How to ace Oxbridge interviews: insider’s tips

There is one component more dreaded than all other in the application process to some of the English universities: the Oxbridge interviews. While there are some very good reasons to be nervous, interviews are in reality a quite pleasant shadow of the mythical and terror-inducing experiences often talked about. That being said, it’s gooto know a thing or two about them. In this guide, we will go through what can be expected from an interview at Oxbridge, and how to best approach them. First we’ll have a look at some of basic things to know about interviews, and what they’re about. After this we’ll discuss some things to keep in mind to perform at your very best.

What are interviews?

First things first; what are we talking about? Interviews are a component of the application process to some universities in the UK, Oxford and Cambridge specifically. (It is beyond the author’s knowledge whether they are practices by any other institutions, and whether they would be similar. This guide focuses on interviews at Oxbridge). If invited to an interview, you will receive the invitation a few weeks before they take place, but you might not be given much notice (~10 days is not uncommon). Some international students are given the option to perform the interview via videolink if they are unable to attend, though we recommend to attend in person if at all possible. You will then be invited to stay in the college which summoned you for a few days, during which the interviews take place.

What is the format of an interview in Oxbridge? Unfortunately there is no single response. It depends on subject, college and what your interviewer feels like doing. In general, however, a candidate has 2-4 interviews during her stay, each being 15-30 minutes long, with one or more professors attending. The interview is meant to be very similar to a tutorial, which is the personal teaching sessions which are considered unique to Oxbridge. The interview consists largely of the professors asking questions within the subject, allowing you to respond, and then asking you to elaborate on some aspect. When answering questions you will experience a queasy feeling of being stupid, thinking all your responses are wrong. Don’t worry however, all candidates share this fear, and most likely you’ll be doing better than you think.

What is it like?

To paint a more concrete picture I will give a quick account of my own interviews. I applied to Philosophy, Politics and Economics, and had one interviews of 15 minutes in each of the topics. In my philosophy interview I was asked about how philosophy relates to economics and politics, answering something about morality which didn’t particularly seem to impress my interviewer. I was then given a problem to judge whether certain propositions where implied by others (if X then Y; X is the case, is Y the case?). Other candidates were asked ‘do you know that your suitcase is currently in your room’? While thinking about the problem my interviewer told me I had 15 seconds to respond, whereby I panicked and blurted out answers, to which she said ‘ok, now you have to go’.

The day after I had interviews in politics and economics. In the politics interview I was asked to look at some statistics and explain what they indicated. After this we discussed democracy, and some of its problems. In my economics interview I was amongst other things asked about the value of gold, and whether one should smelt gold coins and sell the raw material if the value of gold increased or decreased in different ways relative to the monetary value of the coin. To each of my responses my interviewer looked sharply at me with a blank expression and slowly said ‘ok’, with a terrifying effect. These examples are mine, and experiences vary immensely between colleges, interviewers and candidates.

Some candidates might be invited to attend interviews at other colleges. When this happens, applicants usually cannot help but speculate in the reasons behind such invitations, which is rarely of any use. This is because the reasons vary a lot, from the feared I’m-not-good-enough-for-the college-I-applied-to-so-they-want-to-ship-me-over-somewhere-else, to logistics due to some professor who really wanted to get home early to watch football. Therefore, better not to speculate and spend one’s time worrying about better things.

What are they looking for?

So far so good, but now to what you’re really reading this post for: what are the interviewers looking for in candidates? The simple answer is that they are looking for academic potential. Unlike the typical American university, Oxbridge doesn’t care if you’re active or lazy, timid or sociable; they care only about how well you would do in the field you’re applying to. In an interview a professor is trying to figure out whether they could make you flourish as a student of their field, and your job is to convince them that you have the potential and desire to do so. If there is anything you need to know about interviews it’s this, all that follows are just effective ways to do this.

