Barring certain Medicine and Engineering schools, Oxford and Cambridge University are some of the only top higher education institutions that use an interview as an integral part of their undergraduate admissions process.
While it is true that top US universities conduct alumni interviews, these don’t bear nearly as much weight on a student’s admission outcome as their performance on the Oxbridge interview.
Here’s how it all works:
Does every Oxbridge applicant get an interview?
Unlike the optional alumni interview conducted by the Ivy Leagues and other top US universities, neither Oxford nor Cambridge offer interviews to everyone in their applicant pool.
Because the interview itself is meant to simulate the unique one-to-one “tutorial” or “supervision” teaching style that these institutions both use with their students, each one is conducted by an actual university instructor from the specific department to which the student has applied.
To ensure that each interview is worth these instructors’ time and dedication, interview slots are decidedly limited, reserved only for those who have already been screened heavily for their academic capabilities.
This is done, of course, through a holistic assessment of each applicant’s submitted application materials, which includes their transcript, their one-page UCAS Personal Statement, and their course-specific admissions test (if applicable).
You can see an example of this process through the above graph, which shows the Thinking Skills Assessment (TSA) score distribution of aspiring Oxford Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE) students.
Of 2,229 total applicants that year, just 738 or 33% of these were shortlisted for an interview.
The likelihood of being shortlisted was significantly augmented for students scoring above the mean TSA score of 66.0 (in fact, the exact mean score for shortlisted applicants was 72.9).
It is well worth noting that these figures – from the total number of applicants to the number of shortlisted applicants – will differ vastly from year to year and course to course.
Nonetheless, the above example is illustrative of how academic credentials are deployed in the short-listing process.
I’ve managed to score an interview. Does that mean I’m pretty much in?
The answer to this question, again, varies greatly by course and year of application.
Across the board, however, it’s safe to say that receiving an interview invitation doesn’t guarantee anything definite.
Referring to the example above, 271 of 738 (37%) of those who underwent the interview received an offer of admission, bringing the overall acceptance rate for Oxford PPE that year to 12%.
If you’d like a more detailed look at undergraduate admissions statistics, you can visit the Oxford and Cambridge admissions websites, which are incredibly transparent in their year-on-year reporting.
Taking all their undergraduate courses in aggregate, we find that around one in seven students receive an offer to Oxford, and one in six students to Cambridge.
Finally, what does the interview entail?
As earlier mentioned, the Oxbridge interview is meant to mirror the universities’ shared trademark approach to teaching.
While students do attend the relevant lectures, classes and laboratory work for their course, Oxford and Cambridge are unique in that students receive highly personalized, often one-to-one time with their professors to go over course content in depth.
Typically, undergraduates will attend one or two of these sessions a week, each lasting about an hour.
However, students are also expected to complete a significant set of readings (and perhaps a written assignment) prior to each session, as these are all used as springboards for discussion.
Given that these sessions form a significant part of the Oxbridge student experience, the interview is used as a means to assess an applicant’s compatibility with the teaching methods deployed.
As actual faculty members conduct the interviews – placing them at the forefront of the decision-making process – they, too, want to see for themselves the students they may be teaching for at least the next three years, and assess who in particular would thrive under their supervision.
This then begs the question – what kind of an interview performance would convince them?
In truth, Oxford and Cambridge would never expect you to have all the right answers.
Even in fields like mathematics and the natural sciences, where a correct answer more often than not exists, interviewers are more interested in your thought process, and how you engage in academic dialogue to eventually arrive at a conclusion, whether it’s right or wrong.
As such, the most successful candidates are those who display a pure willingness to learn through constant engagement with the interviewer and topic at hand, even if it means making several “mistakes'' along the way.
More so than your raw subject knowledge – which you would accumulate over your time at university anyway – your natural ability to articulate, evaluate, and ask questions on the spot will serve as the true markers of your propensity for growth under an Oxbridge learning environment.
A word of advice
While you can definitely expect to be asked interview questions with obvious links to your areas of interest, not all interview questions will be quite so straightforward.
Going into your very own interview, be prepared to engage with anything that comes your way – no matter how seemingly random or arbitrary.
At the end of the day, remember that interviewers will never deploy a question with the purpose of throwing you off.
Quite the contrary, interviewers want to see you succeed, so approach each of their questions in stride – take one deep breath and proceed to tackle them in a manner that feels most true to yourself as a learner.
But of course, developing this fluidity and confidence takes practice over time – made infinitely easier by Oxbridge experts who have coached countless students through the interview preparation process toward an ultimate acceptance.
If you’d like to explore how you can most effectively approach your interview preparation journey, find out more here.