How to Succeed at University Interviews
If there’s one part of the university application process that most students dread above all others – even more than writing the personal statement – it has to be interviews.
Not all universities or courses interview prospective students, but if you’re applying for a selection of top universities, then the chances are you’ll be required to attend at least one interview. Few people enjoy the high-pressure interview situation; none of us likes being put on the spot, nor the feeling that our entire future rests on this twenty-minute interrogation. If you’re worried, have a read of this article, in which we give you all the advice you need to make a great impression at interview.
Which universities interview?
Everyone knows that Oxford and Cambridge invite all applicants for interview, but they’re not the only universities to screen applicants in this way. Unfortunately, there isn’t a definitive list of universities and subjects that call applicants for interview, because it varies from one university to another, and from one subject to another, and there are exceptions to what appear to be rules. For example, if you’re applying for English, you probably won’t be called for an interview unless you’re applying for Oxbridge; but Warwick University does interview English candidates, and so does Queen Mary University of London. You’re likely to be called for an interview for degrees that provide professional training, such as medicine, and for performing arts courses, such as music (which will probably require an audition). University College London interviews for most subjects, and so does Imperial College London (which even uses group tasks and other selection activities to pick students). Some science courses, such as engineering, may also call applicants to interview. You can check whether you’ll be required to attend an interview by looking in more detail at the department website for the subject for which you’re applying.
Let’s start with the basics first, because if you don’t get these things right, you risk shooting yourself in the foot even if you say lots of intelligent and impressive things. This advice applies to any kind of interview, so you can also use what you learn here to help you shine in future job interviews.
Never, ever be late for an interview. It’s better to arrive too early than to arrive even a minute late, so allow lots of time to get there, and if you’re travelling a long way and you have a morning interview, you might even want to consider staying in a nearby hotel the night before. You can always have a coffee in a local coffee shop if you’re very early. Check in plenty of time to see exactly when and where the interview is, plan your route, look on the internet for somewhere to park and find out what the car park fees are so that you have the right change. On the morning, check the travel news to see whether there are any accidents or roadworks on your planned route, and see whether you have time to cope with the delays. If not, plan an alternative route. If you’re travelling by train, book tickets in advance, for a train that arrives in plenty of time for you to get from the station to the university, and arrive at the station well before your train is due. All these tips will reduce the stress you experience on the day.
Make the first move with handshakes
Your body language says a lot about you, and you’ll come across as confident and self-assured if you’re proactive in offering your hand to them for a handshake before they offer theirs to you. A firm grip and assertive movement is important in showing that you mean business, and you can accompany it with a “nice to meet you” or “how are you?” to be polite. If necessary, practise with other people before your interview, particularly if you find such social practices awkward.
Dressing scruffily shows a lack of respect for the formality of the occasion and for your interviewers, which could undermine what you say in the interview. Smart clothes are an absolute must, even if you feel that your individuality is being stifled. There’s nothing wrong with letting some of your personality shine through – you could wear a brightly coloured suit rather than a black one, for example – but you should still aim for something that the rest of society would consider smart! That means a suit for men and a smart dress, skirt and blouse (nothing too short or low cut) or trouser suit for women.
Make plenty of eye contact
Continuing on the body language theme, try to make plenty of eye contact throughout the interview. If there’s more than one interviewer, look from one to the other. An interviewee who looks into their lap the entire interview is unlikely to impress, because it suggests that they wouldn’t be comfortable contributing to the group academic discussion that forms an essential part of the university experience. On a related note, don’t slouch, never yawn, and don’t fold your arms. Ensure that you always appear interested in what the interviewer is saying to you.
A smile goes a long way in interviews, so if you’re cheerful and smiley, the interviewers are much more likely to warm to you. Part of what the interview is there to assess is whether or not you are someone they would enjoy teaching; your academic credentials are evident from your university application, so one of the reasons they interview is to see what you’re like in person. If they get on with you, that’s half the battle won.
Preparing for your interview
It goes without saying that arriving at an interview ill-prepared is a recipe for disaster, so allow enough time before the interview to prepare.
Re-read your personal statement
Your personal statement will probably come up in conversation during your interview, so make sure you remind yourself what’s on it. Read it through a few times so that you know exactly what you’ve said, and have a think about what kind of questions you might be asked about it. If you’ve mentioned books or specific topics in it, revise these too. If you’ve made any bold statements or mentioned your opinions on anything, prepare for these to be challenged! If it helps, make some notes to yourself to clarify your opinions.
