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Not every university application involves an interview, but many do, especially those for the most prestigious courses and institutions. This may take place face to face either with an agent from the university visiting a town near you (common for some US universities) or with you visiting the university (common in the UK), or it may be done online e.g. using Skype.

No two interviews are the same, and it is impossible to predict exactly what you will be asked. However, there are some types of questions which are likely to come up and which you should be prepared for.

For unexpected questions it also possible to practise “thinking on your feet”, so that you remain calm and give a good impression. The twenty to thirty minutes you spend in front of an interviewer can make a crucial difference to your future career path, so it makes sense to plan ahead.

There are five areas in which you can prepare yourself:

  1. Anticipate obvious questions
  2. Take the initiative when you get the opportunity
  3. Maximise your personal impact
  4. Remember what the interviewer is looking for
  5. Practise your interview techniqueAnticipate obvious questions

1. Anticipate obvious questions

An interviewer will often attempt to put the candidate at ease by starting with some simple questions about a candidate’s motivation for choosing a particular course or a university. “Why do you want to study Economics?”, “What attracted you to Yale?” Exactly what you say in response to these questions matters less than that you have something to say. It is a chance for you to relax and to make a good impression on the interviewer.

You will get things off to a really bad start if you have to fumble around for an answer to motivate what is supposed to be the most important decision you have made so far in your life. At the same time don’t over- think your response or learn a long answer off by heart.

Make sure you are familiar with the details of what is on offer at your chosen university. They may, for example, ask you which courses you are planning on taking in your first year. They are not asking for a binding commitment, but they do want to know you have read the information they have posted online.

If you are planning on taking a year out of your studies between school and university (a “gap” year) you may be asked about your plans and how you think this will make you a better student when you return – the more you can show you have a detailed plan rather than a vague ambition the more organised and competent you will seem. Make sure too that you have re-read what you wrote about yourself in your original application.

2. Take the initiative when you get the opportunity

At some stage the interviewer is likely to ask an open-ended question such as “tell me about something you are doing at school which has made you want to take that subject further” or they may ask you to describe a book you have read or something you have done out of school, which you found inspiring. This is your chance to seize the initiative.

Remember that if you are applying to study a specific subject (as is usually the case with British universities) your answer should have clear relevance to that subject; American universities have a more broad-based approach to admissions, so you may be able to talk about a wider range of activities, but in each case it is an opportunity for you to talk about something that you are passionate about.

  • Be prepared — If you are going to choose something you have read about make sure you have a good understanding of the topic you have chosen, rather than picking something which you think will make a good impression, but you don’t really understand.
  • Remember too that this is about you – your personal response to a book, for example, is much more important than a description of what it contains.
  • Choose activities or experiences that show evidence of personal involvement – not an experience that was simply set down in front of you, but something where your own proactive approach marks you out as an independent learner, who is able to overcome some challenge or set of obstacles.

Again, don’t over-rehearse exactly what you will say, but think about the kind of things you want to talk about in that section of an interview where you are allowed to set your own agenda.

3. Maximise your personal impact

The way you walk into the room, the way you dress, and above all the way you engage with the interviewer and the questions he or she asks you are all much more important than whether you have the “right” answers.

  • Smart casual dress is best, avoid anything too ostentatious. Top Universities has some good pointers on what to wear.
  • Be prepared to shake the interviewer by the hand if he or she offers it.
  • Make eye contact with your interviewer to show that you are listening to the questions and that your answers are being understood.
  • Speak clearly and confidently.
  • At the same time don’t dominate – there is no reason to shout or to talk over the interviewer.

You are likely to be asked some questions to which you don’t know the answer; give yourself time to think if you need it, but if you have some ideas which are only partly formed do share those with the interviewer – they don’t expect you to know all the answers, for if you did why would you need to go to university?

They do want to see that you can engage with ideas that you have not encountered previously. “Thinking out loud” is a very good skill to practise when preparing for this part of the interview. If the questions are more technical – a mathematics or logic problem, for example, ask if you can use a pencil and paper to help with your explanation.

4. Remember what the interviewer is looking for

The interviewer is not asking you questions because he or she wants to know the answers. The questions are being asked to see what you are like as an individual.

Are you open to new ideas? Are you able to defend your own ideas whilst being open to an alternative approach? Will you get on well with your fellow students in classes and seminars, or will you be the kind of person who never contributes, or who is so convinced of their own opinions that they never let others hold a different view?

Often some sections of the interview are like a mini-tutorial; the interviewer may give you some new ideas or something to read and ask you for your opinion. You are not expected to have encountered this material before the interview, but rather to think about from scratch, and maybe make links with things you have seen before.

5. Practise your technique

It is impossible to anticipate exactly what an interviewer may ask, but it is possible to set up a practice interview to make the interview situation seem more familiar. A teacher or other adult who you do not know especially well can make a good practice interviewer in terms of gaining confidence in speaking to an unfamiliar adult who is going to ask you some difficult questions.

Ask them to quiz you on what you have done in school, on any out of school activities, such as an EtonX course, which you think may be relevant to your application, or on your plans for the future.

It can be useful to video the interview so that you can see that you managed to make an impact. Remember to stay flexible – you don’t know what the real interviewer will ask, and answers which are learnt off by heart may be less convincing than something which is spontaneous.

To conclude…

Be prepared but be spontaneous. Many universities have specific advice about interviews on their websites but in general terms, you are being interviewed because your chosen institution wants to know that you will make the good use of the place on offer; that you can think independently and have an open-minded willingness to engage with new ideas.

You also need to demonstrate that you can work as part of a group – most students say they learn far more from working together than they do from their lecturers or from the books in the library.

Once the interview is over don’t worry about analysing everything that went right or wrong, or fretting over things that you didn’t get a chance to say. Experience shows that there is very little correlation between how a candidate thinks an interview has gone and how well they actually performed.

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