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Busting Myths about the Oxbridge Interview

21st May 2019

The Oxbridge interview has a reputation for filling students with dread – the austere image of disapproving tweed-clad old dons, ready to quiz unsuspecting interviewees about what society would be like if everyone lied, or why both ladybirds and strawberries are red, can make even the brightest students break out in a cold sweat.

An Oxford or Cambridge University style interview

The good news is that most interviews at Oxford and Cambridge aren’t nearly as daunting as the rumours would have it. In fact, some applicants even find they enjoy the process of being interviewed by someone who is an expert in the subject they are passionate about.

Although there are no secret shortcuts to successfully getting a place (and you should never believe anyone who tells you there is!), it certainly helps to head into the interview with a clear sense of how it’s going to work and what the people on the other side of the table will be looking for. With that in mind, we’re going to dispel five big myths about the Oxbridge interview, and offer you some tips along the way to help you perform to the best of your ability.

Although there are no secret shortcuts to successfully getting a place (and you should never believe anyone who tells you there is!), it certainly helps to head into the interview with a clear sense of how it’s going to work and what the people on the other side of the table will be looking for. With that in mind, we’re going to dispel five big myths about the Oxbridge interview, and offer you some tips along the way to help you perform to the best of your ability.

'The interview is the only part of the application that matters.' 

Not true.

Of course the interview (or interviews) is important, however it only forms one part of your application. When choosing who they are going to offer a place, admissions tutors have a whole range of information on candidates, including exam grades, personal statement, sample work, and admissions tests scores, along with the notes they will make during the interview itself.

Your interviewers will have read all of this material before they meet you – in fact, the reason they have invited you for interview is precisely because they were impressed by other aspects of your application. Therefore, although it is definitely worth investing your time and energy in being as prepared for the interview as possible, it’s also good to remember that it is not the be all and end all, but rather forms one part of the picture tutors are building of your academic performance. 

'The interview is designed to test your knowledge.'

In fact, the opposite is true. If your application is successful and you accept your place at the college, your interviewers are very likely to be the people teaching you. They’re therefore much more interested in trying to work out how well they will be able to teach you than what you know already.

Less like a barrage of questions, your Oxbridge interview will take the form of what is essentially a trial lesson. One of the most unusual and valuable aspects of Oxford and Cambridge universities is that most of their teaching takes place in weekly one-to-one or small group classes. These are called tutorials at Oxford, or supervisions at Cambridge.

The purpose of the interview, therefore, is to allow the interviewers to find out if you have the key skills suited to this particular kind of teaching. The skills they will be looking for vary by subject, but include your ability to communicate verbally, to take on new information quickly, and to have the confidence to engage with new topics and respond well to feedback, all while staying calm under pressure. The interviewers (who are mostly not tweed-clad old dons) are not looking for PhD levels of subject knowledge from applicants – they’re simply testing for these key skills.  

A student calculating mathematical formulas

'Successful applicants get all the answers right.'

Not necessarily. The interviewers at Oxford and Cambridge are much more interested in seeing your workings than having you instantly reach the correct answer. In fact, most interview questions are deliberately designed to be incredibly difficult in order to test how you go about trying to find the answer. Your approach is much more important than your conclusions. So, whether you’re interviewing for a humanities or sciences subject, it’s crucial that you talk through your workings as you go along.

For example, (depending on what subject you are applying for, of course!) your interviewer might ask “Why do so many animals have stripes?” There is no single correct answer to this question, but that doesn’t mean your attempt to find an answer won’t throw up some interesting points. You might start by categorising stripy animals, thinking about which are predators and which are prey, and whether their stripes are used for camouflage, or if they occur in younger or older animals. You could also compare specific examples, and even consider the size, scale and colour of specific stripe patterns. The tutors aren’t necessarily looking for the right answer, but instead your approach to a seemingly impossible question. 

'You’re the only one being tested.'

A tutor interviews two Oxford or Cambridge University applicants

Just as much as the interview is an opportunity for tutors to judge whether you would be a good fit for their particular teaching style, it’s also a chance for you to decide whether the particular learning environment they are offering is one you will enjoy.

Many candidates realise after their interview that they are less suited to the tutorial/supervision style-teaching and would prefer to be taught in a bigger group. Others love the experience. Remember you have to study at your chosen institution for 3 or 4 years so make sure you are comfortable with the teaching style. 

Do feel free to ask questions during the interview. As long as what you are asking is relevant to the discussion, interviewers should be happy to provide clarity and help you give the best interview you can. 

'You shouldn’t be nervous.'

In reality, of course it’s completely normal to feel daunted by the Oxbridge interview process. Anyone who has been through it knows it’s not easy – in fact, the whole point is that it’s hard!

Every applicant is naturally nervous in this type of setting, however you shouldn’t let this prevent you from showing your full potential. The best way to overcome nerves is to practice. This doesn’t mean learning the whole course you’re applying for, but instead practising the key skills that tutors hope to see in interview candidates. One of the easiest and most effective ways to prepare is to practise talking about your subject with friends, family, teachers, pets – the more comfortable you are discussing big academic ideas, the more relaxed you are likely to feel when you have to put these skills to the test in the interview. 


With the right preparation and understanding of what the interviewers at Oxford and Cambridge are looking for, you’ll be able to give the best impression of your academic potential. Who knows, you might even enjoy the interview... Good luck!