The do’s and don’ts of university interviews
Even 30 plus years on, some parts of my schooling stick in the mind. I still recall the trial that was my French GCSE oral and the challenge of trying to understand exactly what my teacher, who spoke French quietly with a very strong Scottish accent, was asking me to do. The 10 minute exchange of barely audible “Gaelic Gallic” and schoolboy French felt like an eternity in which he asked one question and I answered another. I guess it might have been good training for a career in politics, but I found the whole experience so terrifying that for years afterwards I would go to extraordinary lengths to avoid speaking French – including giving Post It notes with written requests to French waiters.
The other educational experience that remains etched in my consciousness is my Oxford University interview. I remember sitting in the library at St Anne’s College waiting for my interview, only to discover with two minutes to go that I was in the wrong place. My interview was not in the College but in the department over a mile away. I have never been known for my sporting prowess, so running a mile was probably the most challenging part of the entire Oxford entry process. When I arrived at the department it was evident the interview was going to start from a bad place – I was late, I gave the interviewers a very sweaty handshake, and I was so out of breath that I was unable to string a sentence together. The latter in the end proved to be something of an advantage – for my asthmatic wheezes kept my natural loquaciousness in check and, for once, I was able to keep to my own mantra of “maximum meaning from minimum number of words”!
So what advice can I give to Sixth Formers preparing for university interviews this autumn?
Start by being clear on the purpose of any interview. Most university interviews are for selection purposes and this is certainly the case at Oxford, Cambridge and medical schools. But at some universities, interviews are more a recruiting tool and can be a way of getting students to attend open days prior to an offer being made. This is no bad thing as students should always check out the realities of any university they are seriously considering before accepting an offer.
Assuming interviews are for selection, do some research to find out their format and any assessment criteria that might be used. University websites and admissions offices will be able to provide some guidance and schools which regularly send candidates to universities that interview should have records of what previous students experienced. Interviews can be subjective affairs, and to ensure more objectivity many universities issue interviewers with assessment criteria to judge candidates against. If possible try to find out what the criteria are. They will differ by university and subject but typically will include the ability to engage with and make sense of unfamiliar material, clarity of thought and expression, intellectual flexibility, subject interests and passion, ability to construct and deconstruct arguments and an assessment of subjective specific skills. In vocational subjects like medicine, employment related skills such as teamwork, communication, problem solving and resilience may also be assessed. For all university courses teachability will be a significant consideration.
Applicants preparing for university entry are usually focused on academic matters, especially in ensuring they can answer questions on any particular intellectual interests mentioned in their personal statements. This is essential and it is important that students demonstrate a mastery of topics they stated they were interested in. But teachability matters because there will be many applicants who are good enough to get an offer but there are not sufficient places for them. For these students success or failure may boil down to whether the interviewers actually want to teach them. This is the “footsteps on the stairwell” test and the key to passing it is to remember the importance of cheerful politeness, kindness and consideration and confident humility. Some interviewee behaviours can raise teachability concerns including appearing to know it all already, talking too much, over confidence which can be seen as arrogance, and poor manners. Remember that ‘nice’ is one of the most important but undervalued words in the English language and for some applicants being nice can be the difference between offer or rejection.
In summary, my top 10 tips for university interview success are:
1. Triple check the logistics. Arrive at the right interview location in good time.
2. At many universities, existing undergraduates will be on hand to support applicants. These students can be a very valuable source of advice about what to expect in the interview.
3. In the interview take some time to reflect on a question before giving your answer. It is not a speed- on-the-buzzer test. Instead, pause and then try to structure what you say so it is not a stream of consciousness. Structure can be imposed by thinking about the number of issues in an answer, “there are four key influences”, or their type “long term and short term factors, physical and chemical etc.” Above all make sure you answer the question asked.
4. Remember that at undergraduate level there may not be a “right” answer to a question, and interviewers will be as interested in your reasoning as they will be in your answer.
5. If you are struggling to answer a question and an interviewer gives you a prompt, try to use this “helping hand” in your answer. Adjusting your thinking in response to interviewer assistance is good evidence of intellectual flexibility.
6. Don’t be afraid to say you haven’t covered a topic, but do be prepared to have a go and answer questions if the interviewer gives “helping hand” prompts. Sometimes interviewers will spend a few minutes teaching you a new topic and then check your understanding of the material and what you can do with it. They are giving you a mini Oxbridge tutorial and seeing how you respond.
7. Avoid talking too much or too little. Try to judge from the interviewer’s body language when they think you have been sufficient in your answer.
8. Interviewers are a bit like exam papers in that they often start with easier questions and then get progressively more difficult. If you get asked a very challenging question, see it as a positive – the interviewers have been impressed by what they have seen so far and are now asking very searching questions to test just how good you are.
9. Try not to be nervous. Remember that there is no downside to a university interview. The worst that can happen is the status quo – i.e. you haven’t got a place and you don’t get a place. Of course you can always re-apply next year, whatever happens is not a final judgement.
10. Above all be yourself and be nice. Don’t try to pretend to be something you are not because you won’t be able to sustain that over a three or four year university course. Be nice to everyone you meet at the interview, including all academic and support staff and other interviewees. Kindness and consideration are essential life skills and a key part of teachability.