The Definitive Guide to Oxbridge Applications and Interviews

Rachel McCombie, a graduate of St John’s College, Oxford, offers detailed guidance and advice on Oxbridge interviews.

Photo of All Souls College, Oxford

Image Copyright Oxford Royale 2013 – All Rights Reserved

Oxbridge interview season is approaching rapidly, and with each passing week the collective anxiety of this year’s batch of applicants grows.

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Oxbridge interviews are notoriously challenging, and because they’re such an important part of the application process, they’re built up to be a lot worse than they really are – putting many students at risk of crumbling under nerves.
While it’s impossible to deny that an Oxbridge interview is a high-pressured situation, the reality, for the vast majority of applicants, is a far cry from the myths perpetuated by the media. This comprehensive guide takes you through the entire process and should hopefully reassure you as you prepare to take this important step in your application.

Why do Oxford and Cambridge bother interviewing when so few other universities do?

The teaching system at Oxford and Cambridge is very different from most other universities, and it’s not for everyone. There’s little contact time with tutors, and terms are short but workloads alarmingly high, with extremely high standards of academic scholarship expected. For Oxford and Cambridge Universities, the interview plays a fundamental role in the selection of the most suitable candidates for this unique environment. It’s used to differentiate between the huge number of applications that flood in each year from students who, on paper, look very similar; virtually everyone who applies will have top grades, a proclaimed passion for the subject, glowing references from teachers. Interviews allow the universities to ensure they’re making the right choice by subjecting applicants to a similar process to the tutorial or supervision and seeing how they cope.

“Tell me about a banana” – busting the myths

Image shows rows and rows of yellow and green bananas.
Having heard “Tell me about a banana” you might find your actual interview surprisingly normal.

We’ve probably all heard the stories of students being subjected to awful, unanswerable questions such as “tell me about a banana” or “what happens when you drop an ant?”. It’s a shame that such myths are still perpetuated, because the reality of an Oxbridge interview for most candidates is rather more down to earth than this. It’s really more of an academic discussion, and far from being asked horrible questions, you might even be asked what you want to talk about! As the much-admired Cambridge don Mary Beard has commented about the interview process:  “my priority is to get the kids to talk themselves into a place, not talk themselves out of one.”

What are they really looking for?

An Oxbridge interviewer won’t be impressed by someone who can merely rattle off well-learnt facts. That’s because the Oxbridge system is not geared towards spoon-feeding students – quite the reverse. Oxbridge wants spirited students who think for themselves, who are not reliant on being told the answer and who have the intelligence and analytical skills required to question accepted approaches and opinions. Students who take nothing, academically speaking, for granted.
Oxbridge interviews are therefore designed to test how you think, how you learn and how you approach difficult problems. Interviewers aren’t necessarily looking for a right or a wrong answer; indeed, they will probably intentionally question you on something related to your subject that you will never have heard of before. You must refuse to be daunted by this. What they’re after is an intelligent, considered, critical response to this new problem, making use of your current knowledge and applying it to something you’ve not thought about before. It’s fine to say that you don’t know the answer; what matters is that you try to work around the problem rather than simply giving up.
In addition to this, as mentioned above, the interviewer is also looking for someone who can withstand the unique demands of the Oxbridge tutorial system – someone who is self-motivated enough to plan their own work in a relatively unstructured timetable, who has the academic flair needed to succeed in tough Oxbridge exams, someone with an innate sense of scholarship and a passion for their subject.

Who gets called to interview?

Image shows a Roman mosaic at the Bardo museum in Tunis, Tunisia. It is of Ulysses and the sirens.
In 2013, Oxford interviewed 100% of applicants for Classics and Modern Languages, but only 25% of applicants for Economics and Management.

The ratio of applicants to interviews varies subject by subject, but the university advice is generally words to the effect that unless your application demonstrates significant flaws – such as poor GCSE results or predicted grades, or a poor reference from your teachers – you will be invited for an interview.

Preparing for the interview

Oxbridge interviews are designed to test your response to things you don’t already know about, and this makes them intrinsically difficult to prepare for. Nevertheless, there are a few things you can do to help boost your confidence and feel prepared.

  • Practise your interview technique – situations feel less daunting if you’ve been in them before, so ask your school or college about arranging a mock interview to help you get a feel for the sort of academic discussion you will encounter in the real thing.
  • Brush up on what you wrote in your personal statement – by the time you go for an interview, it will have been a fair few weeks since you last read it. Prepare to be grilled on every last word of it (you may not be asked about it at all, but just in case!) and ensure that you don’t inadvertently contradict anything you wrote in your application.
  • If you were required to submit written work as part of your application, have a detailed read of that as well – and read around it so that if asked, you can demonstrate development of that knowledge.
  • Do a search of Google News and see if there’s any news relevant to your subject. Having an informed opinion on relevant current news at your fingertips shows that you’re interested enough to keep abreast of what’s going on in your chosen field.
  • You may be asked to choose a subject you want to talk about. Having a subject you feel comfortable talking about ready and researched will avoid an awkward silence, so have a think about what topics you’re most confident about and be prepared to have your opinions about them challenged!

Your interview trip

Image shows St Catharine's College, Cambridge.
St Catharine’s College, Cambridge.

