The Oxbridge Interview

July 3, 2018

The Oxbridge interview strikes fear into the hearts of many an aspiring Oxbridge applicant and a whole mythology has developed around it – online chat rooms, books, and even designated training courses exist for the Oxbridge interview. However, a recent conference presented by some of the senior admissions representatives of both universities* has done much to dispel both the myths and the terror.

To begin with, both universities make it very clear that the interview is only one component of a multi-part application process that centres on subject interest, proven academic skills, and the potential to learn. All applications are considered in a holistic manner and the interview is only one part of that overall assessment of the applicant – some applicants may not do very well in the interview but demonstrate outstanding academic ability and potential elsewhere, and are then made an offer on that basis. In this way, it is important to emphasise that the interview is not a pivotal stage in the application process – this can work both ways: a bad interview does not indicate that an offer will not be made; and, likewise, a good interview does not necessarily indicate that an offer will be made.

Secondly, both universities make it clear that it is important for applicants to see the interview as a dialogue rather than a test – while subject knowledge is clearly important, above all interviewers want to see how the student thinks. In other words, the interview is less about getting the right answer than about showing good analytical and thinking skills in arriving at an answer. Given the tutorial / supervision system of undergraduate teaching at both universities, interviewers want to see how willing the applicant is to think around problems and learn from the process of dialogue in the pursuit of problem solving.

So this asks an interesting question: how can applicants prepare for an Oxbridge interview? Both universities advise that applicants use the information and guidance material that is provided on the university and college websites – while information and advice provided by other bodies and resources outside of the universities may be useful, it may also be very misinformative, so it is best to stick to the resources provided by the universities and colleges themselves. Secondly, it is vital that applicants re- read their Personal Statements thoroughly, so that they are ready to answer a question that may be based on what they have stated – the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) is a good example of something that may be mentioned in a Personal Statement and then discussed in an interview context. Thirdly, face-to-face discussions with subject teachers at their school on topics both within and beyond the A-level curriculum can give the student good practice at the kind of one-to-one dialogue that takes place in an interview – looking carefully at the specification for the pre-interview assessment test for their subject, for example, and even looking at the first-year undergraduate curriculum for their course, can give applicants inspiration for new topics that stretch, develop, and challenge their existing knowledge base. Above all, the interview should provide an opportunity for the applicant to expand their interest in their chosen subject – then, even if they are not offered a place, they will have benefited academically and intellectually from the process.

The message from Oxford and Cambridge seems clear: the interview is not intended to be a terrifying ordeal but rather an opportunity for the applicant to explore and develop their existing interest and knowledge in the subject for which they are applying.

*Oxford and Cambridge Student Conference, Epsom Racecourse, Epsom Tuesday
27th – Wednesday 28th March, 2018.

Ashbourne College runs a one-year Oxbridge Programme that helps students through the Oxbridge application process. For more information please see the Ashbourne College website or contact Will Stockland by email: will@ashbournecollege.co.uk.