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Wednesday, 28 November 2018


Cambridge punts

While focused preparation for the interview is important, schools or parents painting it as the most crucial hurdle are out-of-date. These days, your personal statement, A-level grades, school references and Oxbridge test results will co-determine whether you are offered a place. Nor is getting in a life-or-death matter. True, Oxbridge  courses particularly suit some, being more theoretical and intense, but Britain’s world class experts, even if educated there,  teach at a wide range of universities.

So, instead of fretting about the outcome of your interview, just focus on the key entry requirements, starting with the very basics.  What this means is making sure, for a start, that you can understand, define, spell and confidently use the main subject terms. You don’t want to muddle up stoma with stigma (or allusion with illusion) on that long, stressful day.

There are other useful skills. Knowing how to calculate proportions, percentages or things like angles is important for (but not just for) STEM applicants.  Applicants for any course requiring students to solve more challenging maths problems, such as Economics, may need to practise showing (on paper or board) how they arrived at the solution. It is not enough to just verbally present the interviewer with it. 

Having revised one's  GCSE science, meanwhile, matters not just for Nat. Sci. applicants,  but can also help with interviews for Psychology, Materials Science and Medicine. Also note that an interest in methods is evidence of genuine subject interest elsewhere too:  how, for instance, might an archaeologist research the lives of illiterate, long dead people?

Future historians, meanwhile,  may want to tighten their grip on key dates, so they can handle speculative questions like "What might have happened if  Elizabeth the First had died in 1587?" Alternatively, you  may need to explain why even some relatively minor historic event still resonates with us.  Compare and contrast questions are common, too.  A Politics applicant, for instance,  may be expected to name some similarities or differences between Russian and German domestic policies in the 1930s.

A Law applicant, on the other hand, may have to grapple with the logic behind a particular ruling or law, or state why she believes a common type of behaviour should (or should not) be illegal,   while a would-be philosopher might be asked to suggest ethical reasons for caring about the environment. The idea is to see if the student can apply what (s)he has learnt to a different context or problem.

      An interest in current developments in your field can also work in your favour, though it is not a requirement. Google (and some of my tweets) will tell you about major breakthroughs in the subject area you expressed an interest in. Have there been great new discoveries in cancer treatment or the causes of hurricanes? How might these give rise to new dilemmas?

     What these approaches reflect is a growing awareness by Oxbridge that interviews need to work for students educated in very different kinds of schools and homes, offering very different levels of academic support. So, while interviewers will still  expect a familiarity with the structure of organelles (or the definition of an iambic pentameter), the ability to give strong reasons for your views or look at an issue from more than one simple  angle now counts for much.  

Reassured that these are far from insurmountable challenges? If so, the next step is to internalise the four crucial interview skills:

·     1. Listen carefully. Does your interviewer want you to discuss what happened in 1914 or in 1941?  Are you being asked for a fact, an explanation or your opinion?

·    2. Order  your thoughts before replying in a few reasonably short sentences. Don’t just ramble on, hoping that the right answer will eventually come to you. It's OK to instead say: "Sorry, that was wrong. Can I start again?"
·    3.  Always use proper subject terms, avoid text speak and use full, grammatically correct  sentences in written tests. 

4.  If applying for Economics, Medicine or a STEM course, make sure you can do quick, basic sums  in your head.  You should also be able to draw a very simple numerical table and make sense of one you are shown.

Students looking for yet more advice will find it in the detailed interview chapters and the course-specific sections of OXBRIDGE ENTRANCE: THE REAL RULES. 

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