The Oxbridge interview process can be daunting. Some students are deterred from even applying by horror stories circulating on student forums featuring awkward silences and outrageous, unpredictable questions. This 3 point guide will quell your fears and help you ace the interview.
1. Prepare, prepare, then prepare again
Oxbridge interviewers want to ‘see you think’, so they will sometimes ask you off topic questions to keep you intellectually on your toes.
However, there is still useful preparation you can do. It’s a good idea to predict the line of questioning as much as possible. The interviewers are highly likely to pose questions from at least a few of these 5 main sources:
- the essay, or other piece of work the student has sent in
- the Personal Statement
- the syllabus of the subjects the student is studying
- current affairs, especially pertaining to the subject area
- a source (either written, or in picture form) given to a student to analyse either before or during the interview
If students are asked to send in an essay they’ve already written, it shouldn’t simply be their ‘best’ essay - it should be on a topic that the student is comfortable talking about, and has done some wider reading on.
In advance of the interview the student should think of ways of relating the essay back to points they may have made in their Personal Statement, such as why they enjoy the degree subject so much.
Since the interviewer is not likely to be an expert on the topic the student has written about, they might attempt to find holes in the fundamental assumptions made by the essay, with wide rather than specific questions.
For example in my History interview the fundamental premise behind my essay was challenged, with the interviewer posing the question, ‘Your essay is written on the topic of the unification of Italy, why refer to political or economic factors at all? Surely cultural and social factors are more important in determining whether the Italians were a unified people in any meaningful sense?’
The Personal Statement
Admissions tutors are very likely to ask you questions about your Personal Statement (PS).
In the PS the student should not make any statements which cannot be backed up if questioned, for example referencing a book they haven’t actually read. Similarly students should not make careless, ‘meet the word count’ statements either, because they WILL be picked up on by the interviewers. For example, claiming you are fascinated by a certain sub-topic which in fact you aren’t much interested in.
On the other hand, deliberately leaving a statement open to debate, or presenting an argument without fully supporting it, can be beneficial, as it encourages certain questions to be asked, and helps guide the line of questioning so the student can predict what comes up. For example, in my PS, I stated that my interest in politics was sparked by the Arab Spring revolutions in 2011, without explaining why, thereby inviting the interviewer to question me.
The subjects the student is studying
Interviewers are generally aware of the syllabus of each subject the student is studying, especially with the introduction for 2017 applicants of the ‘Supplementary Application Questionnaire’ (SAQ) by Cambridge which demands a breakdown of each subject into its various components.
Students should brush up on topics they studied during the previous academic year. They should also prepare for questions on which parts of the subject they enjoyed most/least and why. Some wider reading would be highly beneficial. For example, I read ‘Democracy: a very short introduction’ by Bernard Crick, and ‘50 Politics Classics’ by Tom Butler-Bowden, which expanded on my studies of Politics A-Level, as well as several books on European History to support my History A-Level.
For subjects some subjects, such as Economics and Politics, this is particularly vital. Students should stay up to date with the latest news, as they could be asked a direct question about current affairs. Alternatively, it may come in handy when responding to questions which don’t demand, but would benefit from, a knowledge of recent events.
For subjects which don’t specifically rely on current affairs, such as the sciences and maths, it is still important to be aware of the contemporary discourse and debate going on within those subject areas.
A common theme across most Oxbridge subject interviews is that students are asked to critically analyse a source, whether written or in picture form.
While it is impossible to know which source will be given, students can still be taught the skills necessary to critically evaluate such a document.
For students of History and English this should be relatively simple, as source evaluation is part and parcel of studying the subject. For others, they should be taught how to identify and analyse arguments, challenge assumptions, and devise possible explanations of bias and alternative interpretations.
When first given the source, they should underline and annotate any important points, as they can then refer to it when in the interview rather than try to recall from memory.
Examples of sources for maths and the sciences are complex, university level equations that the student may be asked to explain or calculate. For humanity subjects, sources will likely be texts or passages from books, essays, news articles or historical documents. Paintings are also often featured.
2. Practice makes perfect
Students should rigorously learn their material - essays, Personal Statement, wider reading, and current affairs. This should increase their level of confidence, and ensure that they can handle and manipulate their material effectively.
They should sit at least 2 practice interviews, ideally with teachers they don’t know, who are expert in the subject for which the student is applying. This will help them to cope with questions under pressure, and teach them how to handle themselves in an interview situation - how to sit, how to project their voice, the amount of eye contact needed, and so on.
It may also be useful practice for those questions which catch students off guard. For example, I was asked why nationalism between the 19th and 20th century transformed from a movement associated with liberalism, freedom, and democracy, to one associated with totalitarianism and fascism. This was something I had never thought about, and only by participating in practice interviews beforehand did I know how to approach such a difficult and broad question in a calm and collected manner.
In terms of sources, students should be asked to evaluate and critique newspaper sources, book extracts, or even paintings, again ideally with a teacher who is an expert in the subject they are applying for. This will cement their analysis skills, and make them more confident in handling unfamiliar sources.
3. Keep a cool head
Finally, students should be advised how to act on the day of the interview itself. Standard interview techniques will apply here, but there are also some other things to note:
Before the Interview
- Settle in. With Oxford interviews, students are normally required to stay for up to 3 days. Cambridge also offers overnight accommodation.
- Since they are staying with many other applicants, there often develops a culture of panic and unease. Students should be reminded to keep a clear mind, block out unnecessary chatter, and settle in comfortably.
During the interview
- Don’t panic. If a question goes right over a student’s head, there is no harm in asking the interviewer to repeat the question.
- If the student doesn't know the answer to a question, it’s okay to say ‘I don’t know’. You aren't expected to give a PhD level answer. The interviewers are looking for someone who thinks. After taking the time to reflect, they should still offer an answer, no matter how silly or incorrect they may sound.
- The interviewers are purposely trying to stretch the candidate, and if they challenge a student on concepts they have never heard of, this is probably a good sign - it means the student has shown capability of going beyond the syllabus.