How to prepare for an Oxford or Cambridge interview
As part of their admissions process, Oxford and Cambridge (known collectively as ‘Oxbridge’) interview prospective undergraduates. A daunting process in front of an intimidating panel of experts or an enjoyable opportunity to speak about your passion with a group of leaders in that field? Here’s how to make your Oxbridge interview more or the latter and less of the former. We will look at:
Why do Oxbridge interview candidates?
Oxford and Cambridge have far more applicants than they do places. Approximately a fifth of students are successful and both universities work hard to learn as much as they can about all of their applicants in order to offer places to the candidates who they think are the most well-suited to study with them. The interview is one of the best ways for them to do this.
The reason that we interview is that it’s a good way of determining how students will do on our course
Professor Thomas Adcock, Department of Engineering, University of Oxford
At interview, both universities are keen to use the time they spend with you to learn more about you as a student and how you might fit into their institutions and faculties. The most important topic for discussion will be your chosen subject and you will have already provided a lot of information about your passion for this area of study through your personal statement, academic reference, and, if relevant, written work and supplementary application questionnaire. It is likely that you will be asked about some or all of these. If you mentioned a particularly resonant book in your personal statement interviewers might explore this with you or they might discuss the topic you chose to examine in the schoolwork you submitted.
What will the interview be like?
Oxford and Cambridge are both very transparent about what students can expect at interview and have made efforts to ensure that candidates are well-informed about the process prior to arriving. Although there is not a ‘typical’ interview as such (the exact format will depend on each university, college and subject) there are similarities across interviews. You can expect to be seen by a panel of at least two academics and, depending on the subject, you might be given a short time to prepare something in advance of this. This is particularly common for arts or humanities subjects, where around 15 minutes before the interview you might be shown an unfamiliar poem or similar and allowed to make notes on this. In the interview, they would then discuss the poem with you. For science or maths subjects, it is more likely that you will be given problems to solve. These will usually be problems that are unfamiliar and designed to stretch you.
Interviews are between 20 and 45 minutes long. Some students are expected to participate in multiple interviews over the course of a day and often at more than one college. Sometimes interviews are split into subject interviews with academics and separate interviews with the college, which will focus more on you and your personal statement. Sometimes students will be expected to stay at the university the night before the interview in the halls recently vacated by undergraduates at the end of their Michaelmas Terms. This is a good opportunity to learn more about your chosen college and how it might feel to be a student there.
Although knowledge of your subject is vital in order to begin any conversation with your interviewers, their focus will not be on what you already know. You are, after all, applying to be taught by them. They are particularly interested in how you learn, how you think and how you approach an unfamiliar topic. It is likely that they will develop the depth of their questions, beginning with something reasonably accessible and progressing onto increasingly more complex themes. Eventually (sometimes sooner rather than later), they are likely to lead you to an area of complete unfamiliarity. At this point do not panic and remember that interviewers want you to do well. They do not want to set intellectual ‘traps’ or catch you out so at this point they will be trying to learn how you cope with something unknown and whether you can make connections between this new information and your existing knowledge that might help you to draw any conclusions. Always talk the tutors through your thought processes rather than considering a problem in silence as that will help them learn how you are thinking (it can also help them to point you in the right direction if you are struggling).
What we usually do is choose a text on a subject which we’re pretty certain none of them will know anything about because we want to have a common element against which we can judge all candidates.
Dr Nicholas Davidson, Department of History, University of Oxford
Interviewers want to offer places to students who are going to succeed as undergraduates. Students who are clearly genuinely interested in their area of study, who have the intellect to do well and who will learn effectively under the tutorial or supervision system.
There are a few ways that you can demonstrate these qualities to an interviewer. Firstly, you should have done some extensive reading around your subject. Bringing up the things you have learnt (where relevant) will show that you have explored beyond the A level syllabus. Giving your opinion on your reading indicates a critical mind, someone who does not just absorb information but who thinks about it on a deeper level, links it to other things they have read and considers their own opinion. Undergraduates at Oxford and Cambridge will use these skills in tutorials and supervisions.
At interview, the strongest applicants ... showed that they could organise their thinking well, arguing logically, responding positively to challenge, and were able to rethink or refine their initial thoughts on a question when presented with new information, or a different way of approaching it. They were also able to back up their responses with appropriate evidence, drawn from academic sources as well as personal experience... Most importantly, they didn’t give up when presented with something not immediately familiar, but persevered, using their existing knowledge and understanding, to approach an answer.
Dr Sam Lucy, Director of Admissions for the Cambridge Colleges
Lucy Bates, author of Getting Into Oxford and Cambridge (2018 Entry) helps applicants prepare for the interview by giving them two topics at random and asking them to draw connections or parallels between them. This practice of linking topics develops students’ ability to use their existing knowledge to access unfamiliar material, which is something they are likely to be asked to do in the interview.
