Everyone who applies to Oxford and Cambridge boasts a similar academic background, they are all high flyers at GCSE, AS and A-Level (or equivalent) so it is vital for prospective students to distinguish themselves. This is of course the role of the Oxbridge interview and while proper interview preparation is important, it is easy to be sidelined by the myths of the Oxbridge process.
I have to know every word of every book I mention in my personal statement
No matter how well you have prepared these texts, the tutors interviewing you will try their very best to push you and prompt you into areas you haven’t even thought about before.
It’s impossible to ‘ace’ the interview by simple repetition.
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However, that doesn’t mean one can’t prepare for the interview. The usual interviewer might ask you some questions on the texts, especially if you look nervous, but they’ll also throw you a proverbial curveball. The curveball is important, but it goes without saying that to have to try and bluff your way through questions about a book you’ve never read is never going to end well. Equally, you’ll have to accept that you can’t try and bring everything they ask back to books you’ve read.
Typically, you’ll be set an excerpt or problem to discuss in the interview. You can be given up to half an hour to read through and consider it before the interview. Every interviewer has their own idiosyncracies that dictate which texts they pick (I know of one interviewer who used to rotate through simplified examples of Nobel Prize winners, but others just pick their favourite easily reproduced results), but they make sure to change it year on year. Unless you’re extremely lucky you won’t have read the piece before and maybe never have even heard of the author. This isn’t meant to make people feel nervous, just the opposite-everyone will be in the same boat.
The interviewer wants to make me look stupid
A big part of the interview is the way it replicates the tutorial experience, it allows the interviewer to follow your thinking and see how you respond to problems. That’s why they don’t just quiz you on the things you claim to have read. To prepare, keep reading the things you enjoy reading, after all you applied for subject because you find it interesting.
It’s important to feel a bit uncomfortable in any mock interview situation. This isn’t because the person preparing you enjoys your discomfort, but because when you walk into the room for your interview you’re guaranteed to be feeling nervous (and nobody in that room will judge you for it-I even managed to trip over a doorstop and fall flat on my face). It’s a bit like doing a mock exam in school; would it be more useful to sit there with your laptop in front of you and all your notes while you watch the endless repeats of seminal 90s sitcom Friends on day time TV, or, would it be more useful to try and replicate the exam conditions?
There is no reason for a mock interview to be any different. Mum and Dad have your best interests at heart, they can be widely read and great interviewers, but sitting in your living room with a cup of tea and having a chat is never going to be the best preparation. Instead, it’s important to be taken out of your comfort zone and truly have the opportunity to replicate some of the interview experience. Even though it might be a nervous or uncomfortable experience it ‘s important to remember that while they are assessing you, they aren’t judging you. Nobody is expecting you to get it right first time or necessarily unravel a problem that has daunted the field for centuries. Your interviewer just wants to know how you’ll respond in these situations and how you think.
They throw a rugby ball at you as you walk in the door, just to see how you react
I can’t guarantee that this won’t happen, or that it hasn’t happened. However, it won’t. Again, nobody is trying to make you look stupid or feel uncomfortable and doing that would be plain cruel. Similarly, they don’t leave you outsight a locked door just to see how you react. They may well be psychologists or social scientists, but they aren’t cruel and malevolent people. It’s not surprising that this sort of myth gets repeated over and over, but pause and consider it. This would be the absolute worst way to assess someone’s capability for a university course.
You have to be really confident to get offered a place. Argue with everything to show how intelligent you are.
The final myth of the interview process is that you have to be confident. In fact, that’s not really the myth is it? The myth is that you have to be confident above all else. This isn’t true. One often neglected aspect of the interview is that it is in part a test of whether the tutor wants to educate you. Thinking about this for too long can be quite harrowing. There’s not a lot you can do if your interviewer takes an immediate dislike to you, but these people are professional, they aren’t going to make a snap judgement. However, it’s important to make a good first impression- turn up on time for the interview (they’ll give you a timetable when you get there) and dress appropriately (this doesn’t mean a suit, but a shirt and a smart jumper is advisable). It might sound as if I’ve moved away from the topic of confidence, but it’s part of making a tutor want to teach you. False confidence, where the student argues with everything and refuse to take prompts isn’t necessary. It’s immediately obvious and can be extremely irritating. This shouldn’t read as instruction to be docile, if you disagree with a statement a tutor has made it is perfectly appropriate to critique their point, but you shouldn’t attack everything they say. Ultimately, be yourself-a simple mantra, but it will help you relax into the interview and be more comfortable with the process.
There are lots of ‘ins and outs’ to any particular subject and a lot of variation in what and how you will be interviewed, but while there are lots of opportunities to prepare well, by heading the myths it is just as easy to prepare badly.
Ultimately, good luck and enjoy the challenge!
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