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Oxbridge Interviews: A Complete Guide

Oxbridge Interviews: A Complete Guide

10 min Read|February 17 2024
|Written by:

Thomas Babb

Contents

Introduction: Oxbridge Interviews - A Path to Prestige

Oxbridge, used to refer to the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge collectively, represents not just two of the oldest and most prestigious universities in the world, but a gateway to unparalleled educational excellence. In contrast to many other UK universities, Oxbridge requires interviews for admission into all of its courses. Often shrouded in mystery, these interviews are a unique aspect of the Oxbridge application process and are designed to assess more than just academic prowess.

In this comprehensive guide, we present a detailed overview of the Oxbridge interview process. We'll provide insights into what these venerated institutions seek in candidates, how interviews are structured, and, importantly, how you can prepare. With practical and expert advice throughout, this guide serves as a valuable resource for any aspiring Oxbridge student.

Understanding Oxbridge Interviews

The Essence of Oxbridge Interviews

Oxbridge interviews are designed to evaluate candidates beyond their academic achievements. Unlike traditional interviews, they focus on assessing intellectual curiosity, critical thinking, and the ability to engage with new ideas. They are less about right answers and more about how you engage with complex ideas, demonstrating intellectual curiosity and a passion for learning.

Both Oxford and Cambridge seek students who not only excel academically but also show potential for original thought and a genuine passion for their subject.

According to a Medicine teacher at Oxford,

"Interviews tell us important things about a candidate which are not captured by grades or test scores. We can see candidates think, not merely parrot information."

Oxford vs Cambridge Interviews: Similarities and Differences

Number of Cambridge Applicants by UK Region in 2022

Number of applications to Cambridge by region in 2022

While the core ethos behind the interviews at both universities is similar, there are subtle differences. Oxford tends to place more emphasis on the academic content of the interview, with a focus on how candidates apply their knowledge. Cambridge, on the other hand, may include more discussion around personal statements and submitted work.

However, both universities use the interview to gauge a candidate's suitability for the rigorous academic environment they offer. At both institutions, interviews are fundamentally discussion-based, focusing primarily on academic and subject-related topics. Accordingly, applicants should anticipate questions at their upcoming interview that are:

  • Directly relevant to the course for which they have applied.
  • Pertaining to the information presented in the written components of their application.

According to Oxford, at the end of the day interviews are 'just conversations about your chosen subject with someone who knows a lot about it.'

The Importance in the Admissions Process

The interview is a very important part of the Oxbridge selection process. Grades and test scores provide a measure of a student's academic ability, but the interviews offer a deeper insight into their intellectual character. This is why Oxbridge interviews play such an important part in the final admissions decision.

Getting an invitation for interview means that you have made significant progress in the admissions process at Oxbridge.

According to a Geography student at Oxford,

"If you have been called to interview that already means your application has impressed someone and that the interviewers think you have potential– they wouldn’t be interviewing you if you didn’t have a chance. So don’t doubt at all that you have proven yourself academically."

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A Unique Approach to Assessing Potential

What sets Oxbridge interviews apart is their approach to assessing potential. Interviewers often pose challenging, open-ended questions that do not necessarily have a right or wrong answer. The aim is to see how candidates think on their feet and approach problems. This method allows interviewers to identify students who are not just knowledgeable but also adaptable and creative in their thinking.

One interviewer at Oxbridge states:

"Interviews give us the chance to see whether an applicant has the intellectual capacity to learn and be stretched by our teaching system; fundamentally the question is this: can we teach this person in a tutorial situation and will they thrive in this environment?"

The Interview Experience

Typically, interviews at Oxbridge last about 20-30 minutes and are conducted by a panel of experts in the candidate's chosen field of study. These interviews can seem daunting, but they are essentially academic conversations. Candidates are encouraged to think aloud, ask questions, and engage with the interviewers. It's a two-way process where interviewers are as keen to understand the candidate's thought process as they are in evaluating their academic potential.

