Oxbridge interviews are frequently the source of intriguing stories. You’ll frequently hear tales of students who were asked seemingly obscure questions like, “Why do we have two nostrils but only one mouth?”, or impossibly difficult ones such as, “How many grains of sand are there in the world?”
If taken in context, both of these are very fair Oxbridge interview questions. The first would naturally lead to a discussion concerning the evolution of sensory organs and the pros and cons of having multiple mouths, for example, reduced risk of infections versus the inability to eat and speak simultaneously.
The latter question would test a candidate’s ability to breakdown an initially very large problem into more bite-sized chunks in order to manage it, like the surface area of the Earth, percentage of the Earth covered by land, percentage of land covered by sand, and average depth of sand and so on.
Oxbridge interviews are not about testing your knowledge. Instead, they are about testing what you can do with the knowledge you already possess. Remember, once you’re at university, you will rapidly assimilate a great deal of new information, so much so that you will start to wonder what all the fuss over A-levels was all about.
This is the main reason why it’s not particularly useful for interviewers to ask purely knowledge based questions such as, “What is the normal plasma concentration of magnesium?” Knowledge of isolated facts is neither necessary nor sufficient for a successful Oxbridge interview. Instead, it is the application of some basic facts to novel situation that is the hallmark of success.
One of the best ways to demonstrate this is to outline my own interview experiences at Cambridge when I applied to study medicine several years ago.
This was my first science interview and the interviewer was delighted when he found out I studied physics at A2. His opening question was: “What have you read recently?” I explained I’d been reading about the new drug Rosuvastatin - a statin that was being recommended for everyone above a certain age, regardless of their actual cholesterol levels. The follow up questions were what you would expect: “How do statins work?” and “What are the risks/benefits of giving them to everyone?” Basically, ensure you know the basics of any topic you voluntarily bring up.
This then led to a discussion on how I would convince someone this drug was useful for them, followed by how I would convince someone blue light was more damaging than red. I struggled with this for a while, bouncing ideas back and forth, with each of them sequentially shot down, until I finally stumbled onto Einstein’s E=hf. This led to a discussion about why the sky is blue and sunsets can be a myriad of colours. All of this culminated in the classic: “What colour is the Sun in reality?” (Hint - it’s not yellow, orange, or red). This is the question tabloids would take out of context to make the interview seem like an array of bizarre questions when, in fact, this was perfectly reasonable giving the preceding questions.
This interview serves as a perfect example of a non-scripted interview i.e. one where the interviewer was happy to bounce ideas between us, forcing me to think about concepts in ways I never had before. I’m certain that, if I had offered a different answer to the initial question about my reading, the discussion would have gone along a significantly different route.
My second interview was more scripted; the interviewer had a pre-set agenda with corresponding questions that he wanted to discuss. Given this person is known to ask the same interview questions annually, I’ve refrained from including specifics in order to not spoil the plot for everyone and to unfairly put future applicants at an advantage - or disadvantage.
After going through my BMAT essay very briefly, he asked me to draw a graph on his whiteboard. This was no easy task. I spent 15 minutes struggling with this graph due to its unusual axis. Like many candidates, I made the mistake of learning about excessively complex topics like the complement membrane attack complex and ignored much core A-level topics like human physiology. This meant I wasn’t completely sure about a basic fact that was required for the graph. This was a tough interview and, at the end of it, I was certain I had flunked. This was compounded by the fact other candidates were bragging about how they had got the correct graph in only 30 seconds.
When you’re in the waiting room with the other candidates, it may appear many of them are far smarter than you and know a lot more. Again, remember the entire point of an interview is to assess your ability to apply knowledge.
People get nervous and unconfident while waiting for interviews. One of the ways they try to feel more secure is by exerting their intellectual superiority. In this example, the students who tended to arrive at the answer very quickly were unsuccessful. This is likely because they had previous knowledge of the question from their school or through extra reading. Although this allowed them to get the correct answer quickly, they were unable to explain the intermediate steps that led them to it i.e. they knew the topic but didn’t understand it.
5 key learning points
As you can see, I made lots of errors in my interview preparation. Please learn from them. Good students learn from their mistakes, but great students learn from others’ mistakes, so:
- Don’t be put off by what other candidates say in the waiting room. Focus on yourself - you are all that matters. If you want to be in the zone, then I would recommend taking some headphones and your favourite music
- Don’t read up on multiple advanced topics in-depth. Choose one topic and know it well. Focus the rest of your time on your core A-level syllabus. You are not expected to know about the features of transverse myelitis, but you will be expected to be able to rattle off a list of ten cellular organelles
- Don’t worry about being asked seemingly irrelevant questions you’ll often hear about in the media. These are taken out of context. Focus on being able to answer the common questions, such as, “Why this college?”
- Don’t lose heart if your interviews appear to have gone poorly. If anything, this can actually be a good sign as it shows the interviewer pushed you to your limits rather than giving up on you as you clearly weren’t Oxbridge material
- Above all, don’t give up. When you’re presented with complex scenarios, go back to the absolute basics and try to work things out using first principles. By doing this and thinking out loud, you allow the interviewer to see your logical train of thought so that they can help you when you become stuck.
For more information, The Ultimate Oxbridge Interview Guide includes worked solutions to over 900 questions asked in Oxbridge interviews
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