4 Top Tips to Impress Your University Interviewers

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A truth that will either be reassuring or depressing, depending on your stage in life: few interviews are as tricky as the ones to get into university.

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When you’re applying for a job, you have a very valuable resource: a job description. The company will have laid out exactly the kind of person they’re looking for. The job description will outline the skills, experience and qualifications you’ll need, as well as perhaps more nebulous traits, such as the section of the job advert sometimes cringingly called “the like-mind” – which could be anything from an entrepreneurial start-up attitude to a demeanour that will help clients take you seriously. They know the tasks they’ll want you to carry out, and they’ll want you to help them out by self-selecting whether you match up or not.
Universities don’t – for the most part – provide candidate descriptions. There isn’t one ideal person for the role. On the contrary, most universities (especially now) value diversity.

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Universities aren’t after multiple copies of the same student. Many universities today value diversity and different interests and opinions that will promote good intellectual discussion.

If you’re interviewing for English Literature, they don’t know for sure that they’ll want to pick someone with a fascination for Shakespeare, who can discuss, intelligently, the impact on the study of the 16th century theatre that we usually see plays as printed text before we see them as performance. They might just as well want to pick the person who will spend the next three years almost exclusively in the library, looking for classical echoes in Old English sermons. Or maybe they’ll want to go for the Joyce devotee who will make a big splash in the university’s creative writing journal.
More importantly, those three people, having only been exposed to English literature at A-level, probably don’t even know that’s who they are at the interview stage, but may only discover it in first or second year. Interviewers are looking for the promise of those students, not the fully-formed versions of them. By contrast, most job interviewers want to know that you can do the job right now, not the person whom you will blossom into – especially after entry level.
So university interviews are marked with uncertainty. Interviewers want to see evidence of your enthusiasm, analytical ability, and promise – all of which are very hard to quantify. We look at some ways in which, despite the difficulty, you can shine at university interviews.

1. Remember that no two interviewers are alike

Imagine two interviewers. Interviewer one believes that in the interests of fairness, she should go into the interview entirely unprejudiced about the candidate – you. She’s looked at which A-levels you’re studying and she glanced over your personal statement a while ago, but can’t really remember its contents. The university has ranked you, roughly, for her reference, but she hasn’t looked at that or at the references from your teachers. She wants to form a fresh impression from the interview, so that if you interview better than you write, you’ll get the shot at a good interview that you deserve, without her being biased in one direction or another before the interview even begins.

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You don’t know what kind of interviewer you will encounter when you enter the interview room. Be well prepared for any eventuality and be yourself and all should be well.

Interviewer two believes that in the interests of fairness, he should read up on you as much as possible. He’s looked at your A-levels, but also read your personal statement and the references from your teachers in detail. He does this so he can ask you about what you wrote, put you at your ease and get to know you a little quicker so that you can have as much time as possible to have a full academic discussion. If you aren’t attending the best of schools, he wants to know that as well so he can take it into account. He wants to be as fair as possible.
This isn’t just hypothetical; this is how two interviewers – even at the same university – might approach the same candidate. One thing to take away from this is to reread your personal statement just before the interview, as you don’t want to be in the position where the interviewer has read it more recently than you have. Another is that anyone who claims that there is one single way that interviewers approach interviews is mistaken.

2. Do your research

If you were going to a job interview instead of a university interview, you’d be sure to do plenty of research. You’d browse the company’s website, look at their unique selling points, find out who their major competitors are and maybe even look up some of their employees on LinkedIn. But students going to a university interview so rarely attend to the academic equivalent of these things.

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Researching the university and the interviewer before your interview is a good idea. It is best to go into an interview fully prepared with all of the information that you think you could need.

You might not be told who will be interviewing you, but you can probably put a bit of effort in and find out. Universities usually have faculty listings online. If you’re applying for a large course, then there might be twenty or thirty members of staff to research. But if you’re applying for something a little smaller, or at a smaller university, there might only be four or five – in which case it’s well worth the effort to find out more about them.
You could, for instance, find out their areas of interest. You could look them up on JSTOR or Google Scholar and find out about their recent publications. They might even have been in the press for one reason or other. This is not to suggest that you should go into your interview and regurgitate all of their own thoughts back at them. But you should at least be aware of what those thoughts are, and be able to discuss them with a reasonable degree of intelligence if the relevant topics arise. If they ask you a question about something specific and your response is, “I saw you wrote an article on that” and – more importantly – ask them an insightful question about it, you’re likely to impress them.
Similarly, you should research the university. It may be the case that your honest answer to “why did you pick this university?” is “because it was fourth in the league tables and it’s close enough to my parents that I can take my washing home” (just as, further down the line, the honest answer to “why do you want this job?” might be “because pizza costs money”). However, you’ll need better answers than these at interview. Good answers might include why you feel that the atmosphere or style of teaching would enable you to do well, or the particular focus of the faculty you’re applying to. You’ll need to know the ins and outs of the university quite well to provide a good answer. As more prestigious universities are more likely to interview, they’ll also want to be sure that you’ve thought about whether they’re the right university for you, rather than you simply choosing the name you thought sounded most impressive for your UCAS form.