Interview Structure and Format at Oxbridge

This section takes a look at the format of interviews at both Cambridge and Oxford, including the number of interviews, when and where interviews are conducted, and related logistics.

Structure and Format of Interviews at Cambridge

Number of Interviews

  • Up to Four Interviews: At Cambridge, applicants will typically have one or two interviews, amounting to a total interview time of approximately 35-50 minutes. In certain cases, depending on the Cambridge college and subject, some candidates might have three or four interviews.
  • The number of interviews you'll have is determined by your college's assessment method for your subject, and it's not a reflection of the strength of your application.

When Interviews Take Place

  • Invitations: Interview invitations are dispatched in November.
  • Interview Month: Most interviews are conducted in December, though there's a possibility of a second interview at a different Cambridge college in early January.
  • Interview Details: Your invitation will specify the date, location, necessary items for the day, and attendance instructions.

Where Interviews Take Place

  • UK Applicants: If you've applied to Gonville & Caius, King's, Pembroke, Peterhouse, Selwyn, or Trinity College and reside in the UK, your interview will be in person. Applicants to other colleges will have online interviews.
  • International Applicants: For those living outside the UK, interviews are usually online. Check the specific arrangements on the website of the college you've applied to.

Structure and Format of Interviews at Oxford

Number of Interviews

  • Likelihood of Multiple Interviews: It’s common to have more than one interview, potentially at different Oxford colleges.
  • Subject-Specific Variations: Depending on your subject, you might have interviews at multiple colleges either before or after your initial interviews.
  • Notice for Additional Interviews: A minimum of 24 hours' notice is given for any additional interviews.

Notification of Interview Invitation

  • Method of Notification: Applicants are notified via letter or email about their interview invitation. The communication will come from the college you applied to, or the one allocated to you if you submitted an open application.
  • Timing: Notifications are typically sent between mid-November and early December.
  • Short Notice: Be prepared to receive only a week’s notice if you are shortlisted.

Where Interviews are Conducted

When Interviews Take Place

  • Interview Period: Interviews are scheduled for early to mid-December.
  • Availability Requirement: Ensure availability during this period as interviews cannot be rearranged.

Potential for Reallocation

  • Reallocation Process: You may receive an interview invitation from a college you did not apply to, as part of the reallocation process designed to ensure equal opportunity for all interviewed candidates.

The Elements of Oxbridge Interviews

This section delves into the various elements of the Oxbridge interview, exploring its flow, subject-specific variations, practical components, and the use of supplementary materials. Each aspect of the interview is crafted to assess candidates’ knowledge depth, critical thinking, adaptability, and genuine interest in their chosen field of study, ensuring a comprehensive evaluation of their academic and intellectual capabilities.

Flow of the Interview

  • Initial Discussion: Interviews typically commence with a conversation about the candidate’s interests, often drawing from their personal statement. This is a chance for interviewers to gauge the candidate's passion and motivation for their chosen subject.
  • Transition to Subject-Specific Topics: The discussion naturally progresses to more focused questions related to the subject. These questions are carefully designed to assess not only the candidate’s foundational knowledge but also their ability to think analytically and apply concepts to new situations.
  • Interactive and Dynamic Nature: Interviews are interactive, encouraging candidates to think aloud and engage with the interviewers. This dynamic allows interviewers to explore the candidate's reasoning, flexibility in thinking, and intellectual depth.

Subject-Specific Variations

The nature of the interview will centre around the subject that the applicant wishes to study at Oxbridge:

  • Sciences and Mathematics: These interviews often include challenging problem-solving exercises and data interpretation tasks. Candidates may be asked to tackle theoretical problems, demonstrate practical applications of concepts, or analyse scientific data.
  • Humanities and Social Sciences: These interviews typically involve in-depth discussions on literature, historical events, or current affairs. Candidates might analyse texts, critique theories, or engage in debates on contemporary social issues.
  • Medicine and Veterinary Science: Interviews in these fields often incorporate ethical dilemmas and scenario-based questions. Candidates might be asked to discuss medical ethics, patient communication strategies, or case studies.

