Oxbridge Interview and Application Tips

You’re 17-18 years old, and everyone around you is talking about university. Your teachers recommend you apply to Oxbridge. What do you do? Dr. Jack, one of Spires Oxbridge tutors, a specialist in his field and a graduate of the University of Oxford shares some top tips. 

“The above was my exact situation 10 years ago, but I came from a school not known for sending students to Oxbridge, and none of my relatives had graduated from a university anywhere. Now, I am a specialist Oxbridge admissions tutor and have helped a great number of applicants get their dream place.

Applying has three critical stages, and I have advice for each. Please feel free to skip sections that do not apply to you:

1) The Oxbridge application 

The first thing to think about is college. “College choice doesn’t matter,” say Oxbridge students, but it does. The whole “state school vs private school” debate is nonsense, and your interviewer, who may become your tutor for the next three years, probably won’t even know where you went to school. Choosing a college is critical because different tutors and colleges specialise in different areas of study. You will do better at interviews if you apply to a college where the tutors specialise in areas of the course you are interested in. Here are two:

A: Applicant to college X for Physics He/she enjoyed the A-level Maths Mechanics modules and hopes to study Theoretical Physics. During the interview, the student learns that the tutors specialise in atmospheric physics, which the student dislikes. The tutors then ask questions about particle flows, estimating the number of particles in a room, etc. These problems are difficult for the student because they require lateral thinking, which the student is not good at.

Student B: Applied to X for History. He/she is interested in Ancient History and has heard that this college has a world-renowned expert on the subject. The tutors ask the student about his/her general interests in History and discuss the causes of the Roman Empire’s fall. He/she leaves the interview happy, almost forgetting they were being evaluated!

Can you guess who was offered? That should illustrate why picking the right college can make or break an interview.

Also, when applying to Oxbridge, don’t worry too much about your personal statement; some tutors spend more time laughing at arrogant students! A personal statement can do more harm than good to your application. Be yourself, mention interesting books you’ve read, and don’t be arrogant. Simplicity 🙂

2) Oxbridge Entrance Exam Preparation

This varies by subject, but the general themes apply.

Test your knowledge with Oxbridge’s freely available past papers. Your exam will be different from your A-level/IB exams. They are testing your ability to solve an unexpected problem that may require knowledge from multiple fields. Expect to make mistakes.

You are not expected to get more than 70%, so don’t lose heart if things aren’t going well. Keep calm and positive. If you’re stuck, take a step back and analyse the issue.

Finally, try lots of brain teasers and math problems. Finally, school exams test your ability to solve the same problems with different numbers, whereas an Oxbridge exam tests your ability to use the same numbers in all sorts of neat problems! You might even enjoy the exam!

3) Oxbridge Interviews 

For most courses, this is the deciding factor. Everything you’ve done so far has gotten you here. Now comes the hard part.

People who acted as if they were entitled to be in Oxford wore tweed jackets to their interviews and generally spoke rudely to anyone who didn’t speak like them. Or those who were intimidated by the grand halls, the tutors’ academic style, and were generally uneasy. My advice is to avoid both. 

The tutors see right through them at interview, and they get rejected. Also, students who lack confidence and can’t speak up in a discussion will struggle in an interview. Once at Oxford, you’ll see that the stereotype isn’t true and that you have as much right to be there as anyone else. Keep a positive outlook no matter what others say.

The Oxbridge interview assesses how you think, how you deal with new information, and how you present your case. If you are interviewing with a tutor, he/she wants someone who can fully engage and is genuinely interested in the subject. Fear not to silence and think things through. After you make a point, expect questions about it. Prepare to justify your entire list! Oxbridge prefers cynical, curious, and critical thinkers, not textbook recitations. If you don’t know something, just tell them.

My top interview preparation tip is to participate in debates, whether at school or on the news. I was able to hold my own in interviews because I had done so in public speaking competitions. Unless you attend a school that actively encourages classroom discussion, which most public schools do not (in my experience), I strongly recommend some critical thinking practice. Debate worked for me!

So there you have it, my top three tips for a successful Oxbridge application.

