MAR 14, 2020 • 19 min read
It’s no surprise that the interviews cause a lot of anxiety for prospective Oxford students - your performance is one of the key factors in determining whether you receive an offer.
This, and the fact that Oxford interviews are likened to a verbal academic test - they’re notoriously tough, unpredictable, and difficult to prepare for.
This blog includes plenty of insights from students who were successful in their respective course interviews. Get tips on how to prepare, relax on the day, and ultimately ace the Oxford interviews from those who’ve gone before you (and were just as nervous!).
If Oxford likes your application, you will be invited to an interview with the college you applied to as well as a college picked at random. The interviews will vary from college to college - one might focus on your personal statement and academic achievements, while the other might present a stimulus and ask you related questions.
The interviews at Oxford are designed to replicate the tutorial system that you will experience as a student. They’re about exploring your thought process and gauging whether you have the type of thinking the tutors want to work with.
As Dr Samina Khan, Director of Undergraduate Admissions and Outreach, says, “Interviews are not about reciting what you already know - they are designed to give candidates a chance to show their real ability and potential.”
A good deal of the teaching at Oxford takes place in small classes or tutorials, and your interviewers - who may be your future tutors - are assessing your ability to study, think and learn in this way.
They want to understand your potential, and will try to figure out how you think and whether you are suited to the Oxford style of academic exploration.
Most Oxford interviews will be held from early to mid-December.
Once your application has been accepted, your chosen college will usually get in touch asking if you would like to be interviewed via Skype or in-person. Depending on your course, you might be asked to travel to Oxford - medical applicants, for example, all have to interview in-person. On the plus side, you’ll get free accommodation, food and entertainment for your stay.
Most people who live in England go to Oxford for the interviews, and many from abroad choose to fly in. It’s a great way to mingle with others in the same boat, get a feel for the university, and make friends.
Let’s take a look at how the Oxford interviews play out in different courses, and how successful applicants view their experience in hindsight.
We talked to Oxford students who interviewed for the following courses:
Abi had two interviews for Oxford Law, and assures that “everyone feels out of their depth - it’s not something you can have all the answers to.”
In her first interview, Abi was asked, Is it ever okay to push someone off a ladder in a sinking ship if they’re in the way?, for which she had to come up with an argument and support her views. “The tutors tend to play devil’s advocate, so if they disagree with you it’s not because they think you’re stupid and that you’re saying the wrong thing, they’re just trying to push you to get to the next level,” she explains.
Abi confirms that the Interviews are a lot like the tutorial system, in that they’re one-on-one, they push you, and force you to backup your statements. “If you do well in the interview you’ll do well there,” Abi says.
But rest assured, on the flip side of that, the tutors aren’t trying to trip you up. “None of the questions they ask you are trick questions. Looking back I kind of enjoyed the questions in a weird way.”
Abi says the interviews are quite difficult to prepare for, and that this can be daunting. Her advice is to find an Oxford student or alum who has the experience to stage a practice interview. She says, “Being asked questions you don’t know the answer to and practising working them out for yourself will help you feel more confident and capable. If that calms your nerves, you’ll be better at answering the questions.”
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing for Abi, who says she’s a “prime example of how doing something stupid in an interview doesn’t mean you won’t get admitted.”
In her second interview, Abi was asked whether or not you can know someone personally for the sake of a statute about marriage, and answered with “Well, I have a poster of Robert Pattinson on my wall, and that doesn’t mean I know him personally”.
“You can say silly things and still get into Oxford - they don’t expect perfection,” she says.
Oxford Engineering applicants are required to sit two interviews of half an hour duration, one in the morning and afternoon. The first interview will be at the college you applied to, and the second is with a different college that’s allowed to admit you if you aren’t accepted to your first choice.
As Jasper explains, “Engineering is fairly unusual at Oxford in that the interviews are always structured exactly the same. The question is read out to you, and you are shown a picture or graph.”
As well as more general questions, students are asked some based on the maths they have done at school and others on physical situations requiring the application of physics and simple maths to test your ability to express physical concepts mathematically.
In his first interview, Jasper was shown a drawing of a hydroelectric dam, and was asked to work out some fluid flows with it using energy.
“It’s a tutorial exercise more than anything else. They want to see how you respond to teaching from those particular tutors. Not knowing the answer is probably the right thing,” he says, adding, “You should expect to struggle, and then be helped, then struggle, then be helped again.”
