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Busting the myths: how to prepare your students for their Oxbridge interviews

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If you have students who are hoping to attend the Universities of Oxford or Cambridge (collectively known as Oxbridge), then they will have already submitted their UCAS applications. For those students in the midst of the Oxbridge application process, the interview is the next important step.

Interviews are held with academic tutors from staff at the Oxford/Cambridge college to which students have applied/been allocated. Students will receive notifications of whether they have been shortlisted for interview by mid-November. The vast majority of interviews will take place across December.

The interview phase at Oxford or Cambridge can be the most high-pressure and daunting aspect of the application to either of these two prestigious UK universities. It’s a way for admissions tutors to gain an insight into a student’s personal and academic qualities, and it’s a chance for students to understand more about how they will fit into the culture of their chosen college.

Because Oxford and Cambridge are both globally renowned university destinations, it’s understandable that students submitting applications may come across a few unhelpful myths and misconceptions about what they can expect from the Oxford/Cambridge interviews.

So, if you have students gearing up for the next steps of the Oxbridge application process, we’ve compiled a few insights into how they can make the most of their interviews.

We’ll also tackle a few myths along the way.

1. Make sure students understand what interviewers are looking for 

The most essential thing that your Oxbridge applicants will need to understand as they begin their preparation is why Oxford and Cambridge interview their applicants, and what qualities they are looking for when they do.

Possibly the first, and most unhelpful myth surrounding the interview process is that there’s a “typical” Oxford or Cambridge student, and that there’s a “one-size-fits-all” approach to interview preparation.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, students need to think about how they can impress and engage with their interviewer in a way that is unique to them.

Here’s what the University of Cambridge’s own interview guidance page has to say about what students can expect from the process.

“We assess everyone individually, which means we look at – and for – different things in different people for different courses. Consequently, there’s no magic formula that will guarantee you’re offered a place.”

Likewise, Oxford’s guidance for interview preparation offers the following insight from a Medicine tutor.

“Interviews tell us important things about a candidate which are not captured by grades or test scores. We can see candidates think, not merely parrot information.”
 

As you can see, the most essential quality that Oxbridge applicants need to possess is the ability to think critically and to approach difficult questions in an original way.

Interviews are also an important assessment for Oxbridge admissions tutors because they are a means of evaluating how well applicants will fit into the unique learning environment which they can expect from an Oxford or Cambridge degree. A lot of teaching at both universities is comprised of tutorials and smaller classes – applicants need to prove they can cope with the demands of this kind of learning.

2. Students should be able to talk about their Personal Statement 

As well as being asked interview-specific questions, an applicant to either Oxford or Cambridge will be expected to talk about their Personal Statement. 

Students will already have had the chance to give an individual account of why they want to pursue their chosen degree in their Personal Statement. Their Oxbridge interview will be an opportunity for them to build on this, and it’s important that they have a firm grasp of the content and narrative of their written UCAS application.

Students should also remember that Oxbridge admissions tutors will have read a lot of well-written Personal Statements, which is why it’s so important for applicants attending an interview to really think about how they can shine as an individual.

Again, the ability to think critically and analytically about what they have written in their Personal Statement is crucial to a student’s success in an interview setting. Encourage your students to review every detail of their written application, specifically any authors, books, articles, theories or academic writing which they have talked about in their Personal Statement.

This will ensure that, by the time students attend an interview, they will be able to talk about their Personal Statement with confidence.

3. Prepare for the interview questions 

Theoretical interview questions are arguably the component of the Oxbridge application process that are most surrounded by myths and preconceptions. Some students may feel that the interview questions are specifically designed to catch them off-balance, or make them feel ignorant.

Again, both Oxford and Cambridge admissions departments are on the record saying that the reverse is true – the theoretical questions which applicants may be asked in their interview are designed to provoke a more meaningful response to any discussion.

Examples of Oxbridge interview questions

What are the different ways you listen to music? How does that change the way you think about what you’re listening to? –  Music.

How many different molecules can be made from six carbon atoms and twelve hydrogen atoms? Chemistry

What can historians NOT find out about the past? –  History

As you can see, the questions above are testing a mix of different skills, dependent on the chosen course.

For instance, the interview question for a Chemistry applicant is more about testing problem solving and subject knowledge. Meanwhile, the History question is more open-ended, and is aimed at encouraging an applicant to think creatively and critically, and to talk about how they might engage with historical evidence.

The whole point of the interview process is to encourage applicants to engage in open discussion about their chosen degree course – this means that students shouldn’t get too caught up in looking for the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer. The focus should instead be on students’ ability to respond to difficult questions, and use their analytical skills along the way.

Ultimately, the interview questions that your students will be asked are designed to promote discussion and debate – it’s an academic conversation, not a box-ticking exercise.

4. Run mock interviews 

Since Oxford and Cambridge interviews are ultimately designed to test the ability to problem solve and think independently, any interview preparation you conduct with your students must focus on these qualities.

We’ve already covered the importance of mock interviews in a previous blog post – these are a really effective way to make your students more comfortable and confident in an Oxbridge interview, especially if you can recreate the conditions of an interview as closely as possible.

Review the Personal Statement 

Spend some time with students to ensure they have the necessary grasp of the key components of their Personal Statement. For example:

  • Encourage students to break down the Personal Statement into its component parts – can they talk about every aspect of it in detail, and with articulacy?
  • Does the passion they demonstrated in their opening and closing paragraphs translate into an interview setting?

Provoke conversation

There’s no point trying to prepare students to deliver a fixed set of responses – it’s impossible to plan for every eventuality in an interview. The best kind of Oxbridge interview preparation will encourage students to talk widely and openly about their subject, and will encourage them to think on their feet.

With this in mind, it’s also important that any students preparing for Oxbridge interviews don’t over-prepare or over-rehearse. Interviewers aren’t interested in students who simply rely on facts and figures – spontaneity is everything.

Prepare them for the unfamiliar

Students need to be confident and well-informed in front of course leaders and admissions tutors they’ve never met.

So, if your school is running interview preparation, or workshops for Oxbridge applicants, why not pair your students up with teachers or guidance counselors they don’t normally interact with, and who may be more likely to ask tough or unpredictable questions?

5. Encourage students to enjoy themselves

The most important thing to remember is that both Oxford and Cambridge are looking for intelligent, passionate and dedicated students who want to make a contribution to their chosen academic discipline, regardless of their school or background. They want to encourage students to enter into an academic dialogue with their chosen college and subject, and they want applicants to enjoy the experience.

Finally, don’t forget that even receiving an invite to be interviewed at either one of these UK destinations is a fantastic achievement, and it’s important for students to make the most of it.

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