We asked Cambridge admissions tutors what the interviewers are looking for in candidates - here's what they had to say:
If it’s not too vague, we are looking for knowledgeable, passionate, intellectually adventurous, good humoured and hard-working young people who show the potential to do well and enjoy the process of getting there. The applicants most likely to demonstrate this are those with an easy affiliation with their (and their interviewers’) subject and who have established the foundations of their academic interests over some time. We like good problem solvers, people who can see and understand important relationships between things that others may overlook, and people who can tease out the distinctions between things that may look the same to some people – and we want to be persuaded that the things you see are real. You don’t have to blow our minds. Just show the importance of some detail to you, and why it is important. That will do you well.
How to prepare is much harder to advise on. A mock interview with someone who knows what an Oxbridge interview is actually like would be great, but they aren’t available to everyone and you shouldn’t worry if you don’t have access to someone who can help. There are other ways. You should of course know your subject well, which means not just your course but stuff in addition to your curriculum. Try to have consumed at least some reputable books, journals and podcasts etc that look at your subject, ideally not just in the couple of days before your interview. Because longstanding passion for a subject will stand out, evidence of prolonged additional engagement with it will not only look good in itself, it will enable you to answer with real knowledge and confidence. If it were not too flippant, the best way to prepare for an Oxbridge interview is probably to get started aged about 13. But if you can’t do that, do what is reasonable to show that you aren’t just doing the minimum for your A-levels, and try to find something you find genuinely exciting. On top of that, make sure you would be able to talk confidently about anything you mention in your personal statement or any submitted work – don’t misremember the names of theorems, or economists, or philosophers, or characters in novels you’ve mentioned. If you know what type of in-interview test a college will give you (this may be mentioned on the letter inviting you to interview), see if you can find some practice examples to try, but even if you can’t, they won’t be anything you wouldn’t be given at the higher end of your A-level studies. Be ready to talk through your thinking clearly and thoroughly. Anticipate follow up questions. Don’t be nervous. Listen to what you have been asked carefully and take any time you need to answer. Don’t hesitate to ask for clarification. Ideally it will be a very enjoyable conversation about a subject you all enjoy.
It’s worth saying what you probably shouldn’t do. Don’t try to best-guess what might impress an interviewer – if you profess enthusiasm for an exceptionally complex area of study for a year 12 student you had better be pretty good at explaining it. It would be wiser to focus on what you can already do and explain very well – though of course be ambitious.
Have a think of the kind of questions that might come up considering the course you have applied for and how you might answer them. Questions such as why you want to study this course, if you have any particular areas of interest within the subject. Be sure to re-read your personal statement and any written work you have submitted (if the subject requires you to – this depends on the subject and College). Have a look at the university information and videos on preparing for interviews 🔗.
All interviewers are looking for the students who they believe have the most academic ability and potential, are best suited to the course applied for, and who will benefit from the learning environment we have to offer at Cambridge.
Make sure to read through your personal statement and any submitted work. It’s important to be familiar with what you said, and be ready to talk about it - your interviewers may use it as a starting point for the interview. I’d also recommend practise talking about your subject with your parents, friends and teachers and ‘thinking out loud’. It’s a strange way of talking, but interviewers are interested in how you approach a problem, so it’s good to get as comfortable as you can with doing this.
Overall, interviewers are looking for students who are clever, hardworking, and a good fit for their chosen course. We want to see that you are truly invested in the subject you are applying to study, and have the skills and aptitude necessary to succeed in it. As every course is different, interviewers are therefore looking for different things.
To make sure that you are in command of the materials that you have provided as part of your application and that you show that you have thought further about the subjects that they cover in the time since you made the application. It is wise to read over all the materials that you have been asked to send in, including your personal statement and any written work that you have submitted. You may find that you no longer agree with something you’ve said or would want to put it differently: that’s fine and is part of the process of learning.
Interviewers are looking for people who are interested in the subjects that they teach and want to learn more about them, so things that demonstrate curiosity and commitment as well as a basic level of technical skill and the ability to assimilate new information will generally impress them.