Practical Elements

Students who have applied to the following or similar courses could face practical elements in their interviews:

  • Engineering and Physics: Candidates may encounter hands-on problem-solving tasks, such as designing a simple mechanism or explaining a physical phenomenon. This approach tests practical understanding and application of engineering or physical principles.
  • Modern Languages: Part of the interview may be conducted in the target language, assessing the candidate's fluency, comprehension, and ability to engage in sophisticated conversation.

Use of Supplementary Materials

  • Pre-Interview Analysis: Candidates might be given articles, research papers, graphs, or excerpts to analyse. This process typically occurs just before the interview, allowing minimal preparation time and testing spontaneous analytical skills.
  • Diverse Materials: The materials can range from literary texts for English applicants to case studies for Economics candidates. This approach is designed to assess how candidates process and interpret information, and articulate insights on material they haven’t encountered before.
  • Critical Engagement: Interviewers assess the candidate's ability to critically engage with the material, draw connections to broader concepts, and demonstrate intellectual curiosity.

These elements of the Oxbridge interview process highlight the comprehensive, subject-specific, and intellectually stimulating nature of these interviews. They are structured to assess a candidate’s depth of knowledge, critical thinking, adaptability, and genuine interest in their chosen field of study.

What Interviewers Look For in Oxbridge Interviews

Countries/regions with the highest number of applications and students admitted to Oxford, 2020-22.

Countries/regions with the highest number of applications and students admitted to Oxford, 2020-22.

Intellectual Curiosity

Intellectual curiosity is a fundamental trait Oxbridge interviewers seek. According to Oxford, 'the only things that Oxford students have in common are academic ability and intellectual curiosity.' This trait involves a deep and genuine enthusiasm for learning and an eagerness to explore subjects beyond the standard curriculum. Oxbridge values students who demonstrate an ability to engage with extensive independent research and essay writing​​.

Candidates should show an eagerness to explore their subject in depth, perhaps through independent projects or reading beyond the syllabus. This could include engaging with complex texts, showcasing literary analysis skills, and demonstrating how they approach unfamiliar material​​.

Critical Thinking and Problem-Solving

In Oxbridge interviews, one of the aspects assessed is a candidate's ability in critical thinking and problem-solving. This involves not just a rote application of subject knowledge but extending it to new, often complex scenarios. Candidates are expected to engage in analytical reasoning, which includes questioning the given information, dissecting it, and drawing logical conclusions.

For example, an Economics applicant might be asked to explore the relationship between income inequality and happiness. This task would require them to integrate economic theories with real-world socio-economic issues, necessitating an analysis of real-world examples and policies that impact both inequality and societal well-being. Such questions are designed to evaluate the candidate’s ability to connect theoretical knowledge with practical scenarios, underscoring their preparedness for the intellectually challenging environment at Oxbridge.

Communication Skills

In Oxbridge interviews, effective communication skills are another key trait that interviewers look for. Candidates are expected to articulate their thoughts in a clear and concise manner. This skillset is not just about the clarity of speech but also involves the ability to distill complex concepts into understandable terms. As such, candidates need to demonstrate their capacity to engage in a two-way dialogue, where they not only convey their ideas effectively but also actively listen and respond to the interviewers’ queries and comments.

Moreover, interviewers seek logical presentation of arguments. This means that candidates should structure their thoughts in a coherent manner, ensuring that their reasoning is easy to follow and persuasive. The ability to communicate effectively is indicative of a candidate's potential to contribute to the intellectually stimulating discussions that are a hallmark of the Oxbridge educational experience.

Adaptability and Open-Mindedness

Candidates are likely to face challenging questions designed to test their ability to think on their feet and adapt their thinking to new information or viewpoints. This aspect of the interview assesses whether candidates can gracefully shift their perspectives or approach problems from different angles.

