Oxford interviews: How to make sure you're ready

Gearing up for your interview? Oxford undergrads share their advice

We asked students who were successful in getting into Oxford about the interview process and what they wish they had known before attending.

There's a lot of commonality between being interviewed for Oxford and Cambridge, so you should find this advice applies to Cambridge interviews as well. For a specific look at Cambridge, you can read a student's advice on how to prepare for a Cambridge interview.

Be prepared

Think about the questions you could be asked in your interview, and consider how to structure your answer.

"I prepared by ensuring I was up to date with my A-level work and trying to brush up on concepts mentioned in my personal statement," says TSR member nexttime. 

"I think the most useful preparation I did was not deliberate at all; just having nerdy friends who liked to ask 'What if...?' in chemistry and physics probably helped me have a logical thought process, taking what I did know and applying it to what I didn't. That's exactly the mindset needed to take an Oxford interview. I'd stand by that not only for science, but for all subjects.

"My school was unable to offer any kind of mock interview or anything like that. If you are fortunate enough to have that offered, or can organise it yourself, I would make full use.

"Just having the experience of chatting to someone in authority about your subject is useful, as that's all the Oxford interview is in reality. There are some excellent podcasts on the Oxford website showing a mock interview that seems very much in line with my experience – I'd recommend watching them all."

TSR member rlewa says "I talked to people who had previously gone through the interview process to give me advice and to let me know what I should expect."

In addition, rlewa "made sure I knew what I had said I knew in my personal statement, re-reading any books or articles that I had mentioned. What I also should have done was check I knew enough about the topics in my submitted essays."

Espançais prepared for their French and Spanish interviews by "reading several pieces of literature in each language, trying to make links between what I had read and thinking about what had led me to each text."

"I found reading short stories was particularly useful as it gave me achievable chunks to finish and allowed me to find out about the styles of various different authors in the same volume," Espançais adds. 

Finally, Espançais "referred to a side-along English translation when I needed clarification of the plot, and this also helped with unfamiliar vocabulary. I tried to make notes as I went along and read actively. I also read at least the headlines of the major papers in each language most days in the weeks leading up to my interview, so that I would be well-informed about the countries. Closer to the time, I practised analysing French and Spanish poems and discussing them with a friend."

Oxford recently released some sample interview questions, which will give you an idea of what to expect.

Expect the unexpected

Speaking of what to expect, be ready for a few curveballs during the interview.

"As soon as I started speaking too confidently on something, the tutors would lead me into another topic area, throw in some unfamiliar sources, and see if I was willing to pick up new ideas," says history student Niki_girl. 

"Part of interviews is about mental agility – being able to adapt quickly to new ideas – it's supposed to be slightly unpredictable, not a memory test."

She added: "In my personal statement I mentioned something about the link between history and art – I was then asked why I didn't apply for history of art. It wasn't a trick, my tutors just wanted to know what I thought about how the two subjects interacted."

"There were a couple of very off-piste questions where the knowledge required wasn't that advanced but you had to really think about the problem and what was relevant," says natninja. 

"In my interview, most of the questions were in the category that I was expecting them to be in, but almost every one of them made me really think about the concepts involved in a way that I hadn't before," says dutchmaths. 

In one of Espançais' interviews, "the tutor quoted my personal statement and asked me to explain further. Although I expected that kind of question to come up, I wasn't prepared for how disconcerting it felt to hear my words read back to me!"

If you do feel lost for words during the interview, vicvic38 advises: "If you are stuck, ask. The tutors want to see that you will work well in a tutorial setting. This means you have to treat the interview like a two-way exchange.

"If you've not covered something yet, or are not very good at a particular part of the A-level course yet, say! They will explain it; they aren't looking to see how much you know, but how you learn. If you are given an answer, try to slot it in to what you already know. They want to see an active learning style."

Relax

... And breathe.

When you're in the interview, says DCDude, you should "take the time to think, don't just bang out an answer at speed." 

"The questions are mostly straightforward and the tutors will always try and help you with hints rather than trip you up," says amol_chalis447. "Keep that in mind, stay calm, and be as logical as possible!"

