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It’s a scenario that has probably gone through your mind a million times. What if the first question they ask you quite simply cannot answer? Your mind goes blank, you are faced with bemused sneers from your interviewers, and the whole thing spirals downwards from there.

The first thing to say is that this situation is rare, as admissions tutors are not particularly concerned about what you know, but rather what you can DO with the knowledge you have, and that they feed to you.

Dealing with this situation, if it does arise, really depends on what kind of a question it is. You need to distinguish in your own head whether this is a question that you need specific knowledge for, or whether this is the kind of question where you can find your own way to the answer by thinking logically.

If it’s the second type of question, then not knowing the answer directly is actually a good thing, and intended by the interviewers. Often, the best starting point is to ask questions of your own so that you understand the terms of the question more fully before exploring potential avenues to follow, deciding upon one, then evaluating as you go. Many Oxbridge interview questions are broad and require this kind of critical thinking to make headway towards an answer. The trick is to give yourself enough time and space before launching ahead.

The first scenario on ‘direct knowledge’ questions is slightly more challenging. Although the interviewers are not going to ask you about things that you haven’t written about in your personal statement or in your written work, they may ask you about related topics or current affairs. If you are applying for a mathematics or science-based subject, similarly, they may assume a certain level of working knowledge of your school syllabus. If you’re asked something along these lines – perhaps a new text by an author that you’ve mentioned in your personal statement, a formula or concept, or an important development in politics and economics – that you aren’t able to talk about or you simply can’t remember, then you could do one of two things. You could, on the one hand, say something along the lines of, ‘I haven’t covered that topic in detail recently, but…’ and then go on to try to attack the question nonetheless. On the other hand, if you really can’t proceed with any kind of answer because of a knowledge block, you must be honest and say so. For example, you could ask the interviewer for clarification or explanation, which they are always happy to provide - interviewers realise that nerves can play havoc on our memories, and they know from your existing academic record that you have a good memory for relevant information.

The reason for honesty being the best policy is that the interviewers really are trying to get the best out of you, and to allow you to show them how you work when you are at your best. They’d much rather explain the question further or move on to a subject that you are more confident to discuss than for you to bluff your way through your answer, which wastes your time and theirs. Remember, this interview is not an ‘exam’ but rather an academic conversation - intellectual honesty is the only real basis on which you can progress.

You can, however, give yourself better chances of avoiding this situation. Revise your relevant A Level content (or equivalent), particularly if applying to a scientific subject. Re-read and think about any submitted work, and the ideas and resources mentioned in your application. Think about some of the common possible questions and ice-breakers they could ask you. Most important, gain experience of speaking with someone about academic ideas related to your subject prior to the interview - this is a way to become comfortable with a broad range of interview style questions.

If you have any more questions about your application or interview that you would like to discuss with a member of our team, please do get in touch. Also check out our Online Mock Interview Course page for more information about our one-to-one preparation for Oxbridge interviews in your subject by Oxbridge-graduate tutors.

Online Mock-Interview Course

Our expert Oxbridge-graduate tutors, who deliver mock interviews on our Online Interview Courses, can give you personalised feedback on how you come across at interview. For practice, feedback, and advice on your interview approach, book a place on an Online Interview Courses.

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