Interviews are an integral part of the Oxbridge admissions process. The admissions committee invites those students who have an impressive application for an interview before determining their admission. Unlike regular interviews, Oxbridge interviews make you dive deep into your interests so that you can come up with brilliant responses.
As someone who has gone through the interview process and helped others by hosting mock interviews over the past two years, here are my top 10 tips!
1) Familiarise yourself with your personal statement and application:
Your interviewers will question you about the topics and themes mentioned in your statement and application. Revise any mentioned books and bolster your discussion by reading their literary criticism. During my interview, I spoke about toilet paper for an hour. My research paper–COVID Consumerism–shed light on cognitive mechanisms of irrational decision-making, which led to impulse buying and the hoarding of amenities during the lockdown. The interviewers seemed intrigued by my personal statement and brought it up. A few months ago, I ran into one of my interviewers. She told me that my application and interview were memorable because I had passionately delved into a random subject to illustrate my academic interests. A genuine passion for your subject will make you stand out in your interview. Eventually, toilet paper secured my admission to the University of Cambridge.
2) Read about your course:
Make the most of every opportunity to bring up any insightful reading you may have done. Think of interesting news articles published by reliable sources. You are expected to stay abreast with recent developments in your field. So, ensure you are thoroughly informed about current affairs by reading newspapers and watching television news shows about two to three months before the interview.
3) Prepare questions to ask at the end of the interview:
One of the only questions I can guarantee the interviewers will ask you is, “Do you have any questions?” So, preemptively brainstorm some intellectual and relevant questions for your interviewer. They should ideally demonstrate your curiosity. These questions may include aspects of the interview, your course or the teaching method. However, refrain from asking obvious questions or ones whose answers are online, as this may put off your interviewers.
4) Stay calm:
An interviewee’s biggest blunders come from being too nervous. Don’t get flustered if you make a mistake—the reasoning and thought process behind your answer matters. Interviewers value your ability to identify and acknowledge an error before revising your answer. It demonstrates critical thinking and evaluation.
5) Do attempt every question:
Another aspect of Oxbridge interviews is their unpredictability. My interviewers asked me to compare and contrast the cognitive mechanisms and transitive inference performance in monkeys. I stared blankly at them for a few seconds and attempted an answer, which was entirely wrong. The interviewers weren’t assessing my intelligence but wanted me to demonstrate my ability to tackle concepts beyond my knowledge. So, there is a fair chance that you could be asked a question beyond your understanding and vocabulary. Attempt to understand what your interviewers ask, even if they use words alien to you. It will show them you can use your knowledge to arrive at suppositions. You may begin your response with the precedent of being unsure, but never throw your hands up and say, “I don’t know.” Your interviewers will also likely be professors, lecturers or supervisors who will teach you. They want to identify students who are easy to teach or curious enough to learn.
6) Time your responses:
Instead of diving in too fast with an answer, listen to the question carefully. Jot down keywords and process the inquiry. Take approximately 15-20 seconds to gather your thoughts before answering to demonstrate that you’re a good listener, and in control of your impulses. However, don’t take forever because it may give the impression that you can’t think on your feet.
7) Be humble:
Remember that other students you’re competing with may have equally good (if not better) credentials than you. Admissions officers and interviewers are already aware of your qualifications, grades and awards mentioned in your application. Listing them will be boastful, which will only go against you. Instead, use the ‘show, not tell’ approach by engaging in meaningful academic discussions to demonstrate your intelligence.
8) Demonstrate critical thinking:
Most academic domains do not have universally accepted ‘truths’, so avoid absolutism. It is of utmost importance to acknowledge all the possible approaches to each question instead of having one-sided arguments. Such evaluation will reflect your ability to think critically, an essential skill for learning at Oxbridge. As good practice, I went through several interviews from the past. But I never imagined being asked to “prove that all swans are white”. I was so confused. How could it have anything to do with psychology? Did they forget which course I wanted to take? Have they decided to reject me?
In situations of bewilderment, such as this one, take a deep breath and break the question down. I thought back to how my IB Psychology teacher used to aggressively cancel out the word “prove” on our answer scripts to demonstrate there is no certainty in anything that is proven. The theory of falsifiability! The mere existence of a non-white swan would refute the entire hypothesis of “all” swans being white. Then came the more philosophical questions–What is white? What is a swan? What about the ugly duckling, which transformed into a swan and changed colours? Regardless of how bizarre it felt, I spoke all of my thoughts out loud. Ultimately, it all boiled down to thinking on my feet, which is what the interviewer expects.
9) Take the hint!:
The interviewers will provide clues if you seem hesitant or ‘stuck’ while responding. They are supposed to scaffold you through the interview, so they will help navigate you out of cul-de-sacs if you let them! Tune in for those hints and immediately jump on the wagon they are trying to get you on!
10) The basics:
Last but not least, let us go over the logistics. For online interviews, ensure you have access to good Wi-Fi and technology. Although you will not be penalised for any connectivity issues, such disruptions may disorient your line of thought. Conduct a ‘rehearsal interview’ to check if the lighting, angles and sound are working well. Your interviewers don’t know you yet, and you want to look presentable, so dress in formal attire. However, it is essential to be comfortable. For an online interview, feel free to wear pyjamas under your suit. Pay attention to your body language and maintain eye contact with the interviewer. Remember, you have worked very hard to get to this point, so make the most of it.
Oxbridge interviews are notoriously overwhelming. Experts at The Red Pen conduct challenging mock interviews that will help your Oxbridge application.
Preksha Jain is a guest blogger and current student at the University of Cambridge. She is reading Psychological and Behavioural Sciences and aspires to specialise in education consultancy and consumer behaviour. Preksha graduated the IBDP from Dhirubhai Ambani International School and has worked with firms to host mock Oxbridge interviews, review applications and help students secure admission into some of the world’s top universities.