University Interviews: How to Help Your Students Prepare

Securing a university interview is a huge achievement, but it can be a source of stress. Set your students’ minds at ease and ensure they ace this final admissions step with our top tips on preparing for university interviews.

Student and counsellor preparing for university interviews close up of hands with laptop and ipad

University interviews are one of the most important and decisive steps in the admissions process. They’re an opportunity for faculty to determine whether students are a good fit for the institution and department, so students need to put their best foot forward!

Lots of contextual factors will determine the type of interviews your students are likely to have, and the format, formality and duration of university interviews range vastly. They can be anything from an informal chat to a sort of oral exam, last anything from ten minutes to sixty, and have one interviewer or several.

But don’t worry - there are lots of ways that you can help them to prepare for whatever is to come!

We’ve gathered some of our top tips, along with stellar advice from Jake Duffin, the Head of International Student Recruitment at Queen Mary University London, so that you can make sure your students give their best (and don't forget, you can register for any of our free webinars here!)

After all, university interviews can truly determine whether students get into their top choice university or not.

Free resource: University Interview Preparation Worksheets

Make sure students are fully prepared to perform at their best with these free worksheets. They guide students through structured interview preparation, ensuring they have all the information and materials they need and know what to expect on the day!

Practical information students need for university interviews

This isn’t just a simple box-ticking exercise. Nailing down this information ensures students have all the material they need, avoid disaster on the day and feel calmer and better-prepared, all of which means they perform at their best!

Here are some of the key things students need to find out:

  • What are the interviewers’ specialisations/areas of interest?
  • What have they published recently? Students should try to read anything they can get hold of!
  • What format will the interview take?
  • Will there be material used during the interview (e.g. a poem to analyse, a medical case study, an exemplary essay)?
  • How will they get from their accommodation to the university and how long does it take?
  • Where on the campus is the interview?

Often - and particularly in the wake of COVID-19 - university interviews are held online. If that’s the case, there are other important considerations:

  • How will they join the interview (e.g. Google Meet, Skype, Zoom)? They should familiarise themselves with the software as much as possible.
  • Where will they join from? Students need to ensure anybody around minimises noise and distractions, and they have reliable internet.
  • Where specifically will they set up their computer? The background should be tidy.

Areas students should prepare for university interviews

Students will probably be able to tackle the practical information independently once you’ve laid out the questions for them, but there are areas that you’ll want to help them explore and brush up on.

The language of the university interview

Granted, this won’t apply to all students, but those attending an interview in a non-native language should spend some time practicing their skills.

Encourage them to enlist the help of a language teacher, and also study independently and increase their exposure to the language. That can be as simple as watching TV and films, listening to music, radio and podcasts, and following accounts on social media. Wherever they can, they should speak in the language - even to themselves!

If they’re attending a university interview in a country where the official language is not their own or the language they’ll study in, it would be courteous to learn some basic phrases in the domestic language, too. For example, a German student applying to an English-taught course in the Netherlands should focus on practicing English, but might also want to pick up some Dutch greetings and expressions.

Dutch language textbook on table with laptop to prepare for university interviews in the Netherlands

Their motivations for applying to the course

One of the main things university interviews assess is whether students really want to be on that programme and why. Specifically, they should have compelling reasons for choosing:

  • That country
  • That university
  • That course

They also need to be ready to talk about what they hope to do and learn during the degree - what topics are they excited to explore and what areas do they want to specialise in?

Of course, they’ll likely be asked about their long-term goals and post-graduation plans, and how the degree will help.

Their application

This might sound strange - after all, they wrote the application!

But in many cases, university interviews take place months after the application was written. And as they often form the bedrock of the interview, it’s important students know what they sent inside and out. In fact, it’s the first very first tip Jake Duffin gave in our webinar! You can see it in the clip below.

Why Students Must Review Their Applications ahead of University Interviews

It’s likely students will be asked about extracurricular activities and experiences they mentioned, so they should be prepared to expand on those and how they relate to the degree.

Students should also make a note of anything they missed or have done since. This is a wonderful opportunity to bring it to the interviewers’ attention!

Note: A useful exercise is for students to list their hobbies and experiences, and write down what skills and perspectives they’ve gained from each. They can then jot down ideas about how that prepares them for the course.

Students should also look out for any academic topics or materials they mentioned. If they spoke about a book that sparked their interest in literature, they should have plenty of literary analysis and contextual information ready.

Samples of their work or supplementary essays that they sent are also important to review. Students should be ready to defend their findings, but also read around the topic - and be open to debating their ideas!

The university

It’s important for students to know as much about the university as possible - this was Jake’s second tip! Hear what he had to say below.

The Importance of Knowing the University before an Interview

The starting point for students’ preparation here will be the university’s website. Students can find out about its history and philosophy, and check its stance on topics that matter to them (e.g. its sustainability policy, the diversity of its faculty and students). It’s also wise to know any specialisms or academic approaches it embraces.

Students can then expand their searches and see if it’s been mentioned in the news, what alumni say about it and any other relevant or interesting information they can find.

