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Not all universities will interview before admission, but if you’re applying to Oxford, Cambridge or some of the London-based institutions such as Imperial College, there’s a good chance you’ll be asked to attend an interview. This also applies to many American universities, who often have representatives who conduct interviews on their behalf in cities around the world.

This may be the first formal interview you’ve had. As such, it might be a struggle to know how to start preparing for it. In this guide, we’ll provide a some guidelines on how to maximise your chances of success in a university interview.

Some areas we’re going to tackle include:

  • Preparing for the interview

  • How to present yourself

  • Common interview questions

  • Showing an interest in what’s said

Getting into the university of your choice can be difficult – there are lots of people applying for a limited number of places, but with careful preparation you’ll improve your chances. This guide provides some essential tips.

Interview preparation

It’s harder to prepare for an interview than an exam, owing to the unpredictable and fluid nature of a conversation. As well as this, some people find the prospect of speaking to someone face-to-face more daunting than writing an exam.

There are a series of steps you can take to make sure you’re as prepared as possible for any situation. Some of these include:

  • Re-reading your application

    You’re may be asked about what you wrote in your application. If you claim to have enjoyed particular books, or to have had other experiences, interests or hobbies which made you want to follow a particular line of study, you must be prepared to be asked about those.

    You might look foolish if you cannot remember the main plot-line or characters from a novel you said had inspired you. Remember that interviews at British universities are likely to focus specifically on the course you are applying for, whilst US university interviews are usually more general in nature.

  • Public speaking lessons

    Learning how to confidently present yourself comes from an ability to speak clearly and succinctly. You can pick up skills like that from the comfort of your own home by taking part in an online public speaking course. EtonX provide these workshops for anyone looking to remove any anxiety or nerves when talking in a formal environment.

  • Practising with friends or family

    While it’s impossible to replicate the exact nature of an interview, you can improve your ability to react to on-the-spot questions by having someone come at you with totally unscripted scenarios. Give the person you’re practising with a copy of your application and see what they pick out to quiz you on.

    Once you feel a little more confident, you may be able to persuade someone you don’t know so well to do the same. This is particularly important if you are the kind of person who does not feel especially confident when meeting new people for the first time. You want people who will stretch you without making you feel inadequate – a teacher or a relative who you do not see very often is a good choice.

  • Researching past interviews

    There are a host of resources out there which highlight roughly what you should expect from Oxbridge and other top establishments. This article from the independent for example, highlights roughly what to expect by pointing out mistakes past candidates made.

    Remember that many of the questions you will be asked do not have “right” answers as such – the interviewer wants to see how you respond to unfamiliar ideas. Don’t expect to learn “perfect” answers to questions you have seen before because you are almost certain to face different queries on the day.

    Instead, you need to practise “thinking on your feet”. If you are applying for a subject which is not direclty related to something you have studied at school, philosophy for example, you should expect to show that you have at least some idea of what the subject is about. Most university websites have advice on this, but generally it amounts to having read around your chosen subject. Candidates for all subjects should be aware of any big news stories which relate to their chosen area of study.

It’s impossible to guarantee you’re going to ace your interview, but having this background preparation can only help. If you fail to prepare, you’re preparing to fail.

How to present yourself

Turning up for a university interview might be different to that of a job, but you’ll still want to make a professional impact. Business Insider report it only takes seven seconds to make a first impression. While you can win people over in time in your personal life, the same is not true of an interview situation.

If you don’t impress there’s a good chance you’ll be forgotten. Worse yet, you might be remembered for all the wrong reasons. When approaching self-presentation, be sure to keep the following in mind:

