Different expressions of confusion

Oxbridge interview tips from someone who was rejected then accepted

As the famous poet, DJ Khaled once said, ‘Another One!’


Cambridge interviews are fast approaching/ have already started and The Tab thought the best person (next to the interviewer) to give you interview tips is someone who was rejected and then accepted! Here’s what can make the difference:

Listen to the question

You can’t answer a question you haven’t heard. The interviewer has a responsibility to ensure that you understand the question they’re asking. Ask the interviewer to repeat, clarify or rephrase the question if you don’t understand it – there’s no shame in doing this!


The most common interview tip from Oxbridge students is ‘ to pause’ and it may be the most important.

When I was applying I used to think ‘what’s so important about pausing?’ In a practice interview, I remember counting in my head ‘1,2,3. Ok, I guess I can answer the question now lol.’

But the real reason pausing is great is because it will produce the most considered responses. Especially in a situation where you’ll be quite nervous and potentially blurt out things you didn’t mean to… Like when I said ‘yeah that’s true women have always worked in some roles, there have always been prostitutes.’ What was I thinking?

How to pause effectively (and not just count 1,2,3)

  1. Make sure you’ve understood what the question is asking.
  2. Figure out if any terms in the question need to be defined and whether this will affect your answer, e.g. what is ‘work’?
  3. Decide what your argument is (if you’re not sure – think about what initially came to mind and think about why that was – maybe I could have saved my answer by saying that women’s work has traditionally been domestic, but this has not been considered ‘work’)
  4. Think if you have any evidence to back up your argument. This can be a news story, a statistic, a theory, etc.

Know the format of your interview

Know the format of your interview so you can start practising what it will actually be like. Inside Uni has a database of Oxbridge interview experiences so you can see the format your interview takes. But the most up-to-date information on the interview format will be found on your college website.

Some interviews will start by discussing an article that you were given beforehand. You can practice this by summarizing any articles (academic and news) that you read. Try to connect the article to broader thoughts in the discipline.


Talk about your subject to people who don’t know about it. See if you can teach them concepts or explain contentious debates. Ask them for feedback on how well you explained it to them and whether you convinced them to a particular side of the argument.

Watch mock interviews on YouTube for your subject (as well as similar subjects at O*ford). After the interviewer has asked the question, pause the video and answer out loud. Then press play and see how the interviewee answered the question.

Try to get a real mock interview with an Oxbridge student or alumni. The more recent they themselves were interviewed the better! Zero Gravity is a free mentoring service that matches students from underrepresented backgrounds at university. Once you’ve signed up to Zero Gravity you’re quickly matched with a mentor studying the same course at your desired university and they can conduct mock interviews for you.

Be confident in your knowledge

Know your A-Level content and how it relates to your degree. Revising content for your A-Levels in areas that relate to the course you’re applying to is killing two birds with one stone.

Re-read over everything you’ve submitted and what you’ve cited so you’re confident to talk about any of it. You don’t want a Jack Edward’s situation where he mentioned a book in his personal statement that he read a while before his interview, and the interviewer asked him to say how it starts (which he forgot…)

Listen to podcasts so you both strengthen your knowledge, and hear how people within your discipline articulate their thoughts. Set Google Alerts to keep up to date with developments in your subject and book have mentioned in your personal statement.

Be confident in yourself

When you walk into the interview remember that you’ve done something right to get to this point. The interviewers want to hear your thoughts, so don’t get in your head that anything you say will be seen as silly by these Oxbridge academics.

Be open-minded and remember that the interviewer is looking for someone that they can teach!

The interviewer may ask questions they don’t even know the answer to. They just want to see how you’re able to tackle such a question with the knowledge you have.

Whilst you want to be confident in your knowledge you need to show that you’re teachable. Don’t stubbornly stick to your argument if it no longer makes sense. They’re looking for potential; not the full product – otherwise what’s the point of coming to university?

Finally, enjoy it! You love the subject you’re applying to and you get the chance to talk to people at the top of their field who also love it. Although it is nerve-wracking, try to enjoy the opportunity of being academically pushed, and seeing how far you can go!

Feature image credits: author’s own

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