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Preparation, preparation, preparation

The BridgeU guide to helping students prepare for university interviews

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Many of your students going through the university application process will face some form of selection panel at one or more of their chosen colleges.

Individual universities and faculties follow their own policies on whether or not they call prospective students for interview. Broadly, interviews are common in areas such as dentistry and medicine, and less so for Arts subjects – but there are exceptions.

What form the interview will take varies, too. While some universities conduct straight question-and-answer type interviews, others ask prospective students to participate in group activities or discuss an item of work they’ve prepared.

So, step one in helping students get interview-ready is to make sure that they’re clear about what exactly they’re going for.

Universities like to assess a potential student’s suitability for a degree course holistically – so they’ll take into account their performance at an interview alongside academic markers, any supporting work they’ve been asked to prepare, and the ‘Personal Statement’ section of their application form. Try to get your students to see how the different aspects of their application work together. If their Personal Statement lists texts that have ‘inspired’ their interest in a subject, they need to know them inside out. Put on the spot, can they explain the hypothesis the author explores in chapter five? No? Leave it off – or read the book.

The value of ‘mock’ interviews

If you have the resources, try to give students at least one chance to experience a ‘mock interview’ – most say they are useful. ‘The practice interview I did at school about two weeks before the real thing was really helpful,’ remembers Nick, 20, now studying at Bristol University. ‘It showed me what I needed to work on, and gave me a chance to work under pressure.’  

To make ‘mock’ interviews as effective as possible, consider the following:

  • Try to simulate an experience that’s as close to what the student is likely to face as possible. For example, have their application form in front of you, or relevant piece of work to ask questions about.
  • Pay attention to the layout of the room and seating – and don’t forget to go through formalities such as handshakes and introductions.
  • Test whether a student has researched the establishment and course they have applied for. ‘Why this course?’; ‘Why this university?’ are common questions, which should be answered with more than an enthusiastic nod to the city’s music scene.
  • Get students to prepare a question or two to ask at the end. This should not be something they could have easily checked by reading the college’s prospectus.
  • Try to include a teaching colleague who is a specialist in the relevant subject area to conduct the interview with you. If this is not possible, ask them to supply a few challenging subject-specific questions you can ask.
  • Take notes throughout – you can use them to give feedback, and the student will get used to talking while someone is taking notes.
  • Pick up on points in their Personal Statement – asking them to expand on what they’ve said, rather than ‘back up’ claims.
  • Give feedback after the interview. Allow some time at the end to return to a question they answered poorly – and practise different ways to approach it.

Running group sessions

Try to plan a few sessions with students, so you have a chance to reiterate key points, rather than trying to cram everything into one seminar or class. Encourage a discussion about how to handle tricky questions. Common pitfalls include: trying to dodge the question all together by answering something else entirely; or clamming up when it would better to explain how they would approach a problem (even if they don’t necessarily know the answer). Encourage a constructive ‘thinking aloud’ approach.

Nerves can stop your brightest students showing their enthusiasm and academic aptitude. Remind high-achieving worriers that there’s no such thing as the perfect answer to an interview question. Good preparation, staying relaxed yourself and offering a ‘mock interview’ session can also help.

Oxbridge interviews

The universities of Oxford and Cambridge do interview all students they go on to offer places to and it’s worth spending a bit of time helping to prepare students for the experience they are likely to face. Oxbridge interviewers tend to aim to take a student out of their comfort zone at some stage – and if the candidate expects this they are less likely to panic and seize up. As one Cambridge interviewer explains: ‘By the end of the interview, we would expect candidates to feel that there was something they haven’t been able to answer.’

Don’t forget the practicalities

This may be the student’s first experience of attending an interview – and dealing with the logistics that go along with it. If you’re running a seminar on preparing for interview, it’s worth including a planning section. For example, an overnight stay may be involved. Allow plenty of time is the mantra here.

Help them handle rejection

Where students don’t receive an offer of a conditional place after interview, rejection can hit surprisingly hard. Many young people will hear bad news at a time when exam pressure is also looming. ‘When I got rejected from Oxford after my interview, I found it incredibly difficult to regain my composure. I wasn’t expecting to get a place, but nevertheless it was still a setback – and this was a common experience among my peers,’ recalls Nick.  Feelings of disappointment are natural, but keep an eye out for those who don’t seem to rally after a few days and try to have a chat, staying positive about their options.

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