The ability to adapt and embrace various viewpoints demonstrates a readiness for the collaborative and evolving nature of learning and discussion prevalent at these universities. It reflects a candidate's capacity for growth, critical thinking, and engagement in the rigorous academic discourse characteristic of the Oxbridge educational experience.

Academic Ability and Potential

Oxbridge places a significant emphasis on a candidate's potential for future growth and their aptitude for excelling in an academically demanding setting. Demonstrating this potential goes beyond listing academic achievements; it encompasses a consistent engagement with subject-related extracurricular activities and a persistent motivation for learning and idea exploration. The interviewers assess how a candidate's past experiences and pursuits have equipped them to contribute to and benefit from the intellectually stimulating environment at Oxbridge.

Sometimes, even with a strong academic background and potential, applicants may lack the skill to effectively communicate these traits to their interviewers. Practising is one of the key ways that students can build this skill, especially with the services of Oxbridge tutors who can help devise effective strategies for students to showcase their strengths to the interviewers.

Enthusiasm for the Subject

Enthusiasm for the chosen subject is a distinguishing factor in Oxbridge interviews. This passion differentiates candidates with mere academic capability from those who exhibit a profound and genuine interest in their field. This enthusiasm can be conveyed through discussing personal projects, participation in relevant extracurricular activities, and extensive reading that has fuelled a deeper understanding and love for the subject. Such a display of interest often reflects a candidate's commitment to and preparedness for the intensive study typical of Oxbridge.

Demonstrating Depth and Breadth of Knowledge

Oxbridge expects candidates to have a robust foundational knowledge of their subject along with the ability to interconnect various aspects of their field with broader, real-world contexts. This involves not just a deep dive into specific areas but also an appreciation of how different topics within a field intertwine and relate to contemporary issues and scenarios. This broad and interconnected understanding is indicative of a candidate’s readiness to engage with the comprehensive and interdisciplinary nature of Oxbridge academics.

Handling Feedback and Constructive Criticism

The ability to receive and respond to feedback is also important for Oxbridge interviews as the trait shows willingness to learn and adapt. During the interview, applicants need to be open to the interviewers’ perspectives and be ready to demonstrate how they can incorporate their feedback into your thinking process.

Consider a scenario in an English interview where the candidate's interpretation of a literary character is challenged. A strong response would involve acknowledging the interviewer's perspective, showing openness to re-evaluating their analysis, and integrating this new insight into their discussion.

Preparation Strategies for Your Oxbridge Interview

General Preparation Tips

  • Understanding the Format: Familiarise yourself with the interview style, which, as discussed above, typically involves academic discussions and subject-specific questions, reflecting the tutorial or supervision system at Oxbridge​​​​.
  • Reviewing Academic Materials: Deeply engage with your subject area by reviewing key concepts and theories. Be prepared to discuss points from your personal statement and any written work submitted as part of your application, as these are often topics of conversation in the interview​​​​.
  • Staying Informed: Regularly update yourself with the latest developments and news in your field. This shows your active interest in the subject and provides you with current topics to discuss during the interview​​​​.
  • Practising Critical Thinking: Develop your critical thinking and problem-solving skills by participating in debates, discussions, and critically analysing articles. These activities will prepare you for the type of analytical and challenging questions you might face in the interview​​​
  • Understanding Common Questions: Oxbridge interviews often feature interview questions that test how candidates think and apply their knowledge. While specific questions vary, understanding common types and preparing for them can be immensely beneficial.

Subject-Specific Advice

Sciences and Mathematics

  • Problem-Solving Focus: In these fields, Oxbridge interviews often test your ability to solve complex problems and apply analytical skills. Thus, expect to be asked questions that are both conceptual and analytical.
  • Understanding Concepts: Ensure a solid understanding of core concepts and theories, as you may need to apply these to hypothetical scenarios during the interview. It is not uncommon for interviewers to ask out of the box questions, such as: "How hot does the air have to be in a hot air balloon if I wanted to use it to lift an elephant?"
  • Practical Applications: Consider how theoretical concepts apply to real-world situations, as interviewers often appreciate candidates who can connect abstract ideas with practical outcomes.

