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The Oxbridge Interview: Ultimate Guide Pt. 3

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Last Updated: 23 Mar, 2024

In the third part of our guide we discuss how to prepare for the infamous Oxbridge interview...

This post picks up from the second part of our Ultimate Guide to Successful Oxbridge Applications which can be found here.

The Oxbridge Interview – As scary as it sounds?

In the first part of our Ultimate Guide to Oxbridge Applications we discussed how to go about choosing between Oxford and Cambridge and their respective colleges and courses, while our second part covered the logistical aspects of applying; the UCAS form, personal statement and entrance tests. In today’s third and penultimate post we’re going to talk about the part of the application process that commands the greatest sense of mystique and foreboding: the infamous Oxbridge interview.

It’s not uncommon to hear horror stories about interviews at Oxford and Cambridge. Tales abound of bright-eyed candidates stepping enthusiastically into the interview room, only to emerge, teary-eyed and shell-shocked fifteen minutes later in the wake of questions such as ‘what speed is this book currently travelling at’ or ‘ladybirds are red and so are strawberries. Why?’ It’s been suggested that the only way to get through the ordeal is to set fire to something in a bid to ‘surprise’ the admissions director. But does the mythologizing about the interview match the reality?

In today’s post we’re going to go over everything that aspiring Cantabrigians and Oxonians should know about the interview stage of the applications process. We’ll have a look at how you should prepare for your interview, where and when you can expect it to take place, and what the interviewers are looking for.

The Basics

Let’s begin with a short FAQ about the logistical aspects of the interview.

When do the interviews take place?

Having submitted your UCAS form by mid-October, Oxbridge candidates then have a bit of a wait to see if they’ve been shortlisted for a place and offered an interview. The universities draw up their shortlists for interview in late November and early December. Cambridge’s interviews happen in the first half of December, while interviews at Oxford tend to be slightly later, in mid-to-late December.

Who gets interviewed?

The majority of applicants to both Oxford and Cambridge are invited to interview. Cambridge’s website states that roughly 75% of applicants are invited to interview. A smaller proportion of total applicants is interviewed by Oxford because of filtering done by the numerous entrance tests (you can read more about them in part two of our guide.)

When will I find out if I’ve been offered an interview?

Letters inviting candidates to interview usually go out at the beginning of December. In some cases you won’t find out you’ve been offered an interview until about a week before it’s due to take place, so make sure you’re ready and free to head up to Oxford or Cambridge for a few days on short notice.

How many interviews are there?

This can vary, but it’s usually the case that Oxford requires applicants to attend more interviews than Cambridge does. This is because the pooling system at Oxford happens during the interview stage, rather than after it (as is the case at Cambridge) so it’s not unusual to be summoned to a number of different colleges over the three or four days. While this isn’t so common at Cambridge, it’s not unheard of for applicants to one college at Cambridge to be invited to interview at another college too.

When it comes to the interviews themselves, you will usually have a subject-specific interview, where you meet with the director of studies for your subject, as well as a generalist interview with another member of the college staff.

Where do I stay?

The college where you are attending an interview will provide you with accommodation and meals while you’re there.

What should I wear?

You can wear whatever you like, though it’s perhaps advisable to wear something that gets you in the right frame of mind for your interview. Dress in something that makes you feel calm and confident. There’s no obligation to dress smartly, though.

Should I bring anything with me?

Depending on the subject you might be specifically asked to bring something along, but generally you should bring along copies of the school work that you submitted when you made your application. Having a copy of your personal statement is a good idea too, since your interviewer will likely ask you questions about it.

The Interview

What actually happens in an Oxbridge interview? Well, it depends first and foremost on what subject you’re being interviewed for. The interview will in most cases consist of both conversation, between yourself and whoever is interviewing you (the college director of studies and/or another member of staff), as well as a practical element. This might be solving an equation in the case of Mathematics, harmonising a melody on the piano for Music, or translating an unseen for Classics.

The interview is intended to help tutors decide whether you’re a good fit for an Oxbridge education. At Oxford and Cambridge lectures are supplemented with tutorials, in the case of Oxford, or supervisions in the case of Cambridge. For the sake of simplicity (and historical bias on this writer’s part!) I’m going to refer to these as supervisions for the rest of this post, though a tutorial at Oxford is essentially the same thing: an hour long meeting of a small group of undergraduates from the same college with a ‘supervisor’ — a post-graduate or by a director of studies — where you discuss essays, modules and anything else course-related. It’s an environment where dialogue and debate are encouraged, and the admissions tutors try to replicate this atmosphere in your interview to see how you respond to it. They’re looking to see that you can think independently, weigh up the pros and cons of differing points of view, and talk through problems intelligently and creatively. In short, the interview is a test of whether you’re the kind of person that is going to thrive in the Oxbridge environment, and whether you’re going to be enjoyable to teach too.