  • Be assertive – We’ve already covered in a separate blog how it’s possible to be assertive without coming across as overbearing or aggressive. Having confidence and speaking clearly are often the key tips here. If you can make your point clearly without coming seeming too imposing, you’re onto a winner.
  • Use strong body language – On a similar train of thought, it’s handy to use body language which is associated with authority, positivity and openness. There are a series of tips and tricks to use in this regard. Repsond to your interviewer when he greets you, and be prepared to shake his or her hand if one is offered. Again, we already have a blog dedicated to this.
  • What to wear – Smart casual is the rule. Universities are generally less formal than most workplaces, so a suit and tie is not usually appropriate, but equally this is a relatively formal occasion and you should show that you care about it, ripped jeans and worn trainers might be seen as indicating a lack of respect. It’s also generally best to avoid anything too overtly individualistic – T-shirts or badges with politcal slogans or styles of dress which mark you out as a member of a particular sub-culture may make an impact, but possibly in the wrong way. The interviewer wants to judge your intellectual skills, so don’t let your clothing become a distraction. Above all wear something in which you feel comfortable.
  • Be authentic – Don’t present yourself as something you’re not. University interviewers will be experienced at spotting a fake. Overcompensation is a clear sign of insecurity and, usually, a lack of actual ability. Be true to yourself and you’re far more likely to succeed. Above all be enthusiastic about your chosen area of study, and be ready to give examples of things you have already done which demonstrate your willingness to put this into practice. If you have to fake this enthusiasm, you should probably reconsider whether you really want to go to university.
  • Social skills – While interviewers care primarily about your intellectual abilities, they may be interested to see evidence that you’re someone who gives back in some way to the community. This is particularly important if you are studying to join one of the professions which aspires to improve society – this applies quite widely, e.g to law, medicine and engineering. You can demonstrate these skills in many ways, through charitable activies you have carried out at school or in your local community, or perhaps as a member of a sports team, musical ensemble or drama group. There are many careers in which you need to show that you can interact with other people. If you have had a part-time job, working in a shop or restaurant for example, this is another way in which you can demonstrate that you have experience in dealing with other people and being responsible about turning up to work on time.

As long as you stick to these snippets of advice, you should come across in the manner which is most likely to see you achieve your desired aim.

Common questions and how you should answer them

There is no way to guarantee what questions will be posed, but there are a few which appear quite often. In this section, let’s take a look at some of the most common university interview questions and look at how to best tackle them.

Why do you want to attend this university?

Answering this question stretches beyond just saying you think the local area is nice or that you’ve been recommended the university by friends or family. You need to give solid reasons why this particular establishment is the one you’ve chosen to apply for. Also try to avoid answers like living costs or the nightlife, as these imply you aren’t as concerned about the syllabus as you are by external factors.

Ultimately, it’s important to show you’ve put some serious thought into your decision, from an educational perspective. Think about why this particular course is preferable when compared with others and try to highlight specific elements to show you’ve done your research.

This kind of questions is also often asked as a warm-up. It is such an obvious question that most candidates will have an answer prepared; allowing them to give this answer helps them to relax and overcome their nerves.

Why do you want to study this subject?

Again, it’s important to give a legitimate answer beyond something like “I find it easy”. Showing a real passion for what it is you’re learning will go a long way in the eyes of an interviewer. If you can demonstrate a love for what it is you will be learning, there’s a good chance you’ll impress the person you’re talking to.

This is often a good moment to steer the discussion to a particular aspect of the subject you are interested in – perhaps something you found out about for yourself rather than being taught it at school along with everyone else.

This is a key opportunity for you to display passion for your subject and engage with your interviewer. You won’t be expected to know all the answers – if you did, you wouldn’t need to go to university – but this shows the interviewer that you are likely to stick with your studies and make the best use of the opportunity you are being offered. Remember the interviewer has to be persuaded to give a place to you rather than someone else.

What achievement are you most proud of?

This is one of those questions which is much easier to answer if you have anticipated it and have prepared the outline of an answer. There are probably a lot of achievements in your life which you’re proud of. While it might be tempting to mention something related to your personal life, it’s best to link this to something related to your planned course of study. Don’t learn a long response off by heart, but know what you will want to talk about. The interviewer may want to engage you in a discussion about this.

Questions with no right answer.

Interviewers will know from your school record how well you have performed academically, but will be using the interview to see how you respond to higher-level challenges. To that end they will often ask questions which are broadly related to your area of study, but do not require any very specific subject knowledge. In these cases there is often no correct answer, but rather the interviewer wants to start a discussion with you.

