Oxford And Cambridge Interviews

As someone who survived the process herself, I sympathise with those who have been summoned to interview at Oxford or Cambridge this Winter. It’s a nail-biting time, but here I attempt to answer some of the questions I am asked frequently and I hope they help you too.

What will it be like? – You are likely to have 1-2 interviews at the college you applied to and possibly 1-2 at other colleges too. Try not to imagine what the setting will be like – you could be interviewed by the fire in a old-fashioned study by a single professor, or by a panel of graduates and scientists in a laboratory. Entrance exams could be sat in a school-like exam room, or on wooden benches in a huge, paneled dining hall with the scholars of the ages gazing down at you from their portraits.

What should I wear? – though most candidates will turn up in a suit (& tie for the gentlemen), it’s not actually necessary. Of course you should be smart – you want to show the interviewer that you are serious about your application – but above all you should be comfortable. The last thing you need to be thinking about once you’re in front of the interviewer(s) is how tight your shoes are or that digging waistband. I wore a warm grey cotton shirt with a pin-striped grey skirt and low heels. My interviewer never commented on my outfit, not then nor in the following years when he was my tutor!

Should my parents come? – the best answer here is if their presence in the town while you are being interviewed will be calming to the nerves – theirs or yours! – then yes. Otherwise, tell them all about it on your return.

What can I do to prepare? – I could write a book on this. Books have been written on this! Oxford and Cambridge are not just looking for academic excellence in the shape of strings of A*s at GCSE and at least one A* at A level – they want students who “peak on the academic spectrum”. They want candidates who have a genuine academic curiosity in the course they want to study, who love learning for learning’s sake. People who have spent years reading up on topics beyond the syllabus, who can think outside the box, who can analyse intelligently new, unfamiliar material. So can a candidate be trained to do this? Bit of a tough question: one thing most UCAS consultants are agreed on, however, if you are this type of person, then effective preparation can help you demonstrate it at interview.

The first thing to remember is that you are being interviewed because you have a strong application, and the purpose of the interview is to find out more about you. Can you expand upon what you wrote in your personal statement, can you think on your feet – the interviewer(s) will probably be your tutor(s), so can they see themselves working with you? Let your enthusiasm show, the odd smile won’t hurt, and don’t be afraid to take a moment before you answer a question or ask for clarification.

There’s no harm in preparing “standard” questions, such as “Why do you want to read history?” or “Why have you applied to this university?”, but don’t stick to a script as it can sound artificial. Mock interviews can be helpful – your school will doubtlessly be able to provide them, or recommend a UCAS consultant who can help.

But don’t go mad. Many of the things that make an applicant successful cannot be taught, and Oxbridge Admissions Tutors can spot pre-learned answers a mile off. Questions are designed not to see what you know, but how agile is your intellect – I recall a question asking how acidity damages cell membranes, something not taught at A level. I took a deep breath & suggested a few possibilities, at which my interviewer, unbeknown to me a foremost authority in his field, simply smiled and said, “Could be. We don’t actually know yet.”

Be keen, be positive, say what you think and expect the unexpected. And be proud of yourself. Whatever the outcome, you’re about to have an experience that very few people get the chance to have. You’ve earned it.

Don’t forget to leave a comment if you’d like to suggest a theme for a future UCAS blog post – what can I help you with?