Jasper admits that he didn’t perform very well in his second interview, but says there was less pressure on him. “The tutors let me off if I didn’t know the right answer, whereas the first was much more rigorous.”
Liam had two interviews - one on human geography, and the other on physical geography. He says the interviews are nerve-wracking because they are “an unknown”, but explains that the goal is just to test you - to see what you know and what you don’t know.
However, Liam explains that “you’re not marked down for getting an answer wrong or for interpreting a question the wrong way; rather, you’re guided towards the right way of thinking.”
Liam has an example of this from his physical geography interview: “I was given a map of Africa which showed water stress and food insecurity, however I didn’t approach it from the perspective of physical geography. I picked up on the food insecurity, and talked about the politics of Africa, and how a more stable government and economy meant food could be distributed to these areas. I had been going on for five minutes when the tutor stopped me and said ‘brilliant, thank you very much, but why do you think water’s important for this?’, and this prompted me to answer the other part of the question.”
His next question was, If you could design your perfect fieldwork experiment, what would it be and why? At the time of the interview, Liam was interested in methane deposits in the Arctic. He had no idea how he would design the experiment, but thought out loud about some things he could do. Liam admits that what he said was “nonsense”, but that the key is to show interviewers how you think.
For the human geography interview, Liam was given a map of the world at night which showed lights across the world, and was asked to talk about the Middle East and what was interesting there. Following this, he was given a map that was contorted.
“It took me a while to get there and I said some things that were wrong along the way, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that I was thinking about it critically, and I was able to respond to everything that they asked.”
“The interviewers gave me no indication of whether I got it right,” Liam says. “Most people will walk out of an interview and think it didn’t go very well. That’s because the interviews will get harder and harder until you reach a level where can’t respond anymore. You’ve been pushed to your limit, and your limit might be very different to the person before you or the person after you.”
His advice for future geography students? “Don’t worry too much afterwards, because as long as you’ve done the work before - you’ve thought about it and done the reading - then you’ll have the best shot you possibly can.”
Paulina applied to the Modern and Medieval Languages course for German and Portuguese. Where most courses require two interviews, Paulina had six in total, with two or three tutors in each one, but she assures students that “The number of interviews you’re invited to does not have any influence on your application.”
In her interviews, one tutor was asking questions while the other/s were taking notes. Paulina says, “It’s important not to be scared about the amount of notes the tutor is taking - there’s not a clue as to whether you’re doing something right or wrong.”
Some of Paulina’s interviews were focused on her personal statement, and some were focused on academia and her way of thinking. In one interview, Paulina received a passage in German and was asked to go through it and think about what it says. Paulina was then asked what she thought about the text, and they covered certain points that the tutor wanted to highlight.
Paulina says her “favourite part of the interview was getting to speak in the language”. To get a feel for her accent, grammar and how she speaks in German and Portuguese, the tutors asked Paulina questions like What are your hobbies? How’s your day been? What are you up to tonight?
She says the interview can be a great process if you “just make the most of it,” adding, “you also have the opportunity to make really good friends.”
Alissa had two interviews at different colleges, both of which were subject-based.
In the first interview, Alissa was asked a series of short questions related to biochemistry. She says, “Some of [the questions] built on each other, but generally they were testing my span of knowledge, while also probing my depth of knowledge and pushing me beyond certain boundaries and making me understand and explain certain biochemical processes that I had not yet learned in school.”
In her second interview, Alissa was asked two longer questions that had multiple parts to them. “[The interviewers] started off with something I was familiar with from school, then asked a series of questions that took me to a point where I would not have been able to answer based on what I learned in school.”
Alissa explains that in the questions in both interviews were asked in a particular order that would guide her to a correct way of thinking that would help her answer the questions she didn’t know. As she says, “Interviewers are not trying to put you in a position where you’re not able to answer the question. They guide you to this point using a series of questions.”
Alissa offers the following advice for prospective Oxford Biochem students:
Emily describes the Oxford interview as a “weird experience” because the point of it is to simulate what the tutorial will be like.
“The tutorial system is very intimidating at first sight, and an interview is even scarier because it has more riding on it,” she says.
Emily had two interviews at two colleges, each lasting 20-30 minutes. The first asked solely about her personal statement and things that she knew about. In the other interview, she was shown random objects, including live insects, plants and graphs.
Emily says it’s important to have a clear mind for the interview, and says that preparing well in advance is the key to de-stressing on the day.
Her advice to future biological sciences students is to read newspapers, stay on top of research developments, go outside and observe things in nature, and practise explaining what you observe to other people. “This could mean finding a random plant, and talking about its adaptations, why it has certain features and what the functions of those features are,” she explains.
