How to prepare for the Oxbridge interview
The infamous Oxbridge interview is feared and speculated about in equal measure. SLT’s guide will equip you with everything you need to know to prepare for a successful interview.
What does ‘Oxbridge’ mean?
The term ‘Oxbridge’ is a commonly used term which groups the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge together. As they are both prestigious and highly competitive universities, their admissions processes are very selective and require more admissions steps than other universities.
How do Oxford and Cambridge’s admissions processes differ?
Oxford and Cambridge’s admissions processes are similar, though there are some key differences:
- Both applications are submitted through UCAS. The deadline is earlier than for other universities, usually around the 15th of October.
- Both universities require personal statements. If you are applying to Cambridge, then you will also be asked to complete an online ‘My Cambridge Application’ (formerly known as the Supplementary Application Questionnaire (SAQ)). If applying for scholarships, then both universities require additional forms.
- Both universities require additional written tests or pre-interview tests which will be held at schools or colleges before the interview. The content of the exam is subject-dependent and will require a separate registration to sit the tests – you will be informed of these processes by the universities once you have enrolled as an applicant. Some applicants may be asked to submit samples of their written work as part of their application. This work may be asked for at different times, so it is best to check through UCAS at the time of your application.
- After these stages have been completed, if you are successful, you will be invited for an interview in December.
It is important to note that although there are many stages of the application, which may seem overwhelming, both UCAS and the universities’ admissions teams offer some general support through each stage of the application process. At Simply Learning Tuition we have a team of experienced consultants who offer bespoke advice and guidance for students going through the Oxbridge Application, ensuring that each applicant has the opportunity to exhibit their best performance and ability at each stage of the application.
Please note that you cannot apply to both the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge in the same academic year.
When does the Oxbridge interview take place?
The interview for Oxbridge admissions is the last hurdle of the application process. If your prior stages of the admissions have been successful, you will receive a letter, usually around December, inviting you for an interview at your first-choice college. It is important to note that interviews cannot be rearranged so you must be available for a mid-December interview. The sample timetable for Oxford can be found here and key deadline dates for Cambridge here.
The interview typically takes place following a welcome evening where you will meet other applicants and current students. Cambridge applicants are usually only interviewed by one college, while at Oxford, it is common to be interviewed by your first-choice and a second (and occasionally even a third) college.
How are Oxbridge interviews conducted?
Oxbridge typically uses a panel-style interview. This means that you will be interviewed by a panel of two or three academic tutors. One of our expert Oxbridge admissions consultants, Anil, states that “it is really important to remember that there is no consistent or generic formula to an Oxbridge interview. Each interview is unique. It is designed to be a fluid, dynamic and individualised process which allows each candidate the opportunity to showcase their natural ability and potential rather than to regurgitate a learned performance.”
As Anil highlights, it is important to remember that the interview is designed to explore and assess your academic potential, not just your current subject knowledge. The interviewers will be looking for candidates who they would like to teach over the next three or four years. This means they want to see interviewees with a genuine passion and enthusiasm for their subjects, but also an ability to think on their feet and respond to new ideas.
It is common for interviewers to test this by asking applicants questions on unfamiliar material. For humanities students, this may be an unseen piece of text, while for STEM applicants, this could be a problem to work through – more details on how to approach these questions below.
The content of your personal statement is likely to be bought up as a discussion point in your interview. It is really important that you are equipped to answer or support anything that you have written in your personal statement. However, Anil stresses that the interviewers will not simply ask you to recap what you have written. Instead, they will use it as a springboard for a wider and more challenging discussion. This means it is worth reading more broadly around the topics you mention in your personal statement, and practising discussing unfamiliar ideas and material. For further tips on what to include and how to write your personal statement please see here.
Anil’s advice: “Be confident and be open to having a genuine conversation about the subject you’re really interested in. Ultimately, as a lot of Oxbridge learning takes place in small tutorial groups, they’re assessing your ability to listen, contribute and offer an informed sense of curiosity – they’re not trying to catch you out.”
How to prepare for the Oxbridge interview
As the interview will take place in the beginning-middle of December, we recommend you start specific interview preparation in September/October. In truth, though, excelling at your A Level syllabus and engaging in wider reading and work can – and should – begin much earlier, and will stand you in good stead.
For humanities and arts applicants facing those tricky unseen texts, Anil’s advice is to take a look at first- or second-year reading lists from your course – these can usually be found online. Use these to find unfamiliar articles from academic journals. Take a 3-5 page extract from these and give yourself 15 minutes’ reading time, then summarise the argument of the article out loud either to yourself, a friend, a parent or a teacher.
Then ask whoever you are practising with to pose you a few questions about the article. Doing this a few times a week in the lead-up to your interview will speed up your ability to digest and analyse academic articles. This will not only broaden your knowledge on the subject, but also help improve your verbal fluency.
Medicine, Maths, or Science applicants are likely find to be presented with a Maths or Science problem to discuss during the interview, or even some data in table or graph format. The problem will most likely be based on your A-level syllabus, so it is vital to be on top of all the material here. Typically, however, the interviewers will then build on the topic of the problem, extending it to a level of complexity and difficulty beyond the school curriculum.
To prepare for other question types, we recommend having a friend, teacher or parent to ask you questions about your personal statement, as well as introductory interview questions such as: why do you want to study this subject? Why is it important to study this subject? Why this college? Engaging in (self-)reflection on your subject and academic interests, as well as becoming comfortable with formulating quick answers, will stand you in good stead.
