Go Higher: Relax, it's not the third degree

The selection process has changed. Interviews for candidates are largely informal... and increasingly rare.
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The Independent Online
Trial by interview is largely an ordeal of the past. While 20 years ago most candidates were called for a one-to-one by their chosen institutions, the increase in degree applications has made this virtually impossible. Only Oxford and Cambridge still routinely interview applicants.

Other universities offer open days to give prospective students a chance to look around, relying on the information provided on the UCAS application form for the actual selection. Dianne Francombe, director of the enquiry and admissions service at the University of the West of England, explains: "A 15-minute interview doesn't necessarily draw out much more information than we glean from that, and if something isn't clear we can always phone or write."

However, there are a number of exceptions to the rule, for example subjects such as medicine, teaching and social work, where tutors need to assess whether you have the appropriate social skills and commitment. Most institutions also interview students joining art and design courses to get some idea of their abilities and have a good look at their portfolio. Most faculties have a policy of interviewing mature students, in order to provide them with more detailed information about the course and university as a process of selection, and to help them prepare for returning to study.

Otherwise interviews are rare, says Tony Higgins, chief executive of UCAS: "Sometimes they are held in shortage subjects where there are relatively few applications, and the university wants to sell itself to you as much as test you out. Sometimes there's an interview if the reference says something that catches the tutor's eye, or the applicant is in some way borderline."

But Oxford and Cambridge are swimming against the tide.

"Applications here are very competitive, and on paper candidates often look equally qualified," said Jane Minto, admissions officer at Oxford. "Interviews do enable tutors to differentiate between very able students, and allow them to show potential that might not be reflected in their grades. And with teaching still based on the intensive tutorial system, interviews are also a good way of testing how students would handle that way of working."

Oxford tutors are looking for similar qualities across all the different colleges and subjects, says Minto. "We're not looking for mastermind. We're not trying to assess how much people know, so much as see whether they are capable of thinking independently, that they are able to think around questions and problems, and respond with appropriate arguments. It's not a disaster if you give a wrong answer; often there is often no right or wrong answer, but you need to be willing to explore ideas."

And don't worry too much about appearing nervous, she emphasises. Tutors are trying to assess academic potential, not social skills, and are looking out for students who appear to be academically alert and intelligently curious, and not simply articulate and self-confident.

Try to see an interview as an opportunity rather than an ordeal. Not only does it give you a great chance to distinguish yourself from the rest of the herd, but it's a chance to find out whether the institution is right for you.

Ten Top Interview Tips

1. If you are called for interview, make sure you are given some idea what to expect. If no details are included, call the institution and ask for clarification.

2. If your school doesn't offer mock interviews, get a friend or relative to help you prepare.

3. Do read around your subject. If it's a non-school subject like law, read newspapers and familiarise yourself with some of the current issues involved. Tutors want to see that you have a general curiosity about the world around you.

4. Read the prospectus and course literature carefully to appear knowledgeable about what you're applying for.

5. Think through some of your answers before the interview. Particularly consider why you chose to apply for that particular subject and institution.

6. Always prepare a few questions of your own to demonstrate an interest in the course and department.

7. Wear comfortable clothes. Look smart, but don't go to the extent of wearing a suit.

8. Take a copy of your UCAS form along - you may be asked questions based on the information you provided on it.

9. If you don't understand a question, say so, or ask the interviewer to rephrase it rather than trying to guess at what they mean.

10. Don't forget to smile - it will relax both you and the interviewer. Take deep breaths beforehand if you are really nervous, and try to maintain eye contact.