Tips for answering an unexpected Oxford or Cambridge interview question.
It’s impossible to know exactly what your interviewers are going to ask you, and we’d wager that it’s probably more likely that you’ll come up against a surprise question than you won’t. We’re not trying to scare you ahead of your interview! In fact, a question you’ve not considered before is absolutely nothing to be afraid of, as alarming as it may seem to think of. In this article we’re going to take you through what you should do in this scenario, and what you shouldn’t do, to help give yourself the best chance of answering unexpected questions in an impressive way.
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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. Never be afraid of asking follow-up-questions in your interview; all this does is shows your interviewers that you’re making sure you collect all the necessary information before evaluating it all and synthesising an answer. 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. Much like questions, don’t be afraid of short pauses to give yourself enough time to think; it’s better to do this than to jump straight into babbling about something that you haven’t rally thought through.
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.
It’s important to remember that, at any point in an interview, honesty is absolutely the best policy, and if you’re not sure about something then don’t be afraid to clarify or to simply say that you cannot remember. Interviewers are also interested in getting the best out of you despite the nerve-wracking environment of the interview, and would much rather explain the question further or move onto another topic than watch you flounder on something both they and you know isn’t your forte.
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 personal statement (this really is our top tip – they will almost certainly mention any books you’ve referenced 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.
So, in short, our main pieces of advice are:
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