Download our guide to Oxford and Cambridge interviews, featuring top tips from those who studied at Oxford and Cambridge.
Oxford and Cambridge are two of the world’s greatest universities, ranking first and third
respectively in the Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings 2020. Both are ancient universities (roughly 900 and 800 years old respectively), and both are collegiate systems with very strong focuses on research. You will be taught by, and study alongside, first rate thinkers in the subject area of your choosing. The opportunity to study at either institution is highly sought after by students from every corner of the globe.
A large number of the tutors we work with at Keystone have studied at Oxford or Cambridge and therefore have extensive personal experience of the procedure for their specialist subjects.
Here are some of their top tips on how to approach the interviews:
“My top tip would most likely be to dive into the wider literature (i.e. beyond the A-level curriculum) around your subject. For instance, I was studying Donne at A-level, but moved beyond him to look at some of the other poets lumped into the Metaphysical category (Raleigh, Herbert et cetera). But as you carry out this wider reading, be sure to keep a commonplace book where you note down anything you find significant/conversation-worthy. This then leaves you with something digestible to look over in the run-up to the interview.” Rory - English Literature & Language at Oxford
“There are two pieces of advice I would offer to anyone undertaking an Oxbridge interview, and though both seem obvious, they are nonetheless worth remembering. The first, to borrow from Oscar Wilde, “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.” Use the interview as a place to talk about areas of the subject that interest you and ask questions about the things you don’t know yet but would like to learn more about. The second – the interviewers want you to do well. The questions that they ask you are designed to allow you to show the very best parts of yourself – they are based on a tutorial, to establish whether or not the Oxbridge system works for you. Ultimately, they are an opportunity to talk with a world expert about a subject you love.” Alice – Archaeology & Anthropology at Oxford
“The interview is essentially a mini tutorial, to give you a glimpse of what tutorials would be like, as well as to give the tutor a glimpse of what teaching you would be like. As such, tutors want to know that you're teachable, so be open-minded. Being a generally pleasant person also doesn't hurt.” Le-My – French & Italian at Oxford
“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.” Jonny - European and Latin American Literatures and Cultures at Oxford
“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.” Thomas – Physics at Oxford
“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.” Oli – English at Cambridge
“Think and organise your thoughts before answering: what might seem like a long (and awkward) silence to you, will probably not be all that long (or awkward) in reality. And if you want a second tip: don't play games with the process or say what you think people want to hear: just be yourself.” Tom – History & Politics at Oxford
“Every time you finish a book relevant to your studies, write down your thoughts on a notecard and look at them before your interview. It's great for discussions!” Maddie - English Literature & Language at Oxford
"Be specific, even if you are answering a general question. It is all-too-easy to fall into generalisations and broad-brush statements in an interview. You can avoid this by giving specific examples when answering almost every question. For example, a student applying for Philosophy might be asked: ‘I see that you have mentioned moral philosophy on your statement. What is it about a philosophical approach to morality that interests you?’ The temptation here is to reply in very vague terms, for instance: ‘Moral philosophy is the area of philosophy that most applies to how we live our lives, how we conduct ourselves in the world, and therefore, unlike, other areas of philosophy, is instantly applicable outside of the lecture hall.’ That’s not a bad answer, but it could be better with details. For instance: ‘Moral philosophy is the area of philosophy that most applies to how we live our lives. For example, I recently read Doing Good Better by William MacAskill, who makes the provocative case that we need to think carefully about which career we choose – and not just ‘follow our passions’ – if we are to do the most good that we can. It made me realise that someone in finance who donates 70% of their income might do more good over the course of their life than someone who works for a charity.’ Here the details not only show that the candidate has good knowledge and has already thought about the subject, it also opens up options for the interviewer to ask questions about the candidate’s specific interests.
Take your time. Admissions tutors are looking for thoughtful students. This means that if you need to pause and think about something, you should do so. You won’t get “marked down” for thinking! You can even say: ‘I just need a moment to think about this.’ A candidate who pauses to mull over a difficult question will be far more impressive than someone who rushes in with a rambling answer.
Let yourself be taught. Admissions tutors like to push candidates that they think are promising. This might mean that they introduce new information or a new perspective to see how you react. What they are doing here is trying to see if you are teachable. This means that you need to reflect on the new information and – if necessary – change your mind or your answer. Making a ‘mistake’ in the interview is not a problem, so long as you can see it and correct for it when it is pointed out. At the same time, you don’t need to be a pushover. You can and should stand your ground when, after some reflection, you genuinely think you are right." Andy – English at Cambridge
"Don't stress yourself by cramming or over-preparing in the days and hours before the interview; the interview is not a test of your knowledge, but rather how you approach problems and work around them." Olly – Classics at Oxford
Oxford and Cambridge University Application Tuition
Keystone Tutors has an outstanding track record in sourcing tutors to support students for their entrance tests for Oxford, Cambridge and other leading UK universities. We have
over a decade of experience in assisting students with their applications to the UK’s most competitive universities.
Preparation for entrance to Oxford and Cambridge university begins in the Sixth Form, and the tutors we represent are able to provide guidance and support through the process in their specialist subject. We offer private tuition or online group preparation courses for the admissions tests for Oxford and Cambridge.
Find out more on our courses page.
Good luck with your application!