Remember though: the interview is only one part of the application process. By the time you enter the room the supervisors, admissions directors and director of study at your college will all have a fairly good impression of who you are, and the interview will likely confirm those initial impressions, bad and good.

How to Prepare

So how can you prepare for this kind of environment? Thankfully there are a number of simple ways in which you can instantly make yourself more comfortable in the interview, and at the same time make a better impression on your interviewers. Here are some basic rules to follow when preparing for the interview:

1) Know what you wrote in your personal statement and submitted work

It’s very likely that the interviewer will bring up topics that you mentioned in your personal statement, or that you wrote about in the schoolwork you submitted as part of your application. It’s vital that you know your personal statement back to front, and that you can back up any claims that you made in it. Did you actually attend an archaeological dig in Mexico? Be assured that if you’ve lied about anything you’re going to be found out! Make sure you can support any claims that you’ve made, and don’t be surprised if the interviewers take you up on them! Remember, though, this isn’t about confrontation – lively debate is the defining aspect of academic life at Oxbridge, so take in your stride and back yourself! If you can argue your case clearly and with evidence you’re bound to impress the interviewer.

2) Read the seminal texts, but also something a bit different

It goes without saying that if you want to apply to Oxford or Cambridge you should be reading about your subject. First on your list should be the subject-defining texts – The Wealth of Nations for prospective economists or Nicholas Cook’s A Guide To Musical Analysis for Music students – but you should also be reading material that isn’t widely known. A good way to explore your subject is to be a bit spontaneous – go to your local bookshop, find your subject section and buy something that you haven’t heard of. You can always bring this up in the interview, and the more surprising you can be about the material that you’ve read the better.

3) Go to lectures and other events

If you live in a big city like London it’s very likely that there will be public lectures you can attend in your subject. A quick Google search will help you find any events going on near you – and any talks you attend will give you material for discussion at interview. It doesn’t have to be lectures – visiting museums and exhibitions will also help to broaden your knowledge and show that you really want to get involved with your subject.

4) Practise

It’s good to have some interview practice before going up to Oxford or Cambridge. The best people to help with this are graduates (or even undergraduates) who have themselves experienced the Oxbridge interview, but if you know anyone with significant experience in your subject, and particularly your school teacher, consider asking them to host a mock interview for you. You should make sure that you do at least two practice interviews before the real thing, and ask for as much feedback as possible. UK Study Centre routinely help prospective undergraduates with their interview preparation, and you can find out more about help here.

Once you’re in the interview…

You’ve done your preparation, you’ve booked where you’re going to stay, you’re dressed nicely and you’re trembling (don’t worry, it’s natural) – it’s time for your interview! When you walk in, shake hands with the interviewers, sit yourself down and try to relax. Try to think of your interview as a conversation, and of your interviewers as the academics that they are. They’re not going to try and give you a horrible time; they just want to get to know you.

Here are some tips for the interview itself:

1) Don’t be afraid to say ‘I don’t know’

The supervisors and academics interviewing you are not expecting you to be the finished product, so don’t try to be. If they ask you something that you haven’t heard of before, or if you don’t quite understand something, say so! You’ll come across as confident and inquisitive, whereas attempting to answer a question without background knowledge will only make a bad impression (just ask George). Once the interviewer has explained a little, try to relate what you’ve been told to something that you do know about.

2) Think out loud

This is quite an important skill that will serve you well if you manage to get a place at Oxford or Cambridge. Once you’ve been asked a question, think through it out loud, stepping across your knowledge in a logical way. This will give the interviewer an idea about how you think, as well as show them that you can work through a problem logically and thoroughly. The interviewer will likely step in and say ‘have you thought about...’ which will allow you to engage further in dialogue.

3) Ask questions

If the interviewer encourages you to ask questions, go for it! Ask them what their field of study is or what particular problems they’re engaged with at the moment. Show an interest in them and they will automatically find you more interesting!

Follow the advice above and you’ll be fine. Remember to relax, smile, and enjoy yourself, and good luck!

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