In the upcoming weeks, the ancient, picture postcard cities of Oxford and Cambridge will become filled with the next generation of Oxbridge applicants hoping to do themselves justice. For most, the prospect of an interview at one of these world-renowned centres of learning, with so much at stake, is nothing short of terrifying. It is not so much the splendor of the architecture and the great men and women who have walked their corridors and courts through the centuries that is daunting, but the competition for places, which conjures up most fear. Much like the medieval dread of witches and werewolves, the horror stories surrounding Oxbridge interviews is mythical.
So, how prepared can one be for an Oxbridge interview?
Well, firstly, you have done extremely well if you are offered an interview and, for the majority of interviewees, that's as far as it goes. Knowing that the competition is as tough as it gets is no real compensation for failure and missing out on making your parents as proud as they can be. Failure at interview stays with you for the rest of your life; it's something you simply don't forget, and you go to your second choice university thinking, 'If only'. But one thing is certain: if you don't apply to Oxbridge, you won't get in. You're up against it, but then everyone is. So, it's a case of 'putting your best foot forward', 'your shoulder to the wheel', and using your initiative.
Needless to say, in order to avoid potential embarrassment and a swift exit, and at least to keep your application in the boiling pot, it would be better to go to your interview prepared in the subject for which you are applying. But admissions tutors and interviewers know you know your stuff otherwise you wouldn't have got the highest AS Level or A-Level grades in more subjects than some people can count to. Of course, it depends on your subject, but it might not be a bad idea to read around your subject. This is an opportunity to find and explore niche avenues and something a bit unusual to bring into conversation.
Students applying for a subject that they are studying at school might turn to texts that aren't on the curricula. For example, a budding history student might care to read, What is History, by E.H. Carr, Rublack's, A Concise Companion to History, or, In Defence of History, by R.J. Evans. Breadth might be as important as depth at this stage. You may know everything there is to know about the Tudors, but might become hopelessly unstuck if you're asked a comparative question.
If a student is applying for a subject that they haven't yet studied at school, then it would be wise to take advantage of that fact and understand the fundamentals and seek out relevant experience. Impressively, one has the highest grades in other subjects, yet one also has another subject which needs to be prepared for. If one is applying to read archaeology, for example, time taken up completing a basic excavation and recording techniques course and partaking in an archaeological dig should go down well, for it shows extra-curricula commitment and provides an opportunity for discussion.
Likewise, for aspiring lawyers, a visit to the Central Criminal Court (Old Bailey) is a good starting point, as it gives the student an opportunity to see how a trial is conducted whilst also acting as a potential focal point at interview. Additionally, it would be advantageous to shadow a barrister or undertake work experience in a solicitors firm, if you get the opportunity. Reading is essential regardless of subject, and when preparing for an interview in law, applicants would do well to read, The Rule of Law, by Tom Bingham, for example.
You are given the names of your interviewers prior to interview and it may prove fruitful to find out about them, 'where they're coming from' so to speak. However, it is essential to avoid sycophancy, and best to just bring such readings into conversations if the opportunity arises. Often, it is up to the interviewee to engineer an answer in the direction they want, and maybe that's what the interviewer wants, after all, versatility of thought is an attribute that is highly prized and if that happens to coincide with the interviewer's interest, then what a happy coincidence! Seriously though, it shows you have done your homework and applied it in a subtle manner.
An applicant should also prepare for the interview by reading up about their chosen university and college. Attending prior university and college open days is to be recommended. It is wise to take scouting missions, to become familiar with the surrounds in your own time. It is important to reduce as many unknown variables as possible, as there will be enough to think about on the day of the interview.
At Oxbridge it is important to get the 'feel' of the colleges. The 'vibe', to use a good 1960's expression, is different in all of them and one must be comfortable - after all, if you are successful at interview, and you get the required grades (if you haven't already achieved them), you've got to live there for three, four, or even five years as an undergraduate. There is a strong possibility that such questions as ''Why Oxford?'' or ''Why Classics?'' or "Why St. John's?" will be asked. It might be fruitful to become familiar with the history of the college, as well as investigating notable alumni, current members of staff and so on, linking them to areas of personal interest.
It is also equally crucial to be able to answer complex questions about the course material and to indicate which modules you would want to take if you were accepted. For example, an applicant for the Human, Social and Political Sciences (HSPS) tripos at Cambridge might need to specify which areas are of interest to them (the tripos contains multiple options such as psychology, politics, archaeology, anthropology and sociology). Once again, it shows you have done your homework.
An essential preparatory measure is practicing one's interview technique with mock interviews. Some schools offer this to their pupils. It is important to learn to be calm and collect and yet to retain enthusiasm. Answering questions, whether open or specific, with so much at stake, will be a challenge at the best of times, so plan and prepare.
Avoid arrogance at all costs, Oxbridge doesn't like it. You are facing authorities in you chosen subject, respect that, but don't be daunted either. It's all about mental approach.
It would be beneficial for the mock interviewer to be someone who has the knowledge to quiz and challenge the student intellectually - this, more commonly, is a teacher or a tutor. Occasionally parents step in, though you really require more of a 'distance' between interviewer and interviewee.
Unless you have attended Oxbridge - lived it, breathed it, know how the people there 'tick', laughed and cried it, suffered the pressure in idyllic surroundings, it is difficult to convey, for the 'vibe' is nebulous. One has to be very clever to get in to Oxbridge, of that there is no doubt, but one feels that simply having the ability to learn facts and write them down coherently isn't enough. The impression is that Oxbridge look for the potential for the next stage - not only for a student to see what is, but their ability to see what might be, and that requires a special type of brain at this level, where imagination and the ability to make connections is as important as the ability to retain facts.
Here, at Tutor House, we have a network of tutors who are available to work with intending Oxbridge applicants, either on Skype or in person, and who are dedicated to helping students succeed. We can set up mock interviews too, conducted by an Oxbridge graduate.