A candidate for English Literature might be asked “What is a novel” or a physics candidate might be asked “How will the Universe end?”. In answering these questions the important thing is to “think out loud” – to express a series of relevant ideas. Don’t feel you have to come up with a perfect answer straight away – there is no perfect answer.

Don’t be afraid to be silent for a moment or two, or to ask the interviewer for some help. If you are unsure about something, it is better to admit it than to claim something is true which the interviewer know is false. Phrases like “I haven’t really thought about this before, but I think it might be….” are helpful. If you feel you have an answer which would be better expressed by drawing a diagram, or you need paper for a calculation, ask for it. Alternatively you may find your interview takes place in a room with a whiteboard – again ask if you can use it if you think it will help. Above all, your interviewer wants to see how you think.

More general questions.

Questions such as “What is your greatest strength?” (or weakness) tend to be asked more often by interviewers from American Universities, where you are applying for admission to a wider range of courses, rather than in the UK where you apply for a particular subject. These questions are much easier to answer if you have anticipated them; do not recite an answer which you have learnt by heart, but try to make you response spontaneous – the secret is to plan what you want to talk about, but not exactly what you want to say.

Again, your interviewer is likely to want to engage in a dialogue, not just listen to your answer and move on to the next question. If asked about a weakness, try to put a positive spin on it. Do not for example say “I always miss deadlines” but say “I find deadlines difficult, but I have learnt to handle that by….”

Why should we offer you a place?

Questions such as this offer you a chance to sell yourself.. It is an ideal opporuntiy to turn the conversation to anything you wanted the interviewer to know but haven’t had a chance to drop into the conversation yet. Here are some things you may want to talk about:

  • Your passion for the subject and how you plan to continue your studies
  • How you feel you can contribute to this specific university
  • Your career plans and how this course will help you – it is better though to come across as someone who wants to make the world a better place than to say something which boils down to “I want to get a really good job and earn lots of money”.
  • Personal qualities you haven’t already mentioned which might help you stand out

While you don’t want to overhype yourself, it’s also important to make sure you come across as someone who feels like they’re genuinely worthy of a place on the course. There is nothing worse than someone who doesn’t seem to want to be there, except perhaps someone who comes across as knowing all the answers. Enthusiasm and a desire to learn more are key features.

Show interest in what’s said

As has already been stated, it’s essential to come across as an individual who has a genuine passion for their studies. There are a number of ways you can do this, including making it obvious you’re paying close attention and turning up to the interview with a clear and detailed knowledge of what the course covers – having read around the subject to see how it develops beyond what you have studied at school

Arguably the best way to demonstrate this interest is by asking questions yourself. While you won’t want to bombard the interviewer with queries, actively getting involved in the chat in this way shows you genuinely care about why you’re there.

Some top things to ask in this regard include:

  • What do students most enjoy about the course? – It’s important to know if students get value from a course. If there are elements of project work (which will be clear from the online prospectus) you could ask for examples of projects which students have found especially rewarding.
  • Are there chances to give back to the subject or the university – Show a clear desire to give just as much as you get. While you won’t want to overdo it, it’s important to highlight that you’re eager to contribute by helping with a student society, working to raise funds or encourage applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds to consider applying.
  • Anything related specifically to a module which you need further clarification on – By showing you’re already aware what’s covered on the syllabus, you highlight to an interviewer that you’re invested in their course. If you have a specific query you’d like an answer to, do ask, but don’t ask questions which are clearly covered in the online information. This will just show that you haven’t done your research properly.

Stay attentive, make good eye contact throughtout the interview and make it apparent you’re already invested in the course which is on offer. As you leave, thank the interviewer for seeing you. This goes a long way toward showing genuine passion.

Has this guide been helpful? Be sure to keep some of our top tips in mind when you’re next faced with a university interview. While these kinds of occasions might seem daunting, with thoughtful preparation you can conquer your anxiety and make the best impression.

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