How to Ace the Oxbridge Interview
Ah, the dreaded Oxbridge interview! Stories about Oxford and Cambridge university admissions interview questions have been circulating around the internet for as long as I can remember.
Whether it’s rumours of being asked to ‘surprise me’ during the interview (to which a student supposedly set the table on fire and received an offer), the interviewer conducting the interviewer with his back to the student, or simply sitting there in silence for the whole interview, myths about Oxbridge interviews are everywhere.
But the important thing to remember is that these are myths for a reason. As countless current Oxbridge students will affirm, although Oxbridge interviews are designed to be intellectually rigorous and challenging, they are not designed to trick you or to make you feel stupid.
Read on and find out how you can best prepare for this interview, what to wear, and what to do if it all goes wrong on the day.
How can I prepare for the interview?
First things first, before we begin properly, congratulations on being offered an interview! This is an amazing opportunity for you to show Oxbridge what you’re made of, and so, of course, you want to prepare as best as you can.
Ultimately, the Oxbridge interview is, on some levels, a test of what you know, but, much more than this, it is a test of how you think, and especially how you think when you’re exposed to new information under pressure. So, basically, you don’t need to know everything about your chosen subject before you arrive: you’re coming to university to learn, right?
With this in mind, of course it is a great idea to make sure you are familiar with what you wrote in your personal statement – making sure too that you’ve read everything on the statement that you claim to have read! Interviewers will pick up on that pretty quickly if you’ve fudged a couple of books! – and have some idea about the content of your course.
During the interview, the interviewers will push you and make you think on the spot. This is to be expected, and is nothing to worry about. In fact, this means that you can’t prepare too much for the interview – which might well be a relief! Don’t panic and over-prepare, just take the day as it comes and make sure you rest and have a great time meeting other candidates on the interview day itself: often people make great friends during the whole process!
Will I have to do a test beforehand?
Possibly: it all depends on the course you’ve applied for. Many of them have a test prior to the interview day which is one of the factors admissions tutors use when they decide who to invite for interview.
At Cambridge, undergraduate courses including English, History, Medicine and Natural Sciences have a test which you complete as part of your application, but many have a test on the day itself, including Computer Sciences, Law and Architecture at Cambridge. Make sure you do your research beforehand, so you aren’t taken unawares by an admissions test which you weren’t expecting!
There is plenty of guidance online about what to expect from these tests, so there’s no need to panic. If you do need to register for one of the pre-interview tests, make sure you keep an eye on the deadlines for registration, which you can see here and are coming up soon.
What will happen on the day?
This obviously varies depending on your interview time, and you will be sent out the information by the university well in advance. Generally you will have two interviews across at least one college – possibly more if you are applying to Oxford – which could be separated by several hours.
If this is the case, don’t sit there and work in the time between your interviews, it won’t help at this stage. You should take the opportunity to explore the city centres of Oxford/Cambridge, as they are both beautiful cities, and they could be your next home!
If you are staying overnight before your interview, you will obviously have a lot more time in college and may get to spend time with other applicants in the JCR (junior common room). This can be a great opportunity to relax and have fun meeting other applicants, but make sure you don’t relax too much. You definitely don’t want to be that guy that had a few too many the night before the interview and slept through it…
What do I wear?
Although some people turn up in suits – especially for courses such as medicine – this is totally up to you. Many people dress more informally for the interview, and that’s completely fine. As long as you wear something that you are comfortable in, and which isn’t ridiculously informal (pyjamas or sports kit are probably too far).
If you would feel like you need to be in an ‘interview state of mind’ by wearing a suit, go for it! However, the interview itself is more like a discussion than a job interview, so more informal clothing is fine.
What if it goes wrong?
If you are faced with questions which you don’t understand, or you don’t think you can answer, that’s completely fine! If you are being grilled during the interview, that is a really good sign as it means that the interviewer feels you are academically strong enough to keep being pushed on a topic.
My advice is that if you give longer answers in the interview – rather than just saying ‘I don’t know’, say, ‘I’m not sure, but I think this because…’ – this will go down really well with the interviewer, who will be interested how you come to a decision, not just in what you know.
Also, if you take a few seconds to think before you give an interview answer, you will be less likely to blurt something out which you’d rather not have said! Interviewers will expect you to be nervous, so don’t worry if everything doesn’t go perfectly to plan.
But, if you really hated it, and didn’t get on with the style of the interview, it is worth considering that the interview process is a two-way exchange where you get to see if Oxbridge is right for you, not just the other way around.
Ultimately, if this style of intensive academic discussion doesn’t float your boat, it is worth considering that the small group teaching sizes at Oxbridge (tutorials at Oxford, or supervisions at Cambridge) may also be a bit intense, and Oxbridge might not be the best place for you.
Of course, supervisions and tutorials are not the same as your interview, but you will be put under academic scrutiny in the same way, with classes so small. Oxbridge does not suit everyone, and for many people, going to a different university is a blessing in disguise.
Ultimately though, you cannot predict whether you will get an offer based on the interview, as many people think theirs went terribly, and then receive an offer. You just need to wait and see!
How do I cope with the suspense of waiting?
Chances are, you may have to wait for a few weeks, or even months before you have confirmation of whether you have an offer or not, and this can make you feel pretty nervous. My advice for keeping calm during this period is to remind yourself that Oxbridge is not all there is for university.
Although getting an offer would be an amazing opportunity, there are many other incredible higher education institutions out there who can offer you everything you need for your degree if Oxbridge doesn’t work out for you.
So sit tight, keep an open mind, and look forward to your exciting university future which lies ahead!