Dr Jack’s Top Tips For An Oxbridge Interview

Consider what an Oxbridge Interview is for when preparing for one. After reading a few stories about lofty silent turret rooms with aged professors standing out over the college court, booming ‘Sit down!’, you may have come across the terrifying choice of which chair – the forest green leather, the spartan wood, or the metal-top? Could my chances of getting into Oxbridge be on the line? The reality of the interview process for most potential Oxbridge students is quite different. It’s simply designed to weed out the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed young academics from the rote-taught masses, as a post-graduate described it to me on my interview weekend. Discussions about what I loved and still love led to a desire to learn more in this buzzing intellectual environment. If you find yourself being interviewed by one of those old-school eccentrics, these top tips should help you hold your ground.

First, keep in mind your motivations for applying: what excites you about your field? Why is it so vital that you continue your education with this as your main focus? You and your interviewer will both want to be convinced that this will be as fulfilling for you as it is for those already committed to the field. This passion will also make you stand out as an individual – no two people can relate to a subject in the same way, so your unique perspective will make you an appealing potential student.

The interviewer must then be able to hear your point of view without restriction. You will engage as an Oxbridge student if you are not afraid to express a strong opinion and explain it. Interviewers will often play the ‘devil’s advocate’ to test how confident you are in asserting your own position against alternative critique, so don’t be afraid to argue your point.

Remember to keep breathing throughout the interview, even if you feel you’ve been too aggressive or argued in ignorance. Seeing into their minds is a two-way street. ‘Absorbing mode’ is a common mistake among interviewees, especially when the interviewer switches topics, only to be stopped by the dreaded ‘So, what do you think?’ You can avoid the dreaded question by counter-questioning and clarifying as new information comes out.

To avoid some of the jitters that come with being tested in a new place: RESEARCH! 

How well is your subject represented – is it a majority or minority subject in the College you have applied to? 

How many applicants are accepted annually? 

Which colleges will you be supervising with, if at all? 

In what subjects will you collaborate with other tutors? 

For your own sake, be honest: do you work best with a lot of competition, or better alone? Which College to attend should be heavily influenced by this. It’s also a good idea to research your interviewers’ backgrounds and what led them to specialise in a particular field.

Finally, maintain a positive attitude towards the process – as much as we love Oxbridge and everything it represents, the application process is still a numbers game. A place is only offered to 1 in 5 applicants. This unique position attracts far more students than places available for study, despite the obvious advantages of Oxbridge. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t challenging academic environments. 

Whatever happens, remember that a challenging academic environment is created by students living, breathing, and bouncing off one another – keep your enthusiasm and passion for the subject alive, and it will lead you to a similar circle wherever you go!

Dr Don’s 5 tips for an Oxbridge Interview 

Intimidated by the grand setting or not knowing exactly what the tutors are looking for, many students fear an Oxbridge interview. In fact, some feel Oxbridge isn’t for “people like them.” This article will help you excel in an Oxbridge interview.

Firstly, familiarise yourself with the location. This will help make the whole process less intimidating. Prepare by arriving the day before the interviews to familiarise yourself with the area and buildings. Keep in mind that the tutors are looking for talent rather than your background or ability to ‘fit in’ if you aren’t used to studying in this manner.

Focus on your approach to answering the interviewer’s questions, not your conclusions. Tutors prefer students who can learn rather than those who can answer all questions quickly and accurately. There is a lot they want to know about you. Maybe they’ll be interested in your answer even if it’s not exactly correct. Avoid being surprised by questions. They want to know how you react to unexpected questions. Be prepared for the unexpected!

Thirdly, keep in mind that competition exists. In other words, don’t tell other candidates what they asked you during the interview. Also, keep in mind that the number of available spots is limited.

Fourth, try to use the experience to interview with the school. It’s a good idea to thoroughly explore the city and envision yourself living there. Discuss the university experience with current students. Consult experts in the field.

Last but not least, have fun! Try not to worry too much about getting an interview because it means the tutors think you’re smart and worthy of consideration. And who knows, you might end up studying with them in 9 months!