How To Get An Oxford Engineering Offer: Chapter 5 - Interview Preparation

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Interviews introduction:
Engineering candidates in 2019 tended to receive interview invites about 2 weeks before the interview itself. If you’ve got an interview, well done! It’s a great achievement to get this far, but now you need to start preparing. What does the interview process consist of? Candidates for engineering have 2 interviews of around 25-35 minutes length, though the first interview is generally longer. In your interviews, you can expect nearly all of the time to be spent on maths and physics problems. You may have some introductory questions to help you warm up before progressing, such as why you want to study engineering, though these are less important than the problems you will tackle. Some colleges may involve your personal statement in the interview so make sure you’re refreshed on this before you go to Oxford!

What are the tutors looking for?
Overall, the interview is designed to assess how well you would respond to the tutorial system of Oxford and If you would be an engaging student to work with. It tests how you respond to and analyse new information, so a tutor understands how you structure your approach to a problem. Tutors wish to understand your interest, which can be evidenced by a broader knowledge of the subject (e.g. engineering innovations in a field of interest).

Skills to work on:

  • Speaking through your thought process. This is the main competence tested in an interview; the tutors want to see if you can explain your logic and justify your choices clearly. To practice this, I’d suggest sitting down with a reasonably complex engineering question and writing materials. If you have a friend or parent who could act as the tutor this may help. After first looking at a problem and taking some time to think, start talking about your thoughts. This includes what you’re going to do next and why you have done the step you just did.
  • Working under pressure. In your interview you are being presented with unfamiliar concepts – you need to be able to keep your cool and keep talking. Practice this through public speaking, presentations or debating.
  • Learning to never say “I don’t know”. The worst answer you can give in an interview is to say “I don’t know” then give up. The questions are designed to be challenging; you may well get stuck! When you do, try talking about any possible ideas you have or talking about an approach you considered even if it is not the right approach. This gives the tutors chance to see what you are thinking and guide to you towards a valid approach.
  • Work on your approximation skills. In interview you may be asked to approximate values, for example the distance to the moon. The exact value is immaterial but knowing what order of magnitude a value should be is key; with larger values such as the moon example it doesn’t matter if you’re off by a magnitude of 10-100 in either direction, if your logic is justified. Approximation can sometimes be helped by knowing a few key values. For example, knowing the density of water is 1000kg/(m^3) and the density of air is 1kg/(m^3) would help you approximate the mass of water in a glass or the mass of air in a room.
  • Diagram sketching. Diagrams are a great way to represent physical scenarios and can help simplify more complex concepts to reduce unwieldy verbal explanations. You need to be practiced in drawing simple sketches from scratch and adding onto a given diagram. An ideal diagram should be clear, reasonably neat and labelled if needed. Drawing a diagram shouldn’t take you too long and it doesn’t matter if it’s not 100% accurate.
  • Free body force diagrams. You should already be familiar with this concept from physics. Consider all the forces acting upon an object in a physical scenario, skydiver in freefall, then sketch them on a diagram in the direction they act. Sketching forces in relation to other objects (e.g. inclined slopes, or a ladder leaning on a wall) is equally useful.
  • Graph sketching. Graph sketching is an essential skill and very likely to appear in any science-based interview. For more information, refer to my graph sketching post.

What to do before interview:

  • Experience a formal mock interview. This provision of mock interviews in schools varies widely with some schools providing students multiple interviews in the style and others providing none. If your school falls in the latter category, I would strongly advise arranging one even if it may be in a lunch break or after school. Oxford’s academic style of engineering is quite different to the practical based engineering offered in many schools; physics or maths teachers are the best option to conduct your mock interview. If they are unsure what kind of questions you may be asked, I would suggest using one of the recommended resources (e.g. iWantToStudyEngineering or one of the Oxbridge interview questions pages) and randomly select some questions you have never seen before that they can work through with you.
  • Practice questions. This is where my resource recommendations will be most invaluable! Prior to being invited to interview I would hope you have been trying some trickier and more engineering related questions than those on the A-Level syllabus. Post-interview invite it is sensible to increase your practice and specifically focus on how to explain your thinking. I’d emphasize breadth as there is no one type of engineering question that they will be asking you – you want to be prepared for anything!
  • Read the tutor biographies on the college website. Knowing who you are likely to see when you walk into your interview lessens another element of mystery on the day of your interview and may help you relax. Reading about their research interests is worthwhile as it may influence what they ask you in interview. If they research a topic you discuss in your personal statement, you may wish to revise this topic pre-interview as they could be interested in your thoughts on it. However, I would not read any of their research papers as it will be written assuming extensive specialist engineering knowledge and will likely not be rewarding to you or useful during interview.
  • Revise your personal statement. You may be asked about your personal statement in the interview, so ensure you have read it several times before the interview. The questions may be related to specific content or just over-arching themes, so make sure you can confidently talk about both. This is one of the few elements of the interview which you can prepare for exactly, so use this to your advantage!

Whilst on interview:
In the 2019 format, the engineering interviews were some of the shortest in duration, with candidates only arriving the night before then experiencing their two interviews before leaving. Here’s some tips:
  • Get the best sleep you can. Nerves are hard to control, but rest and relaxation on the night before your interview are key to help you perform optimally. Know what makes you sleepy and try to do this – maybe read some fiction for half an hour or do a guided mediation before bed.
  • Use the information pack. This gives you all the details you will need from food timings to gate codes. Read this properly and record some of the key points on your phone if you are worried you may forget them.
  • Help your student helpers help you. Minutes before my first interview I received a panicked call from one of my student helpers who was concerned I had forgotten about my interview, when I was in reality sat outside the office where it was to take place. You will likely already be stressed at this time so don’t add to it through miscommunication! The student helpers should take you to your interviews, so either go and find them so they can take you there or text them to let them know you’ve got there on your own.
  • Keep your brain in gear. You will have some time between your interviews which you can use as you wish. What you do will be personal to you and how you deal with nervousness – I found it useful to do some more problems between interviews to keep my brain in an analytical headspace and maintain my focus. I would highly advise bringing some academic work to do as you will have at least a few hours without any activities going on, albeit not as much as students on interview with other subjects.
  • Eat properly. Though nerves may reduce your appetite, few things can be worse than going into an interview hungry. The college food is good and provided for free, so take advantage of this!
  • Talk to people. Despite the stereotype, most Oxford applicants are very friendly! Around 1 in 3 people at interview for engineering receive offers; you may be talking to your future course partners. Talking to people who’ve already had their interviews may help ease your nerves for yours, though for engineering the previous day’s candidates may be gone by the time you arrive. If you found your interview tough but others said theirs was easy, don’t be alarmed as the interviews are tailored to the individual.

Interviews conclusion:
Interviews are often framed as a mystifying experience where nobody can predict the question you’ll get. I found my interviews went by very quickly; I was quite surprised both times when they told me that it was over! Once again, the interview does not make or break an application. Many successful applicants leave feeling their interviews went badly. Getting a problem correct and struggling but persevering can both demonstrate the potential tutors want to find in candidates. Once the interviews are over, take a well-earned break from admissions preparation over Christmas.

Interviews links:

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Last edited by NemesisRider; 1 year ago
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