Moreover, Emily says it’s important to “think about your subject beyond the school syllabus. The interviews are very different to curriculum biology, so revising your syllabus isn’t going to help you.” As an example, Emily was shown an insect and asked why it had wings. She had to think outside the box - is it just for flight? Or could it also be to scare off potential predators?
The interviews require a lot of lateral thinking - and you have to do this thinking out loud. As Emily says, “Whatever you think your reasoning is, explain it all. Voice what you’re thinking and why you’re thinking it. This is really helpful because a couple of times I said out loud what I was thinking and decided it was rubbish, so I’d do a complete U-turn and eventually arrive at the right answer.”
“That said, it doesn’t matter if you get the wrong answer, it’s more about how you thought about the problem and how you’ve arrived at the answer you have.”
Emily says the most important thing is to show your interest in and dedication to the subject. “You can’t become a biologist overnight, so you really have to be passionate about it from the get-go. If you’re not, it’s going to be hard to get that across in the interview.”
Tilly had three interviews over three days for English. In her first interview, she had to study and analyse two poems, whereas the next interview was more focused on her personal statement, which she found more relaxing. These then led to a final interview, which was a mix of the first two.
Before the first interview, Tilly was given two poems to compare and analyse for 20 minutes. She says she was so stressed that she couldn’t even think about what the poems meant, and so went in “completely unprepared”. As a result, she didn’t feel that the first interview went well at all, and was convinced she wouldn’t get in.
Tilly was much more confident in her second interview, where she was asked about her personal statement. In this one, the teachers were really encouraging, telling her “well done” on a few occasions. “I came out of that interview thinking I had a chance,” she says.
The next morning Tilly was told she would have another interview. In the third interview, she was given a poem by Marianne Moore to read, about which she was asked to talk briefly along with her personal statement.
Tilly describes the third interview as “quite hard and more nerve-wracking, but also enjoyable.”
“At that point I realised that they were trying to catch you out, they just want to hear what you have to say,” she says.
Oliver had two interviews at different colleges - one with a management tutor and one with an economics tutor. Like many students, Oliver says he “more nervous than he needed to be”, but to his surprise, the interviews were more of a conversation than a test, and he had a pleasant experience.
“The main stress was waiting,” he admits. “But once I got in, the tutors were very nice and I felt at ease.”
Oliver said the questions he was asked were quite straightforward. He was given a management case study about Toyota, and then some maths-based economics questions. The tutors were helpful in helping him answer the questions. As he says, “The tutors walked me through the case study and the questions - it was more enjoyable than I thought it would be.”
Even with this support, Oliver says it’s hard to gauge how you’re doing in the interview. “They don’t let on if you’re doing a good job or a bad job.”
Oliver offers the following advice for prospective Oxford Economics and Management students:
Lauren had one interview at the college to which she applied and a second interview at another college that offers human sciences (only five or six Oxford colleges offer the course).
In the first interview, Lauren was asked about her personal statement and the books she’d read.
The second interview was more challenging and subject-focused, but Lauren was an unusual case in that she hadn’t taken related courses at school (biology or statistics). To account for this, the questions she was asked were less focused.
As Lauren explains, the interviews are about “how you think as opposed to what you know and can reproduce for us.” As an example, Lauren was shown a graph and asked what it was about - in this instance she wasn’t able to draw on previous knowledge - nor was she expected to - but rather she had to use her instinct and think laterally.
Lauren says that “At the end of the day the tutors are interviewing you because they’re going to be teaching you for the next three years.” Her advice? “Let the interviewers experience how you think, and they can see if they like it or not.”
Mahmoud had two interviews at two different colleges for computer science. His advice is short but sweet: “Learn the skill of being able to think out loud and say what’s going on in your head. Once you do that, you can’t really do anything silly, because you can just change tack and say ‘actually, it’s just occurred to me that that’s not the best way to approach this problem’.”
He says it’s best not to go silent, give yourself plenty of time, and relax and be yourself. “The teachers want humans in the end, not personal statements being recited back to them.”
Based on all of these Oxford students’ insights, here are some specific things that you can do to prepare for your interview:
Oxford interviewers are looking for potential, not perfection.
Prepare as best you can, but don’t expect to know the answer to everything you’re asked in your interview. Remember, tutors are trying to find out how you think and learn, and they need to push you out of your comfort zone to be able get an idea of this.