'We look for a hunger to learn'

Oxbridge interviews are 'designed to bring out the best in candidates'
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The Independent Online

Many universities have cut down on time-consuming interviews. So why do Oxford and Cambridge see them as a vital part of the selection process?

Many universities have cut down on time-consuming interviews. So why do Oxford and Cambridge see them as a vital part of the selection process?

If your school or college recommends that you apply to Oxbridge, you will have excellent predicted grades and will doubtless have a lot to say in your personal statement. So will all the other applicants.

Both universities receive far more applications from highly qualified candidates than there are places available. "Nearly all the forms we receive are equally good," says Sue Stobbs, director of admissions for Cambridge Colleges and admissions tutor for Pembroke College. "We have to add something to the excellent grade predictions, well-crafted personal statements and glowing references."

So what could you expect from an interview?

Expect to be tested and stretched. But you will not be able to prepare for all the questions, however much coaching your school gives you! Interviewers are looking for questioning minds, enthusiasm for the subject - and the ability to think problems through. They are unlikely to dwell on your A-level syllabus or out-of-school interests. So, biologists might be asked to discuss a scientific topic that the interviewer is certain is not on the syllabus; economists to solve a maths problem in a way they have not previously encountered; linguists obviously to discuss their topic in the target language.

I have sat in on interviews in which geography applicants were shown a photograph of an obscure land feature and asked to guess what it was and why they thought so, and English applicants had to read previously unseen texts and present critical reviews of them. "We are not trying to catch people out," says Mrs Stobbs, "but our courses move very fast. We need to see that students can pick up and develop ideas fast."

Does the interview favour students from certain schools or does it genuinely cut across social boundaries?

Dr Steve New, a Fellow of Hertford College, is emphatic that the latter is the case. He accepts that the Oxford interview generates an amount of trepidation - and visits state schools to talk to groups of pupils in an effort to remove some of the fear.

"It's true some candidates are extremely polished and, on the surface, interview well. Our challenge is to make sure that students who have had different levels of practice are treated equally. We try to get behind the gloss and filter out the preparation, move them on from any prepared spiel and try to tap into their enthusiasm and awareness. I'm looking for genuine hunger to learn."

Can you prepare for an Oxbridge interview? Not in the sense of having prepared answers for every possible question. But you could ask for a mock interview with a member of staff who does not teach you - simply to get used to discussing topics with a stranger.