Updated: Jan 13
How to excel at interview and attain an Oxbridge offer.
The below article is split into the following paragraphs:
Oxford vs Cambridge Interview
1. Oxford vs Cambridge Interview - Overview
The interviews in both Oxford and Cambridge are designed to replicate their tutorials (Oxford) / supervisions (Cambridge) in which you would be partaking should you be enrolled as an undergraduate. If you don't know what these are, here's a link to Oxford's explanation and here's a link to Cambridge's. It's worth being aware of what makes a tutorial/supervision a success, because it will be the same for what makes an admissions interview a success.
Getting to the interview stage can be more difficult at Oxford than it is at Cambridge. It depends on the particular college, but approximately 75% of applicants are invited to interview at Cambridge. At Oxford, however, approximately 40-45% of applicants are invited to interview. Oxford then give offers to a higher proportion of those interviewed than do Cambridge. You can therefore be tactical in this regard. If your Junior Certificate (JC) results are rather weak, you would be better applying to Cambridge than Oxford. This is because JC results are a key factor for determining whether to offer interview at Oxford, whereas Cambridge are more aware that you might have only found your stride academically after your JC, or that you simply didn't take the exams too seriously.
Furthermore, if you like both the particular degree at Oxford and at Cambridge, and there's no other factor present that is leading you to favour one institution over the other, you might look to interpersonal skills. I personally felt that I might have a better chance of standing out with oral communication and interpersonal skills, and so I really wanted to at least give myself a shot at interview, and thus applied to Cambridge. However, this should be a very minor factor in your decision-making process of where and factors such as the content of the degree, the city, the exams - to name a few - are all significantly more important.
The interviews themselves are very similar at both Oxford and Cambridge. Since Covid, all interviews have been online at Cambridge (with the exception of those who applied to Trinity College, Cambridge). There are usually two interviews, both approximately 20-30 minutes in duration. This does, again, depend on your particular course and college.
It is essential that you prepare for interview to give yourself the best chance of success. Preparation techniques will, however, vary with degree choice, and this is where reading the success story of a student studying your desired subject, or connecting with another Oxbridge student, can be extremely useful.
For law, for example, an applicant isn't expected to have any legal knowledge and the concern is more so your thought process, analytical skills, and ability to think critically and articulate your thoughts. Other degrees, such as medicine, do require particular knowledge and here it is important to do your revision on what you have covered in school.
The best thing that you can do is control what you can. You should be able to nail the obvious questions like 'Why Law/Medicine/History...', 'Why Oxford/Cambridge' and so forth. You should also know your Personal Statement (PS) inside out and be able to elaborate on anything you have mentioned. Personally, I made notes on everything contained in my PS and practised answering mock questions. Even if you are not asked about your PS, it can be very useful for your confidence going into interview knowing that you have covered all your bases and done what you could to prepare.
I would also recommend watching videos from both Oxford and Cambridge on interview preparation, sample interviews, and anything you can get your hands on. Throughout this process, make notes on things that you find useful so that you have a bank of notes to consult in the run-up to interview.
Finally, and I cannot stress this enough, do mock interviews. This is of such importance that it warrants its own paragraph.
3. Mock Interviews
Mock interviews are the key to preparing for Oxbridge interviews. While it is impossible to predict the content of your interview, it is the experience that you can replicate effectively. The content is more important for some subject interviews than others (e.g. Medicine vs Law), but you will gain an incredible amount by putting yourself in the uncomfortable situation of interview before you do it for Oxbridge.
What I did
I did my first mock interview with my history teacher and was far more nervous than I was in subsequent interviews. I made plenty of mistakes that weren't immediately noticeable to me but that my teacher was able to point out. This then gave me the time to rectify the errors before my official interview.
I would recommend doing a few mock interviews, but doing a minimum of one. I did four (which is more than most), but I genuinely felt I learnt something from each and every one, and it was only after the fourth that I really felt confident that I could excel in the official interview.
Your thought-process and ability to articulate answers under pressure is something expected for all subjects at interview. While I applied for Law, my mock interview with my History teacher was on History, because I could still exercise and develop the skills I would need for interview without trying to predict the content I would be asked about. With each interview I was more confident, my answers were more fluent and natural, and i was far more able to control the tempo.
I was, of course, nervous ahead of my official interview, but I would have been 10x more nervous had I not done mock interviews. I cannot recommend this enough.
Firstly, don't underestimate the fact that your interviewers will be working closely with you should you be accepted. They aren't going to accept somebody that they don't like and so, while offers are made on academic merit, don't underestimate the importance of being polite and likeable.
If you need a second to think, say that! I must have asked 'Do you mind if I take a minute to think about that?' three or four times in my interview. You will not be penalised for it (as long as you don't do it all the time), and it can show confidence.It is preferable to blurting out an answer as you illustrate your ambition to be thoughtful and reasoned. Moreover, it can help you relax and also allows you to dictate the tempo of the interview.
I would also recommend having a question to ask at the end of the interview but please keep it simple. I have had dinner with my Director of Studies where we purely discussed all the outrageous questions she had been asked at the end of interviews. DO NOT feel like your question has to impress them. I would recommend asking something about the course, or 'Is the approach to supervisions/tutorials different at all to the interview we have just completed?', or something like this.
Finally, believe in yourself. Your application must have been strong if you got this far and if you work to control the factors that you can (knowing your PS, doing mock interviews), then you are in the best possible position that you could be.
5. Useful links
Be aware that much of what you learn about the Cambridge interview will also be applicable to the Oxford interview, and vice versa.
- Oxford overview of interviews (here) – this is particularly good
- Oxford providing sample interviews for most of its subjects (here)
- A YouTube video from Cambridge explaining the interview (here)
- Another YouTube video from Cambridge, this time with a focus on online interviews (here)
- A Cambridge video on preparing for interview (here)
- A video from St Edmunds Hall, Oxford, giving an overview of an Oxford interview (here)
- There are plenty more useful resources that you can find with a simple google search!