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Fingers crossed…for the arrival of your invitation to interview

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 yours 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.

The run-up to interview

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 are your friends

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 masterful approach to your interview

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.

Oxford and Cambridge 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.

Try and avoid the following during your interview:

  • Crying
  • Lying
  • Panicking
  • Reverting to silence
  • Arguing belligerently (in an unconstructive way)
  • Claiming to be the fount of all knowledge
  • Closing your mind to new ideas and suggestions

Things to remember about interviewers

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 interview. Try talking about it with your friends who may also be going for 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.

On the day of the interview

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 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 check list and hopefully it will help you to feel confident and excited about the prospect of your interview:

1) What should I wear?

You need to be smart yet comfortable.  This isn’t a job interview so you don’t have to wear a suit. In fact, very few Oxbridge tutors do.   Boys should wear smart trousers and a shirt and girls can wear a smart top and skirt or trousers or a smart dress.  Make sure that the skirt is not too short – especially when you sit down.  You should remove any jewelry that might make a noise when you move your hands, or that you might be tempted to play with and tie up your hair if you may be tempted to fiddle with it.

2) How do I find my way round?

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 if you get lost.

3) How should I sit at interview?

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.

4) Who do I look at during the interview?

There may be more than one person in your interview.  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.

5) What should I say?

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 every day 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.

6) How can I justify my answers?

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 so used a really 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.

7) What impression do I give?

You should be demonstrating that you are an interested, open-minded, intelligent young person with a passion for their subject who will make the most of their time at Oxford or Cambridge.   If you’re not doing so in your interview practice, you need to think about why and what you can do to convey enthusiasm and interest for your subject and the dedication to learning that you truly feel.

For further preparation have a look at attending one of our Interview Preparation Days.

Best of luck to you!

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