As December approaches, invitations to interview at Cambridge have begun to drop into inboxes and letterboxes and invitations from Oxford will arrive shortly. Don’t worry if you haven’t yet received your Oxbridge interview dates yet, as the Universities will let you know either way. If you still haven’t received anything by the beginning of December, perhaps get in touch with your College to put you at ease.
This is the final hurdle in the applications process and the culmination of all your hard work this year. It is perfectly natural to feel nervous as this is perhaps the first serious interview you have ever had and, unlike other nerve-wracking events in your life, imagining your interviewer naked or consoling yourself with the thought that they are just as scared as you are is unlikely to help.
Nerves, however, can serve you well and be useful! Any Medic or Biologist can tell you that the adrenaline pumping through your body makes your mind work faster to process ideas and fish out, from the recesses of your mind, relevant pieces of information and pertinent examples. The historians amongst you will be able to reel off acts of bravery and resourcefulness that have resulted from leaders being subjected to great stress and anthropologists might explain to you exactly how and why this reaction developed over the millennia. Just remember – nerves are your friends. The key – as with all friends – is not to let them rule your head.
A good exercise is to consider why Oxford and Cambridge interview. This will not only give you a good idea of what your interviewers may be looking for but also how you can adjust your behaviour to show these qualities. The interview period is costly and time-consuming for the colleges and you can bet your bottom dollar that, just as you would rather be at home eating mince pies and Christmas cake, so would your interviewer.
Cambridge and Oxford interview partly because of the unique way in which they teach their students. It’s really important that their students respond well to one on one teaching and that they are willing to try out new ideas, work with new information and carry on unfazed if they make mistakes or have to ask for help in their answers. Unless you can demonstrate that you are going to be a good student, they cannot offer you a place.
They are not looking for someone with all the answers. You should know your A level or IB syllabus and what you’ve written on your personal statement, but there are still going to be gaps in your knowledge.
If your interviewer asks you a tricky question, they are not trying to catch you out, but rather they are offering you the scope to show what you can do. It’s worth continuing to think about what the interviewer is wanting from you at an interview. Try talking about it with your friends who may also be going for an interview in different subjects. Then try to get as much subject-specific interview practice as you can, putting what you’ve thought about into practice.
Remember, the Admissions Tutors want to see that you are right for the course for which you are applying. Ensure you understand the course and that your answers illustrate your understanding of the complexity of questions in light of the course.
You should be feeling rested, clear-headed and confident. In other words, you should have done all your preparation in good time so that you can get a few good nights’ sleep before the interview. Interviews are not the time to take advantage of cheap drinks’ prices. Ever hear of a guy who got really drunk at interviews, got into trouble at College and got made an offer? No, us neither.
Have a look at our tried and tested checklist and, hopefully, it will help you to feel confident and excited about the prospect of your Oxbridge interview:
It’s important to be smart but comfortable, you aren’t attending a job interview so there isn’t a need to wear a suit and you’ll find that Oxbridge tutors rarely do. Recommendations for boys include a smart pair of trousers and an ironed shirt (you want to look smart, not just out of bed!). Girls can opt for a professional top with a skirt or trousers or choose a smart dress. Ensure both the dress and skirt aren’t too short, especially when it comes to sitting down.
It’s a good idea to remove your jewellery as this might rattle or jingle when you move your hands and it helps to remove the temptation to play around it, especially when you’re nervous. Tying your hair back can also help to remove potential temptation to play with it during your interview.
Oxbridge colleges can resemble rabbit warrens to the outsider. Your interviewer’s room could be in the basement, in another building, up an unpromising flight of stairs or even on a different site. It’s worth finding out where you are going before your interview – maybe even the day before – so that you don’t run the risk of showing up late. You can speak to the porters, who will be very happy to point you in the right direction should you get lost.
Beware of squishy sofas! There’s nothing worse than sinking deep into them and being forced to look up at your interviewer from a rather unflattering angle. You should be sitting leaning slightly forward, facing your interviewer, on the hard part of the seat. Even if what you are saying is brilliant, if you are slumped or sprawled across an armchair, you won’t be able to establish the rapport and the atmosphere that you want. Be comfortable but formal and as poised as you can possibly be.
There may be more than one person in your interview for Oxford and Cambridge. This might be because it is a panel interview, with more than one person asking you the questions or there may be someone, usually a graduate student, taking notes in the corner. In both cases, you should address the person who asked you the questions, but also glance across to the other interviewers to include them in your answer. Play it by ear and ensure that you are a polite and formal version of yourself.
You need to remember that you are in an academic situation, so you need to speak eloquently and articulately. Try, as much as possible, to avoid using words such as ‘like’ ‘kind of’ ‘you know’ etc, but not to the point that you are more conscious of avoiding them than of what you are saying. Practice makes perfect – so try avoiding these words in everyday conversation. Stick a post-it note to the mirror in the bathroom or inside your diary or pencil case to keep reminding you of what you are doing throughout the day.
You should also be sure that you are answering the question you are asked. Don’t waffle on for ages if you’re asked how your journey was – this is really just an ice-breaker. At the same time don’t always answer with just a couple of words – it won’t make the conversation flow and the interviewer will find it very hard work.
You need to give good, pertinent examples to back up your claims. You could try making a spider diagram of everything that you’ve read and everything you have seen in the news recently and thinking about the complexities in all of the issues. It would be a real shame to not mention some extra reading you had done because you weren’t thinking properly and used a basic example instead of a rather good one. At the same time, you shouldn’t mention your reading just for the sake of it. It needs to come in naturally.
The aim of your interview is to demonstrate that you are an applicant who is passionate and dedicated to your subject, open-minded and intelligent with an eagerness to expand your knowledge and make the most of your time at Oxford and Cambridge. If you aren’t getting this across in your interview, you need to rethink your approach and consider why and what you can do to share your interest and enthusiasm for your chosen subject and show the Admissions Tutors you are dedicated to further learning.
For further preparation have a look at attending one of our Interview Preparation Days.
Best of luck to you!