Know about the Oxbridge interviews

20 Oct 2015

Interview format, atmosphere

So Oxford and Cambridge each has more than 20 colleges each and over 30 if you count the graduate colleges. Each college has their own interviews conducted by their own interviewers and, therefore, the interview atmosphere can be slightly different from college to college. You might get very friendly interviewer who give you lots of hints, smiles to help you relax as opposed to mean looking interviewers waiting to catch you out when you make mistakes. Just kidding, interviewers are there to test you but they are also there to find out how you approach questions haven’t seen before, how you think and whether you can discuss with the interviewers about the academic topics.

So depending on which college you are interviewed at, you might be facing 1, 2 or 3 interviewers. For me, I had 1 interviewer in my 1st interview and 3 in my 2nd one. Who are these interviewers? Most of you would already know that they will be your tutors for the next 3, 4 years so these interviewers are your college-specific tutors.

Each interview will typically last 25 minutes of 30 minutes and you will get 2 of these. In Oxford, 1 interview will be at your chosen college while the other one will be a randomly allocated college. This is different to Cambridge where all your interviews are held at your chosen college. But depending on circumstances, you might have a 3rd one. When you have a third one, this means your interviewers are not very sure in giving you acceptance to the university or not and therefore would like to have another assessment to confirm this. So on average you should be expecting 2 interviewers that are 30 minutes long each.

What kinds of questions are asked in the interviews?

The crux of this blog, what kinds of questions come up in the interview? Firstly I can say that general questions ‘Why do you want to study at Oxford?’ or ‘Why do you want to study Chemistry?’ are often not asked. Ok there might be some exceptions but I can say that on most cases, there will not be such questions. We go straight into the academic questions.

However, the first question often tends to be easy, doable ones like A-Level standard even AS standard, IB standard. The examples I’ll be giving will have to be biochemistry based because I studied biochemistry myself. But if I give you an example, my first interview’s first question was to draw an amino acid. That’s quite a simple one, biology AS level. There was a whiteboard next to where I was sitting and I was just asked to stand up and draw it out. We started with this easy question and then started building up some difficulty to what I feel was university first year level. Just to give you an idea, after ‘draw amino acid’ question, the next question was to draw a peptide bond by drawing another amino acid and joining them up. Then the trick question was the one after. It asked me what is the most electronegative atom? Thinking now, it is not as tricky as it was in the interview. But in that time because I was under pressure, I was very nervous, this question really tricked me. Obviously it’s oxygen but I was trying to find whether it is nitrogen or oxygen. But yeah I chose oxygen correctly. And towards the end, towards the more difficult end questions, (I will just give you an example), the question I got was “If a codon has 4 bases instead of 3, how would this change the structure of tRNA?” Definitely something you don’t study in A-Levels and something that most biochemistry applicants will not have immediate answers to.

So I think there are 2 areas that you are being assessed through this kind of difficult questions that you’ve never seen before. First is whether you can get the hints from the interviewers to arrive at the correct answer to find your way to the answer and secondly how passionate you are about the subject. So about the first point, they are trying to see if you are the type of person who thinks logically and then who can express logical thinking process to another person and discuss the problem share some ideas together and then arrive at the correct answer. This is very important I think because that’s exactly what tutorials are like. The tutorials are not for being taught by your tutors on the subject but sort of a discussion; you are learning through discussion with your tutors. So that’s quite an important, let’s say not a skill, but a quality. I’ll give you a very good example of this.

In my first interview, one of the easy questions I received was ‘Explain transcription and translation’ Ok how is this? This is an AS level; you learnt about transcription and translation all you have to do is explain that. However, how long will your answer be? You are given a question on two very big massive topics. Obviously you could go on for ages on this but you don’t want to do that in a 30 minute interview. So you have to select the kind of information you want to give the tutor and you need to start with the basics and then talk about it for a while. One minute maybe? You don’t want to start with showing off ‘I know really cool things about transcription and translation that A-Level books don’t talk about. It’s about you being able to logically explain from basics to the details.

