Interviews: the facts

Interviews are just one part of the Cambridge selection process, but there are a lot of myths surrounding them and applicants often get very nervous beforehand. Afterwards, though, almost everyone who has an interview will tell you that it wasn’t as a bad as they thought it might be! Interviews are like mini teaching sessions, and they are a chance for you to have an academic conversation with tutors – lots of people actually enjoy the experience of being able to talk to a top academic about their interests and experiences.

An interview is a challenging academic conversation, not an interrogation – so questions will arise in a natural way, and interviewers will prompt you, question your views and ask follow-up questions to nudge you outside your comfort zone and see how you cope with unfamiliar material, or apply your knowledge in new and creative ways.

Your interview questions will usually be based on topics you studied at A-level, or areas which you mentioned in your personal statement. If you have never covered a topic or are unsure about something, let the interviewers know: they may move on to a different area or give you some more information to help you work through the question. If you are asked questions on completely unfamiliar areas, they will be intended to be unfamiliar to all candidates, to see how you think about a new problem.

There’s lots of information about the practicalities and what to expect on the Cambridge University website here, in the official guide to interviews and in the interview FAQs.

Don’t be tempted to pay for interview coaching from private companies – they don’t have access to any ‘insider information’ that isn’t available on the Cambridge website. Cambridge’s former Director of Undergraduate Admissions, Dr Geoff Parks, has reviewed one of the interview coaching books, and found it full of errors and omissions.

Preparing for interviews

There are some simple things that you can do in order to prepare for interviews:

  • Explore your subject so that you have opinions and areas of interest outside what you’ve studied at school. Here are some suggestions for wider reading if you’re not sure where to start.
  • Practise talking about your subject and working through problems and interesting questions aloud – this can be with friends, family or teachers.
  • Revise your school syllabus so you’re completely secure – this is especially important in science subjects.
  • Make sure you remember what’s in your personal statement, any essays you sent in, and any books you mentioned having read. Think about obvious questions like, ‘why did you choose this subject?’
What are tutors looking for?
What are tutors looking for?
what to expect - Questions
what to expect – Questions

College arrangements

Arrangements for interviews differ slightly depending on college, so you will be contacted by your college with the precise details a few weeks before the interview date. Most college websites have information on interviews, such as Trinity’s interview information page.

Students applying for some subjects, at some colleges, may sit a test when they arrive. This may be discussed in the interview. Check the website of the college at which you’re being interviewed for further details and sample papers. For example, Trinity provides sample papers for their Maths, Natural Sciences, and Engineering interview tests.

Mock Interviews

It can be worthwhile to think through some sample interview questions and perhaps have a mock interview in school – not in order to memorise answers, but to practise thinking on your feet. There are some tips for teachers on organising mock interviews here.

There are some videos of mock interviews available on the University website, and Emmanuel college has also produced some short films. Both are a bit out of date, and may be a little more chatty and less technical than real interviews, but should give you a sense of how an interview works.

The schools liaison assistant has collated some sample questions from various sources on the internet. These may be a helpful source of questions to think about; there is a selection of humanities questions and a selection of sciences questions.

Imageine you're in a university interview
Imagine you’re in a university interview

Above all, try to be yourself, think aloud and let your enthusiasm for your subject come through!