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Room with an (inter)view: The final stage of applying to Oxbridge

Room with an (inter)view: The final stage of applying to Oxbridge 

Few things in the world are the subject of as much speculation as the Oxbridge interview. Rumours range from the esoteric to the downright wacky: have you heard the one about the tutor who chucked a ball at students as they walked in? Or the plucky applicant who was asked to define bravery, said “This” – and walked out? Although interviews are meant to stretch you intellectually and creatively, the reality is much less “Alice in Wonderland”. What they are is an opportunity to discuss a subject you’re passionate about with some of the world’s foremost experts. 

Maybe the term “Oxbridge interview” is misleading, because the process is slightly different depending on which university you apply to. For one thing, Cambridge invites around three-quarters of its applicants for an interview, whereas at Oxford it’s slightly under half. If you are called for an interview, which will take place around late November or December, you’re more likely to stay overnight in Oxford on account of its pooling system (more on that later). Cambridge tries to get its interviews over in a single day, though it does arrange accommodation for those who have long journeys home. 

Don’t worry about finding your way around the colleges while you’re there. While many of them are grand, and some seem labyrinthine, there will be a small army of volunteers that are ready to help you navigate the college. 

Everyone’s interview will be different, based on the subject you’ve applied for and your personal statement, but it’s essentially a chat between you and a couple of tutors. (You can find our tips and sample questions elsewhere on the site). It should challenge you without being intimidating: don’t panic if you find it difficult. Most people who feel like they’re struggling find it’s because their interviewees have tried to see how far they can take an idea. 

A good principle is to think out loud. When Alan Rusbridger, the principal of an Oxford college, sat in on interviews, a tutor told him: “We’re trying to assess their ability to think as the interview progresses.” Make it easy for them and let them know what’s going through your mind, even if the ideas aren’t fully formed.

“We’re trying to assess their ability to think as the interview progresses.”

- Alan Rusbridger

You should also be prepared to think on your feet, because applicants are often handed a source to analyse. For arts subjects, this is likely to be a poem, book extract, article, or piece of criticism. Aspiring scientists are often asked to analyse or draw graphs, though some are handed random objects to talk about. Unlike Oxford, Cambridge usually holds written assessments on the interview day. 

A small number of students are “pooled”, which means you could get a place at a different college to the one you applied to. The process, known by some tutors as “horse trading, is an attempt to make sure the strongest applicants are accepted, not just the ones who applied directly to the college. Some candidates will get an extra interview at a different college: at Cambridge this is known as the “winter pool” and takes place in mid-January, while at Oxford this is likely to be on your second day. In Alan Rusbridger’s account of Economics & Management interviews, three places are allocated after the first day, with direct and pooled applicants competing for the final spot. 

If you’re sent for another interview, don’t take it as a snub. Maybe the college you applied to feel you’d make a better fit elsewhere, or they want to make sure you’re up-to-scratch before offering you a place. Either way, it confirms that they’re interested in you. 

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