What to expect at Oxbridge Interviews

by a University Lecturer and published author of various books and academic papers

This post talks you through what to expect at an Oxbridge interview, considering points such as what to wear, how to prepare, what to expect at the interview, and dealing with offers thereafter.

Blog Contents


If you have managed to secure an invite to an interview at Oxbridge, first of all, congratulations. You have already proven that you are amongst the best of those who applied this year in a very competitive process. So what happens next?

There are lots of myths and legends around the interview process, but the key thing is that these interviews are designed to give the tutors the best possible information about whether this degree will suit you. They are not about tricking you, weird and occult rituals, or whether you have good table manners whilst being secretly watched in the dining hall. There aren’t going to be secret trick questions on which your whole future depends. It is not easier or harder to get into certain colleges or certain degree programmes, although how many places they have each year does vary across those. There are no IQ tests, and the interviewer is not going to try and attack or bully you. This is a chance for the people who teach this degree to try and figure out if they can teach you, if you will thrive in that environment, and if it’s right for you. It’s no more and no less.

The interview process can be very intimidating, though: for many it will be their first formal interview of any kind, because most people applying to university won’t have much experience with things like job interviews. It’s normal to be nervous, and it’s common to feel like everybody else interviewing is calmer and smarter than you – don’t worry, they’re not! There are a lot of discussions in wider society about the social background of people who go to Oxbridge, too, but in this interview process what matters is your brain – not where you come from.

What to Wear

For a job interview, depending on the type of job, you would often wear a suit or formal dress. You don’t need to do that for Oxbridge interviews. You can, if you want to, or if it makes you feel like you’re in a serious state of mind. They usually suggest ‘smart casual’ clothing, and many people wear jeans. But whatever clothes you feel comfortable in are fine: the tutors are interested in what’s inside your head, not what you’re wearing. Remember, though, that a lot of the buildings in Oxford and Cambridge are old and draughty in December – so you might want to pack a jumper if you’re interviewing in person.

How to Prepare

Many schools will offer mock interviews once they know you have an offer, or one of your teachers might be willing to do a practice with you. Hopefully they will have some idea of what Oxbridge interviews for your subject area look like from past experience. You can also pay to have interview practice with experts in the subject area. As a starting place, there are lots of videos online on the websites of the two universities showing example interviews: watch them!

Some schools ask members of the local community to help you practice, and the experience is more like a job interview. That’s not useless practice, but it might be quite different to what the real thing looks like. In a job interview, the skills an employer is looking for are probably quite different to most Oxbridge interviews, and the interaction between a boss and an employee is not the same as a university teacher and a student.

Another useful way to practice is just talking about the subject you’re interested in with other people: take a problem, topic, or issue and discuss it with another person, trying to see the different arguments, angles, or solutions. Practicing doing this out loud is really valuable, especially if you’re applying for a subject where you might be more used to writing things down than talking through them out loud. For instance, can you talk someone through how you solved an equation? Or how you analysed the strengths and weaknesses of an argument for a particular policy?

You absolutely should not be bringing any kind of prepared answers to your interview. You will be asked briefly about your personal statement in most interviews, so make sure you re-read it before you go, but interviews like this are not about repeating what you have learned already. You can and should use your pre-existing knowledge, but this process is about stretching your mind in new directions and not revisiting familiar topics.

In the real thing, you’re probably going to be given some materials related to the subject area you are proposing to study. So if it’s maths, for instance, you will be given a problem to work through and try to solve. If it’s law, you will often be given a short report of a legal case or an extract from a piece of legislation. For English, you might be asked to analyse a piece of poetry you’ve never read before. So in your practice, try to work that way. Give yourself unseen materials related to your subject and try to work through them. There are example questions online for pretty much any subject you can think of. Looking at the undergraduate courses for the degree might also help you identify some of the relevant subject areas so you can push yourself by starting to read some of the literature. The interview is not about testing your existing knowledge, but the more familiar you are with the kinds of material you’re likely to see, the more comfortable you will be on the day.

If your interview is going to be online, make sure you test all your technology earlier in the day. Do what you can to ensure you have a stable internet connection, and a quiet place to sit for the interview. Make sure the camera is pointed at your face and doesn’t cut off your head or point at a weird angle! You might also want to have a pen and blank paper nearby, depending on the instructions you have been given, and some water. There are rules and a code of conduct for online interviews, so make sure you read this in advance. You cannot start trying to search for answers online during the interview, for instance, and this really isn’t going to help anyway: in a conversation, you can tell when a person is on their phone! The same goes for searching things out in relation to any pre-reading: getting answers from the internet won’t help you when the interviewers start to give you new information, or different versions of the material, and that’s how they’re going to be testing your ability to think.

If you need any adjustments due to a disability or otherwise, make sure you have communicated these to the college where you are interviewing in advance. This may be particularly important if you are staying in Oxford or Cambridge in person, as a lot of the accommodation is in very old buildings which have limited disabled access. It might also be quite important if you have, for instance, dyslexia, to let the college know so that any material you are given to read is given to you in an accessible format, and maybe with extra time.

At the Interview

Some people arrive at their interview and they are surprised that the interviewer is not a tweed-wearing older white man in a gown. Lots of Oxbridge tutors don’t look like that! But it’s really important to try not to make assumptions about the people in front of you that come across in your interview: for example, in many interviews, I have seen students defer to a male interviewer even when a female interviewer is more senior, or is the person who asked them the question. Something like that won’t stop you from getting a place if you have the abilities, but it’s good professional practice to be respectful and polite to whomever you encounter in your interview process.

