University Interview Questions
The university interview rumour mill regularly trundles out stories of tutors asking hapless students to hurl bricks through windows, to sit down when there are no chairs or to impersonate a gibbon (yes, we made that one up). The thing to remember is that the majority of these stories are urban legends. So instead of practising hurling bricks through windows, you should probably have a go at fielding the kind of university interview questions you might be asked. These tips could also be useful when applying for a sponsored degree!
Of course, aside from the standard questions, they might throw in the odd curveball question. In Oxbridge university interviews, the trickier questions are usually designed to make you think laterally. When faced with a tough question, allow yourself to pause briefly and collect your thoughts, rather than just plunging straight into answering. Just don’t wait too long…it could get awkward!
Your personal statement…
They might base the interview on your personal statement, so make sure you re-read it. Be prepared to elaborate on what you wrote in your personal statement and make sure you back up your statements. Above all, don’t parrot your personal statement back at them. And if you have cheekily referenced a few things that you haven’t actually read, now would be the time to read them.
Universities love to ask you about yourself. These can be pretty tricky university interview questions to answer, from the open ended “Tell me about yourself” to “How would your friends describe you?” Before your interview, write down a list of your strengths and weakness and think of five words to sum up your personality.
Practise how you would answer an open ended question like “Tell me about yourself.” The main problem with those kinds of questions is that there’s the temptation to rabbit on. Keep your answer down to three or four sentences. Tell them about your general interests and study interests and what you think are your main personality characteristics.
If they ask you if you have any weaknesses, identify one (e.g. “Sometimes I struggle with time management”), but always tell them what you are doing to tackle it (“But I’ve got a few of strategies to cope with it”). If they ask you about your strengths, list a few, be honest and to the point, but don’t brag. They might ask you to back it up with examples so be prepared for that. Another favourite amongst interviewers is: “What do you do in your spare time?” Tell them something interesting and different, not just: “I like hanging out with my mates.”
About your school…
They may ask you questions about your education such as:
- What is your school like?
- Tell us about your A-levels.
- Why did you choose them?
- What do you enjoy most about school and what frustrates you most about it?
It’s best not to gripe too much about your lessons and teachers. You might want to say something like: “Although I enjoyed my lessons, I would have liked more freedom to pursue my own academic interests.” When explaining why you chose particular A-levels, don’t just say “Because they look good on my UCAS application” or “Because I knew I could get good grades”; talk about a particular aspect of your A-levels that you found interesting or perhaps why you chose that combination. How do your A-levels feed into each other? What are the areas of overlap?
About the university & the course…
When universities make you an offer, they want to make sure that you’re pretty likely to accept it. Therefore, during the interview, they’ll probably try and gauge your level of enthusiasm for the university and the course. This is where they separate the people applying to the university to fill a place on their UCAS application from the people who genuinely want to go there. Consequently, the university interview questions you might come across will be like:
- Why do you want to do this degree?
- Why this university?
- Why should we offer you a place?
- What do you know about this course?
- What in particular attracts you to this course?
- What makes you want to study this subject at university?
The key to answering these university interview questions is to make sure you’ve done your research. Before your interview, you should have gone to an open day (if you’ve missed them, then arrange a private visit) and used that opportunity to ask current students and tutors about the university and course. Make sure you look at all the modules available on the course and identify any that particularly pique your interest. This is not the place to answer “I’ve heard the nightlife is pretty good.” Instead you should be talking about what attracts you to the university and the course on a personal and academic level.
It’s more than likely that they will ask you about your subject. Don’t worry, they don’t expect you to be an expert, but they are looking for a genuine interest and aptitude for the subject. Often they’ll be testing how you think and how you handle difficult questions. When answering, see if there’s anything else you’ve read that you can reference (perhaps something you’ve studied at school or something from your further reading). For example, at my interview I got asked about a book that I mentioned in my personal statement, I used this opportunity to talk about other books which explored similar themes to that one.
Particularly when it comes to subject questions, you really want to engage the interviewer in an academic discussion. Respect their academic opinion, whilst proffering yours. Don’t be afraid to disagree with them, but make sure you back up your statements. The main thing is to show them how you think and demonstrate a keen interest and good basic understanding of the subject.
Coupled with this, you might be asked to complete a subject-related test during the interview. For example, it’s not uncommon for an English literature applicant to be given a poem or prose extract to talk about; and often in interviews for a medicine, nursing or social care subject, the candidate will be presented with a case study. You should practise handling similar exercises beforehand. It’s best to ask your subject teacher to go through some practice ones with you.
The interviewer might ask you about topical issues relating to your subject, e.g. about something that has been in the news recently or a pertinent topic. The interviewer might deliberately present a controversial viewpoint in order to provoke you into debating with them. As mentioned earlier, don’t be afraid to disagree with the interviewer. Please note though that this doesn’t mean shouting them down. It shouldn’t be a Big Brother-style slanging match, but a reasoned discussion.
Always be prepared to justify your opinion or provide evidence (saying “Your mum!” doesn’t quite cut it). Be aware of the different sides to an argument and the various ways to approach the question, but don’t be afraid to offer your gut opinion.
The best way to prepare for this type of university interview question is to think about what skills are needed to study your degree (e.g. time management, teamwork, communication and self-motivation) and then pinpoint times when you have shown evidence of those skills. This could be in a weekend job, during an extra-curricular activity or on the Duke of Edinburgh scheme.
Here are some example questions:
- Give an example of a time when you worked in a team.
- Give an example of a time when you showed leadership skills.
- Give an example of a time when you were put under pressure.
- Give an example of a time when you held a position of responsibility.
If you are applying for a deferred place or have already done a gap year, they may ask you questions like:
- Why are you taking a gap year? / Why did you take a gap year?
- What are you planning to do on your gap year?
- What’s the point of doing a gap year?
This is not the time to tell them about how you’re going to get wasted in Thailand. Rather, point out how you hope your gap year will benefit you or how it has already benefitted you, e.g. “Going on a gap year, really developed my confidence and my sense of independence, particularly when I was confronted with challenging situations.” Definitely mention any way in which the gap year will relate to your course and future academic studies.
Universities like to see their students getting employed at the end of their course or going on to pursue the postgraduate education. Consequently, they might ask you:
- Do you have any careers aspirations?
- How do you think university is going to benefit your future?
- What’s your primary motivation for going to university?
Be honest, if you don’t have a clue about your future career then tell them, but do say something like "I hope university will help me finalise my career aspirations.” It’s not all about careers either; if you want to go to university because you are utterly fascinated by the subject, then tell them. They want students that have a genuine enthusiasm for the subject. Explain what you think having a degree will help you achieve or how you think university will benefit you.
Practice makes perfect…
We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again, the best way to prepare for an interview is practice. Ask your school to stage a mock interview, get your parents to ask you some of the questions above, and practice how you would answer those questions. Don’t learn your answers off by heart though; you don’t want to sound over rehearsed or like a robot. Universities don’t want robotic, mindless students, at least not since we last checked!