Oxbridge Interviews: what they're really looking for (Interview with the Admissions Tutor of Homerton College, Cambridge)

Oxbridge interviews are full of mystique. You hear alarming stories of things being thrown at candidates to see how they react. There are rumours of outright craziness from candidates like the time an Oxford interviewee was asked ‘What is courage?'. They replied ‘This,' and walked straight out of the room.

These stories can fill the more normal, humble and hopeful amongst us with a feeling of utter dread. You've summoned up the courage to apply and crafted a personal statement that you hope will pique the Admissions Tutor's interest. But now you're wondering if you're just a fool to even imagine that you might be worthy of a place.

Never fear, I've gone straight to the source to dispell some of this mystique. I asked Steve Watts, Admissions Tutor at Homerton College Cambridge (the college where I did my teacher training) and Chair of the Cambridge University Admissions Forum to answer your questions about the admissions process.

I learned so much from this interview, things I wish I'd known when I was going through the Cambridge interview process myself. You will gain real insight into what admissions tutors are really looking for in Oxbridge interviews as well as confidence that you are able to deliver it. So, make haste and read on!

Oxbridge Interviews- what they're really looking for

What Oxbridge Colleges are really looking for at interview

Hi Steve! Firstly, could you introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your roles at Homerton College and in the University of Cambridge.

I’m the Arts and Social Sciences Admissions Tutor for Homerton College, and have been for a number of years. It’s my job to read all of the applications from arts and social sciences students, whichever subject they are for, and then to work with individual Directors of Study in each subject assessing their applicants.

In the end I have a role to play in selecting the best applicants for each subject, discussing with the selection and interviewing team all the different elements that help us decide who is best equipped to do well on our courses from a very good field of applicants.

It's worth saying straight away that interviews are only the last piece of the admissions jigsaw. They provide us with useful information, but so do all the other pieces.

Cambridge interviews are only the last piece of the admissions jigsaw. Share on X

Admissions in Cambridge is a college matter, but we are keen to work together to make sure that all equally well-qualified applicants have the same chance to get a place in Cambridge. Homerton is the most recent college to join the university (though we have been involved in Higher Education here and in London for about 250 years!), and I think it is a fantastic place to be a student (I certainly love being employed here).

Wonderful though I think Homerton is, however, I have to say that colleges are far more alike than they are different. Colleagues elsewhere would say the same about their Colleges. We all make sure that we look for the same qualities in our prospective students and assess them in the same way. All ‘subjects’, across the whole university, can see something of applicants at all colleges so college Directors of Study can compare for quality across the whole field in that subject, not just those who applied and were interviewed by their own college. Admissions Tutors, like myself, make sure these comparisons are made. We also work to ensure that standards are comparable across subjects. We work together to align our procedures so there may be some small difference in what colleges ask for from their applicants but they are very small.

For the last 5 years I have been the Chair of the Admissions Forum of the university where all Admissions Tutors get together regularly and agree on best practice and recommend policy. I think our admissions systems are much fairer and clearer than they were when I first became an Admissions Tutor.

Can you tell us why you interview applicants to Cambridge?

Most of those who apply to us are clearly very academically strong. They will tend to have excellent results already in the range of qualification systems we see. In standard UK terms they will probably have a fair amount of A*s at  GCSE (though it may surprise your readers that we don’t have a fixed tariff for this and that some ten percent of our students have between zero and four A* grades; in our experience some develop their academic strengths later and we wouldn’t want to miss out on excellent applicants just because they weren’t at their best in year 11). This year we still have AS marks (UMS marks which we ask for directly from all A level applicants), and these are very good signposts of academic strength. For the future we are still debating what we can use to make up for ‘UMS’ going away in England in most subjects.

We have a whole range of other information just from the application file (from the school reference to the personal statement, and with some idea of the school and social context in which results have been achieved). Interview adds another important piece of the admissions jigsaw. What we find it particularly useful for is seeing whether students can think for themselves.

Cambridge interviews are particularly useful for seeing whether students can think for themselves. Share on X

Our questions seek to stretch them; to start with what they should know (what they have already studied) and see whether they can use this knowledge in new situations and contexts. We examine applicants’ thinking skills and ability to solve problems in a way appropriate to the subject they want to study. We may ask them to look over something they haven’t seen before and comment on this (could be a poem, an article, a maths problem, a report, a graph, a table- different subjects will have different materials to offer), so what we are testing is analytical skills, constructing an argument, and the ability to listen to prompts and disagreements and to respond further to them.

