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Oxbridge Interviews

Oxbridge interviews are almost more famous than the universities themselves. Over the years they have spawned an encyclopaedia’s worth of myths and legends, and they can still strike terror into the heart of any hopeful Oxbridge applicant.

If you pick apart the layers of myth and legend, you’ll find that an Oxbridge interview isn’t something designed to turn you into a gibbering wreck, but a chance for you to show what you’re made of.

At a classics interview, you won’t be forced to recite Plato’s dialogues backwards in Ancient Greek whilst riding a unicycle; you won’t be asked to throw a brick through a window in a philosophy interview; and you probably won’t be asked to dissect a parakeet using nothing but a teaspoon and a plastic comb in a natural sciences interview.

Oxbridge interview preparation…

Above all, it really helps if prepare for your interview. This doesn’t mean desperately cramming, but conducting some research, doing a bit of further reading and showing that you have a genuine passion for the subject.

Research the course (e.g. go through the syllabus with a fine tooth comb) and the college to which you are applying. You should be able to pick out exactly what it is about the college and your course that appeals to you. It’s all about showing that you have a genuine interest in the course and the college, and you aren’t just applying blindly to Oxbridge because it’s “the best.”

Re-read your personal statement and any work you’ve submitted. Be prepared to talk in more detail or justify anything you have said. Make sure you’ve read all the books you’ve mentioned on your personal statement too – it could get embarrassing if you haven’t. But don’t expect to only be asked about your personal statement or the work you sent with your application; some interviewers won’t mention them at all.

Read around your subject. That doesn’t necessarily mean feverishly reading all the things you feel you ought to read, but developing the interest you already have in the subject by doing some further reading. For example, if you’re a biologist and you’re particularly interested in plant science, then show that you’ve done some further study into the subject; even something as simple as reading science magazines will suffice.  If you’re stuck, ask your teacher for some suggestions of what to read.

Give yourself an introduction to the broad ideas of the subject that you feel you don’t know about already. After all, an awareness of all the general areas of your subject can really help. Again, ask your teacher for help.

Don’t panic and feel like you have to cram. You really aren’t expected to be an expert in your subject area. They’re far more interested in how you think and whether or not you have a real interest in the subject. They want someone who is eager to learn and study, not someone who already thinks they know everything.

Practice interview…

Ask one of your teachers to stage a mock interview, so you can practise answering questions. Think about the kinds of obvious questions they might ask you, such as: “Why this college?” or “Why this course?”, and practise your answers.

Then, get your subject teacher to ask you some tricky questions about your subject and have a go at answering them. Don’t over-practise though; Oxbridge interviewers are experts in spotting the candidates that have been overly prepped and rehearsed.

Getting there & staying the night…

Allow yourself plenty of time to get there. You might want to stay the night in the local area or even in the college if you’re travelling from far away. If anything, this can be the most nerve-wracking part, as you’ll be staying in a strange bed, but try to relax. Make sure you’ve got plenty of money and have enough to eat and drink.

If you have to stay over for an extended period, give yourself breaks and treats in between interviews and interview preparation. Talk to other candidates. If you find yourself getting overwhelmed by the whole experience, go for a walk, call home or do something to take your mind off it. The main thing is to not psyche yourself out or get too stressed – easier said than done we know!

If you’re travelling to the interview on the day, make sure you have a contact number for the college in case you get delayed for some reason. If you think you’re going to be late, then give them a call, explain the situation and ask if you can reschedule.

What will the interview involve?

At Oxford, the interview process can last as long as a week and you’ll usually stay overnight in a college. During that time you’ll probably have to do some tests and you’ll often be interviewed by more than one college.

At Cambridge, it’s slightly different. You’ll have the same round of tests and a few interviews, but only at the college to which you applied. You probably won’t stay longer than three days at the most, and most candidates only spend a day or two there. If you get pooled (e.g. the college doesn’t offer you a place, but thinks you’re good enough for Cambridge), you might be asked back by another college or two for an interview. 

The exam…

You might have to sit an exam at the college. Usually you won’t have any time to revise or prepare, so there’s no sense in fretting about it. Just make sure you pace yourself through the exam, giving yourself time to answer all of the questions.

The interview itself…

Make sure you know where the interview is and who you’ll be seeing, as there’s nothing worse than running around trying to find the interview room in a maze of college corridors. Try to be punctual and follow the instructions.

If possible, find out the format of the interviews beforehand. More often than not, you’ll be given two or three interviews. You might have a subject-focused interview with one person; you might have a more general interview with more than one person; or you might even be given a group interview with other candidates.

Even if the thought of more than one interview fills you with terror, it’s actually a good thing. If you feel like you’ve fluffed up on one interview, you’ve got another chance to redeem yourself.

There might be a long wait before you go into your interview, but try to keep a handle on your nerves. Take deep breaths. Smile at the interviewer when you go in. You might find these articles on interview body language and interview techniques helpful.

Usually the interview will start off with something relatively easy and then they’ll gradually start to push harder, introduce more complex ideas and see how far you can go. Expect a grilling and try not to crumble under the pressure.

They wouldn’t have invited you to interview if they didn’t think you had the potential to push yourself. If you feel like you’re panicking, then take some deep breaths. If you’re stumped by a question, then talk about how/what you are thinking.

For tips and advice on answering Oxbridge interview questions, check out our Oxbridge Interview Questions article.

The test bit of the interview…

For most subjects, there will usually be some sort of test within the interview. For English, this usually involves analysing a poem or a prose excerpt. For history of art, this might involve talking about a piece of art. In scientific subjects, you might be presented with a problem or a scenario that you have to figure out.

The key thing to remember is that these tests are designed to see how you think. They might be looking for a basic level of technical ability, but they will also simply be interested in how you handle being faced with an unseen problem.

Often, it’s about connecting the dots, and if you can compare the problem or task to other things you’ve encountered, it will really help. Talk them through your thinking process; it’s not always about arriving at the ‘correct answer’, but how you get there. Allow yourself time to think. Take a pause and gather your thoughts before answering each question.

After the interview…

Pretty much everyone thinks they’ve had a bad interview. Oxbridge interviews are meant to be tough, and no-one will be getting an easy ride. Don’t beat yourself up about it too much. If you feel like crying afterwards, cry. If you feel like venting, vent. If you feel like staring moodily into a pint, stare moodily. Just don’t get hammered if you’ve got another interview.

It’s often good to talk about it, so call your family or friends. Share your experiences with other interviewees; the likelihood is that they’re going through exactly the same feelings as you. If they brag about their interview being “really easy”, they probably won’t get offered a place.

Putting it into perspective…

Oxbridge interviews might be tough, but studying at Oxford or Cambridge is tough. Terms are short; you have to hit the ground running and work very hard. Students either thrive under the academic pressure or find it all too much. Consequently, interviewers want to pick out the people who will make the most of their experience; not the ones who will end up hating every second of it.

At the end of the day, it’s just an interview. It’s only a part of the selection process and the fact that you’ve been asked into interview shows that you’re already a very strong candidate. If you don’t get into Oxford or Cambridge, it really, really isn’t the end of the world.

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