Before progressing to some advice on how you’ll be able to project your awesomeness, let’s consider an interview from the perspective of a professor. Firstly, professors have lives, in which they partly live like most of us but also do research and sometimes take time to explain to undergraduates why they’re wrong. Once a year they set all that aside to conduct interviews and find new students to join the institution. The reason this is good to remember is this: every time you start speculating in what the true intention of your interviewer is (Is this a trick question?; I think I missed her hint to change topic; Oh my god, why is he staring at me like that?), remember that the truth is that they simply have better things to do than to plot elaborate schemes of how to question you. What they really want is to effectively understand your potential, and try to figure out whether they would want you as a student.

How can you convince them that you’re their ideal student?

It is difficult to give any clear cut responses, but some general advice can be given.

Make sure you respond to the questions being asked. It’s very easy to turn a question in a way that allows you to answer it in a way you know well, or might have prepared in advance. This will only frustrate the interviewer, who wants to find your potential to understand new concepts, not hear what you already know. Therefore, though it’s a bit scarier, it’s a lot better to listen to the question being asked, take some time to think and really engage with it on the spot.

Be nice and demonstrate your enthusiasm. Your interviewer will effectively be choosing her students for three years to come, and will prefer someone they tolerate. The best way not to annoy professors is by being humble, and listen and think about what they’re saying. A very good practice is to seriously consider counterarguments to your position in their strongest form. Furthermore, professors like engaged students. If you are able to effectively show your interest in the topic, this will likely make a better impression than if you were to only show an aptness but indifference to it. This brings us to the last point.

Enjoy the experience. It’s very easy to get bogged down in strategies of how to approach an interview and purport yourself in them. Like a date, the best way to make an interview worse than it could have been is by thinking too much about how you’re doing. Instead, take the occasion for what it is: a chat about some field of mutual interest between two people, namely you and the interviewer. If you can think of an interview as nothing more than a chance at an interesting conversation, you’re well on your way to be accepted.

Wrapping up

Let’s review some of the points we’ve brought up here:

  • Interviews are components of the application process to Oxford and Cambridge
  • Interviewers aim to discover your capacity and enthusiasm for the subject you’re applying for
  • Focus on the topic and questions being asked, don’t worry about any hidden intentions from your interviewers
  • Be humble and demonstrate your enthusiasm
  • Enjoy the experience

In the end there’s only one other thing that needs remarking. If you’re invited to an interview, that means you have the personal capacity to be accepted, otherwise you wouldn’t have been invited. So don’t worry and enjoy the interview experience, because you can feel confident that you’re good enough to be there.


Below you will find a quick FAQ of some of the questions which haven’t been handled in the guide above:

Q: How much should I prepare for my interview?

This depends, and the recommendation varies with subjects. Some subjects don’t allow for much preparation that you could have use of in an interview. I recommend to prepare enough that you (1) you feel confident in your subject and (2) you are ‘in the mindset’ when you enter your interview. For a topic like Mathematics, or Economics, it’s definitely advantageous to have all the base concepts clearly in your mind so you don’t have to infer the definition of calculus in your interview. For others, like English or Philosophy, there isn’t too much preparation you can do, and the risk of preparing too much is that you’ll have a bunch of clever responses you really want to mention though they don’t necessarily fit the question. This might ruin your interview. Therefore, the best thing is to prepare so that you have all the basic knowledge in the subject necessary to think on our feet and tackle any question thrown at you.

Q: How should I dress for my interview?

Many candidates worry about this. The truth is that it really doesn’t matter. The reason is not (only) the immense tolerance of the professors, but rather – as mentioned above – that they have so many better things to think about than your sense of style. The only recommendation I would give is not to give them a reason to think about it either. In other words, don’t dress in a way that might make them distracted from what you’re saying (e.g. military outfit, Pikachu outfit or underwear are less recommended). In my interviews I wore trousers with a jacket, while my friend who has just flown in from a hitchhike in Uzbekistan wore sandy jeans with big holes in them, and we both got in.


Paul De Font-Roux, 18 May 2016