Cambridge interview questions seek to stretch students; starting with what they should know. Share on X

In short, the interviews are a bit like our supervisions – the very small group tutorial sessions we offer in all subjects so that students get close personal attention paid to their own learning. Interview offers an extra level of assessment and helps us make some fine tuning adjustments to our careful study of the applicant’s file and their record of achievement. It’s not the most important part of the process but it helps us take students who are engaged and curious.

What proportion of applicants are asked to interview? What proportion of applicants are offered a place?

Overall we call around 80% of our applicants to an interview. But some subjects may have to ‘deselect’ (our term for not calling to interview) a higher percentage, and some hardly any. Our reason for deselecting is always academic; the person not called would have no realistic chance of getting a place no matter how well they interviewed. Those getting a place after the whole assessment represent 1 in 4 (to 1 in 5) of the field. This isn’t a bad chance, and we can pretty much claim that those who don’t get in will find a place at another top university. The only way to guarantee not getting a place is not to apply.

”The Share on X is not to apply.”]

How many interviews will each applicant have? Why does each person have more than one interview? What are the key differences between the interviews? Who will be the interviewers at the different interviews?

In most colleges, and in most subjects, students have two interviews, but they may have more. Each interview is most likely to present an applicant with two interviewers. In most cases all of the people involved in interviewing any applicant will be academics, and most of them will be actively involved in teaching and researching in the subject being applied for. I say ‘most’ because some colleges may also have a general academic interview. This is sometimes done by Admissions Tutors like me who will still ask academic questions that relate to the application, and see how well the applicant thinks, but they may be more generic than subject specific.

In vocational subjects such as medicine and veterinary medicine one (at least) of the interviewers will be assessing suitability for the profession, though others will be looking at academic ability in science subjects. Each interview is unique and personal and all will focus on academic topics that relate to the subject for which the student has applied.

How do the interviewers prepare for each applicant’s interview? Do they read through the personal statement? Will they ask everybody the same questions?

The Director of Studies who will usually be one of the interviewers will have carefully read all of the application, as will the Admissions Tutor. But actually all of the interviewers are trained to assess an applicant’s file, relevant contextual data and any other relevant information in order to conduct a holistic assessment. We firmly expect them all to do so. That will enable them to use the personal statement as a cue for some questions, exploring further the applicant’s interest in specific aspects of the subject applied for. Not all questions, however, will be tied to the personal statement. And in some interviews the statement may not feature at all. Our questions will be designed to explore an applicant’s abilities in the course applied for, and we aren’t that interested in worked-up ‘party-pieces’. That is why we have a semi-structured approach to interview questions, trying to make sure that similar questions are asked of all applicants in a subject. Only by doing so can we really compare the answers. I say semi-structured, though, because it can’t really be like a ‘script’. Students will answer differently and we may want to follow up on a particular answer and dig deeper. We aim for a combination of treating each student as an individual and being fair to the whole field.

We aim for a combination of treating each student as an individual and being fair to the whole field. #oxbridge Share on X

What key skills or characteristics are you looking for in each applicant? What makes a successful applicant stand out from the others at interview?

Applicants need to have material they have already studied in Years 12 and 13 easily available to them in the interviews, not because they are memory tests, but because it allows a speedy understanding of the more extended material they are asked to consider in the interview. They need to be able to listen to what, precisely, is being asked – not answering the question they wished had been asked. The interviewers like to be involved in the thinking processes of each applicant so it helps if they think aloud, try things out, make an informed guess. The stand-out student will be eager to think further and develop ideas, but will also be prepared to take time to formulate a better response, to incorporate and assess new suggestions from the interviewer, and to be flexible and thoughtful. One word fits well with all subjects- analysis.

The stand-out student will be eager to think further and develop ideas, #oxbridgeinterview Share on X

How long do most interviews last?

About 25 minutes is standard, but they might be slightly shorter or slightly longer.

How many people will each interviewer see in a day?

This will vary but would rarely be more than about 12.

When and how are decisions made about whether to offer places and to whom? Is it an immediate decision or is it done by committee afterwards?

After each subject in each college has completed its interviews there will be a meeting. In Homerton the whole interviewing team is likely to be present but crucial are the Director of Studies (or Directors if the subject has more than one – not uncommon) and the relevant Admissions Tutor, myself for arts and social sciences, my colleague for the sciences. In this meeting we look at everything again, but now with the addition of interview scores. Each applicant is discussed and a rough ranking agreed.

At this meeting, and before, we will have had full access to spreadsheets in which applicants from all colleges are ranked comparably. That will help us decide whether we should make conditional offers to those in front of us in the meeting.

