Q&A: Inside the Real “Oxbridge” Interview

Q: My son has received an invitation for an Oxbridge interview. I have read all kinds of general or contradictory advice on the Internet regarding how he should prepare for the interviews. Please could someone elaborate upon what the interview will really be like, what kind of questions are asked, and how exactly we should help him prepare? Thank you so much in advance.

– Carmen

A: Dear Carmen,

From our experience, interview styles and questions differ dramatically for the different subjects offered at Oxford and Cambridge. Hence, it is important for your son to know that there is no such thing as a general “Oxbridge” interview – any generic advice will tend to be over-simplified. The best way to prepare is by taking a targeted approach specifically designed for the subject and the college within Oxford or Cambridge that your son has applied to. A PP&E interview at Oxford, for example, would not contain the same questions as a Maths interview at Cambridge, and due to obvious and well-documented differences, following generic advice on the “Oxbridge” interview will only make your son’s responses appear less original.

Admissions uses the interview process to measure your son’s academic potential, as demonstrated by his logical thought process, as well as how his experience befits the subject that he has chosen to pursue at Oxford or Cambridge. Here are two case studies of students that we helped secure offers, mainly to demonstrate the level of academic questions that one is likely to receive and the expected standard of responses. Note that students’ details have been modified for confidentiality purposes.

Case Study 1: Oxford Law Interview

Jessica’s first interview centered around competency based questions. It was conducted by the college admission tutor and a law faculty fellow from outside of the college. Examples of questions asked include: why Oxford, why Law, why this college?

The second interview was conducted by the Director of Studies in Law from the college. Two articles were shown to Jessica in the format of a case:

  1. A newspaper article about censorship of social media, personal messaging tools and email correspondences for the prevention of terrorism, hate speech and child pornography.
  2. A list of made-up statutes on fundamental rights of citizens.

Jessica was then asked the following question, and the interviewer spent a good part of the interview challenging her answers.

Which of the censorship measures mentioned in the first article would violate the fundamental rights of citizens?

The interview mainly tests how candidates analyse and approach legal situations and present their arguments. In preparation for that, we worked with Jessica through a full list of readings on common aspects of law, and helped her develop a good foundation for argumentative and academic writing. This helped Jessica immensely, as she was well equipped to construct and present her arguments. (Note: Jessica had also taken the LNAT prior to coming up to interview at Oxford. For Cambridge applicants, sitting the Cambridge Law Test would be a requirement for most colleges at Cambridge.)

Case Study 2: Cambridge Medicine Interview

Zach expressed an interest in Neurology on his personal statement, and his first interview was with the head of a Neurology laboratory in Cambridge. After the self-introductions, Zach was shown a model of the human brain and asked to explain how it works. As we had prepared Zach on this topic and worked with him through an extensive list of books on Neurology and Experimental Psychology, Zach was able to confidently explain the anatomical details of the brain, and discuss some the latest research in the field. Zach was then asked, “How would you design an experiment to determine if a mouse possesses colour vision?” They attempted to throw Zach off by interjecting confounding factors, but Zach was able to stay on track and even corrected the interviewer’s comments as well. The interview ended with a few brainteasers, competency and motivational questions like why Medicine, and why Cambridge. No other personal statement related questions were asked.

Zach’s second interview was with a fellow of the college who was doing a PhD in Genetics, as well as the Director of Studies for Medicine. Zach was first asked a number of genetics related questions, such as, “What is gene splicing”, “Tell me about DNA and RNA”. He was then asked further questions around developments in the field and what he thought would be the next frontier in terms of medical applications of the research that they had just discussed. Finally, the interviewer asked a few questions in relation to ethics in Medicine, e.g., “Should we use genome cloning or genetic modifications to improve health and longevity of human life, and if so, how and where do we draw the boundaries?”

What does this all mean?

Oxbridge interviews are very academic and subject based. Having a targeted plan that prepares you specifically for your subject of choice is the key to success. We suggest working through relevant reading lists, developing a good foundation of subject-specific knowledge, training critical thinking skills, and practicing a full range of subject-specific interview questions. That would help students perform better on their interviews. One-on-one debate practice and mock interviews have also been useful in helping students think on their feet. Practicing thinking out loud will come in handy when you feel thrown off, as it helps to demonstrate your ability to think logically. Remember, interviewer styles can differ so given it is usually the faculty members or the Directors of Studies at the college who will likely interview you, try to research and read up on their past work beforehand. Finally, good luck!

Any further questions? Please reach out to us!

Client details have been modified to protect confidentiality.
This article was originally published as “Q&A: Inside the Real “Oxbridge” Interview” on SCMP Education Post