Make sure they think beyond academics too - knowing about things like campus life and extracurricular societies can give them an edge when answering questions about why they chose that university!

The degree

As well as the institution, students need to know about the course they’ve applied to. That includes:

  • Course structure
  • Reading materials
  • Compulsory and optional modules
  • Teaching staff

Looking into these areas isn’t just important so students can answer questions, but so they can ask them too! Interviews are an opportunity for students to make sure this is the degree for them, and this is a great time to address any uncertainties they have. Plus, having questions shows they’re interested and motivated.

student at a university interview

The subject material

It’s important that students know what they’re going to learn, but it’s just as important that they’re primed and ready to talk about what they’ve already learned.

That means going through all the material they’ve covered in class and exploring beyond the school curriculum. This is where knowing about the degree’s reading material can come in handy - students can have a sneak peek at anything they can get hold of!

They should also be clued up on recent developments and news in the field - interviewers like to ask topical questions.

Think about topical issues around the subject you’re applying for… Make sure you think about what your views are.”

Jake Duffin: Head of International Student Recruitment at Queen Mary University London

Tips to give students for the day of their university interview

Armed with all of the knowledge we’ve covered, your students are in a great position to ace their university interviews. But we also need to think about the interview itself! The way they conduct themselves and answer questions, and not just what they say, will decide whether they are offered a place.

Students should be their professional selves

Firstly and perhaps most importantly, students need to keep in mind why they’re there: to be memorable as a great candidate for the course. That means they need to be themselves and let their uniqueness shine through, but always bring it back to how the stories and skills they’re talking about relate to the needs of the programme.

For example, if they’re asked about their best quality, it might not be wise to say they’re a great friend. While they might truly think that’s their best trait - and it’s a great one to have! - it’s not necessarily going to help them perform well at university. It gives a nice impression of who they are, and in certain cases it could relate to the course (for example if teamwork is a big component, or if they talk about how their empathy could make them a great psychologist), but for the most part it’s a good bet to stick to more directly relevant answers.

Likewise, they need to remember who they’re speaking to. Yes, they should give a good impression of who they are, but that doesn’t mean treating their interviewers as their friends. Some stories aren’t made to be shared in professional settings!

Note: Students interviewing at universities whose culture is different from their own should research cultural differences in general etiquette and politeness, appropriate greetings, and attitudes about professional boundaries.

Students should be willing to defend and adapt their ideas

Going in with a strong sense of self and academic identity is great, but students should also show intellectual flexibility and be ready to challenge and even change their ideas.

After all, a big part of many interviews is seeing that students are not only strong candidates now, but that they’ll be able to grow and develop during the degree.

Interviewers also want to see that students will be good teammates and tutees. Students who won’t get on with people who think differently are generally not ideal university candidates.

At the same time though (and maybe frustratingly!), they should be willing and able to defend their thoughts - sometimes interviewers like to play devil’s advocate just to test applicants’ convictions and the strength of their arguments!

overhead shot of student preparing for university interviews with open textbook and highlighter

Students should be prepared, but not over-prepared

In-keeping with our theme of challenging balancing acts is the question of preparation and practice.

You should definitely coach your students, have them think about how they’d answer certain questions and hold practice interviews. But at the same time, they shouldn’t sound rehearsed. That could give the impression that they’ve just learned answers by rote - answers that could be anyone’s. In other words, they won’t seem like themselves.

It’s best for the interview to flow naturally. Students should have a bank of knowledge and experiences to talk about, but not formulaic answers they’ve memorised.

Plus, many interviewers want to see how students think on their feet and react to unexpected situations, so honing those skills and being ready for the unexpected is crucial.

Tips for conducting mock university interviews

Once students have undertaken the preparation we’ve outlined, it’s a good idea to have some trial runs. They can do some with friends or family, but ideally they’ll have at least one university interview with you and a teacher of the subject they’ll focus on (either at the same time or in two separate sessions).

Top tip: If students can’t secure mock interviews with subject-specific staff, ask teachers to send you some questions and answers that you could use instead.

Following on from the point above, don’t be afraid to throw a few curveballs. Ask questions students wouldn’t expect, bring up seemingly unrelated topics or news stories, challenge their answers, or bring out new material (like an article, literary excerpt or even a Tweet!).

And both with curveballs and more run-of-the-mill questions, make sure you give students a long window to answer. There’s often an instinct to jump in and try to help during a long pause - try to resist!

As you make notes, don’t just assess their answers. Think about their body language, and what they’re communicating to you non-verbally.

Most of all, don’t be afraid to be honest. Of course, you don’t want to knock their confidence too much, but give them proper feedback, offer to coach them, and hold another interview to see if they’re improving!

Make sure your students are ready for their university interviews

Now that you know how you can best support students as they prepare for university interviews, it's time to let them take the reins.

That's why we made these University Interview Preparation Worksheets, so you can put all of this advice into action.

They guide students through research and preparation in the key areas we've outlined, meaning they'll go into their university interviews with vital knowledge at their fingertips, important topics to mention front-of-mind, and the confidence to shine. 

Download your free university interview preparation worksheets today and empower students to perform at their best in this vital stage of the admissions journey!

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