Read the department and university website
You may find you need to demonstrate that you’ve done your research about the course and university, so prepare to answer questions such as “why do you want to study at X University?” or “what appeals to you most about this course?” Read every word you can find about the course you’re applying for, in the prospectus and on the university website. Find out as much as you can about the university and the specific department. If there are any notable facilities or lecturers, find out more about them, too. There’s no greater interview faux pas than referring to an aspect of the course that’s actually offered by a different university, so make sure you know this specific course inside out before your interview.
Read the news
There’s nothing worse than being asked “so what do you think of such and such piece of news” and not knowing what on earth the interviewer is talking about. To alleviate the potential for such embarrassment, monitor the news in the run-up to your interview and keep an eye out for any news stories relating to your subject, such as new scientific or archaeological discoveries, the publication of a groundbreaking new book, and so on. Be prepared to discuss it, as interviewers might well bring it up to test how interested you are in your subject.
Practice makes perfect
It’s worth having at least one practice interview before the real thing, as this will familiarise you with the interview situation and prepare you for the feeling of being put on the spot. Ask a parent or teacher to give you a mock interview so that you can practice your interview technique.
During the interview
The day arrives: you’re on time, looking smart, and you’re well-prepared. So what more can you do in the interview to ensure it goes well?
Above all, let your enthusiasm for the subject shine through. The interviewer wants to see that you’re genuinely interested in the subject, and you’re sure to impress them if you’re able to talk (and debate) confidently and animatedly about it. You can’t expect the achievements you’ve listed on your application to be sufficient to gain you a place: you have to be able to demonstrate your commitment to studying this particular course, at this particular university.
Drop in impressive facts
Where you can, slip in impressive facts that demonstrate your experience with the subject. For example, in an archaeology interview you might say, “I saw something similar to this when I was on a Roman road dig.” You could begin an answer with, “As I found when I was researching this topic for my EPQ…”. In an English interview, presented with a passage of literature for your comment, you could say, “This passage seems very similar in style to something I read by…”. Provided that these experiences are relevant, it’s a good excuse to drop in some of the things that show how varied your knowledge of the subject is, and what you’ve done to pursue that knowledge.
Good questions to ask
Many interviewees have no idea how to react when an interviewer asks them “Do you have any questions you would like to ask us?” It’s not a good idea to ask questions that you could easily have found out from looking at the website, as this shows you haven’t done your research properly; course content, for instance, should be covered in detail in the prospectus or on the department website. Instead, turn this into an opportunity to show your enthusiasm to succeed on this particular course. For example, you could ask, “what qualities do you think make the perfect student for this course?” or “are there any opportunities that would support my pursuit of a career in this field?” If you really have no idea what question to ask, you can just say, “I think you’ve answered all the questions I had, thank you.”
If you don’t know the answer, it’s ok
If you’re asked a question to which you don’t know the answer, it’s much better to admit that you don’t know the answer, and to take an educated guess preceded by this admission, than to pretend you know and get it badly wrong. Sometimes even the highest-flying academics have to admit “I don’t know”. What matters is how you approach something you don’t know. If the problem is that you didn’t understand the question, and you need a bit more guidance to help you answer it, it’s perfectly acceptable to ask for clarification.
If the unexpected happens, be logical
In some interviews, the interviewer might throw a curveball to test your reaction to the unexpected. If this happens, don’t panic. You’re probably not expected to know the answer (indeed, there may not even be a right or wrong answer); what matters is the way in which you think about it. Talk through your thought processes and approach the problem logically. They want to know how you’re thinking about it, not whether or not you know the answer.
It’s easier said than done when you’re really nervous and have built this interview up to be the most important thing you’ve done in your life so far, but try to remain calm during the interview. Breathe deeply, and try to view it as an enjoyable two-way dialogue that will allow you to ascertain whether or not this university and course is right for you (it’s not all one-sided). Most interviewers will do what they can to put you at ease, and they’re not there to make you feel uncomfortable. They just want to find out what you’re like, whether you’re the right person for this course, and whether you’re genuinely interested in the subject. They’re people too, remember, and some might even be nervous as well. Relax, be likeable and be enthusiastic, and you’ll already be well on your way to interview success.