"My top tip is to keep calm," says Espançais. "If you need to take a bit of time to think about a question, do so  it happens in tutorials once you're here too! Also make sure you bring a book or something you enjoy for the hours hanging around waiting to be released."

Niki_girl says that she "couldn't have predicted" what she was asked, but "they prompted me, tried to help me, and listened to my suggestions."

As a way to calm your nerves outside of your interview, she recommends making the most of your time in Oxford.

She says: "Don't just sit in your room for the duration of your interviews.

"Sure, revise your personal statement, written work and anything else for 15 minutes before you leave for the interview room, but the rest of the time could be spent in the JCR (junior common room) speaking to other candidates, who may well turn out to be future classmates, at Oxford or elsewhere! 

"Playing games and just generally chatting helped to take my mind off my own nervousness, and I met loads of really nice people. The interview experience isn't just about the interviews themselves, it's about talking to like-minded people, wandering around the college you're staying in and exploring Oxford as a city."

rlewa recommends "having some fun! Meet other interviewees, explore Oxford, eat in hall, discuss your subject with world experts."

rlewa adds that it helps to remember that "your future does not depend on the interviews and things will always work out. I think if you relax and make the most of your time in Oxford, you’ll have more fun and be less stressed about the interviews. I think my last interview went so well partly because I was so at ease and was not thinking about the outcome of it (because I thought I had already been rejected)." 

If you want to get an idea of what life is like in your college, look at our Oxford Colleges threads.

Don't be cocky

Confidence is great, but cockiness isn't. So rather than trying to hide behind a big personality, give interviewers a window into how your mind works.

"They want someone they can teach, they are looking for potential rather than what you know so really think out loud when answering questions," says natninja.

"That way they can get a much better idea of how you think."

The_Lonely_Goatherd says: "Perhaps most importantly, don't let anyone you meet at the interviews drag you down. The nasty snobbish people you sometimes meet at the interviews rarely get in."

Be you

"Be yourself. Keep calm," says The_Lonely_Goatherd. "Wear whatever feels comfortable. Don't compare yourself to others."

"I went into my interviews with the mindset that I wanted to have fun, and that I'd probably not get an offer," says vicvic38. My further maths teacher had been skeptical I'd even make it to interview ... so I lined up another place I would be happy at (York) and went in for fun.

"I've got so many friends now here who were so stressed at interview that they didn't really talk to others who were interviewing. I reckon the ease with which I did my interviews was because I treated them as a learning experience, rather than a test to get into Oxford."

And if you find yourself feeling anxious, there is help on hand.

"One thing I'd like all applicants to know is that if they want someone to talk to, they should contact Oxford Nightline," says clh_hilary. 

"You can call about anxiety, worries, happiness, random sharing or information and it's open between 8pm and 8am every day during the interview period. The number is 01865 270270, and you can call and ask Nightline to call back if you don't want to pay for it."

Have questions about getting into Oxford or want to share your own experiences? Visit The Official Oxford Interviews Thread 2020.

And if you think your interviews went badly ...

... try not to panic! As history student rlewa discovered, even if your interviews don't go as well as you hoped, it doesn't necessarily mean all is lost. 

"In my history interview, they spent the entire time asking about the essay that I had submitted. The only problem was that I hadn’t studied that topic in months and had forgotten a lot about it. This meant that when they asked me questions about the period, I had very little to say, and I felt like I had not shown the best side of myself," rlewa says. 

"That being said, I tried to work through the questions that they asked me and did my best not to just clam up and panic." 

When the interviews were over, "I spent all of the Christmas holidays telling everyone that there was no way that I’d get in, so when I received the offer in January it came as a huge surprise."

rlewa adds, "during the interview period, try not to panic and overthink supposedly ‘bad’ interviews. No one really knows how well their interviews went and you should try to focus on any coming interviews."

Finally, even if you don't get in, there are plenty of other options out there.

rlewa advises to "remember that Oxford and Cambridge are not the be-all and end-all; I had an offer from Leeds that I was really excited for, and planning for the situation in which I was unsuccessful with my Oxford application was very reassuring and helped to calm me down. There are so many great universities out there and not getting an offer from Oxbridge does not in any way define you or your academic abilities."
 

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