Humanities and Social Sciences

  • Engagement with Texts: Read a broad spectrum of materials, including classic texts and contemporary writings. Diversifying your reading helps develop a well-rounded perspective on various topics.
  • Critical Analysis: Develop the ability to analyse and critique these texts. This involves not just understanding the content but also questioning the underlying assumptions and arguments.
  • Articulation of Thoughts: Practice discussing these topics, either through study groups or mock interviews. Being able to coherently express your opinions on complex subjects is a key skill.

Languages

  • Language Immersion: Engage with the language as much as possible in both formal and informal settings. This could include watching videos, reading books, or speaking with native speakers.
  • Practical Skills: Regularly practice speaking, listening, and translating. Consider joining language clubs or participating in conversation exchanges to improve fluency.
  • Cultural Understanding: Gain an understanding of the culture associated with the language, as this can provide context and depth to your language skills and is often appreciated in interviews.

These subject-specific strategies are tailored to help candidates showcase their strengths and depth of knowledge in their chosen field during Oxbridge interviews.

Mock Interviews

Participating in mock interviews is one of the most effective ways to prepare for an interview. These simulations can:

  • Help you get used to the interview format and environment.
  • Provide feedback on your responses and communication style.
  • Allow you to practice thinking out loud and structuring your thoughts quickly.

Participating in a mock interview is also helpful in formulating effective interview tactics, refining your communication abilities, confidently addressing tough questions, and alleviating the common pre-interview jitters.

We strongly recommend consulting experienced Oxbridge tutors who can simulate an accurate mock interview and help you build the skills needed to successfully tackle your Oxbridge interview.

Further, mock interviews give you the opportunity to receive feedback from your mock interviewers, such as teachers, mentors, or tutors, who can provide valuable insights into areas for improvement. Don’t be afraid to seek advice and constructive criticism.

Mental Preparation

Staying Calm and Confident

  • Importance of Composure: In high-pressure situations like interviews, it's imperative to keep your cool. Composure under pressure is often seen as an indicator of how you might handle stressful situations in the academic or professional world.
  • Techniques for Managing Stress: Employ strategies such as deep breathing exercises, which can physiologically reduce stress responses. Visualisation techniques, where you mentally rehearse a successful interview experience, can also be beneficial. These practices not only help in managing stress but also in building self-confidence.
  • Mindfulness and Relaxation: Consider mindfulness practices or relaxation techniques leading up to the interview. Activities like yoga, meditation, or even light exercise can reduce stress levels and improve mental clarity.

Adopting a Growth Mindset

  • Perceiving Interviews as Opportunities: Adopt a mindset that views the interview not just as a hurdle, but as a chance to learn and grow. This perspective can transform the experience from a daunting task into an enriching conversation.
  • Embracing Challenges: Be ready to embrace challenging questions and scenarios as opportunities to demonstrate your problem-solving skills and adaptability. This mindset can also make you more receptive to feedback, turning the interview into a constructive learning experience.
  • Continuous Learning Attitude: Cultivate the attitude of a lifelong learner, open to new ideas and perspectives. This not only aids in your personal development but also signals to interviewers that you're open-minded and eager to grow within your chosen field.

By focusing on these aspects of mental preparation, you can approach your interviews with a more relaxed, confident, and growth-oriented mindset. This approach not only helps in managing the immediate stress of interviews but also contributes to your overall personal and professional development.

