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  • The HSA

How to stand out at an Oxbridge interview

Updated: Jan 31, 2019

The Oxbridge interview process is one shrouded in mystery. In fact, Oxford University this year released sample interview questions, to demystify the process and encourage applications from candidates of all backgrounds.

Unlike other UK universities, where interviewers are likely to ask about your academic background, skills, course-related interests, and extracurricular commitments, Oxbridge interviews are designed to reveal not what you think, but how you think. Knowing your subject knowledge inside out is, of course, important. However, interview questions are often deliberately unrelated to the A level syllabus to see how you approach and solve a problem.

What can students expect?

You will be interviewed at two colleges by academic tutors. Tutors are looking for clarity of expression and thought, sheer enthusiasm for the subject, and a raw intellectual curiosity. The best interviews develop into conversations rather than question-and-answer sessions.

  • The interviewer will start by asking you about your motivation for applying to that particular course.

Think about what your career aspirations are and how you envisage getting the most out of the course. Carefully consider how the course will enable you to pursue your interests and give back to your academic field.

  • Depending on the course, you may be given a text, poem, graph or object, and be asked to answer questions and comment on it. Students are sometimes given this 10-minutes in advance of entering the room.

Practice analysing unfamiliar data sets, literature or graphs, to develop strong critical thinking skills. List questions you have about the information, then bullet point the information you would need to answer these questions. At interview, list these steps out loud, together with any assumptions you are making, to clearly communicate your thought process.

  • Finally, the interviewer will provide an opportunity to demonstrate reading beyond the curriculum.

Keep on top of how your subject features in current news. Read widely and listen to podcasts which debate topics on your subject. Make notes on the five most interesting articles and memorise specific details of each piece. If possible, steer the conversation at this stage towards your areas of interest. Candidates are expected to have an up-to-date knowledge of current affairs, relevant industries and fields, and how they link to the Oxbridge course.

How can students prepare?

6 months to go…

· Attend debates or university-events on subjects beyond the curriculum. This will help you to identify which parts of the university course are ‘hot topics’ and which areas you want to learn more about

· Broaden your understanding of the subject by exploring academic literature, reading newspaper articles and listening to podcasts. Your teacher could help you to identify the most relevant and interesting podcasts to listen to initially

· Write a list of possible questions tutors could ask on current affairs or wider reading. Draft model answers to these questions and learn them

3 months to go…

· Carry out mock interviews with an Oxbridge specialist to develop strong critical-thinking and communication skills

· Practice analysing unfamiliar scenarios. List your hypotheses, questions and assumptions by writing them out clearly and explaining them out loud

4 weeks to go…

· Research your admissions tutors and their interests in advance. This should direct your reading, in preparation for the likely scenario that their specialism will be discussed. It also means that you can demonstrate knowledge of key concepts and terminology

· Prepare your questions for the end of the interview. Make sure you have three or four questions which show you have thoughtfully considered the course and college you have applied to

Any extra advice?

· Don’t be afraid to ask a question or engage the tutor in debate. There will be an opportunity to ask questions at the end of the interview, which you should be prepared for, but if you have a question about the information they have given, ask politely.

· Interviewers meet a lot of candidates. Dress smartly but wear something to differentiate yourself.

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