Dr Rowena Fletcher-Wood is an alumna of the University of Oxford who has been through the interview process herself and has also carried out mock interviews for students including those in our University Interview Skills course! Here she discusses what you can expect from a university interview and tips for tackling unseen questions.
The biggest misconception of Oxbridge interviews – or any academic university interview – is that your interviewer will “test” you by asking something outside the box, like how many atoms are in the room.
Whilst you might be asked questions that you don’t immediately know the answer to, it’s not a trick! In this blog, we’ll talk through what interviewers are looking for, what kind of questions you can expect and how you can tackle them calmy and confidently to give your interviewer the best possible impression.
Who are the interviewers and what do they want from you?
University interviewers are tutors, lecturers, researchers, academic supervisors, and, for sciences, laboratory demonstrators. They’ll spend three or four years teaching you, so they want to select the best students.
Place yourself, for a moment, into the shoes of the interviewer: their aim is to discover whether you are compatible: will you learn in the way they teach? Will you communicate well?
Unfamiliar questions give interviewers the opportunity to understand all of the above, whilst giving you the opportunity to apply your knowledge, and to problem-solve critically and creatively.
Tips for tackling unseen questions
Let them guide you
Awaiting my own Oxford interview, I never believed they would ask me those questions. But, in hindsight, I think they did: I just didn’t notice. No questions were out of the blue: they built incrementally on my replies, guiding me towards evolving new ideas. I let them guide me – and this is what I’d recommend you do too. If you listen carefully enough, they’re not asking you how many atoms are in the room (they don’t care either): they want to hear you think.
If you don’t know, have a go anyway
Most of us are risk averse, and so much more upset to lose something than not to gain something: it explains why many students in university interviews won’t answer if they don’t know. But this is to your detriment. On the face of it, it seems sensible: getting one question right adds to your stack of correct answers, whilst getting one wrong shows your weakness and knocks your confidence. …But only if a correct answer is what your interviewers are looking for. It isn’t.
The most certain way to fail the interview is to not answer the questions asked. If you answer, you show you listened and demonstrate how you think; whether or not this leads to the correct answer, that is useful information for your interviewers. If you show them nothing, they have nothing to confirm that you are the right person for the course.
Be present now
When you didn’t answer a question quite as well as you would have liked, your mind might be preoccupied with what you could have done better rather than on the next question. During your university interviews, remember this. Be present and listen to the questions asked. You can’t change past mistakes, and you are more likely to make future ones if half of your brain is engaged in worrying. Practice focussing intently on the moment – there’s always time to look back at your performance afterwards.
You can also practice this with example questions – like the ones included below. Our two examples are a more “scientific” question and a more “arts” question, but remember, interviews may vary.
Have a go at these example questions, answering out loud or using paper. Once you’ve said everything you can think of, read and compare the model answer.
In 1940, the Tacoma Narrows suspension bridge collapsed. Why do you think this was?
This was the same year that it was built. Does that affect your proposed explanation?
Answer guidance 1
This is not a history question; your interviewers do not expect you to know the bridge. Directed towards engineers, this question invites you to think divergently about factors that might lead to the collapse. A model answer would include mention of at least three factors such wind, overloading, and material failure. It could also include miscalculation by the engineers who designed it, but should not prioritise human error.
Once the additional information is supplied, the model candidate would weigh up their solutions, deciding that such a rapid failure is very unlikely to arise from overwearing. If they’ve heard about other suspension bridges, they might go on to explain resonance frequency and the importance of including dampening in bridges, perhaps with comparison to building designs in earthquake zones or using other knowledge of their own.
Why wild and wandering mark
Finds shore at all, remarkable.
Who wrote this short poem?
What date did they write it?
Answer guidance 2
Again, this is not a history question. The interviewer is asking you to compare and contrast your existing knowledge of literature to the style, tone, and language of the sample. A model candidate would go through each of these systematically, referencing at least three specific authors. For example, they might comment that the word “mark” appears in one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, and that the use of word play implies the original language was English (e.g. later than Chaucer). To date it, they might align the sea voyage to colonial expansion. Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner might be contrasted, or any text involving seafaring, e.g. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The model candidate would include reading outside the syllabus.
If you need some extra support to get ready for your university interview, take a look at the EtonX University Interview Skills course. As well as learning more about how to answer unseen questions, you’ll learn how to answer questions on your personal statement and handle nerves.