Oxford is unusual in inviting interviewees to come and stay in their chosen college for one or two nights during the interview process; Cambridge will only offer overnight college accommodation to applicants travelling from a long way, but may still require you to be in Cambridge for more than a day. Because you get to visit and stay in the cities for your interview, you can consider the interview process not simply as you being tested by Oxbridge, but also vice versa; this is your opportunity to find out whether or not you think Oxbridge is where you really want to be (and it’s worth thinking very carefully about this).
Hopefully you will previously have been on an open day, or even one of our summer school courses, so this will probably not be your first experience of an Oxbridge college. However, if you’re an open applicant (that is, you didn’t state a college preference on your application form), this may be your first trip to the college you’ve been allocated. Your trip also affords you a glimpse of ‘life on the inside’; you’ll get to stay in the college’s actual student accommodation, where you’d be living if given a place, and you’ll get to eat in hall and meet current students.

Who will interview you?

Interviews are conducted by the dons themselves, usually working in pairs, so there’s every possibility that the people who interview you will be one of your tutors if you’re given a place. As well as an academic assessment, the interview is also both their chance and yours to see whether or not you’ll get along and enjoy working together.

The moment finally arrives

When the time for your interview finally arrives, it can feel as though your entire life has been leading up to that moment and that you have everything to lose. Thinking in this way puts unnecessary pressure on yourself, and your best bet by far is to try to relax and enjoy the process as much as you can. In fact, the academic discussion that takes place during an Oxbridge interview can be very enjoyable!
You’ll normally go up to the college on the night before your interview, and a timetable will be put up (often in the Junior Common Room) detailing individual interview times. Allow plenty of time for finding the right room, and don’t be afraid to ask a current student helper for directions – Oxbridge colleges can be mazes! Sometimes a subject tutor will gather together all interviewees first thing in the morning to give a general introduction to the process and perhaps even a bit of a ‘pep talk’.
Your first (and possibly only) interview will be of an academic nature, assessing your motivations for studying your chosen subject and presenting you with some problems for discussion. In some subjects, you may have been asked in the half hour before your interview slot to read a short passage of relevant material, so during the interview you can expect this to form the basis of some discussion and to answer questions about your understanding of it.

Image shows the outside of George and Davis' ice cream cafe on Little Clarendon Street, Oxford.
Treat yourself to something nice to relax after your interview; if you’re in Oxford, we recommend G&D’s.

Most interviews last about twenty or thirty minutes. After your interview, you should be able to relax a bit and explore the college and city. Later in the day a further notice will be issued detailing who will be required for a second interview and when, and who is free to go. Don’t read too much into it if you don’t get called for a second interview; not everybody does, and it just means that they’ve made up their minds about you already (not necessarily a bad thing!). If you’re not needed for further interviews, you’re free to go home.
If you do get asked to attend a second interview, this would normally be a more general interview to follow up on your initial academic interview. It may be conducted at a different college, but don’t be alarmed by this. It just means you may be being considered for a place at a college other than the one you applied for. Don’t worry – everyone ends up loving the college they end up at.

What happens next?

Contrary to what happened in the past (and therefore what you may read on out-of-date guides), both Oxford and Cambridge now send out their interview decisions in the New Year. For Oxford, applicants will hear back on the 7th January 2015, whereas Cambridge will post the majority of decisions in early January and decisions for pooled candidates in late January. Everyone will tell you to forget about it, but it will probably prey on your mind. Just don’t beat yourself up about how the interview went, what you should have said, and what you wish you hadn’t said. It’s too late to do anything about it now!

What if it’s not good news?

Image shows University College, London.
Getting into Oxford or Cambridge isn’t everything – University College London, for instance, has been known to be level with them in world university rankings.

If you weren’t offered a place, don’t take it to heart. Competition for a very limited number of places is fierce, and it’s inevitable that some applicants will come out of the process disappointed. However, all is not lost. You can always reapply; in fact, if you take a gap year and reapply you’ll likely be in a stronger position than first time round, with actual rather than predicted grades, and an extra year of life experience above most other prospective students that may give you added maturity that could well shine through and impress at interview.
If you do decide to reapply, try to spend at least part of your gap year doing something relevant to your subject. For instance, if you’re applying for a foreign language, spend some time living in that country. If you’re a prospective medical student, try to gain work experience with a GP or in a hospital. This will show that you’re using your gap year in a worthwhile way, and will strengthen your application.
Here are three ideas for your gap year to help your application and interview meet with success second time round.

  • Try to seek work experience in your chosen field. This demonstrates commitment to your chosen field, and by getting started on a career path, this indirectly shows your interviewers how your degree would fit into your overall plans.
  • Read voraciously – try to get your hands on an Oxbridge reading list for your subject, either from a friend or by checking out suggested readings lists.
  • Start a blog offering intelligent opinions about topics relevant to your subject.

Some helpful links

Finally, here are some links you might find useful as you prepare for your interview.

Just one more thing…

Good luck! We hope our guide has been useful, and wish you a successful application.
Last reviewed: October 2014
Next review: October 2015

Image credits: bananas; mosaic; St Catharine’s; G&D’s; UCL.

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