Preparing for your Oxbridge Interview

by Anita Lee

Oxbridge interviews are nearly upon us, so to warm you up (and just for fun), we're going to be posting some brain teaser questions on our Twitter feed @firsttutors. We hope that for those of you doing your A-Levels (and those of you tutoring), these questions will also provide great material for some stimulating sessions around your respective subjects.

There's an awful lot of mystery around interviews for Oxford or Cambridge. Our tips would be as follows:

1. Relax.

Ha ha ha. Yeah right. But seriously, try and see it as a game. If you look at it as an engaging intellectual exercise where you're getting the free privilege of discussing a subject you're passionate about with world class experts, it stops being scary and starts being quite exhilarating.

Relaxing setting?

2. Expect to get things wrong.

They will keep at you until they find a topic that you haven't extensively prepared for. That's because they want to see how you think rather than how much you are able to memorise or repeat on demand! The question will be hard, come out of nowhere and for a moment you'll think, "Eh?" Then you need to enunciate that into something involving polite words and talk them through what you're thinking. They want to see how you approach the question. It isn't about whether you know the answer straight away.

As an example, a friend of mine had a can of Coke thrown to him and was asked, "What is that?" He talked through the type of object it was, and they prompted him to continue, so he moved on to the chemical properties of its contents and from there the conversation went on to discuss gases. It is about the conversation.

Sometimes they'll try and pick holes in your argument. Be prepared to defend it (unless you know you're totally wrong - in which case be ready to change tack)!

3. Be prepared.

Try and show real passion for your subject. If the only bits you're interested in are the bits on your curriculum that you have to do because there's an exam at the end, frankly that is a bit lame. For example, they'll probably be hoping that if you're into science you've found the recent news on landing on a comet a little bit interesting, or that if you're applying to do PPE you might have something to say about the Eurozone crisis. Heck, you might even have read/learned something outside of school on a topic that interests you without your teachers forcing you to do so. You're intellectually curious and that's a great thing. Don't be afraid to show it.


4. Don't let mean kids pick on you.

Just before my interview, a classic mean girl asked me what my special subject was. I didn't know what she was talking about, so I made one up on the spot based on my favourite topic at school, Napoleon. "Yes, but that's on the curriculum. You should have prepared another subject you can discuss in depth." This was clearly a ploy to destabilise the opposition.

Another lad approached me in the library and demanded that he should do my written exercise for me because he'd got in already so was clearly smarter than I was. I remember panicking about being seen talking in the library and wondering if he had been sent over as a test of my scruples. Then he asked me to lunch and I realised he was just chatting me up. Remember, kids like that are just very irritating and nothing to do with the system. They are also not representative of everyone at Oxbridge (mercifully).

Mean girls

5. Don't let the fellows (academics) intimidate you.

Okay, so some Oxbridge interviewers do have a reputation for being a bit mean. Others are lovely. My first interviewer was pretty aggressive and very formal. I thought about going home and skipping the second interview that day.

But the second pair of interviewers gave me tea and biscuits and made me very comfortable. I probably gave better answers in the first interview because my blood was up and I'd decided there was no way he was going to get the better of me.

Either way you have to just deal with it.

Sometimes the questions are abrupt and come at you very quickly (before you've finished your sentence). So just smile, look them in the eye, be pleasant and don't lose your cool. Politely stand your ground when appropriate and maintain your dignity. Don't cry. Far worse things happen. It is really hard to self-assess how well you've done at interview so don't let other people bother you. Sometimes interviewees emerge grinning yet don't get in. What counts is your performance, not theirs.

Jeremy Paxman, see how friendly he is?