I was gutted
Out of the four subjects I had taken at AS Level, I’d got a B in my English Literature exam. And guess what? English was what I’d applied to study at Cambridge University.
Never. Going to. Happen.
But here I am today, writing to you with a 2:1 in English from Robinson College, University of Cambridge.
So what happened in my interview to mean that – despite a snowball’s chance in hell – I was accepted?
Calm your nerves
In hindsight, feeling like I didn’t have a chance served me incredibly well. It led me to believe that taking that train from London King’s Cross on a frosty December morning was just another trip to a university city. I’d already visited and applied to Durham, York, Nottingham and Bristol – so there was no difference really.
I had nothing to lose. And that changed my mindset.
Instead of feeling nervous, I felt excited. Today was a rare chance for me to spend 30 minutes in a room with two people who are world leaders in their respective fields. I’d be able to ask them questions and enjoy speaking about a shared passion. For me, today was a once in a lifetime opportunity and I was determined to enjoy it.
I also felt calm because I was prepared.
Just like other exams I’d taken before, I reminded myself that I’d already done all the hard work before today.
I’d scrutinised every word written in my personal statement, I’d carefully filled out the additional statement that Cambridge asked for, I’d written two essays, I’d read a few books which I thought undergraduate students would read (like John Lennard’s The Poetry Handbook). And – most importantly – I’d reviewed those things thoroughly.
All that preparation meant I felt confident and happy to spend some time with these Oxbridge professors.
I only wish I’d known then what I know now.
Consider your interviewers
Focusing on your interviewers rather than yourself might be an odd thing to recommend in a students’ guide. But after surviving three years at an Oxbridge university, you pick up a thing or two about the interview process that wouldn’t have known otherwise.
Whenever December cameround, my Director of Studies and other Admissions Staff were always a bit more stressed. That’s because they have to interview nearly around 50 candidates over three days and perhaps more made available from other colleges.
The good news is that they know what they are doing.
The Oxbridge interview is designed to test whether you’ll be able to thrive in the universities’ rich learning environment. Are you intellectually curious? Can you extend your capacity for critical engagement? Are you passionate enough about your subject to study hard for three or four years, culminating in those dreaded final exams?
The interviewers know who they are looking for. And they also know what they are not looking for.
The reason you’re there in the first place is so that your future Tutor, Supervisor or Director of Studies can meet you in person. You can’t hide behind an essay. You can’t rely on reciting answers off by heart. If by some coincidence you have a prepared answer to any question they ask, they’ll know it’s rehearsed straightaway and gently stop you.
You’re stepping into their world.
Remember, these academics have been studying, teaching and lecturing on these subjects for decades. And only a handful of people in the world know what they know about their specialism. They have multiple essays, chapters and whole books bearing their name. For me as an undergraduate, spending time with them was a privilege. Even more so as a 17- or 18-year-old applicant.
So, keep that in mind. But definitely don’t let it scare you. The interviewers want you to enjoy your time as much as they want to enjoy theirs. Believe it or not, they actually want you to succeed.
So calmly enter the interview room with genuine happiness to be there and with your critically curious brain switched on. You’ll instantly stand out from the crowd and give these Oxbridge dons a break from the nervous candidates.
So how else do you give yourself the best possible chance of success?
It’s not actually an interview
That’s right. In fact, you’re better off imagining that you’re already a student and you’re attending your first Tutorial or Supervision. The difference today is that there will be up to three academics present (I had two), and at least one of them will take notes.
Have this mindset and suddenly everything changes.
The truth is that your interviewer is wanting to check more than just your aptitude. You might be top in every class at school, you might have eight AS Levels under your belt, two of which you took a year early, you might be the president of three school clubs.
In this room – with probably at least one wall covered in bookshelves – all of that isn’t important.
The real question is: how malleable is your thinking? Are you able to take your acquired knowledge, apply it to something you’ve never seen before and then adapt it with a suggestion from an academic?
That’s what you should be aiming for. And that’s what the others in the room will encourage you to do.
What else should you do?
How to start the most important conversation of your life
One of the Oxbridge fellows will probably come and fetch you. If not, start with a confident knock at the door at the time of your interview. Upon entering, make eye contact with all present and introduce yourself with a handshake.
But remember that these people are normal human beings too.
You’ll be directed to have a seat: perhaps at a desk, perhaps on a sofa. Wherever you are, sit comfortably, but let your body language show that you’re engaged with those you’re speaking with.
While interview-type clothes like suits aren’t required, it’s impossible to make a bad impression by being overdressed. You should also take layers of clothes – Cambridge and Oxford can be pretty cold in December.
What will you be asked?
