give a 'correct' or rehearsed answer
  • Be confident - be ready to defend your position when answering questions. This is particularly important for arts subjects where there are no right or wrong answers. Make sure you are not arrogant - the interview is a two way discussion so do not be a know it all.
  • Stay calm - try not to panic, and I know how impossible that sounds! The interviewers know that you will be nervous and will account for that.

People’s experiences

Immy Buxton studying Linguistics at Murray Edwards College, Cambridge

I had two interviews and they were both similar in that they were focused mostly around things I had mentioned in my personal statement, but each also included some sort of stimulus that I had not come across before. The interviewers definitely want to give you every chance possible to show your insights and passion, so much of the time is likely to be spent probing you on your thoughts on books you have read or elements of your subject you mentioned an interest in on your personal statement.

The questions I was asked during my interviews were challenging, but I think the interview process as a whole is best described as a stimulating experience. It is a chance to discuss your favourite subject with world-leading academics, and the best advice I received was to enjoy it as that! This meant that I did not place too much pressure on myself, so I could stay calm and accept that it did not matter if I felt that my answers were not perfect. In one interview I was presented with a data set and although I had never had to tackle anything like it before, I actually really liked trying to make some sense of it. In my other interview, I was shown a video of a linguistic phenomenon and asked what I thought it showed in relation to something I had mentioned earlier. This is a really good example of how my interviewers did their best to make the interview personal to me to enable me to really show my potential.

I knew that the interviews would be a completely new experience and so I don't think I had that many expectations, which in hindsight was good because it meant I could focus completely on what I was being presented with. During the interviews I was aware that I was being constantly probed and often contradicted, but this was definitely in a helpful manner rather than at all aggressive! Afterwards, I was pleased that they were over but it was difficult not to dwell on all of the things I wished I'd done differently.

My key Oxbridge interview advice would be to prepare as much as possible by reviewing anything you mentioned in your personal statement, stay engaged with thinking more widely about your subject, and then regard the interview as a chance to show your enthusiasm for your subject and for academic discussion.

Jenny Richards studying Geography at St Johns College, Oxford

I was terrified going to interviews as I didn’t know what to expect, but luckily there were current students waiting to show me where to go which helped to put me at ease. The other interviewees were very chatty and friendly but there was a weird competitive atmosphere as we all knew that we were competing for only a few spaces. I deliberately avoided anyone else applying for Geography as I wanted to stay calm so I could do my best.

I had two interviews and a written test. The best thing I did in my interviews was be honest. It meant that I could genuinely talk about what I enjoyed and it meant that when I didn’t know something, instead of blagging an answer, I told it to them straight that I didn’t know. This worked out well as we then went through the problem together and they could see my thinking process. Even if I hadn’t got in I would have been so pleased that I had been interviewed as staying in an Oxbridge college for a couple of days is not something many people can say they have done!

What happens next?

So you survived the interviews, congratulations! Now all you can do is sit back and wait - the whole thing is out of your hands. The most important thing to do next, and for your sanity, is not to dwell on the interviews. If you think the interviews went badly try not to beat yourself up about it. It probably just meant the interviewer grilled you harder. So sit back and (try to) relax.

It will be in early January when you will next hear about your application. On a crisp winter morning applicants across the country will be waiting for the arrival of the envelope, or for some the email, which holds the important outcome. It is most important to remember that whatever happens was meant to be - Oxbridge is not the be all and end all.

Your application has a number of possible outcomes, which differ between Oxford and Cambridge, and can be a bit confusing, so I hope to explain!

If you are successful, congratulations! You will receive an offer to study your subject at a particular college - these traditionally range from A*A*A - AAA. 

Unfortunately for some the outcome is unsuccessful. This is obviously extremely disappointing, but many other people will be in the same position as you. Try to take as much from the experience as you can and hopefully you will go on to study at another excellent university.

If you applied to Oxford then it is possible that you will be made an 'open offer'. This means that you have an offer from Oxford and are guaranteed a place if you meet the terms. Well done! You will, however, not find out what college you will be at until after your exam results have been published.

At Cambridge it is possible that you will receive a letter saying that you have been placed in the 'Winter Pool' - this basically means you will have to wait a little longer to hear the outcome. You will be placed in the Winter Pool if the college you applied to thought you were a suitable candidate for Cambridge, but they were unable to accept you. The pool allows other colleges to consider your application and is designed to ensure that the best applicants are offered places. In 2012, one in three people placed in the Winter Pool received an offer, so do not feel disheartened! When placed in the pool there are three possible outcomes:

  1. The first outcome is that you might be offered a place at another college, or even your original college, without further interview - this is what happened to me. I was pooled from Fitzwilliam College to Murray Edwards. The process happens very quickly; I found out the day after I got my pooling letter!
  2. You may possibly be asked to attend a further interview at another college. You will then either be offered a place or unfortunately you may find out that you were unsuccessful. 
  3. In some cases you may not be 'fished' from the pool. Unfortunately this means your application has been unsuccessful and you will normally hear by the end of January.

Hopefully this guide has demystified and simplified the interview process. The final thing to say is GOOD LUCK!

Useful links

University of Cambridge

General information
http://www.study.cam.ac.uk/undergraduate/apply/interviews/
http://www.study.cam.ac.uk/undergraduate/apply/interviews/involve.html

Useful videos
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kujK0W-K0qc
http://www.study.cam.ac.uk/undergraduate/apply/interviewsinaction.html
http://www.emma.cam.ac.uk/admissions/videos/interviews/

University of Oxford

General information
http://www.ox.ac.uk/admissions/undergraduate_courses/applying_to_oxford/interviews/index.html
http://www.ox.ac.uk/admissions/undergraduate_courses/applying_to_oxford/interviews/interview_timetable.html
http://www.ox.ac.uk/admissions/undergraduate_courses/applying_to_oxford/interviews/sample_questions_1.html

Useful videos
http://www.ox.ac.uk/admissions/undergraduate_courses/applying_to_oxford/interviews/interview_videos.html