About four to eight weeks after you have submitted your application, a letter will drop through your door and you will usually be sent an email from the college you have applied to. However, do bear in mind that due to the pooling system you could be receiving a letter or email from a different college, so do read all correspondence carefully. At this stage you will find out whether you have been called for interview.

If you haven’t, don’t despair. There’s always next year or another university. It’s really not the end of the world. If you have been called for interview – congratulations! Now make the most of the opportunity presented to you and do your preparation to make the experience a positive one.

Oxbridge interview

There’s no real mystery about what you are likely to be asked at the interview. The tutors are looking for the best-qualified candidates; people whom they will enjoy teaching and who will make a contribution to their academic department. The interview is a means of assessing your intellectual potential. It is not a test of knowledge but a chance for them to see how well you think on your feet. The tutorial system is not for everyone and it is important for you and the tutors to see whether you will feel comfortable discussing ideas in a small group on a regular basis.

When did you last read your personal statement?

You may not remember all the books that you said you had devoured but the tutor interviewing you will. You are very likely to be asked questions about your personal statement, so take a copy with you and be sure you know what you wrote in it. The same applies to any written work and any supplementary answers that you submitted. Make sure you have copies with you and re-read them before the interview.

Do you really know your subject?

Have you read the ‘Introduction to …’ on the university and college’s website? Have you read around your subject beyond the obvious choices? What else have you done that proves your interest in your subject? Once again your personal statement should reflect your motivation to study on the course that you have applied for and also tell the university what you have done to move a few steps closer to realising that ambition.

Is your body language right?

During mock interviews, practise walking into a room, looking your interviewer in the eyes, smiling and saying hello and shaking their hand. When you are called in to the interview room for real, try to greet your interviewers confidently even if you’re feeling very nervous. Sit forward in your seat and look interested. You will score no extra points for slouching or seeming bored. Some candidates will even go as far as to try a technique called ‘mirroring’ where you copy the body language of the person interviewing you and this helps to build a rapport. Many interviewers will be wise to this technique, and please don’t do it every single time, but they may be impressed that you’ve made the effort to impress them. These techniques are secondary so please don’t try them at the expense of forgetting about your personal statement or giving an honest portrayal of yourself.

Do you know the sort of questions you may be asked?

First of all, don’t worry about the apocryphal bizarre Oxbridge questions. Some of the strange questions you hear about will have occurred in the context of a particular discussion and may have made perfect sense at the time! Most of the questions asked will be about your A level subjects, any super-curricular activities in which you have engaged and other topics that should give you an opportunity to show your abilities. There is a list of questions below that have been asked by tutors over the past few years. It’s useful to look at them to give you an idea of the type of questions that might come up, but that’s all. You are much more likely to be asked a straightforward question about your subject than any of the ones on this list.

It’s also important to read a decent newspaper and keep up to date with current affairs. You may be asked your opinion on something in the news, so it’s worth brushing up your knowledge of current affairs in preparation by reading newspapers or journals, or listening to appropriate podcasts.

What happens if I can’t answer their question?

Don’t panic. There will often be no ‘right’ answer to whatever question you’ve been given. It’s perfectly okay to ask for a few seconds to think about what you’re going to say; something along the lines of ‘That’s an interesting question. Can I have a few moments to consider my answer?’ makes you seem thoughtful, not desperate. In most cases the interviewer may not be looking for a particular answer to a question. It is often more about how you approach and think about the question rather than whether you can get a correct answer or not. The admissions tutors will be looking to pursue an intellectual conversation with you and so will look to see how you strike a balance between defending your answer in the face of their objections and adjusting your position when you recognise it is no longer sensibly defensible.

This, of course, is not so for the more obvious questions, so really think through and rehearse the answers to these questions as even strong candidates can fail to give convincing answers.

  • Why do you want to read your subject?
  • What is it about the course that interests you? (Do you know the structure of the course – not just the plan for the first year but for the later years too?)
  • Why bother studying the subject at university? (This is a question it is very tempting to ask medical students who talk of their love of caring and modern language students who talk of their love of being able to switch into a different language. If caring interests you, then why not choose one of the many other related and valuable professions, such as nursing? If speaking a different language every day thrills you, why not simply move overseas and get a job?)
  • What are the last three novels you have read?
  • What are the last three books on your subject that you have read?
  • What makes you more deserving of a place than the other five candidates applying for your place?

Remember, no tutor will be trying to make you feel small, trick you or humiliate you. A good interviewer will allow you to demonstrate your interest in your subject and your academic potential. They are most interested in your ability to think logically and express your ideas orally. If you can show how you are thinking and that you can think ‘on your feet’, that is more important than always getting the right answer. Remember that in certain subjects, there may not necessarily be a ‘right answer’ anyway. In mathematical and science subjects, how you are attempting to work out problems or how you are working out the answer while you are attempting to solve a problem could be equally important.

Oxbridge University Interviews

Buy the essential guide, Getting into Oxford and Cambridge 2024 Entry, to find out how else you can prepare for your Oxbridge interview in December, plus discover a bank of subject specific interview questions to practice answering.