A good place to start when prepping for an Oxbridge Interview is to consider what its there for. If you’ve done your elementary research, then you too will have stumbled across the tales of lofty silent turret-rooms with aged professors standing looking out over the college court, booming ‘Sit down!’, only to face the terrifying choice of which chair – the forest green leather, the spartan wood or the metal-top? Could my chance at an Oxbridge place really hinge on this precarious decision? For most potential Oxbridge undergraduates, the reality of the interview process proves a little different. As a then post-graduate described it to me on my interview weekend, it’s simply designed to weed out the bright-eyed bushy-tailed young academics from the rote-taught masses, and that description proved pleasantly accurate for my interview experiences. Animated academic discussion about what I loved, and love best; resulting in a desire to learn so much more in this buzzing intellectual environment. Just in case you find yourself being interviewed by one of the old-school eccentrics, these top-tips should stand you in good stead to hold your ground in all eventualities.
First, try to maintain a healthy focus on your core reasons for applying: what is it about your subject that fires you up? Why is it so important for you to continue to the next stage of education with this remaining your core focus? The reality of Oxbridge student life means you are signing up to spending 10-13 hours a day reading, thinking and arguing out your opinions on this subject, so both you and your interviewer will want to be convinced that this will be as fulfilling for you as it is for those who have already commited to the field. It is also, most importantly, this passion that will make you stand out in an individual way – no two people can connect to a subject personally at the same points of reference, so this unique perspective is what will make you an interesting potential student.
Following this, it is then crucial that in the interview your perspective can freely emerge. Don’t be afraid to voice a contentious opinion and explain your thinking around it; this is what makes you accessible for teaching and the way in which you will engage as an Oxbridge student would. Be as fearless as you can in arguing your stance if you feel you have sufficient academic backing; interviewers will often play the ‘devil’s advocate’ to test how confident you are in asserting your own position against alternative critique.
As the interview continues, and you feel perhaps you’ve been too aggressive, perhaps you’ve been arguing in ignorance, just remember to keep breathing! This is a two-way process, and they do in fact want to see as much of your mind as you see of theirs. Lots of potential candidates fall into the trap of ‘absorbing mode’, particularly when the interview diverts to a new topic of conversation – and come to a floundering halt on the dreaded words ‘So, what do you think?’. Don’t be afraid to counter-question and clarify as new information is divulged, to elucidate your thinking in a more normal way; you may find that this enables you to avoid encountering the dreaded question at all!
To evade some of the heady nerves that are inevitably encountered when one is put to trial in a new environment: research, research, research! Research as much around the College you have applied to and your subject within it as possible; how well is your subject represented – is it a majority or minority subject? How many candidates are accepted each year? Which colleges will you be teaming up with for supervisions (if any)? Which other tutors will you be working with for specific subjects? You need to be sure that you are signing up for working in an environment that will suit you, so be honest – do you work well with lots of competition around you driving you on, or are you happiest working as a lone ranger? This should strongly influence your choice of College, and what you need to find out once you get there. Also make it your pet project to know your interviewers inside-out; if you find out as much as possible about their backgrounds and what led them to specialize in a particular area you will have a pretty good idea about the potential directions for conversation in interview.
Finally, try to keep as healthy a perspective on the process as you can. It’s easy to be swept up in the excitement of Oxbridge and what it represents, but the process itself is still to all intents and purposes a numbers game. With only 1 in 5 applicants actually offered a place, factors outside your control are rife. Although the obvious advantages to Oxbridge are that both Universities host intense pockets of bright young individuals challenging world thinking on the spectrum of academic doctrines, with outstanding teaching from leading specialists in each field, this unique position attracts far more students than there are places available for study. However, this is not to say challenging academic climates cannot be found elsewhere. If you don’t make it through the process this time, remember that a challenging academic environment is created by the students within it, living and breathing their subjects and bouncing off one another – hold onto your enthusiasm and passion for your subject and this will find you in a likeminded circle wherever you go.