Say that Homerton College normally takes 8 students in a particular subject. That figure isn’t fixed but is formulated by Admissions Tutors in relation to those the college can look after academically and teach well – and ultimately how many students overall we can find a room for. We might find that of all those we interviewed, having been previously assessed highly on the whole application, there are 5 we agree are excellent, and when compared academically to those applying to other colleges continue to look strong. To those we decide to make an offer – conditional, usually on getting at least the standard offer in August.

There are 5 more, though, that look very nearly as good. When we compare with other colleges, however, it isn’t quite clear that they are exceptional in that context. We may decide, therefore to put these in the intercollegiate pool. The pool is where every college puts applicants they think are worth a place, but for whom they have no space left, or about whom they are uncertain about whether there may be stronger students in those applicants other colleges put in the pool.

The colleges meet in very early January to make these final decisions. They may take back some of those pooled and make them an offer directly, they may decide that another applicant pooled by another college and not taken back is stronger than those Homerton, say, had pooled and make an offer to them. Some of those we don’t take back may be made an offer by another college, or even called for a further interview at another college(s).

There’s no denying this process is complicated and time consuming, but it allows us to make a statement we think is very important for fairness – the best applicants get a place in Cambridge, irrespective of college choice. About 1 in 4 of all those placed in the pool get a place to study in Cambridge, even if at a college they hadn’t applied to (and a few days after  arrival at this college will usually declare it is by far the best in Cambridge because all of their new mates are there)

The best applicants get a place to study @Cambridge_Uni, irrespective of college choice. #oxbridge Share on X

How long can an applicant expect to wait before they hear if they’ve got a place?

All of the above takes some time, but we are able to send out all of our letters (with conditional yes, or sorry but no) at the same time on January 11th to arrive the following day.

Can you explain what ‘pooling’ means and what happens next if you are pooled?

I've covered most of this above. We see the pool as a way of levelling the field between colleges and making sure no-one is disadvantaged by applying to an over-subscribed course at an over-subscribed college. For us, it is studying in Cambridge that matters most. Those who are pooled and taken by another college will hear at the same time as everyone else. If colleges wish to interview before making a decision to take someone from the pool, the applicant in question will hear from one of the interviewing colleges a little before the 11th to arrange to come for this second interview. Decisions following these are usually made quite quickly. Of around 3,500 students admitted, we expect between 750 and 800 to gain places through the Winter or Summer Pool (this takes place after results are in and is about very near misses). Roughly one in five applicants will be pooled.

How would you advise applicants to prepare for their interview?

Having a mock interview with someone who knows more about their subject than they do can be very useful, letting applicants talk to someone they don’t know very well about the subject. There’s also a wealth of material on the Cambridge website, including some interviews we filmed using current undergraduates to show what interviews are like. Always worth watching these.

More importantly though applicants need to have recent academic work easily to hand, so a bit of revision is very useful indeed. Applicants need to have done that ‘super-curricular activity’ we strongly promote, by which we mean further reading and thinking about the subject applied for. In some subjects this might mean learning from work experience, in others taking part in subject Olympiads, for most it might mean carrying on with building that computer, or setting up a small business, or simply, and most commonly reading around and beyond the curriculum in the subject(s) most relevant to your chosen field of study. We don’t really mind what you do so long as it is done from genuine interest and curiosity and provides an experience from which you can learn.

Does it matter what people wear?

Not a bit. Be comfortable (December in Cambridge – be warm enough!). If a student feels empowered by dressing up a bit, let them do so. If they feel happier in casual clothes, that’s also fine. Our only requirement is that they don’t worry about what they are wearing (collar too tight, shoes new and agonising) because that gets in the way of concentrating on the questions being asked – and that’s why an applicant is there.

Does your personality matter?


What’s the best piece of advice you would give to someone coming to an interview at Cambridge?

Be yourself and be prepared – and don’t let anyone stop you going for what you want and are well equipped to achieve.

Don’t let anyone stop you going for what you want and are well equipped to achieve. Share on X

Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about the Cambridge interview process?

Just that we are not looking for a ‘Cambridge type’. Our current students are all wildly different from each other. They come from all parts of the world, and from all parts of the UK. They come from a wide range of ethnicities, from all social backgrounds, from all kinds of school. They are similar only in that they are clever, can think for themselves, and are keen to accept a challenge. Our selection process (much more than merely interview) is only concerned with picking the best in these terms.

Oxbridge Interviews: what they're really looking for (Interview with the Admissions Tutor of Homerton College, Cambridge) Share on X

Thank you so much for your time!

Well, I hope you found that as reassuring as I did. If you have any further questions about the interview process at Cambridge University leave them in the comments below.

Before you go, check out my resources page ‘How to apply to Oxbridge and actually get in.' There's loads more information there to help you with the Oxbridge application process.

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