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Demystifying the Oxbridge interview

While most of us spend the run-up to Christmas worrying about turkeys, nativity costumes and what to buy for tricky relations, Oxbridge candidates have more cerebral matters on their minds.

December is interview time at Oxford and Cambridge (many interviews have taken place already) and not surprisingly, most applicants feel apprehensive at the prospect.

But the days when interviewers tried to catch candidates out with impossible questions have long gone.

The University of Cambridge has produced a film to demystify the admission process and show applicants what interviews are really like. Four successful (and brave) applicants were asked put themselves through an additional interview. All four volunteers had already taken their A levels and had been offered unconditional places at Cambridge. They were filmed being interviewed by academics they hadn’t met before – for places to study geography, human, social and political sciences, medicine and natural sciences.

Dr Mike Sewell, director of admissions for the Cambridge colleges, said the films, aim to give ‘an insight and accessible guidance’.

I hope that these films make very clear that we are not looking for a perfect performance, but a thoughtful academic response to technical subject-related questions,’ he added.

It’s not just about the ‘right’ answer ‘The fact that stumbles occurred and that the discussion moves forward through the help given by interviewers reflects exactly what happens in interviews. This isn’t failure. It is an indication of a student who is willing and capable to learn and to persevere in discussion when it isn’t easy. That, in turn, is a key quality in an undergraduate’.

There’s lots of help for Oxford candidates too. For a start the university helpfully points out that interviews are ‘just conversations about your chosen subject – like a short tutorial’.

The university website offers a plethora of advice, such as reading widely around your chosen subject (including newspaper articles, websites, journals, magazines and other publications), thinking about all sides of any debate, being prepared to show background knowledge of your subject, re-reading your personal statement and any written work you have submitted and doing practice interviews with teachers.

Oxford has also released a set of sample questions from tutors.

Students applying for biological sciences, for instance, might be asked why rainforests and coral reefs support such a high diversity of plant and animal life while those who want to read art history might be asked to discuss a painting they have never seen before.

Don’t believe everything you hear

As acting director of undergraduate admissions Dr Samina Khan explained: ‘There are plenty of anecdotes out there about Oxford interviewers asking questions that seem intimidating or confrontational, or even downright silly. We hope that seeing some of the less obvious questions will reassure prospective applicants that tutors aren’t trying to catch students out or see how quickly they get the “right” answer or demonstrate their specialist knowledge.

‘Tutors simply want to see how students think and respond to new ideas. We know there are still lots of myths about the Oxford interview, so we put as much information as possible out there to allow students to see behind the hype to the reality of the process.

‘We now have mock interviews online, video diaries made by admissions tutors during the interview process and lots of example questions to help students to familiarise themselves with what the process is – and isn’t – about’.

Good luck to all!

More discussion, less interrogation

This time last year Fred Gray, now a first year undergraduate studying ancient and modern history at Oxford, was going through the interview process. He reflects on his experience:

It is somehow fitting that Oxbridge interviews should fall at Christmas, a season brimming with myth and tradition. Interview stories are passed down the academic cohorts, and are never far from the in-tray of sensationalist journalism.

While some go in search of the oracular knowledge promised by specialist preparation courses (a sell out at around £300 for half a day), others forensically examine their personal statements and essays, trying to iron out the tiniest detail that could be a bad omen for the omniscient admissions tutors.

Having successfully gone through the admissions process myself last year, I shall try to dispel some of the unhelpful perceptions of Oxbridge interviews. Firstly, there isn’t really such a thing as a generic ‘Oxbridge interview’. The term covers two separate, different universities, collectively consisting of 69 nearly autonomous colleges, scores of faculties and over 3,000 academics, who this month will conduct many more thousands of interviews.

Expect the unexpected

Though there are basic pan-collegiate admissions frameworks to ensure fairness, you simply cannot know in advance what to expect from an interview. This was certainly true for me. As I waited for my interview, a tutor told me abruptly that there had been a ‘change of plan’ and handed me a list of historical sources. In what had been previously described an interview about my interests, my personal statement was not mentioned. Instead, the discussion was about the sources which I had had just minutes to examine. But what was this ‘discussion’? Did they bombard me with cunning and ambiguous questions? No. They just asked me about the sources, and when I struggled to answer they asked more simple questions to help me along. It was clear they wanted to see how I thought - but they were prepared to don hard hats and extract my cognitive processes beneath the nerves of the situation rather than expect me to display them polished in the form of a single ‘correct’ answer to a vague question.

Don’t worry about those awkward silences

That is not to say that my interviews weren't challenging; calling them ‘just a chat about you’ is unhelpfully cavalier. There were three tutors in both of my interviews, but only one spoke in each case; the entire situation is unavoidably awkward when you have to pause to think (and you definitely will have to pause to think!). My arguments were questioned with little mercy, and I was asked to provide examples that thoroughly tested what I professed to know about in my submitted work. For the second interview I was given an hour to read a dense chapter on the confusing world of Renaissance Italian politics, and the interview questions tested whether I had fully and accurately comprehend the historian’s arguments.

You can’t just revise your way to interview success. Interviews are, by design, similar to tutorials - more of a discussion than an interrogation. Of course you are expected to know about whatever you wrote in your personal statement and, if applicable, submitted work, but interviews are designed to show your brain working in a rigorous academic environment, rather than test your ability to amass information. Similarly, you can’t plan for an interview, and any pre-prepared interview tactics undermine the exploratory nature of interviews (and tutorials).

Lastly, don’t worry if you’ve had your interviews and think they didn’t go well. Mine were riddled with awkward silences and I struggled on some occasions to answer quite basic questions, thus I thought I had failed epically. It’s important to remember that interviewers try to take you to the frontiers of your ability so unless your expertise surpasses that of the tutor you will struggle with some questions; it’s what they expect.

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