How To Prepare For An Oxbridge Interview
Attending an interview at Oxford or Cambridge university may sound like a scary prospect - we've all heard myths and rumours after all - but our guide will give you the lowdown on what to expect if you have applied for a course at Oxbridge.
Will I be invited to interview at Oxbridge?
According to their website, Cambridge interview around 80% of their applicants in the first 3 weeks of December. If they feel your academic record is up to scratch and you have a realistic chance of getting in, it's likely you will be called for interview.
Oxford also interview a majority of their applicants, within the first 2 weeks of December. Again, if you're on target to achieve the required grades and have portrayed an excellent image of yourself in your personal statement, you have a good chance of being invited to interview.
To find out further details on Oxbridge interview schedules, check out their timetables for 2020-2021:
How to prepare for an Oxbridge interview
Oxbridge interviews can be different from interviews at other universities. You will usually have to stay on campus for a minimum of two days (you’ll be given a room in the college you’re interviewing at, and food will be provided). This is because you won’t be attending just one interview but several, with different tutors.
Some interviews might just be one-to-one but there’s a chance you’ll have at least one panel interview too, so don’t be surprised if there’s a few people in the room!
Preparation and knowing what to expect is your best chance of aceing the Oxbridge interview, so to get started, you should:
- Make notes on WHY you are applying for the course. It may seem obvious, but if you can put this into words as best you can, the more it will help you during the interview.
- Check the course syllabus. While you don't have to memorise every module, it's a good idea to at least know what you'll be covering in the first year.
- Make sure you have a background knowledge, especially if the subject/s you want to study at university are not ones you are already studying, e.g. medicine. Read around your subject and think critically and analytically about books and articles you have read. Check you are up-to-date with any recent developments by reading the news, journals, or magazines covering your field.
- Read your personal statement. Some tutors may refer to it at some point during the interview, so this is your opportunity to check you haven't lied anywhere on your personal statement. It will look bad if you're asked about something you've read or done, but actually haven't! Take a copy of your personal statement with you to the interview and be prepared to talk about anything in it. Practice by getting someone to ask you questions based on this.
- Swot up on any work you've submitted. Some interviewers may refer to it during the interview and ask you questions about it. It is sensible to take a copy of the work with you to interview.
Getting to the interview
If you have to travel a long distance or take an exam at the college, the university may ask you to stay overnight. Sleeping in strange surroundings probably won't help many people's nerves, but settle in as best you can and do something, like read a book, to take your mind off the interview before going to sleep.
If you live close enough to travel on the day, make sure you leave plenty of time to get there. Allow extra time for traffic, bad weather, etc.
Bring a good supply of food and drink for the day (you'll need lots of brain fuel!), and put at least £20 in your purse/wallet in case of emergencies.
Before you set off, make sure you have the admissions department phone number on speed dial in case you don't make it on time for whatever reason. If this happens, don't panic - Oxbridge are likely to let you reschedule your interview for another date/time.
Arrive for the interview at least 10 minutes early when you get to the college - you won't make a great first impression if you turn up late. Follow any instructions you are given, such as knocking before entering or waiting outside until you are called in.
Exams and tests
For some subjects, such as Maths and Economics, you may be required to sit a test or exam either before, during, or after the interview. You should be told whether this is the case in your interview invitation.
This isn't something designed to catch you out - it's just another way for the admissions tutors to assess how you think, and give them further proof of how well you would perform on their course.
Try not to stress about it, as there is little you can do in the way of preparation. Just swot up on what you've been learning in your A levels, and answer the questions as best you can on the day.
What are Oxbridge tutors looking for?
- How well you work in a tutorial scenario, as this will be similar to the real Oxbridge learning experience and so interviewers attempt to replicate this to see how well you’ll be able to benefit from such a teaching mechanism.
- All subjects are about clear logical thinking and structured arguments so they’ll be looking for excellent analytical skills which are communicated in a clear way.
- What they’re really trying to find out is the way in which you think and discover whether you’ll fit in at Oxbridge. This means they’ll be looking for genuine enthusiasm for the subject, perhaps demonstrated through extra reading and knowledge and also for a strong candidate who will thrive in a dynamic learning atmosphere.
Oxbridge Interview Tips
- Have a sound knowledge of your subject. A lot of the interview may be based on developing what you already know, and pushing you further into analysing your current knowledge. This will mean you will have to know the ins and outs of your subject if you want to have a strong chance of building on it.
- Be yourself, relax and try to see it as a discussion about something you’re interested in as opposed to a test.
- Be creative, don’t necessarily tell them about what you’ve read on such and such a topic but instead express your opinion to show you’ve really thought about the subject at hand
- Don’t panic. If you don’t know the answer to the question, think about how what you do know could help you answer the question in an intelligent way.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions. If you’re unsure about something, ask them to clarify and if you really know nothing about the topic just tell them you don’t know much about it. Do have a go at trying to work out answers though as this will show how you reason and think.
