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Cambridge Interviews

Dr Sam Lucy, 2 December 2019

As we approach Christmas, Admissions Tutors are gearing up, not for the festive season, but for the interviews that will soon be here. Running through the first few weeks of December, this stage of our application process brings thousands of students to the University to meet with academics.

As you can imagine, this is a significant logistical undertaking, requiring the co-ordinated efforts of staff across the University. So why do we do it? Well, the interviews give us a better sense of whether an applicant would benefit from and flourish in our teaching environment – an interview itself closely mirrors the small group teaching (the supervision system) that is so integral to study at Cambridge. At the same time, interviews help us to assess whether an applicant has the right background knowledge (if the course requires it), while also enabling us to gauge their interest in the subject material and their flexibility in thinking. This isn’t always apparent from their paper file. Interviews don’t consist of trick questions, and interviewers have no hidden agenda – they want to encourage applicants to do their best. Ultimately we want to see how an applicant understands and develops ideas when given problem-solving scenarios or asked to discuss material relevant to the course they are applying to, and to check that we can teach them effectively.

The application process is holistic in its nature and takes into consideration all of the data that is provided, of which the interview is only one part. Applicants should, of course, engage with, and prepare for the interview, but it is by no means the most important element. And, as they prepare, we know that applicants will look to you for advice.  Often, they won’t have experienced a formal interview before. The following should help you to answer their questions.

What will the interview be like?

Firstly, applicants should generally expect two subject specific interviews, usually with two interviewers in each, though this can vary (it’s definitely not a panel though). The academic part of each interview would normally last 20-30 minutes, though a few subjects might use a lengthier interview of up to 45 minutes. Each interview is an interactive assessment. The overarching goal is to assess a candidate’s aptitude, core knowledge and technical skill, their capacity to learn from mistakes and participate in a discussion of their subject. Applicants don’t need to get every question ‘correct’. Instead, we want to see how a candidate can tackle a problem or idea they are not familiar with, and how they can think around an idea. So, for an applicant, explaining your thinking aloud is key.

Remember to encourage your students to keep the dialogue going. They are allowed and encouraged to ask for clarification or to pause for thought before answering. We are not looking for perfection, but instead to see if an applicant is right for the course to which they have applied. By encouraging them to think aloud we can observe motivation and aptitude as well as analytical and critical abilities.

During the course of the interview, the interviewers will take notes. Interviewees shouldn’t worry about this or let it put them off – notes simply help interviewers, who may be involved in many separate interviews, to remember what has been discussed.

It’s important to note too that appropriate adjustments can be made for those who require them at interview, so Colleges should be notified of these in advance, and, for those students who meet specific criteria, the Colleges are pleased to provide support with the public transport costs of travelling to interview.

How can applicants prepare?

There are several ways you can help your students to prepare for the experience of academic interviews. Students should practise speaking aloud about the academic work they have completed and the subject they are interested in. Generally, we would want applicants to demonstrate critical ability and precision in expressing core knowledge and ideas, that they have the ability to apply existing knowledge methodically to new situations, and the ability to assimilate and apply new concepts. Doing so verbally is very different from answering questions in writing (though in more technical subjects they may well be handed pen and paper and asked to explore their thinking that way). Practising talking about their subject and their ideas about it to teachers, friends, and family members is the easiest way to become more comfortable in thinking aloud, and is somewhere you as teachers can help, either by engaging with your students directly, or by encouraging discussion among a high-attaining subject peer group.

Encouraging students to refresh their memory about any super-curricular work they have done is also useful – it is possible that they will be asked about this in their interview, particularly if it has formed a part of their personal statement. They should be able to explain how they have gone beyond the school curriculum, the kinds of things they have read or engaged with, and the academic debates they are interested in. Obviously, anything they have mentioned in their UCAS personal statement could be asked about – everything there should be true, at least by the start of December(!) and our interviewers would expect candidates to have more to say than they have been able to squeeze into that statement.

Beyond this, there are several mock interview videos that students can watch on the University’s YouTube channel, featuring Cambridge students and academics. These films give an insight into the range of different settings in which interviews might take place, and a really good idea of the styles of questioning; watching these can really help to visualise the experience and feel more at ease when they arrive. For those who feel nervous in the run-up to the interview, it’s worth reminding them that interviewers want to encourage candidates, not catch them out. Please don’t encourage them to spend too much time researching the interviewers themselves though – it is much better if they have developed their own genuine interests in the subject, rather than suddenly developing an enthusiasm for ours shortly after receiving the interview invitation.

What can applicants expect when they arrive?

When they arrive at their interviewing College, there will be current students, porters, and other staff there to chat with interviewees, helping them to settle in and get around. In the interview itself, they just need to listen carefully, expect to be challenged, remember that the interviewer wants them to do well, answer as clearly as they can, and be themselves.

Finally, when it comes to that burning question about what applicants should wear for interview, there is no dress code: they should wear what they feel warm and comfortable in (Cambridge in December can be cold!).

It is always a pleasure to meet so many interested and engaged applicants – we look forward to welcoming them in December. Hopefully this information will help to demystify the process and allow you to help your students get the most out of their interview.

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