Mythbusting Guide To Oxbridge Interviews
The Oxbridge interview process has a reputation for being terrifying. If you are considering applying to Oxford or Cambridge, this may be the aspect that you find the most off-putting – and if you have already received an invitation, you are probably wondering what to expect. We have put together this brief guide for this year’s candidates and potential future applicants which aims to demystify The Interview – how they work, why they are held, and how to prepare.
Who is invited to interview?
Everyone with a realistic chance of being offered a place is invited to come for an interview – that’s around 75% of applicants each year at Cambridge, and about 50% at Oxford.
How many interviews are there, and who will they be conducted by?
At Oxford, there is usually one interview with two academic tutors at your chosen college. At Cambridge, it tends to be two interviews, though this varies from college to college. One is academic and predominantly subject-based, conducted by the Director of Studies for your course at that college. The second is a more general interview to discuss other points of your application, usually with another senior member of the college in an academic field unrelated to yours.
Will I have to sit a written assessment?
Some subjects require applicants to take at-interview written assessments, which normally take place on the same day as the interview. They are not pass/fail tests – your performance will be taken into account alongside the rest of your application as an additional way to assess your suitability.
Your college will provide you with full information about these assessments if you are required to take them, but if you are in any doubt as to what is expected of you, don’t hesitate to get in touch with the admissions office in advance.
What are the interviewers looking for?
The purpose of the interviews is to determine your academic potential, motivation, and suitability for the course you have chosen. As almost all Oxbridge applicants are predicted top grades, it is very difficult to select candidates solely on this basis – the interview is a chance to demonstrate your interest and commitment to your subject, and your ability to think critically and independently. Questions are designed to test your problem-solving abilities, intellectual flexibility, and ability to assimilate new ideas and information – the interviewers essentially want to know what you would be like to teach.
I’ve heard that they ask impossible questions at these interviews – is that true?
The interviews are designed to be similar to supervisions – they are discussion-based, and require you to be engaged and interactive. They are also supposed to be challenging, so some questions may seem unusual or abstract. The important thing to remember is that the interviewers are not trying to test what you know so much as how you think – how you can apply your existing knowledge and skills to unfamiliar problems. This is why they are similar to supervisions – they show how you respond to that environment. Oxford regularly publishes sample questions to give an idea of what to expect [http://www.ox.ac.uk/admissions/undergraduate/applying-to-oxford/guide/interviews] – the trick is to approach these questions thoughtfully and to get comfortable with thinking about your subject from a theoretical perspective.
What will I be asked?
The more general Cambridge interview will not go into much detail about your subject; you will most likely be asked about why you chose your particular college and course, as well as your other interests and future career goals.
At both Oxford and Cambridge, your academic interview will take the form of a challenging discussion. Interviewers are likely to ask about topics you have already studied, as well as any additional details you have included on your personal statement (so be sure to go through this thoroughly before you arrive).
This will lead to a broader discussion of your subject, possibly incorporating a new piece of information, which may be a text, poem, graph or object depending on what you have applied to study.
What if I don’t know the answer to a question?
Often there are no right or wrong answers, or there is more than one right way to answer a question. The interviewers are more interested in how you come to a conclusion than the conclusion itself. Don’t be surprised if you don’t know the answer straight away – try to consider different ways of approaching the question, and be vocal about that process.
You are allowed to ask for help – an intelligent question will be much more revealing than a panicked guess. Also, the interviewer may suggest alternative ways of considering a problem – listen carefully, and respond sensitively. Finally, if you feel that you have made a mistake, don’t be afraid to say so – take a moment to recover, and explain why you think you might be wrong, and what you think may be a better approach.
Above all, embrace the nerves – interviewers will be expecting them and will do their best to put you at your ease. Once you have relaxed a bit, you may actually find the interview a much more enjoyable experience than you expected – remember that it’s an opportunity to talk in-depth about a subject you love, and a taster of what studying it might be like.
Jessica Edwards – Director of Studies at The Granta Academy