How to handle a university interview: five strategies for success

If you've never been through an interview process before (or even if you have), it's natural to feel nervous about it. What will they ask? Are they trying to trick you? Should you wear the pink socks? But while interviews can be stressful, they can also be really helpful – so we got together with the friendly team at the New College of the Humanities to get their top tips for interview success. 

1 – Remember, it's all about potential

No-one is expecting you to be an expert in the subject you're applying to study. That's why you're going to study it, after all: to learn more. “I'm hoping to see the potential and promise in a student, to see what the student and we can do together to develop those capacities and help the student make the best of them,” explains Professor AC Grayling, who is Master of New College of the Humanities and was previously an admissions tutor at Oxford. Your interviewer wants to see what kind of student you might be and whether or not you're enthusiastic about the subject; they don't need you to be the finished article yet!

2 – It's a two-way process

university interviews

The university wants to find out more about you, of course, but that door swings both ways – it's also your chance to learn more about the institution, students and staff. Use the interview to ask about the course, the teaching, or anything you're curious about. “Interviewees should always be asking themselves whether the institution is right for them,” says Professor Grayling, “asking whether they feel that it understands them and their hopes.” 

At many universities (including NCH) you'll also have the chance to meet students on your interview day. Current NCH Philosophy student Paul recommends making the most of it, as it's a chance to find out what a university is really like for those studying there. “Come with a list of questions to throw at the current students!” he says. 

3 – No-one is trying to trick you

Yes, you might be asked some questions you'll need to think about for a moment or two, but there are no tricks at interview, and often there's no 'right' answer: just your answer. “We don't try to put students on the spot with very difficult and tricky questions, to make them more uncomfortable and nervous,” says Professor Grayling. “We're interested in the real person, not the person who is tense and apprehensive and therefore cannot present the best side of themselves.”

Paul enjoyed his interview for exactly that reason – he felt that he was able to be himself. “My interview was lovely,” he says, “a fascinating conversation about a topic I'm passionate about, with an expert in the field. My interviewer seemed to really want to get to know me as well as possible.”

4 – A little preparation goes a long way


There are two kinds of preparation: getting ready for the interview itself; and preparing for everything around it. 

'Everything around it' means practical stuff: how are you going to get there? What time do you need to get up, leave, and arrive? Making sure you know all these things (don't forget to check with the uni in advance about any special requirements) will make interview day much less stressful. 

Worrying what to wear is part of that. The pink socks are fine if they form part of an outfit you feel comfortable – and most importantly yourself – in. “Smart casual is probably best,” says Professor Grayling. 

To prepare for the interview itself, do a little reading around an area of your subject that particularly interests you and think about why you want to study that subject in the first place. Professor Grayling also suggests reading your personal statement again the night before. “You might well be asked about it - especially your reading and other interests.” After that, the best thing to do is sleep!

5 – Relax!

Nerves are natural and up to a point they'll help you focus: just don't worry too much. “Relax,” says Professor Grayling. “Students would not be invited to interview in the first place unless we were genuinely interested in them.” 

Once the interview starts, concentrate and think about your answers – there's no rush. Don't bother with rehearsed responses, either, they'll only trip you up. “See it as a normal conversation,” says Paul, “don't try to 'cheat' the process by preparing key phrases to use. Just engage in natural, thoughtful conversation and it will be both a fun and successful experience.”