What to wear
The most important thing is to be smart and comfortable. You do not need to wear a suit but we recommend that you wear smart, ironed clothing, such as a shirt and smart shoes.
We advise keeping jewellery to a minimum if you think you could be tempted to play with it when nervous.
Ultimately, however, the interviewers are not there to judge your clothes, so you should wear what makes you feel comfortable and confident.
When it comes to interviews, it is always important to come across as engaged and confident – slumping into a sofa and avoiding eye contact will not endear you to the panel. Our team of experienced Oxbridge consultants recommend not overthinking your body language. Just like your clothing, be smart but comfortable – simply follow common-sense principles like sitting up straight and facing your interviewer.
How SLT can help
Our Oxbridge team have helped hundreds of students secure places at Oxford and Cambridge, from a wide range of state and independent schools in the UK and around the world.
We work with a specialist team of tutors for Oxbridge interviews. The vast majority of the tutors we introduce are Oxbridge-educated. Many have conducted Oxbridge interviews or assessed applications themselves. Each student we work with also benefits from a dedicated consultant who will arrange subject-specific interview support and co-ordinate the application process.
Please contact us to see how we could help with Oxbridge application and interview preparation.
Oxbridge interview tutors
Anil is an Oxford graduate who is highly multidisciplinary teaching a range of subjects including Maths, English, Music and Science.
Sarah specialises in UCAS support and Interview Preparation. She is the Head of Careers for one of London's top Independent Schools.
Beth is a very experienced tutor who has worked around the world, specialising in English tuition.
Luke specialises in French and Spanish. He also prepares students for 13+, 16+ and UCAS applications and personal statement guidance.
Frequently asked questions
Practising interviews with teachers, friends, parents (or even in the mirror) will help you to become more familiar with talking out loud and formulating quick answers. This is essential when preparing for an Oxbridge interview. We do not recommend repetitive learning of set pieces for your interview. These are very unlikely to come up exactly as prepared, and rehearsed material is often obvious - and certainly not rewarded. Instead, it is better to prepare to be flexible and embrace the opportunity to have an interesting, far-reaching discussion with an expert in their field. To practise this, we recommend asking someone to read your personal statement. Then have them pose inquisitive questions about what you have written or ask you to expand on certain points you have made, encouraging these questions to springboard you into new topics to discuss.
In humanities and the arts, you will most likely be given a piece of text / an article / an object to examine before the interview or at the very beginning of the interview. Here, they will be assessing how quickly you can read, assimilate and analyse an academic piece, encouraging you to use your ability and curiosity to spark a conversation. To prepare for this, Anil, one of our experienced Oxbridge consultants, recommends going online to find first- or second-year reading lists from your university course. Use these to find extracts from journal articles 3-5 pages long. A few times a week in the lead-up to your interview, give yourself 15 minutes to read the article, then summarise the argument of the article out loud either to yourself, a friend, a parent or a teacher. Then ask whoever you are practising with to ask you a few questions about it. This will improve your ability to read, digest and analyse new information, with the aim of making you feel more comfortable and confident on the day.
For Science, Medicine or Maths, the interview format is similar. However, instead of being given a piece of text, you may be presented with some raw data, a graph or even a problem to solve. The topics will usually be based on your A-level curriculum, but the interviewer will aim to build upon your conversation, stretching the problem to the difficulty level of the first- or second-year undergraduate syllabuses. It is vital that you are familiar with your A-level syllabus, but you must also be ready to apply your knowledge to new concepts and to learn and discuss topics you have not covered. It is important to remember that the interviewers are not trying to catch you out; they are trying to gain a deeper understanding of the way you think in order to gauge your academic potential in that subject area.
Why do you want to study this subject?
Why should we study this subject?
What aspects of this subject do you find most interesting and why?
Why this college?
Being passionate, curious and well-versed in your subject area is essential for a successful Oxbridge interview. Ultimately, the interview is designed to examine your academic potential and ability, not to execute a rehearsed performance. Prepare for a dynamic interview and to be open to exploring topics and discussion out of your comfort zone. It is vital to make sure you really listen to what is being asked and use the language of the question to frame your answer.
We also recommend not being afraid to say if you don’t know the direct answer to a question. Sharing your thought process with the examiners is a great way to show your ability to think critically and analytically, despite not knowing the answer. The examiners are not testing you solely on your current knowledge but also on your academic potential.
The aim of the interview is for the interviewers to assess if they think you could take advantage of an Oxbridge education, and to see if they would like to teach you for the next three or four years. This means they are looking for applicants who have a genuine interest in the subject, a good level of ability, and an ability to respond to new ideas.
1. Panic or overthink the interview. The interviewers are not trying to catch you out, nor are they hoping you will fail! If you’re stuck with a question, talk through the problem you’re facing and ask for a pointer - being able to think through academic difficulties and respond well to suggestions from your interviewers will be looked upon favourably.
2. Rely too much on extracurricular success. Unlike in the US system, where all-round ability may be an advantage, Oxbridge interviewers are overwhelmingly interested in your academic capabilities and potential. Unless they specifically ask you otherwise, keep your answers focused on your subject.
3. Give rehearsed or pre-prepared answers. These are unlikely to be relevant, will be obvious to the interviewers, and will not be rewarded.