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Essential reading for Oxbridge candidates

For centuries Oxford and Cambridge universities have screened their applicants using an academic interview, or a set of interviews commonly lasting for three days, in order to shortlist the best candidates from a large pool of applicants. Given the interviews’ unscripted and rather spontaneous nature, numerous myths and legends have inevitably purported themselves over the centuries surrounding the questions that are asked. In this blog post we hope to dispel these myths and expose the reality of these interviews. [Please note that most of the advice detailed in this blog has come either directly from real admissions tutors or through the collaborative experience of Oxbridge alumni.]

The first and foremost piece of advice is that it is seldom the case that the interview panel expect the correct answer (if one exists!) to the questions they ask. Rather, they are looking to assess the candidate’s analytical ability to apply what they have learnt in unfamiliar territory. For this reason, it is common that the questions asked probe beyond the A level syllabus in order to assess the interviewee’s understanding of the underlying principles they have covered at school. With this in mind – and the fact that it is highly unlikely that the same question would be asked again during the interview – please do not be obsessed with finding model solutions to previous Oxbridge questions. It would be more useful to adopt the tips delineated in this blog that relate more to the manner in which these interview questions should be answered.

It is important to remember that the interviewers are well aware of the knowledge that you are expected to have, so do not panic when you are asked about a topic you have not covered before. This is done deliberately because you will continually face this scenario throughout your degree and as such, your performance in the interview is a good indicator of your future success. Therefore, stay calm and listen carefully to the question being asked and do not be shy to politely ask the interviewer to repeat the question if you did not hear or understand it.

When you are not sure how to proceed, again just stay calm and focus. Ask yourself ‘what concepts do I know that are relevant to the problem at hand?’ The interviewing panel is there to help rather than to trip you up, despite them being your assessors. One or more of the interviewers may appear to be stern at times but this is a typical good cop/ bad cop interview style that aims to ‘throw you in the deep end whilst trying to keep you afloat so that you can learn to swim’. Don’t take it personally as this will impair your performance during the interview. Remind yourself that it is these very interviewers that have been impressed by your application enough to invite you over for an interview in the first place. It is your chance to demonstrate to them that you are befitting for the course for which you are being interviewed.

Interviewers are impressed by a candidate showing the desire to attempt to solve the question by writing things down and generally communicating their thoughts to the interviewers. You will find this to be invaluable advice to almost covertly get help from the interviewers to solve the problems they are asking – it is natural human psychology. When you keep your thoughts in your head, an uncomfortable silence slowly invades the room as the interviewers ponder over your abilities and wonder whether you have the basic skills to proceed with the question. So, do involve the interviewers in your thoughts. For example, in a difficult maths question the answer of which you are unsure, you might say ‘I know the function approaches a limit…I also know that differentiation will identify the turning points…’. In this way, instead of worrying about not achieving the perfect answer (an unlikely event in any case), you demonstrate your willingness to extend your existing knowledge to new scenarios – exactly what your interviewers are looking for. Furthermore, they might ask you further guiding questions that may actually lead you to the correct answer!

Also remember that honesty pays off. The interviewers are very experienced and will catch out serious lies. If you are asked whether you have covered a topic that you have never seen before, it is tempting to cover your back and say you have done but don’t remember it. What should be realised is that in some cases the interviewer might prefer that you hadn’t covered the topic as this would render the particular skill being tested redundant. Moreover, the interviewers will have enough knowledge and experience to ask you questions about the topic to check whether you have really covered it; you are better off demonstrating an ambition to learn with a ‘can do’ attitude rather than a mere ‘I have done this before so please tick the box’ type of attitude.

A final point – think about your body language as well, and how you present yourself visually. How you hold yourself and the emotions you show will have a  great deal of influence on your style of answering questions and vice versa. In a real Oxford interview, a technical question was asked abruptly, just as the interviewee was describing his extra-curricular activities, to test how well the candidate coped under pressure. When this candidate was later admitted to Oxford, his tutor (who had been his interviewer) confirmed that this was a deliberate tactic to establish whether the candidate would respond positively to spontaneous pressure or whether he would be caught off guard and buckle. The most notable quality the candidate showed in responding to this question was that he thought aloud after staying calm and asked for time to think.

We wish the best of luck to all of you attending interviews for Oxford and Cambridge, we hope you have found our advice useful.

Ahmed Abouelwafa

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