- Try not to worry about making mistakes. Remember they’re looking for academic potential and aptitude, not perfection.
- Practice talking and debating about important topics within your subject with a friend or relative so you can get used to forming opinions and coming up with arguments.
- Think before you speak. Don’t automatically answer with whatever comes into your head. Spend a few moments considering the question as this will help you come up with a better answer which is clearer in structure and content. Tutors are keen to see that you can listen properly and learn.
- Write things down if this helps you.
- Be prepared to change your mind. Tutors may play devil’s advocate with you to see how quickly you observe new information and to see whether you can consider it to form a new opinion. Don’t back down if you don’t agree with them, but try to appreciate their points and if you change your mind then admit it.
- Be prepared for odd questions. Whilst this isn’t always the case, they are interested in seeing HOW you think. Therefore, don’t expect there to be a right answer to every question they ask. The weirdest questions are often asked to draw out your real opinion and to see how you reason, so don’t be put off by them - instead, just think about them and answer in a way you see fit.
- For more tips from tutors and to watch some clips of interviews, take a look at the University of Oxford and University of Cambridge websites.
How to dress
- It's best to wear whatever you feel comfortable and confident in. Some people choose to wear a suit or formal dress, others prefer something more casual - it's entirely up to you. The tutors will not dress up for you, so you're not expected to dress formally for them.
- However, don't make a deliberate effort to look scruffy - this makes it seem like you don't care and are not committed to the interview process.
Mock Oxbridge interviews
Don't panic if you don't have much interview experience - there are lots of resources out there to help you perfect your technique.
To help give you an idea of the sort of questions you might be asked, you can go online and read sample questions from real, previous Oxbridge interviews – Oxford University has a page of sample interview questions on its website.
Although you might not be asked the exact same questions, it's a great way to get prepared, and identify any potential areas you need to improve on. Once you've thought about how you would answer, ask a friend or relative to play interviewer so you can practice your answers out loud. Your Mum or brother is probably a lot less scary than an Oxbridge admissions tutor, so a few practice interviews should help put you relax.
You should also find out if your college or sixth form is offering any sessions for students preparing for Oxbridge interviews. Some schools run formal courses for potential Oxbridge candidates that you can sign up for, and other schools will be more than willing to offer their help, even if they don't run anything formal.
It is very hard to simulate an accurate Oxbridge interview as they can be difficult to predict since so many different tutors do them.
It's difficult to know what to expect, so mock interviews are really there as a way to improve your confidence and get you used to the idea of thinking on the spot.
They’re helpful in getting you to the right level of thinking, but won’t necessarily be a good representation of the real thing.
Don’t be put off it goes badly though: use it as a learning tool as opposed to an assessment.
If you are interested in a mock interview your school may provide one. There are also companies offering mock interview for a fee, but it is worth bearing the following points in mind:
- Quality - Whilst they can be helpful it depends greatly on who is providing them as some companies have little idea about the real interview and so are more hindering than helpful.
- Price - Mock interviews can get pretty expensive, so consider reviews to see if they’re really worth the money.
Being nervous before heading into an interview is completely normal. Just remember that you will be challenged on any conclusions drawn from your essays/written work, and be prepared to defend them.
When a tutor tells you they disagree with something you wrote or said, it can feel like they’re trying to trip you up, but they’re not – they’re just prompting you to explain your thinking so they can get a better idea of your understanding of your subject. You know your stuff, so be confident in your conclusions and you’ll do fine!
You should also try to be yourself. Even though it can be tempting to only give your interviewers the answers you think they want to hear, they don’t want to know about your idea of the ‘perfect’ candidate - they want to know about you as a person!
Any university you apply to will want to know not only that you’ll succeed on the course, but what you’ll bring to university life inside and outside of class. So don’t be afraid to let your personality shine though!
After the interview
Try not to worry. It is quite normal for interviews to be a challenging discussion.
Remember that whilst Oxbridge interviews are an important part of the selection process, they are not everything. Your academic results, personal statement and referees, and any Oxbridge tests you may take, are also taken into consideration.
Regardless of how your interview went, go out and treat yourself to lunch or dinner (or anything else nice that raises the spirits!).
You may find it difficult not to keep going over what you said in the interview, but it's too late to do anything about it now, so just try to put your feet up for a bit.
When can I expect to hear the outcome?
If you had your interview within the first 3 weeks of December, you'll hear back from Cambridge in early January.
If you had your interview at Oxford during the first 2 weeks of December, you should hear from your colleges by the middle of January.
For more advice on applying to Oxbridge, please see: