This page (which you can edit) is part of The Student Room's information and advice about Oxford and Cambridge (known collectively as Oxbridge). Whilst the two universities have have much in common, they also have many differences. Our information on the application procedure and interviews applies to both.
University of Oxford: Guide & Discussion Forum
The interview is just one part of Applying to Oxford or Cambridge (aka Oxbridge). This page is collated from the experiences of many Oxford and Cambridge applicants. It is all opinion, but worth reading. This page is not meant to alarm you by any stretch of the imagination. The interview is not the be-all and end-all; it is simply a part of the selection process. If you have a strong overall application, you can still get an offer even after an atrocious interview (some of us know people who have!). And if you have a poorer academic record, a good interview can sometimes swing it for you. Interviews can feel intimidating, but they're not intended to be. Don't panic!
IMPORTANT: if at any point during the interview process you feel like you've done badly remember a) you are on the inside and cannot accurately assess how you're performing b) you may be being pushed harder to test your limits as you're a promising candidate c) if you've really screwed something up, speak up. Say something like "that's not right" or "I realise that what I wrote in the test wasn't quite right as I'd misread the question" or "can I try that again?".
Preparing for your interview
You're not supposed to do any preparation because the idea of the interview is to see how you deal with a previously unseen idea or problem. Having said this, you might feel more prepared if you've spent a small amount of time thinking about the interview:
- Know why you applied for that course. Unless you're applying for a more unusual or joint honours course then you probably won't be asked this. But it's something that's good to be clear on anyway, and if it does come up, you want to be prepared.
- Know what's on your course. Occasionally people are asked about what they think is on the course, and it doesn't reflect too well if you don't know. Make sure you have some idea of what you'd be studying in the first year.
- Read over your personal statement before interview, and make sure you can talk in at least some detail about anything you mentioned. Many interviewers will not talk to you about personal statement (because time is limited and they want to test you with new ideas). But others do ask about it - it looks very bad if you say you read something and haven't!
- Look again at any work you've submitted. Interviewers may not mention this at all, but it might become the basis for one of your interviews.
Some people find out what the academic interests of tutors at their prospective college are. The merits of this are debatable. It might be nice to have something to fall back on, but they're interested in YOU and what YOU have a passion for.
The next sentences aren't really interview preparation, but are just general good advice for applying to university. Spend some time thinking about your subject, and reading further than just what you've studied at school. Look at whatever interests you. For example English students ought to have read some literature in their spare time, and scientists might read New Scientist or popular science books. A quick flick through a basic "intro to xxxxx" is one way of approaching this. Also, the internet is a wonderful place! This might come in handy for interview, just in case they ask 'so... what else interests you?'.
The practicalities: getting there, staying over, etc
Oxford interviews take place over a few days - this typically involves staying 1-3 nights (you are given free accommodation, food, etc). At Cambridge, you may still have multiple interviews, but they will take place in one college on a single day. If you've come from a great distance, or they want you to take an exam before the interviews, Cambridge may let you stay over the night before the interview. In a strange bed it can be a bit nerve-wrecking awaiting the interview, but take it all in as part and parcel of the whole experience and try to get a few hours shut-eye if possible. It's a great chance to see a bit more of life at that university!
If you're travelling on the day make sure that you leave enough time to get there. Make sure you have enough to eat and drink. Make sure you have enough money for a taxi to the college if you get lost. Remember that Oxford and Cambridge are expensive cities, and this isn't the time to scrimp and save, so make sure you have over £10 in case of emergencies. Have the admissions office telephone number on you. If for any reason you do get delayed (late train etc) you will need to contact them. If this happens to you, stay calm - they have procedures to reschedule your interview and you won't have ruined your chances.
Depending on your college and subject, you may sit an exam during the interview process. Don't fret too much about this. As you have not had any time to revise or prepare, it is usually intended to see how you respond and to furnish the interviewer with something concrete to distinguish you by. Oxford uses many pre-interview exams such as the PAT (for Physics) and MAT (for Maths) and both Cambridge and Oxford use the TSA (although different tests I think) for a wide variety of subjects. Oxford admissions tests mostly taken place in the November once you have applied. Cambridge also uses STEP as part of offer conditions for Maths applicants. Example papers are available online for most of these tests, and it is a good idea to try a few in order to get an idea of what you need to know and how the paper is structured.
Going to the Interview
- Be alert.
- You may not have had much sleep the night before, but try to keep a sharp mind.
- Arrive on time.
- Find out WHERE you have to go and WHO you are seeing. Sometimes interviews overrun and it's difficult to get from one interview to another, but try to keep punctual if it's within your control.
- Follow instructions
- If you've been told to knock, do so. If you've been told to wait outside, do so.
How to Dress
Wear what you feel comfortable in, the vast majority of applicants wear informal attire. Jeans and a jumper is good. On the hand, don't turn up in football kit or a bikini... keep it reasonable! One advantage of casual clothes is it can make the interview feel less like an interrogation and more like a discussion to see if you are the right person for your subject in the college (which is ultimately what it is). The tutors interviewing you are unlikely to be dressed very formally.
Should I wear a suit? If you want to - it doesn't really matter, just don't go out of your way to look a mess. It is advisable to wear something you've worn before so you feel comfortable sitting down, standing up etc (for example, you don't want a tight skirt that is awkward to sit in). Some people like to wear suits because they feel that puts them in the right frame of mind for an interview.
- You may have to wait quite a while before you are called into the interview room, so take deep breaths and try to keep calm- when you do go in, smile at the interviewer(s) and try to be generally pleasant despite feeling nervous.
- Think before you speak, stop, have a minute of silence to yourself before replying .... obviously don't wait this long every question, but do think, stop for a few seconds before any question.
- If you don't understand the question, ask them to clarify it for you.
- They may ask you unanswerable questions. Give both sides of the argument, then you can say that you're not sure what answer you'd give.
- Move the conversation along, if you see a link up with another topic, then talk about it. However, ensure you still answer the original question.
- Be confident and assertive when answering. Be ready to defend your position (especially in social sciences where there are no right or wrong answers). But don't be arrogant. The interviewers aren't there to decide whether you're clever enough, but whether they would like to teach you. Nobody wants to teach a know-it-all.
- Give longer answers. Quick, concise answers are great for the test, but will prolong the feel of the interview. They want a conversation which flows and has direction, and they can only do that if you give them opportunities to ask linked questions.
- At the same time, make sure that you're not just waffling on about nothing. A lot of the time interviewers will leave a pause when you stop speaking. This doesn't necessarily mean what you've just said is rubbish, they're simply giving you some time to think. Don't feel you have to fill the silence and start talking off the top of your head. Make it clear when you've finished saying what you have to say.
- Try to be as innovative as you can and don't just settle for what you think is a "good" or "standard" answer, but try to think what you can add to make what you are saying better.
- Remember that the interviewer is trying to help get the best out of you.
- Don't panic. The interviewers will help you along if you are stuck, just ask them. Additionally, if they butt in whilst you are talking, listen to what they say. They will be trying to steer you into the correct direction.
- Think out loud. They are looking to see how you work answers out. It is far better to say what you are thinking and come up with lots of ideas than to sit there trying to come up with what you consider to be the 'correct' answer.
You will probably have one or two interviews at your chosen college. Sometimes extra interviews are given, or you may be interviewed at additional colleges. Again, it varies.
The format will vary widely depending on subject. For some subjects (e.g. English) you may use one interview to discuss the content of your personal statement - such as books you've mentioned reading or poetry you've enjoyed. For science subjects this is less common, and it is more likely that you will be given problems to solve or questions to answer. Generally these are designed to be 'problem solving' where no specific prior knowledge is required, so there's no need to panic when you see something unexpected!
During the interview, or shortly prior to it, you might be given a problem to solve, a poem to analyse, or a task to complete. Very often you'll be given a text to read which you must then analyse in the interview or something similar. Make lots of notes - they're unlikely to ask to see them, and may help you out later!
At Cambridge, you may also be asked to attend a 'general' or 'college' interview, conducted by interviewers who don't teach your subject. A 'general' is just as academic as a subject-based interview. You may be asked questions on your personal statement, and why you want to study your chosen subject and why Cambridge.
After the Event
Don't worry. If you feel your interview went badly it often means they just grilled you harder, and can often help your chances of getting a place over someone who found their interview easy but wasn't really grilled. Don't feel too hard done ... if the interview went badly then you have an excuse to go down the pub (not that you need an excuse), if it went well then you also have an excuse (this should read "After interview - Go down pub", although the consumption of alcohol during the interview period might not be wise if you are under 18 or have an interview the next day).
If your interview went well, don't go around saying how easy it was. Many people will feel their interview went very badly and the last thing they want to hear about was how well one individual did!
Try to avoid discussing interviews with other candidates (at least the specifics) until after you've all finished. Generally questions will be switched between interviews but only to a certain extent - you don't want to give the game away!
"There was an interview where the interviewer asked the student to surprise him, the student set the table on fire and got in!" "A friend of a friend had an interview and when he got in the interviewer had his back to the student and they conducted the interview like that, and he got in!" "My mother's best friend's imaginary friend bob's cousin, had an interview where he set a banana on the table, had the interview and when the interviewer asked him about the banana he said "now you'll remember me"!
These are urban myths, they will not happen, the interviewers are there to make your life easy, they want your full potential and they'll only get it in a normal interview.
- blissy, English at New Hall, Cambridge: I had three interviews and an exam. I stayed over the night before the interview as I was required to sit my exam at 6pm in the evening! My stomach was in knots the whole day before the exam and then during the entire night before the interview. I'd never felt as sick in my life as I did waiting for my interviews. It's a while ago that I had my interviews now, but I remember almost crying in one because I was challenged quite ferociously on a poem. Instead of falling apart, I told myself not to be put down and I turned and said "I don't know a lot about that, I admit, but I do know..." Overall, the interview and exam left me feeling like I'd had a right grilling. I had no idea how it went, and when I got the letter I was shaking all day - even after I'd seen the acceptance. The whole process is so charged with emotion, but try not to let that get to you during the interview!
- ali, Biochemistry at Exeter, Oxford: I had two interviews with no exams and hadn't sent any written work either...all in all biochemistry applications are a bit simpler than some subjects! I arrived the night before and both my interviews where the next day (2pm and 5 pm). The first one was in the college with the biochem tutor and a postgrad, both were really nice and the interview was a lot less nerve racking than i thought it would be! The questions mainly concentrated on Alevel stuff with some ideas being developed beyond Alevel. The second one was at St Annes (i was told beforehand where it was) and this was more personal statement based. All the interviewers where really welcoming and current students were around to help out if needed. As my interviews didn't finish until 5.45 i stayed at the college overnight and went home the next day, they were fairly flexible about when you left. Overall i would say don't worry, they're not dragons and take some Alevel stuff with you so you can read through stuff and calm your nerves down.
- Helen, Medicine at Clare, Cambridge: I had two interviews, both with Medical Fellows of the college, including both Directors of Studies. I had already sat the MVAT (precursor to BMAT) before my interview. I came up the night before and stayed in Mem Court, then had a rather nervous breakfast with various other interview candidates in the Hall before my interview. As I'd been kicked out of my room by then, I wandered round town looking nervous until it was time for my interview. They were both in the same suite of rooms with only a 20 minute gap between them. Both my interviews were very scientifically based; they asked a little about my work experience and my Gap year plans, but I think only as an ice breaker. Large parts of the interview consisted of being shown pictures of various things (electron micrographs, light micrographs, radiographs) and asked questions about them. These questions were not just "What can you see here?" but once that was answered, they asked more about what I thought certain sections might do, and then more information about the Biochemistry and Physiology of the systems at work there. Both sets of interviewers were very nice, it wasn't a grilling at all, but they did steadily push me with each question. I did answer "I don't know" on a couple of occasions, but then went on to think about what possibilities could be and work through from there. It was all over within an hour!
- Jen, Experimental Psychology at St Hilda's, Oxford:The night I arrived at college we sat a test. By the end I was convinced that I had completely messed up my chances as I completely missed out one question and only half answered another, but everyone else said that they found it difficult as well. The next morning I was first on the interview list. I had to collect a passage on Cognitive Psychology from an administrator, and I sat reading through it whilst I waited (and to be honest, I didn't understand much of what I was seeing). The interview was very structured, and all about Psychology. The tutor wanted to check that I understood that the course is very scientific, and we explored themes from the article I had been given. About ten minutes in, she said in a very surprised voice: "You're doing quite well, actually," and from then on the questions got harder! I also got a chance to explain a bad AS Level result. My second interview was with a lady who can only be described as a bit of an Oxford eccentric. Again, the interview was very structured and she was most definitely in control of the conversation topic, which was purely Psychology (she didn't ask me anything about my extra-curricular activities at all)! All the while she was scribbling notes down in a book, which was most unnerving. I spent most of my afternoon in my room, doing some schoolwork and feeling depressed. But when I finally ventured downstairs the first girl I came across invited me out to dinner with her and some of her friends, which put an end to my miserable mood, and I had a great evening. The next morning I had my final interview at New College. The two tutors were lovely, and the interview was very free-flowing. My only "oh crap" moment came when I was asked what parts of my A Level course I enjoyed, and I said social psychology. The man looked up brightly and said "I'm a social psychologist, what concepts can you remember?" And I promptly forgot everything I learned during that module. That evening I decided not to be a hermit, and went looking for some girls to hang out with. A group of us ended up going to G&Ds for ice cream and a chat. Unfortunately I had to stay until mid-afternoon the next day as the tutors had a meeting to decide who they were going to offer places to, and whether they wanted to re-interview anyone. They didn't, which was scary and a relief at the same time. Another girl and I went to the train station together and I finally got my train home, happening to end up sat next to an engineering interviewee. My advice is to just relax and enjoy it, and also: do not stay in your room! You meet lots of interesting people by going out to find some companions, and the support you get from each other helps to turn a scary prospect into a great few days away.
- Jack, History and Politics, Corpus Chrsti, Oxford: Arrived Tue PM, at 10pm. The JCR will have organised some events for the week, normally run by 2nd years. During my 3 days in Oxford they put on a pub quiz, 2 films (Superbad- it wasn’t high brow stuff) and a trip to G & D’s Ice Cream parlour. These were good fun and helped to mix with potential students next year- and relax! Especially important for me since on the first night I found out I had my two interviews the next day!At Corpus they allocate you to a “subject scout” who takes you to your interview, and is on hand whenever you need them (by on hand I mean for questions). John Watts (History Tutor) talked to all History joint school students beforehand to put there minds at ease- he was a really interesting, articulate and kind man. The Interview itself was quite chatty (it was basically a conversation, like a Tutorial would be). On certain points/statements they obviously tried to push you to look deeper. The train of thought during an interview can lead to some bizarre tangents:King John Mood Swings – How important is that to asserting leadership? – How does it affect society? – “Margaret Thatcher doesn’t believe in society”- What can Thatcher learn from medieval society?' I had submitted an essay on King John, and that was the main talking point throughout. Led to a basic regurgitation of an A2 History Lessons. We basically talked about some of the main quotes I had put into the essay. It is vital you submit an essay on a subject which you are willing to rest your Oxford application on. You will be asked questions on it. It will most likely be the main body of the interview. Later we turned to the Personal Statement and talked about some areas I had never really studied. The Thatcher- Society statement above is an example of one. I was then asked some broad “mind expanding” questions. I got “What would a historian pick as the major historical event in your lifetime?” I chose the American response to 9/11 and the threat of Global Terrorism. We then discussed whether the USA was declining as a superpower, and the potential comparisons Historians could use with the Fall of Rome. I then quoted the West Wing:'Did you know that two thousand years ago a Roman citizen could walk across the face of the known world free of the fear of molestation? He could walk across the earth unharmed, cloaked only in the words ‘Civis Romanis’ I am a Roman citizen.'So great was the retribution of Rome, universally understood as certain, should any harm befall even one of its citizens'. …which they seemed to enjoy. We discussed then why a US Soldier can’t walk through inner city Baghdad, whilst a Roman could walk through the Germanic would without being assassinated. Very Whiggish history- but the discussion we had did seem to go down well. For Politics we kickedd off with a comparison of the UK and US Political systems. What are the fundamental differences? I went for Head of State- clichéd- but FPTP and so forth wasn’t a discussion I wanted to enter. We then talked about Lords Reform. Decided totally democratic higher chamber wasn’t necessary for a functioning democracy, and that the Lords only real role is to scrutinise. Cappocia argued that democracy should always be the standard. We then talked about when Democracy should be suspended. Why hasn’t Gordon Brown suspended democracy in the current economic circumstance? I then said economic upheaval leads to a change in party in most circumstances, stupidly citing Nazi Germany as an example. Hadn’t done WWII since GCSE years! I was then quizzed on the books I had put on my PS. Talked about Social Contract theory and the difference between the “General Will” and the “Will of All”. He finished, strangely, with asking me whether I had a “controversial idea about anything at all”. I then told him about the Kearns Goodwin book “Team of Rivals” (Obama’s favourite historical book) and argued that the American Civil War wasn’t a just war. Debate ensued. That was it! All over in 6 hours. Had to remain in Oxford, for a further 2 days. Was moderately frustrating- whether I should carry on reading through my essay, books on my PS or whether to just relax. Would recommend a bit of both. Don’t be put off by tutors that try to push you or make you feel stupid. They are obviously pushing you as they are interested in what you have to say- take it all with a pinch of salt. At least they’re not just taking it all in, bored as hell and waiting for the next applicant. Historiography wasn’t asked in great depths. Don’t say you’ve read Popper if you haven’t. I think everyone agrees that it is about as interesting as….My last tip: remember that the tutors will remember the final impression they have of you. When they ask “any questions?” don’t ask them about the course/what modules they are. It is all on the Oxford website and if you haven’t had the volition to check what you’re studying you don’t deserve a place over the people who have spent hours reading into it. Which will be 70% of applicants. Last Last Tip…I disagree with school’s view on the importance of GCSE’s. My GCSE’s were rubbish compared to the majority of people at GSAL (3A*s, 3As, 4 Bs). I received a D for one of my AS’s. As long as you have the odd sprinkling of A*s and As you wont be rejected because of them. Examination results only get you in as far as the interview- beyond that it is up to you to shape your destiny.
- Henry, Maths at Merton, Oxford: I arrived mid-morning, all in good time for the written test. I was ushered around by a set of very nice JCR helpers, with one specifically for my subject, so that if I had any questions, I could ask her. I milled around in the JCR and had brunch in hall all before the 2 and a half hour test. I think I did reasonably well in the end - the test is meant to be hard though, with the average over the whole university being 63% this year - practising the specimen tests provided online is a very good idea. After the test, we were left to socialise/do post-mortems with the other students. Everyone was very nervous, but with a few games of Giant Jenga to break the ice, everyone started chatting, and I made a few great friends. Merton organised good activities for the evening, like a pub quiz and excursions to the cinema. The next day I had 2 interviews lined up, about 6 hours apart, with me being the last to be interviewed by both sets of tutors. My first interrview was quite good. They made me feel comfortable by having a small chat with me about my personal statement, and then we went into the maths. The questions being asked were drawn from harder examples of what I might have learned on the A-level syllabus, and a few more abstract questions towards the end, to test me. Then, after waiting 6 hours, and getting suitably nervous, I went to my second interview, in which they asked me 1 easy question to begin with, and then the rest were absolutely awful! I was almost crumbling under the pressure, but kept good composure, and just kept on talking about how/what I was thinking. I went out feeling quite depressed, but then I shared my experience with other interviewees, and their stories were very similar to mine, something that made us all feel a lot better about the whole process. All in all, it was actually quite good fun, and meeting the other applicants almost made you feel that if you didn't get an offer, somebody else who deserved it, and who is genuinely nice, would. Just go in confidently, and speak clearly about what you are thinking (and know all of C1-3 inside out!), and you should be fine! Good luck!!
- Ellen, English at Harris Manchester, Oxford: I arrived the night before my first interviews at Keble College, as that was where I originally applied. I got there just in time for dinner - which was really good, I might add - and I found the current students and other applicants surprisingly easy to talk to, despite the fact that I'm quite shy myself. I'd been quickly whisked up to my room by a student runner to drop off my belongings just before dinner, and I headed back there afterwards to get a last little bit of reading done, and a good night's sleep. I never got the reading done - I figured that if I didn't know what I was talking about by then, extra cramming was going to do nothing beyond causing stress! So I played DS games - hee hee - to unwind, and went to sleep early. The next day I got up early and hunted for the JCR, where an interview list was supposedly going to be pinned up that morning. I found my interview-times - one was at about 11am; the other at about 3pm.
The first interview rolled around - it was a poetry interview, so I was given a poem to analyse and told to go and find a quiet corner in which to read it. I was to go back in half an hour, or earlier if I felt ready before then - I think I took about twenty minutes, but in hindsight I wish I'd taken the full half-hour. The interview started out okay, but quickly turned into quite an unpleasant experience - the questions were tough, and although I wasn't at a loss for answers, the interviewers seemed to be coaxing me to say something else... which I couldn't discern at all! I left the interview pretty much in tears, and then called my boyfriend to have a good old blub about it. I definitely recommend talking to someone if you feel you've done terribly - sometimes you need someone else to put things in perspective for you. Either way, it worked for me and, successfully calmed-down, I headed for my second interview. This one focused more on my interests (my essay topic, the books I'd mentioned in my UCAS statement, etc) and was a lot less intimidating.. although I still felt like my answers were very run-of-the-mill and not at all "Oxbridge material" (to use a phrase that I hate!)
I was sure by that point that, even if I had redeemed myself slightly in the second interview, that I still hadn't done anything like enough to be made an offer. So I packed my things up, expecting to take the first coach home in the morning (after one final check of the interviews notice board) and, finding the JCR empty - probably due to everyone being in interviews/cramming wildly in solitude - I went off by myself and explored Oxford, which was brilliant fun, and led me to a great bakery (on South Parade, for the record) where I bought an enormously piggy cake to make myself feel better. At dinner that night, almost everyone seemed a bit subdued - no-one thought they'd done well, but everyone admitted that it was quite consoling to find everyone else in the same boat, because it hopefully meant we weren't quite so sub-par after all! When I came down the next morning to look at the notice-board in the JCR, I was fully expecting to be able to go away immediately to plan my trip home (so sure in fact, that I nearly didn't bother to check at all).. so I was completely shocked to see my name on the notice board along with an invitation to interview at Harris Manchester. I hadn't fancied the look of it from the prospectus, but when I got there I was amazed at how pretty it was, and how welcoming the staff and students were (moral: try to visit some of the colleges before the interview period - they're very different "in the flesh"!). My first interview at HMC was with both of the college's English tutors, and revolved solely around the books I'd mentioned on my UCAS statement. I found the interviewers easy to talk to - the whole thing felt more like a conversation than a grilling - and whilst I certainly didn't feel like I'd aced the interview afterwards, it didn't feel like a total disaster either. I then went up to my final Oxford interview - a general interview with the Principal of the college. The prospect was pretty terrifying (though I was assured that it was just standard procedure at HMC) - but the Principal actually turned out to be very friendly, and the interview was more of a philosophical discussion coupled with a few questions about my gap years and future plans. I left the college still feeling that I was incredibly unlikely to get an offer but really hoping that, if by some miracle I was made an offer, it would come from the second college and not the first.
Anyway - brief end to a long story - I got an offer from Harris Manchester, which I was (and still am) over the moon about. My main advice would be: talk to the other applicants/current students whenever you can, as I really found it helped; phone home if you get really stressed, as I found that to be the best help of all; and don't assume that you won't get a second shot at a different college, because you never know!
- Clive, Computer Science at Robinson College, Cambridge: I stayed overnight the night before my interview so that I didn't have to wake up at 4am that morning to get there in time. The first thing that struck me when I got there was how nervous I was - I wasn't particularly nervous before I'd actually got there. I collected my room key and meal vouchers and went to my room where I attempted a bit more interview preparation. This attempt having failed, I went to the JCR with the hope of mingling with other people. The reality of this attempt at mingling was that I felt like I was intruding and interrupting people's conversations, so I just went back up to my room until dinner. Then, at dinner, I was approached by a few other applicants, and we ended up forming a huddle of four terrified 17 year olds in a sea of... other people. There's safety in numbers, though, and once we'd been at the bar for a while our nerves soon calmed down! The big bit was the next day, though. After a sleepless night, I made my way down to breakfast, and then on to the JCR as instructed where I would wait for my TSA exam at 9:30am. While I was waiting, I met a few other people from my course... I'll admit to secretly trying to weigh up my chances as to whether I stood a chance against any of them: as far as I was concerned, I was doomed for failure! I was surprised by the relative ease of the TSA exam, and fortunately the exam managed to take my mind off the imminent interviews. After the exam, I went back to wait in the JCR, and that's when the nerves really set in. When I was finally called to my interview and was sat outside the room, I was actually trembling in fear. I, of course, blamed the cold. Interestingly, though, after a few deep breaths, I managed to pull myself together before I entered the room... I recommend this to anyone and everyone going for an interview: it really helps! When I went into my first interview, I shook the hands of the two people interviewing me, and then sat down ready for the interrogation. Prior to the interview, I had been sent an extract from a book to read which had a task at the end of it which I thought I had to prepare for at the interview. They asked me if I'd done it, and if I'd enjoyed it, but never actually asked me what I did! Their first question was "why computer science?" which was relatively easy to answer, since it was the most anticipated question I could have thought up. After another 5-10 minutes of asking me about things on my personal statement (although in no great detail), I was set the task of finding the complexity of an algorithm. I had to ask for help several times throughout the problem and stopped and started all the way through, but I reached the correct answer eventually, which was quite satisfying! My second interview was entirely mathematical, and I thought it went terribly. The mathematical knowledge required to do the questions they asked was at AS level at the very most, and I was stopping and starting all the way through what are, looking back on them, very easy questions. Then came the long wait until 3rd January for the result... to my surprise, I got in! My GCSE/AS grades were hardly impressive, and I didn't think my interviews went that well, but I have a genuine passion for Computer Science which I think shone through in the interview. For example, I wasn't afraid to ask for help and I didn't pretend to know things that I didn't know... like, when they asked me about what programming languages I had used, I immediately disclaimed that I was no expert and just played round with them for fun. The nature of the interviews was very informal compared to what I thought it would be like, too! It was one surprise after another.
- Eve, Law at Harris Manchester* I had both of my interviews the day I arrived at the college. On my arrival, I was welcomed by the lovely porters at the lodge and shown into my room, where I stayed for a little while before coming down to JCR. It didn't take long to get to know many lovely people and, within minutes, I was chatting to both the student helpers and a bunch of other applicants. We actually ended up calming each other down, which was great too. Overall, I found everyone extremely friendly and the relaxed atmospehere certainly helped a lot. I had a few (well, maybe a little more then just a few) cups of coffee and, before I knew it, I was called for my first interview. It was with the Principal of the college and, although I was actually dreading it, not knowing what to expect, I ended up being pleasantly surprised. Within minutes, I was much more relaxed and we actually had a really interesting discussion; one of the questions got me thinking so much that I ended up doing some research on it after I got back! After the interview, I went back to JCR, chatted to the students a bit more, before heading off to the hall for luch. The food was great and it actually felt a bit like home; I remember thinking that I could really get used to this:). Not long after, I had my second interview. Surprisingly, by then I actually felt much more relaxed then I did the first time and tried to do my best in staying focused and, most importantly, keeping a positive mind! The interviewing tutors were lovely(there were two of them) and, although the whole experience was quiet intense, I really enjoyed it. We mainly discussed the case I was given to read prior to the interview and I was asked a few general questions at the very end. I left the room feeling unsure of how it really went, but at the same time I knew I have done everything I could. All I could do from then on was wait. I spent the remaining two days at the college without being called for any further interviews and simply enjoyed the city and the company of a bunch of friendly, interesting people, with whom I still keep in touch today. Approximately a week after returning home to London, I received a letter...offering me a place! I couldn't believe it then and, two months later, feel pretty much the same way :)
For any future (mature) applicants my advice would be not to hesitate and trust in their abilities all the way. I never thought that this is where I am going to end up, but life is full of surprises and, I must say, quite pleasant ones :) The whole experience of going back to education and having your first academic interview can seem quite a scary thing to do, but once you start, you will never want to look back. I certainly don't.
- Joe, Maths at Magdalen* I was at Magdalen from early afternoon on the sunday until a similar time on the wednesday and had four (three at Magdalen, one at St. Anne's) interviews scheduled in that time - one on the monday and three on the tuesday. As such, the majority of the sunday was spent socializing. I hung around in the JCR a bit playing some pool and then went to "Pres Teas". This was great fun. It consists of having tea and biscuits in the JCR president's room with some other interviewees and student helpers and mostly consisted of banter and disturbing jokes. This was followed by dinner, a long walk with a couple of other interviewees, carols around the enormous christmas tree and Match of the Day and mucking about until far too late at night.
I was the second person to have an interview with my interviewer on the tuesday and so was thrown straight into it. It didn't go fantastically well; There were 2 interviewers, one silent, one leading, straight into the maths. I misunderstood where I was being led for the first question and so ended up adamant that a proof I was trying to make work would work, until I finally figured out what the (dutch) interviewer meant and got the answer out. The other 2 questions were slightly easier but involved a heck of a lot of hinting and pushing. Nothing was instantly obvious. Rest of the day was spent hanging around the JCR, walking round town etc.
My third day I had 3 interviews, which sounds quite busy but in fact I fitted a very long period of shopping in the middle. The first two interviews were similar to the first (all being at Magdalen): 2 interviewers, both participated however, straight into the maths. Once again The questions were difficult and I needed plenty of hints however in both interviews a question I had seen before came up and I just said so. In one of them the woman said that some people had not said so and it had been quite obvious that they had done the question before. Just say if you've done it already, they'll appreciate the honesty and you won't annoy them when they realize you've done it before. The 3rd interview was at St. Annes and wasn't so great. The interview started with a few questions about my school and PS, then we did some maths. I didn't bomb it, I just found the guy a bit confrontational. That night we had a little party in one of the girls' living room and got a bit too drunk. Bear in mind this was foolhardy in the highest as we *could* have had pool interviews the next day. Thankfully none of us did, even though the only one who woke up really bad was the one who we had had to carry to bed.
All in all it was a thoroughly enjoyable few days spent mostly hanging around with people I got on with brilliantly and doing stupid things.
My tips: Don't hide in your room, it's too late to work, go out and make friends!
Don't be the hungover person lying on the couch groaning "Oh **** I've got an interview in 20 minutes"
Be confident, don't worry, have some fun!
P.S. I got an offer from Magdalen but my experience barely differed from most of my mathmo friends I made at interview, but none of them got offers.
- Kate, Physical Natural Sciences at Murray Edwards, Cambridge: I had two interviews - one on Chemistry + a bit of Biology/ Geology and the other on Physics + some Maths/ Materials Science. The first was definitely the most scary - I was very nervous! However, the interviewers asked some fairly nice questions at the beginning which helped me to relax (until I forgot the equation for the volume of a sphere... :S ). They tended to talk through the questions with me and often prompted me into the right direction. Most of the questions built upon basic A level knowledge, you only had to use a bit of common sense for the harder questions! The second interview was much more relaxed. It took place in a (slightly messy :p ) office, and they just handed me a sheet of maths questions for the first part of the interview! They were fairly easy questions, but some required some extra thinking. I think the best way to cope with this interview situation is to discuss outloud exactly what you are doing - "I am just going to integrate the function to find the distance travelled" so there is less of an awkward silence and the interviewers can understand your train of thought. Throughout the interviews I was only really asked academic questions, and a little bit on my work experience. I wasn't even asked 'why do you want to study NatSci' or 'Why do you want to study at Cambridge' or anything like that! No bizarre questions or interviewers doing handstands or anything silly like that either! My best advice to prepare before the interview is to read through your personal statement again and re-read any books you mentioned. Perhaps read another book by the same author in case they ask you about how you have continued to explore your interest in that particular area of science. It might also be a good idea to revise some of your AS/A level stuff as well. I also found it useful to have a practice interview with a teacher at my sixth form - although they didn't really ask academic questions it made me feel more confident about the real interview.
