Crossing the big hurdle – the Oxbridge interview process
As December draws closer, perhaps your anxiety levels are skyrocketing in anticipation of your interview with Oxbridge university tutors. Being invited for an interview is a huge achievement and an amazing opportunity! Here are a few tips to help you prepare and get the most out of your experience.
Numerous myths surround the Oxbridge interviews. You will not be asked to peel an orange thrown at you. Nor is it true that tutors throw a rugby ball as students walk into the interview; you will not be awarded a place or a scholarship based on your reflexes or rugby skills! These interviews are designed to help university staff assess if you will be able to thrive in the rigorous Oxbridge atmosphere.
One of the most important things to remember is that the ‘Oxbridge interview’ is designed as a mini tutorial or supervision, which you will be having several of if you attend either of these universities. You might be strong in academics, but if you cannot discuss your subject with conviction, you won’t be able to contribute to the tutorials.
If you had to submit any essays be prepared to discuss and analyse aspects; interviewers are very likely to use these as a starting point.
The interviewer will ask questions related to your subject that are meant to challenge you. If your chosen subject is English literature you might be asked, “JK Rowling has published a book for adults after the hugely successful Harry Potter series. In what ways do you think that writing for children is different to writing for adults?” Philosophy, politics and economics applicants were asked, “I’m having trouble with the meaning of three words: Lie, Deceive, Mislead. They seem to mean something a bit similar, but not exactly the same. Help me to sort them out from each other.” It’s very important that you read avidly and are well informed about your subject and beyond.
Tutors want to understand how you think – they do this by throwing a problem at you and then observe how you assess it and approach a solution. An engineering applicant may be asked, “How would you design a gravity dam for holding back water?” There is no forfeit for making mistakes as long as you can explain your logic along the way.
As you put forward your point of view, you may find that the tutors will guide you in a particular direction to help you get to the answer. In a molecular and cellular biochemistry interview, the student was asked what a molecule was, after being presented with a complicated diagram of oxygen, hydrogen and carbon atoms. Now, no one memorises molecules! The interviewer wanted the student to talk about the physical and chemical properties of the molecule, then connect this to a particular function. Of course all this happens during a conversation, so you need to take the right hints from your tutor to deduce the answer.
It’s important that you discuss your point of view and do not simply play along with the interviewer’s opinion. If you have a differing viewpoint about the issue at hand, stand your ground and back your views with valid examples.
If you find that you are at a loss for an answer, do NOT sit silently and stare at your interviewers. Use this opportunity to collect your thoughts, try to re-frame the question or break it into parts. Discuss what you have understood and what you did not. Do not be afraid to ask the interviewer to repeat or clarify the question.
During the course of the interview, you may suddenly feel that the level of difficulty of questions is increasing. This just means that the tutors are challenging you further to gauge the depth of your knowledge and ability to handle complex issues. This is a good sign.
Lastly, appearances do matters. Make sure you are dressed neatly and arrive on time. You don’t have to be formally dressed; even wearing your school uniform for the interview is perfectly acceptable.
Explore the historic and beautiful campus of Oxford or Cambridge while you are there – this is an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I’m sure you will never forget!