Sorry to disappoint – I can’t predict your exact questions. But that’s the point. The questions change every year to avoid candidates giving a scripted answer. I can, however, predict their structure.
The first question will start with something straightforward, within your field of knowledge. This might be relating to your written work, a line from your personal statement, or something else. For example, applying for English, I was given a poem to read for ten minutes on a chair outside the interview room. My interviewer then asked me to describe something I found interesting about the poem. That seemed easy enough and I made sure to make eye contact with everyone in the room while I spoke.
Relax because you don’t need to be perfect.
What you do need to be is prepared to use your brain cells. Soon after you’ve answered that first question, you’ll be asked one that is outside your field of knowledge.
Listen carefully to the speaker’s statements and try to understand their meaning. If you need them to rephrase the question or repeat it, it’s fine to ask. It’s also advisable to take time to breathe and to think, rather than blurting out the first thing that comes into your head. Equally, and especially if you’re in a science-based interview, always try to describe your train of thought. If your only reply is a long silence then your interviewers can’t help you.
Always remember: don’t panic. If you feel out of your depth or you’re not 100% sure about the answer, don’t freeze up – that’s their whole plan anyway. The interviewers know you’re not a walking Wikipedia and will continue to guide the discussion. So keep listening and thinking.
In my interview, after highlighting one of the metaphors that caught my interest, the second person in the room (sat behind a huge leather-topped table covered in books), asked me what I thought was the role of metaphor in poetry. And the discussion developed from there.
Ultimately, the academics want to find out how you think, how your mind responds to their stimulus, and whether you can assimilate their ideas and yours to come to a new level of understanding.
And that’s what happened to me.
The eureka moment
After establishing that the poem was politically motivated, we had returned to the topic of the metaphor. The main interviewer – who would turn out to be my Director of Studies – was now asking what I thought was the poet’s meaning behind it. As I listened to him, I noticed that the pace of the questions had increased and he was trying to get me to realise something.
“In the context of the poem, what tone does this metaphor have?”
“Well, it sounds exaggerated.”
He pressed further:
“And what effect does exaggeration have here?”
I had to think for a few seconds. Then I remembered something I had learned in school: about exaggeration as a trademark of satire.
“It creates a satirical effect.”
The quickened questioning stopped. My interviewer seemed satisfied with my response and sat back in his chair. Through his prompting and my elastic thinking, I realised that this new discovery had changed my whole impression of the poem. I’d found that eureka moment.
How should you feel afterwards?
While that’s what happened in my successful interview, it won’t necessarily be the same for you.
That’s because it’s tricky to know for sure whether you’ve had a good interview or not. I’ve often heard that if you feel it went badly then you’ve probably done well. This is because you will have gone deeper into the discussion to reach tougher questions than someone who perhaps stayed on the easier, shallower questions.
For me, I was simply grateful for the experience I had received. Despite not feeling I deserved the interview invitation, I enjoyed it thoroughly. I was pleased that I’d had that eureka moment and extended my thinking. But based on my AS exam results, I still would never have expected the acceptance letter that arrived in January.
I guess I nailed the interview.
Your ultimate Oxbridge interview checklist
- Relax: Remember that this isn’t really an interview, it’s an assessed teaching discussion. The people you meet want you to succeed. Pretend you’re already a student.
- Listen carefully: Pick up on every hint and follow the academic’s statement or question closely. Everything they say is to help you reach a higher level of understanding.
- Prepare thoroughly: Know your personal statement, essays and any additional paperwork requested backwards. That means knowing your motivation for writing each sentence. Read and learn some material beyond what is expected at A Level. Practice speaking deeply about your subject.
- Avoid long silences: It’s fine to take ten seconds to think, but keep the dialogue going, even if that means saying your thought process out loud.
- Dress smartly and in layers: Being warm, comfortable and confident in your appearance removes the need to shiver or worry about how you look.
- Bring a pen: It’s good to be prepared to write down your thinking or make notes. Like me, you may also be required to write a timed essay and you’ll want to use your favourite writing tool.
- Arrive on time: Don’t leave your stress-free, timely arrival to luck. Allow plenty of time for unforeseen travel problems like a late train or a traffic jam.
- Body language is important: Smile warmly, make frequent eye contact with everyone present and sit in a comfortable but engaged position.
- Enjoy the opportunity: This is a rare chance to speak to someone who has devoted much of their life to your subject. Relish this; mirror their passion with yours.
- Don’t just ‘be yourself’: I’ve heard the mantra ‘be yourself’ a lot. But my advice is slightly more nuanced: be the most confident and highly aware version of yourself.
- Be teachable: Stay elastic, malleable and accurate in your thinking. Be ready to mix what you know with the tinder of new ideas, sparking a deeper knowledge and love for your subject.