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Treat Oxbridge interviews like discussions

Treat Oxbridge interviews like discussions

Oxbridge Interviews and Pooling System


There are numerous myths around the interview system at Oxbridge. Do not fret, you will not be asked to peel an orange thrown at you or anything of that sort. These interviews are only to help the university staff decipher if you will be able to thrive in the rigorous academic atmosphere at Oxbridge. They are often styled to be a mini tutorial or supervision, which you will be having several of if you are accepted at these universities. So, the interviews are just to see if you can cope with the supervision/tutorial style of teaching. No matter how brilliant you are on paper, if you cannot discuss your subject, you won’t be able to contribute to the supervisions/tutorials. Therefore, you will not get an offer. Here are a few things to keep in mind for these interviews: 

· First impressions do matter. So make sure you are dressed well. It doesn’t have to be too formal, just smart casual clothes will work.

· Do not be afraid to think out loud and ask questions. They want to understand your thinking process and engage with you. The more interactive the interview, the better. Do not think of it as a Q&A session.

· For many arts and humanities subjects, there is no right answer. They just want to see how you respond to a certain question or topic.

· For many STEM subjects, you will be asked to solve equations at the interview. It is absolutely fine to make mistakes, as long as you explain your thinking process along the way. They want to be sure that you want to learn, not that you already know it all.

· The questions are meant to challenge you but not completely throw you off guard. So, they will not ask you questions completely unrelated to your subject. Be prepared to apply the knowledge you have in entirely new ways.

· If having a discussion at the interview, do not simply play along with the interviewer’s opinion. If you have a differing viewpoint about the issue at hand, stand your ground and back your views with valid examples.

· If you are completely stumped by the interviewer’s question, do not just stare at him/her. Break the question into parts. Talk to the interviewer and discuss what you understood and what you did not.

· If you had to submit any written material, be prepared to discuss it well. They are very likely to take your essays as a starting point.

· Read around your course as much as you can. Make sure you are well informed about your subject and any new breakthroughs in it.

Sample Interview Questions

Biochemistry: Here is a list of three compounds, A, B, and C. Which one is the most soluble?

Biological sciences: If you could save either the rainforests or the coral reefs, which would you choose and why?

Biomedical sciences: Why is sugar in your urine a good indicator of that you may have diabetes?Engineering: How would you design a gravity dam for holding back water? English Literature: JK Rowling has just published a book for adults after the hugely successful Harry Potter series. In what ways do you think that writing for children is different to writing for adults?

History: Which person (or sort of person) in the past would you most like to interview, and why?

Law: If the punishment for parking on double yellow lines were death, and therefore, nobody did it, would that be a just and effective law?

Medicine: If you were an explorer and you found the same animal on two islands, what would you conclude?

Modern Languages: What is Language?

Music: If you could invent a new musical instrument, what kind of sound would it make?
Philosophy, Politics and Economics: I’m having trouble with the meaning of three words: Lie, Deceive, Mislead. They seem to mean something a bit similar, but not exactly the same. Help me to sort them out from each other.

Physics: A ball, initially at rest, is pushed upwards by a constant force for a certain amount of time. Sketch the velocity of the ball as a function of time, from start to when it hits the ground.

Psychology: Should interviews be used for selection?

Theology and Religious Studies: Is someone who risks their own life (and those of others) in extreme sports or endurance activities a hero or a fool?


“Got the ‘set’ question (a question which was sent out a week prior to the interview; for students to solve and show and explain to the interviewers). I was able to get it right after a few prompts, but the fact that I got it wrong in the first place does show that they allow for mistakes.” – Engineering student at Cambridge, year of 2013

“Two interviews, each with two of the Pembroke lawyers. They were tough interviews but all four of the tutors were incredibly friendly and polite. Absolutely no intimidation at all. After the interviews, I was even more keen to go to Pembroke because I thought I really wanted to be taught by these people.” – Law student at Oxford, year of 2011

“They weren’t as scary or as intimidating as I’d originally thought and the time went ridiculously fast. I came out of the first one convinced that the interviewers must have wondered why I applied, but the second one was better and despite saying some rather embarrassingly silly things (no one is immune from that!) I felt like I had at least managed to demonstrate that I was actually a realistic candidate. Don’t worry if they cut you off – that happened all the time. I found myself having to justify everything I said as one interviewer, in particular, was playing the Devil’s Advocate but this wasn’t a problem and in fact, was actually quite enjoyable as we got a bit of a debate going.” – Medicine student at Cambridge, year of 2014

“Economics was two game theory/problem solving sheets given to me 20 minutes before. Philosophy and Politics were together. I was asked a question on the validity of some given arguments and the morals behind sentence times for attempted murder. I also had several questions relating to my Politics A2 course. They were very response-based. Not much on prior knowledge or study. I think it’s better that way too; you can show your intelligence by what you come up with, not just how many books you have read.” – PPE student at Oxford, class of 2013

Pooling system

In January, you will usually receive a response from the university. The application can either be successful, unsuccessful or ‘pooled’. Being put in the pool only means that the university is giving other colleges (that the one you applied to) a chance to offer you a place. All colleges would rather take a strong applicant from the pool than a weak applicant who applied directly to their college. You can be pooled for several non-academic reasons, such as a gender imbalance or not enough supervisors for that course. Some pooled applicants may be asked for another interview in early January. Again, this is only a chance to prove yourself to the university and should not be taken as a judgment on your potential. Being pooled does not mean that you will be confirmed a place at the university. Around one in five applicants every year are pooled, and one in four pooled applicants are offered at another college. If not other college has offered you a place, you will be informed about this by the end of January. This means that your application at the university has been unsuccessful.

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