Demystifying the Oxbridge Interview

If you are thinking of gunning for Oxford or Cambridge, then you' ve probably heard of their notorious interview process. You may have heard anecdotes of applicants being dragged into dim rooms where they were interrogated by intimidating professors; or you may have read that story about the candidate who set fire to his interview room. We' ve heard those stories too, so the point of this blog post is to demystify the Oxbridge interview. Our goal is to tell you what the Oxbridge interview actually is, how you can prepare, and what to expect.

Let' s start with the basics. The interview stage is the most important part of the Oxbridge admissions process. No matter how good you look on paper (e.g. grades, recommendation letters, and personal statements), if you fail the interview then you will not get an offer. Period. And while interviews are reserved only for specialised subjects in other UK universities, Oxbridge interviews all candidates, without exception.

The interview timeline itself is similar for both universities. Around late November each year, both Oxford and Cambridge compile a shortlist of applicants that make it through to the interview stage (yes, 60% of Oxford applicants and 20% of Cambridge applicants are eliminated without getting there). If you are selected, you will receive an invitation to attend an interview either in person (in Oxford or Cambridge), in front of a panel in Hong Kong (only available for Cambridge applicants), or through Skype (not recommended for internet reasons).

Oxford applicants usually have two or three interviews over a period of 3-4 days, while Cambridge applicants have two or three interviews within the space of a single day. If you choose to travel to the UK, you will receive free room and board. Each interview lasts approximately 45 minutes, which means you will have a lot of downtime in between. Students usually spend it preparing for their next interview, or finishing secondary school work.

You will then return home for a very suspenseful and nerve-wracking Christmas holiday (I’m not going to lie), before being told your results (offer or rejection) in early January. Results day usually involves checking your email every five seconds, a loss of appetite, and a general feeling of impending doom.

The format of an Oxbridge interview is pretty straightforward but highly academic (if you were hoping for a friendly chat, sorry!). Usually you will have two professors interviewing you - one will ask questions while the other will take notes, and they will swap halfway through. They will be asking you questions based on the subject you want to study, but in such a way that you can answer them by extending your high school knowledge just a little bit. They are testing whether you can use your existing knowledge to respond to new questions. In short, you will be tested on your ability to think critically. Interviews may also involve a short piece of reading material or a worksheet that you will complete prior to the actual interview itself.

Professors are looking for teachability. The Oxbridge teaching model is very unique in that most learning happens in a one professor versus two students setting (it’s called a “tutorial” in Oxford or a “supervision” in Cambridge). This means that professors have to spend hours upon hours teaching and talking to you personally. Now imagine spending hours and hours with someone who doesn’t click with you, for three years. You get the idea. This is why they have the interview - to make sure you are somebody they want to teach and spend time with. So if you think passing the Oxford interview means ticking all the boxes on a checklist, you are wrong. Humility, a willingness to listen, thoughtful answers, and building chemistry are all essential elements. You want the professors to think, hey, this is a person I would love to teach for three years!

The good news is, you can practise. No one says you have to go into an Oxbridge interview blind. If you get invited, you must practise as much as you can. Get help. Grab your mum or your friend or your teacher. And if you want more professional training, we have consultants here at NTK who have years of experience in preparing people for Oxbridge interviews. We can help you sharpen your interview technique, build rapport with your interviewer, and provide realistic mock interviews that give you a chance to respond under pressure.

Yes, the Oxbridge interview is scary, but it can also be very stimulating. Based on our years of experience, we can tell you that people who get into Oxford or Cambridge usually find their interviews intellectually stimulating and rewarding. This is what you should aim for. Don’t treat the interview as an interview - see it as a chance to talk to a world-class professor, for free, on a topic you are interested in (and if you’re not interested, why are you applying for that subject??). If you can see it that way, then no matter what the final result is, you will still find the interview process worthwhile.