Conclusion

In wrapping up this comprehensive guide on Oxbridge interviews, it's clear that these interviews are not just a formality but an important component in the admissions process for two of the world's most prestigious universities. They are uniquely designed to probe beyond academic achievements, delving into a candidate's intellectual curiosity, critical thinking, adaptability, and passion for their subject. As you prepare, remember that these interviews are as much about how you think and engage with ideas as they are about your knowledge. Embrace this opportunity as a defining step in your journey to academic excellence at Oxbridge.

FAQ

What attire is appropriate for Oxbridge interviews?

For Oxbridge interviews, there's no strict dress code, but smart and conservative attire is recommended. Men might consider a collared shirt with trousers, while women can opt for a blouse with trousers or a modest skirt. It's important to dress comfortably yet respectfully, showing that you understand the significance of the interview. Avoid overly casual clothes like hoodies or T-shirts with slogans. If the interview is online, the same guidelines apply, though you have more flexibility with the unseen parts of your outfit. Remember, your appearance is your first impression, so aim for a polished, professional look​​​​​​.

How do Oxbridge interviews differ for joint honours courses?

For joint honours courses, you may face interviews for each of the subjects involved in your course. This can mean multiple interviews, each focusing on a different subject. The interviewers will assess your ability to integrate and engage with both subjects, and you should be prepared to demonstrate your interest and aptitude in each area. The structure of these interviews aims to explore how you connect the subjects and understand their interplay​​​​.

Can international students request in-person interviews at Oxbridge?

Typically, international applicants are offered online interviews due to logistical challenges. However, policies can vary between colleges, and some may accommodate in-person interviews if you're able to travel to the UK. It's best to check with the specific college you've applied to for their policy on international interview arrangements​​.

Is feedback provided post-Oxbridge interview?

Oxbridge generally does not provide detailed feedback on interviews due to the large number of applicants. If you request feedback, some colleges might offer general comments or insights, but this is not guaranteed. It's important to note that the absence of detailed feedback is a standard part of the Oxbridge interview process​​.

How do Oxbridge interviews vary for mature students?

Oxbridge interviews for mature students are designed to assess both academic potential and life experience. While the core academic criteria remain the same, interviewers may also focus on how your experiences have shaped your interest in the subject and prepared you for university study. The interviews might include discussions about your previous work, life experiences, and how these have contributed to your decision to pursue further education.

Do Oxbridge interviews include group discussion tasks?

Oxbridge interviews are primarily individual, focusing on one-on-one or small panel formats. Group discussion tasks are not typical. The interviews aim to assess your personal thought process, understanding, and ability to engage with the interviewers on an individual basis​​.

What role do extracurricular activities play in Oxbridge interviews?

While the primary focus of Oxbridge interviews is academic ability, extracurricular activities can be discussed, especially if they demonstrate skills relevant to your chosen field of study. They may be brought up in relation to your personal statement and can showcase attributes like leadership, teamwork, and time management​​.

How does Oxbridge approach interviews for gap year students?

For gap year students, Oxbridge interviews might include questions about activities undertaken during the gap year. Interviewers may be interested in how the gap year has contributed to your academic and personal development, as well as your readiness for university. Be prepared to discuss any experiences, skills, or insights gained during this period that have influenced your decision to apply or have prepared you for the course​​.

Can Oxbridge interviews be rescheduled for emergencies?

Oxbridge interviews are tightly scheduled and generally cannot be easily rescheduled. However, in cases of serious emergencies, it's advisable to contact the respective college as soon as possible to discuss potential options. Each college might have different policies regarding rescheduling, so it's important to communicate clearly and promptly about your situation. Remember, the colleges understand that unforeseen circumstances can occur and will usually try to be as accommodating as possible within their logistical constraints​​.

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Thomas Babb

Written by: Thomas Babb

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Oxford University - PhD Mathematics

Thomas is a PhD candidate at Oxford University. He served as an interviewer and the lead admissions test marker at Oxford, and teaches undergraduate students at Mansfield College and St Hilda’s College. He has ten years’ experience tutoring A-Level and GCSE students across a range of subjects.

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