In our minds when we’re doing an interview, the sorts of things we’re thinking about are whether or not the person in front of us has the right kind of background knowledge needed for our courses, whether we think they’d be successful in our teaching environment and, to put it in a nutshell really, can they think?
Dr James Keeler, Department of Chemistry, University of Cambridge
Preparation is key for an Oxbridge interview and there are a number of ways you can do this effectively. In the long-term, engage with your subject. This should come naturally anyway; you should enjoy reading and learning more about the area you would like to study. While you are doing this reflect on what you are reading and make notes that you can refer to before the interview to help you remember what you found particularly interesting (and why).
As the interview comes closer, practise talking about your subject. This might be with others, in a mock interview situation, or even alone in your bedroom articulating your opinions. Although you might know information, explaining this (or explaining it well) is something that you will need to do and practising will help this come more naturally to you.
Regarding preparation (for humanities subjects): read broadly and enjoy reading. Reread the things you like. But also practise talking about your subject: it’s one thing enjoying a book but another articulating your thoughts about it. That works with science subjects too: you may be a maths whizz but in your interview you’ll be asked to talk through your working and think on your feet, so you need to practise speaking out loud and showing someone else how you think.
Maud McCaffrey, graduate, University of Cambridge
Try and attend a mock interview before you go to Oxford or Cambridge for the real thing. Many schools and colleges will organise this for you. There are also companies that will do this (although some are quite expensive). If you are not able to organise something like this, then as a minimum ask a friend or family member to help you. Ideally they would have some knowledge of your subject and should prepare some questions in advance, then spend around 30 minutes asking you them.
It’s a good idea to have answers prepared for the ‘obvious’ questions such as why you have chosen that subject, that college or university, or what your strengths (and weaknesses) are. Sometimes interviewers will ask a question like this as an ‘opener’, almost a warm-up exercise to start the conversation while you are still taking in an unfamiliar room and unfamiliar people. Having good answers ready will help you to start the interview confidently. As we have said before, however, interviewers really want to learn how you think and so they will not want to spend long listening to you recite pre-prepared answers. They are likely to ask you about unfamiliar topics to watch how you absorb information and think on your feet. Do not worry when you are unsure about something, take your time and calmly try to give a logical response based on what you do know.
From a practical point of view, there are a number of things you should do for the interview. Arrive early so that you have plenty of time to find the right building and room (check your route the day before if possible) and print off a map of where you are going in case your smartphone lets you down. Plan a smart outfit in advance and make a note of the number you need to ring in case you are unavoidably delayed on the way.
From an academic point of view, by the time you reach the ‘Big Day’ you have done all the preparation you can in advance, so now is the time for a quick review of the things they are likely to ask you about. Read your personal statement again and look through a summary of notes about your wider reading.
In the interview itself, try not to panic. Introduce yourself and shake your interviewers’ hands when you walk into the room. Try to make eye contact and do not fidget when you are sitting down. Listen carefully to what your interviewers are asking you and make sure you understand the question before you try to answer it. Take your time to think about your answer so that instead of quickly blurting out a response you can give a careful and considered answer.
The single most important piece of advice I’d give any student coming for interview is to listen carefully to the questions they are being asked
Dr Mike Sewell, Institute of Continuing Education, University of Cambridge
Remember that, even if it does not always feel like this, your interviewers want to give you a chance to demonstrate your intellect. They are keen to learn what you can do so if they are asking what seem like incredibly difficult questions they are probably trying to see how you rise to the challenge. They will not be seeking to expose a lack of knowledge or generate additional stress for you. Historically, interviews at Oxford and Cambridge have had a very austere reputation but this style is less and less prevalent as interviewing techniques have modernised at both universities.
Interviewers do empathise. They’re not expecting a fully confident and polished performance
Dr Abi Adams, PPE tutor, University of Oxford
Maud McCaffrey read English at Churchill College, Cambridge. Her experience of the interview process was not easy. Resilience and perseverance meant that it ended well, which is a good lesson for all potential candidates:
Nerves really overwhelmed me when I first interviewed at Cambridge. Though I had strong grades I was intimidated by the academics in front of me and when I was given a poem to analyse, I began to overthink it, got confused and had a mind blank. This resulted – naturally – in a rejection, but I chose to reapply the following year and had a chance to put those things right. The second time around, I went in determined to be bolder. This did not necessarily mean giving more complex answers, but rather making simple but effective points that were well-supported by evidence. I tried to not be intimidated by the academics and spoke up more willingly and with strength. This really helped.
Getting into Oxford and Cambridge will always be a competitive and difficult process. With some hard work and preparation however, students can maximise their chances of success. Good luck.