English @ Newnham, Cambridge in 2018

Interview format

ELAT; 2x interviews

Interview content

Interview 1: unseen poem; Interview 2: unseen prose, personal statement

Best preparation

Practice papers

Final thoughts

Read outside your course

Remember this advice isn't official. There is no guarantee it will reflect your experience because university applications can change between years. Check the official Cambridge and Oxford websites for more accurate information on this year's application format and the required tests.

Also, someone else's experience may not reflect your own. Most interviews are more like conversations than tests and like, any conversation, they are quite interactive.

Interview Format

Test taken: English Literature Admissions Test (ELAT)

Number of interviews: 2

Skype interview: no

Time between interviews: 1 hour

Length of first interview: 30-40 minutes; Length of second interview: 30-40 minutes

What happened in your interview? How did you feel?

One of my interviews was entirely based on a poem which I had 15 mins to look at before my interview in the library. They first asked what I thought was interesting in the passage. The poem was quite ambiguous in subject matter, so they asked me to pin down what it could be about and I offered a few suggestions. There was a word I was unfamiliar with (so I had made an educated guess on what it meant), which kind of impacted my interpretation of the meaning of the poem, so we spoke about that and then the actual definition of the word! They were very keen to see me shape my answers and consider multiple interpretations. They appreciated me picking out specific words/phrases etc and trying to place the work (e.g. time period).

The other interview also had a text element to it, which I also had 15 mins to look at in the library. This was a longer piece of prose, not a modern text, so required a bit more close reading to consider what it meant. We discussed this briefly, what I thought it meant, what I found interesting, where did I think it was from, etc. Then we moved onto questions about my personal statement and my written essays- though they more used it as a way to ask me wider questions about literature, rather than quiz me on what I had mentioned. One discussion was focussed on theatre and different modes of literature. The other question was about a technique I had mentioned in my personal statement - this was a chance to talk about where else I had seen this used in wider literature- rather than to expand on these 2 books in particular.

The atmosphere was very relaxed. We were sat in a modern, well lit room, on equal height chairs, with a table between us, though in both interviews, there was an interviewer in front of me and to my left (I suppose so it was less imposing to have this great big table between us?) I was obviously nervous, but I did relax into it, so much so I was shocked when they said we'd run out of time.

How did you prepare?

Looked up practice papers online and did one- mainly just timed myself annotating the extracts/planning the essay. Created a kind of cheat sheet of different tips I'd been given, literary devices to look for, etc.

Looking back, what advice would you give to your past self?

This was my second time applying, so I was far more prepared this time. In terms of resources: advice given by local private school outreach programme (this was mainly on the ELAT), so much of my own reading around my subject (the most important thing is to read around what you've spoken about BUT ALSO what have you read between your application and the interview!) In terms of reading, would recommend reading stuff both similar and different to what you've mentioned- e.g. if you've mentioned how much you liked 'Mrs Dalloway' read 'A Room Of One's Own' BUT if you've only mentioned 20th cent books in your PS, read something like 16th cent poetry so you can show range. But I cannot stress enough the importance of reading stuff you actually like, do not stick at reading 16th cent poetry for example, if you know you'll never be able to talk about it.

The best thing I did honestly was reading as much as I can, which was the biggest difference between my first/second application. I had read outside of my A-Level course and this gave me so much more confidence to talk about literature in a wider sense (which is what they ended up asking me). Second to that, and also incredibly important is unseen poetry. Not only is it good ELAT practice, but as my interview showed (TWO unseen texts), for some colleges it is one of the most important things. I would get into the habit of timing yourself looking at unseen poetry, and if possible, getting an English teacher to do a mock interview to ask you questions about it.

Mock interviews are only useful if they are someone who is familiar with the interview process though. I had well meaning English teachers, who did not have much experience in Oxbridge interviews, interrogating me on what books I have and haven't read (which ended up stressing me out so much more.) In my second application, luckily a teacher who went to Cambridge had joined the school since I had left and she conducted a very good interview with me, not too dissimilar from Newnham's.

Having said all this, they will never replicate what your interview will be like. Every college does it differently. In my first application, I had a group interview and then a solo interview entirely about one of my A-Level texts that I hadn't looked at in months. So I would just say be prepared for either eventuality (e.g. entirely PS/essay based or entirely unseen texts based).

My expectations were to have a very personal statement based interview which did not happen. I expected to be asked on certain things by certain interviewers (because I looked into the similarities of what they taught and what I had mentioned in my PS) which also did not happen, e.g. the Modernist specialist was the professor I had for my unseen based interview, so she didn't ask me a single question on it. I wouldn't do much differently. Other than maybe start my reading earlier so I was less stressed! I had a whole list of books and articles I thought I had to read before my interview or I'd fail. And as I've said, I didn't need half of it, they didn't ask me about most of it.

The interviewers are looking for someone with a close eye to detail and is willing to consider multiple interpretations (for the unseens anyways). Which before, I thought it was all about picking out as many literary devices as I could (which is important to an extent, but not the only thing they want to see you do!) They want to see how your mind works.