3. Treat it as a two-way process

This is good advice for all interviews, but it’s not something many people have mastered by the age of 17 or 18. It takes a considerable degree of confidence that’s much easier to produce in job interviews, where you can continue to apply to as many places as you like, than in university interviews, where you’re limited to a maximum of five offers if you want to avoid routes like UCAS Extra and Clearing.

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Remember, the interview isn’t just about you convincing them they should grant you a place. You also need to use the interview to make sure the university is right for you.

Still, it makes a very good impression on the interviewer to know that you are taking the interview seriously as a two-way process; that you will act on the knowledge that it’s just as much about making sure that the university is right for you as it is about making sure that you’re right for the university. This is partly because of the issue discussed above: your interviewer wants to know that you’ve thought about this decision, and that you’re applying for the university and course because it’s genuinely where you want to spend the next three or four years of your life. They don’t want applicants who are there because they want the name on their CV or because it’ll impress their grandma. If they know that you’re taking the process of figuring out what’s right for you seriously, then they know that the effort of deciding if you’re a good fit won’t be all at their end.
What does treating it as a two-way process mean, practically speaking? It is about confidence, but not about cockiness, which is to be avoided at all costs. Don’t go in there asking what they can do for you, or sneering about whether the faculty really lives up to its reputation. University interviewers particularly won’t be impressed by cockiness because they know you don’t know much yet. Confidence, on the other hand, is knowing you don’t know much but being aware that you have the ability to do something about it.
The best way to show that you are approaching the interview as a two-way process is by asking good questions. Ask something thoughtful – investigate something that would really make a difference to your own learning. That might be about teaching styles, methods of giving feedback or even the details of a particular module – just aim to ask about something that you genuinely care about, that isn’t about sound insulation in undergraduate accommodation or how late the on-campus shop stays open. Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification if you don’t understand a question, and if it turns into a genuine discussion rather than them asking and you answering, so much the better.

4. Act like an undergraduate

Your interviewer might be someone who will ultimately end up teaching you, or you might never see them again. What you can be sure of is that they will be thinking of you as their prospective student, just as in a job interview, the interviewer is considering you as their prospective colleague. Some students treat interviews as if they’re being assessed on a quantitative scale – as if they’ll get four out of five for one question and five out of five for another and this will add up to bring them over the offer threshold.

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During your interview, your interviewer will most likely be making an assessment of what kind of university student you will be.

That’s not really how it works; your grades provide the quantitative bit, after all. Your interviewers will be asking themselves qualitative questions, like whether you seem like you would be an easy or enjoyable person to teach; whether you’re quick to grasp new ideas; whether your thinking is logical. An interview can be a kind of sneak preview of university tuition: they want to know how you react in that kind of environment. Do you clam up? Or do you thrive?
This is why turning university interviews into lively intellectual discussions is such a sign of success. An intellectual discussion is what will be required of you in future in tutorials and seminars – demonstrate that you do well in that and you’re set. By contrast, someone who gives self-contained answers to questions, that may be perfectly correct but that don’t – for instance – demonstrate the kind of intellectual curiosity that allows a question to turn into a discussion, will not seem nearly as impressive. Even though their answers may be technically better, they don’t offer that preview of themselves as a university student that can be important to the interviewer.
It may help to pretend the interviewer is a favourite teacher, or to consider what you might say if you were there to learn, not to impress. You might have seen the advice that you don’t need to worry about knowing all the right technical vocabulary, and that giving a wrong answer that you’ve reasoned well is nearly as good as giving the right one. That advice is correct because it lets the interviewer know the important thing: that you would make a good university student.
Some people aren’t really suited to the university style of learning. For instance, someone who likes to learn things by rote from textbooks will do well at GCSE, and might do reasonably well at A-level. In a university environment, they’d be completely lost, because the approach to learning is different: it’s about discussion, debate, raising ideas, having those ideas challenged, and learning better ways to defend them. If you can show in your interview that you succeed in that environment and you enjoy that environment, the offers should come flooding in.

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