Interviewing for a Place to Study at Cambridge University
Cambridge University, founded over 800 years ago, supposedly by scholars fleeing from irate townsfolk in Oxford, is one of the world's greatest universities and a historic seat of learning. Graced by the stunning architecture of its colleges, and filled with keen minds from around the world, Cambridge is an amazing place to study your chosen subject.
Securing a place at one of the University's 31 historic colleges is no easy feat, and the Cambridge admissions interview is often the subject of a great deal of nervousness. We hope the answers below to many of the most frequently asked questions about these interviews will help you with making a successful application!
What do Cambridge interviews look for?
Just as with a tutorial, a Cambridge interview is a discussion, which means that you will find your ideas scrutinized, questioned, and even gently criticized, as part of an attempt to grapple with an interesting facet of your chosen subject. The purpose of the interview is to find out how you think and to evaluate your demonstrable passion for your chosen subject as well as your academic potential.
Look to keep an open mind when answering interview questions, demonstrating that you can evaluate ideas rationally and empirically. Don't be afraid to ask and question your interviewers as you attempt to respond to the points they raise - they are looking to understand your potential as a student, and whether you will be suited to this style of teaching and learning. Try and enjoy the experience - after all this is a chance to talk about concepts and ideas that you are passionate about with some impressive thinkers in your chosen discipline!
What are Cambridge interviews like?
In 2019 Cambridge University received just over 19,000 applications, of which about three-quarters are called for interview, competing for roughly 3,500 places - an 18% acceptance rate. The entire process is rigorous and challenging, and the interview is a key point for students with equally good grades to distinguish themselves.
You'll sit anywhere between 1 and 3 interviews depending on the College and course you apply for, with each one lasting roughly around 30 minutes. The interviews are meant to be like smaller versions of the tutorials which Cambridge uses in the bulk of its teaching, and so you should expect open-ended but difficult questions on the subject you intend to study, which should lead to a discussion with the tutors interviewing you.
Top tip from Keystone Tutor Jonny who studied European and Latin American Literatures and Cultures: “It's very easy to forget that your interviewers are on your side. They want you to succeed just as much as you do, so take a deep breath, and try to treat the interview as what it really is: a conversation between a group of people with a common passion.”
How hard is it to get an interview at Cambridge?
As mentioned above, about 75% of applicants are called to interview - so if you have the very best grades, a stellar recommendation from your teacher, and a powerful personal statement that demonstrates your passion for the course in question, you stand a reasonable chance! When you think about the calibre of your fellow applicants, you can see it's a high bar, and being called for interview really is an accomplishment in itself.
When do Cambridge give interview offers?
Most Cambridge interviews take place in the first few weeks of December or thereabouts. You'll hear whether you have been invited for interview by mid-November at the very latest.
What questions do they ask at a Cambridge interview?
As you might expect, you'll get asked questions that relate to the course you're intending to study. Remember, these are complex questions intended to lead to a discussion, rather than simple questions where there is a quick, correct answer. You should expect follow up questions, and you should take time to listen to and consider these carefully before replying. Share your thought processes with the interviewers - help them to understand how you think, as well as what you think!
It is likely that a large number of the questions you face will be based on the topics you have written about in your personal statement. Use these to show why you are passionate about your chosen subject, and to focus the interview on the topics that you find most interesting.
Top tip from Keystone Tutor Tom who studied Physics: “During my interviews I remember feeling very anxious that I didn't know the answers to questions straight away. But now I know this is absolutely fine! They don't expect you to know the answers straight away. They want to see you take your time, gather your thoughts, and try and come up with the best answer you can.”
How to prepare for an interview at Cambridge
There are lots of ways to prepare, and plenty of good advice on the Cambridge Admissions site and elsewhere on the web.
Read your personal statement and other application documents, so that you refresh your memory of what's in them! Any topics or books that you mention in your personal statement are very likely to be a focus of attention in your interview, so be sure to be fully on top of the detail surrounding these. Spend time reading and researching topics that interest you beyond the immediate requirements of your current schoolwork, and most importantly spend some time thinking about them. What have you learned about these new topics, why do they interest you, and what questions do they prompt you to ask?
If possible, look to discuss your ideas and thoughts around your chosen subject with people who are knowledgeable on topics related to your subject. Ideally you should try to do this with people who you are not already familiar with to get used to discussing complex ideas with someone you don’t know well. It might be a teacher at your school who you’ve only had limited interaction with, a current or recent undergraduate student or a private tutor who has experienced the Cambridge application process themselves. Getting comfortable with this activity, and receiving nuanced feedback on your performance, can be an enormous boost to your confidence and ability to communicate your knowledge and enthusiasm. You can also, where possible, try to arrange a mock interview, so that you can get feedback and have some exposure to how the real thing might actually feel.
Lastly, remember to breathe, to stay calm, and to feel proud and confident that you have been called to an interview at one of the world's top universities!
Contact Keystone if you’d like to arrange a mock interview or want help preparing for your Cambridge admissions test.
How should I approach the interview?
An ideal candidate should do the following:
- Makes sure they understand – and say if they don’t.
- Think – out loud or silently; either is fine. Some silence is fine.
- Respond – making their thinking clear as they go.
- Take on board what the interviewers say – new info, pointers, new ways of looking at the question.
Some common things that people do, to interviewers’ frustration are these:
- Not listening – this proves they’re not teachable.
- ‘Sticking to your guns’ – being able to change your mind thoughtfully is the key to teachability.
- Parroting prepared information – interviewers recognise it and do not want to hear it, at all.
- Repeating themselves – unsuccessful candidates tend to go in circles because they are not listening or thinking things through.
Top tip from Keystone Tutor Oli who studied English at Cambridge “I was warned in advance that my interview would be difficult. I was also warned that if you're finding it challenging then that can often be a good sign. The thinking is that interviewers challenge good candidates to see how they cope under pressure. I got given The Windhover, a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, to analyse. Google it. If you don't know anything about the poem, the poet or his "sprung rhythm" (I didn't), it looks fairly impenetrable. Things rapidly got difficult. It was only because I remembered the advice above, and just kept on slugging away, that I got a place. I would have lost confidence otherwise. I really had no idea what the poem meant, but I didn't give up.”
How important is the Cambridge interview?
The interview really is a key part of the application process, with around 14,000 interviews leading to only 3,500 places. Everyone called to interview will be smart, motivated, and have excellent grades and recommendations, so the interview is a vital way of differentiating yourself.
What do I need to take to a Cambridge interview?
Make sure you check any specific requirements for the particular course and College you are interviewing for a place at - especially if any of them are running tests or other assessments alongside the interview. If not, all you really need are your wits, and to make sure you remember when and where the interview is taking place!
Are Cambridge interviewers interested in Extra-Curricular Achievements?
The short answer is, No. Unlike U.S. universities, Cambridge colleges are not interested in sporting achievements, musical awards, charity work, or anything else not associated with the subject they will be teaching you.
Looking for extra support? Keystone has a range of specialist tutors who can assist students approaching university aptitude tests for Cambridge university and with interview preparation. Find out more about the Cambridge tutors we work with.