- Nathan, Physics at Worcester, Oxford: I had two interviews at Worcester, both were really with the aim of testing my problem solving skills. I was terrified before the first interview but the tutor was pretty nice and eased me into it with a couple of general questions like what areas of physics I was interested in - naturally, like many applicants, I fell into the trap of quantum mechanics but managed to save it by mentioning that I had only seen it presented as ideas but enjoyed classical mechanics and the interview went from there with some quite long mechanics questions for which I required a lot of prompting but just said what I thought. At the end I was asked if I had any questions. All the knowledge required for this interview was A-level knowledge. My second interview was the one I had been warned about and to not expect it to go well - some of the interviewers like to keep pushing questions they know you won't manage and it lived up to the warning. 'Have you done ellipses in maths' 'no' 'good, write me the equation for an ellipse' etc. though the starts of the questions were A-level stuff. It was another one for problem solving - they like to know how you think. The next day I had an interview at Queen's (I personally prefered it straight away - the setting and the tutors were friendlier). It was a joint interview by a maths tutor and a physics tutor for the physics course and started off with some pretty straightforward maths questions (integrate this, sketch that, prove this etc.) and I had a whiteboard which made life a bit easier. Then the physics half - slightly more obscure questions than the previous interviews but required more knowledge of physical principles involved and I was asked one slightly more bizarre question which I wouldn't have been able to answer had it not been for further reading (The science of christmas by roger highfield saved me there). All in all it was a fairly enjoyable experience and though I felt challenged it wasn't horrifically difficult. They really want to know what you are thinking as you solve the questions so my advice would be to get really comfortable with all the A-level material that you've covered and to not clam up but keep talking - they will prompt you if you are headed in the wrong direction. In the end my offer came from Queen's not Worcester but after the interviews that is what I expected. I'm not sure that any of the practice interviews I had were at all helpful though - the tutors were interested solely in academic potential and weren't fussed about general questions such as why Physics etc. though this is not always the case.
- Josh, Mathematics at Trinity, Cambridge: The Trinity maths interview take the format of a one hour test followed by a single 45 minute interview. My interview was fairly early in the morning, starting some time between 9 and 10, so I go into Cambridge early and went to the college. Here there were students to great me (though I didn't really get the chance to speak to them much), and I was given a map with directions to a test room. In this room there were 8 of us, and we waited until everybody had arrived before taking the test. I accidentally turned the test paper over early out of nervousness, but everything was fine and the student invigilating us promptly informed me of my mistake. The test comprised 10 questions, and there was little chance of answering all of them. I answered 4 completely and had a look at a few others. They were on various bits of mathematics but all of it was well within what one would expect of an A level student, with quite a lot of calculus and graph sketching. After this, I went to my interview room - circled on my map - and waited outside for around 5 minutes before being shown the way in. I had 2 interviewers, and one read my solutions while the other said hello to me. They then put aside those questions I had done correctly and the remainder of the discussion focussed on the questions I had started and not completed (some of which I had just scribbled down something for and then moved on from). There was a graph sketching question where I easily recognised the general shape of the curve but it took me another try to get the curvature correct and then the interviewer asked me to redraw it again because it was messy and asymmetric. There was a questions about maximising areas where it took me a while to realise what I had to do (as a result of interview nerves) and so I required a little pushing but I got there in the end. There was a question about identifying a function that took me an awfully long time for what it was (again, nerves) and they had to guide me at almost every step and it was awfully embarrassing. There was also a combinatorics question that they believed I had gotten wrong but that I had in fact done correctly. I assume that they realised this after the interview because I was quite insistent that I was correct and I did end up getting an offer in the end. It is worth noting that they didn't care about anything other than the maths in the test. No questions were asked about other mathematics I had done or what I had put in my personal statement, let alone about why I had chosen Trinity or why I wanted to read mathematics.
Subject and uni specific advice
- English at Cambridge TSR wiki advice on how to approach a poem
- Oxford Admissions
- Cambridge Interviews section of the prospectus includes links to mock interviews, a guide to interviews, a interview facts booklet etc - there's a lot here and this is the best information because it comes from the university itself
- Interviews in Action Film A short, scripted film about interviews at Cambridge
- Law at Cambridge Example interview question
This page (which you can edit) is part of The Student Room's information and advice about Oxford and Cambridge (known collectively as Oxbridge). Whilst the two universities have have much in common, they also have many differences. Our information on the application procedure and interviews applies to both.
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