The interview is all about showing your skills and it’s a conversation between you and the interviewer. Try not to clam up with nerves and say nothing at all: if you don’t say anything, the interviewers won’t be able to get much of a sense of what you can do. Equally, try not to be overconfident or babble: answer the questions you are asked as best you can, and don’t second guess yourself. The interviewers are also not going to judge you on any accent you have, or if you pronounce something differently (unless you’re interviewing for a languages degree, where it might matter a bit more in practice!). The most important thing is that they want to hear from you about your thoughts.

It is not about right and wrong answers, and there is no one thing that the interviewers want to hear. Often, interviewers want to understand you thinking out loud, and want you to talk through your reasoning in answering their questions: it’s not about reaching a right answer necessarily, but showing them how you think. It’s also absolutely ok to change your mind if you’re given new information, or if you think something through and realise something new. Just say so! You’re also allowed to disagree with things the interviewer says, if that makes sense in the context: just remember to be polite, and to explain why you think what you do.

If you’re not sure what you’re being asked, or you need help, say so: that’s not a problem and it doesn’t mean you’re doing badly. If you didn’t quite hear a question or need it repeated, that’s fine too: it’s not a hearing test! The interviewers will try to help you if you’re confused or stuck, too: they want to see your abilities, and letting you sit and struggle is not going to achieve that for them, either. If they give you a question that seems strange, or doesn’t make sense to you, it’s most likely that they’re trying to get you to think from a different angle, or try a different perspective. This is where a lot of the myths about crazy interview questions seem to come from. But if the questions were entirely predictable and familiar ones, it would be a very boring kind of exam, not an interview.

If you have been given reading or other material to look at before the interview, make sure you use it! The questions in the interview will be at least partly based around that material, and if you ignore it or panic and forget it, you’re not going to use your time in the interview well. Try to always focus on the question you are being asked, and use the material to help you answer it: again, there is no use in pre-preparing general answers for this process because you have to work with that the interviewers are saying to you. Try to closely engage with any material you have been given, read or look at it carefully, and think about the key information you have been given. In the interview, you will probably be applying that information in new contexts.

Time is also very important: these interviews tend to be very short, at around 20-30 minutes. It will go very fast and you’ll be getting up and leaving the room before you know it. Try to remember that this is your time to really show them that you have the skills to do the degree you have applied for, and make the best of that time. Another thing the interviewers are looking for is enthusiasm: three or four years is a long time to study one subject, and ideally they are looking for people who will enjoy the challenge. If you’re really not enjoying discussing Thomas Hardy’s poetry, or the law around reproductive rights, it might be a sign that another course of study could suit you better. Try to convey to the interviewers why you want to study this particular subject in this particular place.

Most people will have two interviews at the same college. Many people will also have a third or even a fourth interview, often at a different college. Don’t read anything into this: it doesn’t mean you’re particularly good, or particularly bad. Usually it relates to how many places that college has that year, and they’re trying to work out how best to allocate the space across the university amongst lots of good candidates. It’s common for one interview to feel like it goes better than another, and the interviewers will be thinking about your average performance across the times they have seen you: so if you think you did less well in one but ok in another, don’t worry too much.

What if You Think it Went Badly

You might come out of the interviews feeling that it didn’t go well. Firstly, there’s no point worrying about that: it’s in the past. Secondly, students are really bad at judging how well or how badly their interviews went: something you think sounded really stupid might have actually been a really good point. Thinking hard and stretching your brain are exactly the point of the exercise, so if you feel like it was difficult, that can be a very good thing. The interviewers are not going to tell you that you made a really good point, or a really bad point, or that you nailed it in the interview. They’re going to try to keep a poker face and give everybody a fair shot. Remember, too, that the interview is not the only thing that matters: the university will use all the information it has about you including your grades, any admissions tests, and your UCAS application alongside the interview in making its decision. Those bits of information were why you got an interview in the first place, and they matter afterwards, too.

If you know other people who interviewed, they might tell you they had quite a different experience in their interview. That’s normal: every interview is about showing the skills of that individual person, and that means every interview is different, even if you’re interviewing for the same subject. Don’t get caught up on other peoples’ stories.

You won’t know until the offers come out, so after the interview is done, try to relax and wait and see.

Offers After Interviews

One of the reasons why you might not get an offer after the interview is if the interviewers think you’re perfectly clever and able, but that the Oxbridge style tutorial system might not suit you. If you went into your interviews and found the whole process frustrating, uncomfortable, or not valuable for learning, then it might be that the intensive way of working at Oxbridge just isn’t right for you. The interviews are a lot like mini-tutorials, a taste of what learning at Oxbridge is like several times a week. Unlike other universities, these intense conversations are the main way of learning, rather than lectures or big seminar groups. If that doesn’t work well for you, it doesn’t mean you’re not able or that you don’t have huge potential, and it’s very important to recognise that Oxbridge is a very particular learning style which doesn’t suit everybody. Students increasingly ask colleges for feedback after interviews when they don’t get in, but this is unlikely to be particularly useful unless you plan to apply again next year. For most people, it’s better to move on and consider what other universities might suit them better.

If you do get an offer, they are usually all communicated on the same day across the university: this wasn’t the practice in the past until quite recently, so don’t let old advice spook you. There are no secret winks, nudges, or taps on the shoulder outside the formal offer process and it’s the same for everybody. The wait between the interview and when the decisions are communicated can feel very long and stressful, but try to put it out of your mind as much as you can: you have already done everything you can to achieve your goal.

Good luck, and try to enjoy the process!