The second part, your passion for the subject is something you will naturally and subconsciously express through your answers, reactions during the interview. I’ll give you an example, in my second interview, there was this really hard question, it was the hardest question out of the 2 interviews and it was driving me crazy. I obviously received hints from the interviewers however I still couldn’t solve it. I was really thinking about it for 2 minutes and it clicked suddenly and during that eureka moment, I literally half jumped from the chair; my voice volume and tone increased. This must have been obviously noticed by the interviewers as a sign of my passion for biochemistry which was an appealing point. So a tip I would like to give you all is not to over exaggerate but exaggerate a little your excitement when you receive hints that make you click and arrive at the correct answer.

How to prepare for interviews?

Finally how to prepare for our interviews. I’m going to talking about 2 techniques that I personally used and both are practicing discussion skills; both are used to make you better at, firstly, organizing your thinking processes and then express them.

First technique is the one that my biology teacher taught me. Let’s say you have 20 topics about biology like stem cell, transcription, cloning… You pick a topic randomly, stem cell, and then you have to talk about stem cell for 1 minute without stopping. More like narration. You have to narrate for 1 minute. This is a lot harder than you think. I firstly thought this looks a bit easy, transcription is an easy topic so it shouldn’t be a problem. It actually is quite difficult because it’s very easy to stop and think and then restart narrating. So this gets you to practice, what this makes you better at is at firstly organizing, prioritsing which parts are important for this topic; which bit should come at the top and which bit should go at the end. I will go back to the question of explain transcription and translation. These are massive topics and you could go on forever. But like I said before, if you start with the basics, 1 minute will be not enough to finish the explanation. Therefore I actually said should I go on at the end of the 1 minute and he actually told me to stop.

For international applicants for who English is not their mother language, practicing narration skills is a key. This will drastically improve your discussion skills by removing ‘Uhhh’ and stopping in the middle of the sentence.

Second practice method would be to read around the subjects preferably beyond A-Level standard. Find some books that go beyond A-Levels. This will hopefully not only increase your interests in the subject but also increase the overall quality of your personal statement when you put it in. For example, the summer before UCAS application, I read two biochemistry books. I said I was interested in stem cell research and my second interview started with the question of ‘Talk to me about stem cell research’. So read articles, journals around your subject. They will help.

Finally, don’t undermine A-Level contents. I gave two examples past interview questions both of A-Level standards. It would be a shame if you cannot satisfactorily answer these easy ones. Make sure you know A-Level contents inside out. This is especially important if you are applying after you have already finished your A-Levels as you might start to forget the specifics.

When should you start preparing for interviews?
Interview invitations start coming out typically 2 weeks before the scheduled interviews. This means after the UCAS submission on 15th of October, you have at least 1 month till receiving interview invitation. I actually started preparing for interviews straight after UCAS submissions. A lot of you may think it may be a waste of time to prepare for interviews beforehand and it turns out you are not invited to the interviews. But it would also be a shame if you only have 2 weeks to prepare for interviews. Think about that. So my recommendation is to start straight after UCAS submission. It doesn’t have to be several hours every day. Perhaps a few hours a week would be good to start with.

For international applicants to Cambridge who can be interviewed in their home country, e.g. Chinese applicants being interviewed in Shanghai and Singaporean applicants in Singapore, you may receive the interview invitation even up to 3 weeks before the interviews. Having said that, you only have about 5 weeks from UCAS submissions till interviews, so starting interview preparation early is a must.

How important are the interviews?

Interviews are by far the most important stage as most applicants meet the minimum grade requirements typically A*AA or IB 39-40. Therefore, interview is where the universities make the real assessment for academic potential of applicants who pretty much all have top grades. I will let the figures speak.

There are about 630 applicants to Oxford to read chemistry every year and 90% of applicants are invited to interviews but only 28% pass through interviews. This is the importance of the interviews. Of course, the difference is less if there are admissions tests involved because the admissions test results are taken into account before giving out interview invitations, e.g. Oxford Engineering for which around 60% is invited to interviews and only ~22% are admitted.

And Cambridge invites most of their applicants to interviews. So this is an additional reason for needing to start early on interview preparation.

Hope my blog today was helpful for all the applicants and also the parents. Please feel free to ask any question by commenting on below. On our Gurume website are current university students at Oxford and Cambridge by subject who want to share their application experiences as well as some mock interview videos so therefore do make use of this awesome site.




Hello, can you please give the answer for the codon question and tell a bit more about biochem prep. My interview is today.