Linguistics @ Jesus, Cambridge in 2016

Interview format

2x interviews (2 interviewers each; 1 interview was 25 mins, the other 35 mins); 1x test (1 hour)

Interview content

Interview 1: general motivations, discussion questions, linguistic analysis exercises; Interview 2: general motivations, personal statement, linguistic analysis exercises

Best preparation

Read general overviews of the subject; mock interviews; practise talking about topics aloud

Final thoughts

You might feel like you didn't do as well as you could have done - don't let this spoil it afterwards; interviews can be very unpredictable

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

My interview was at the beginning of December. When I entered the college, I followed the signs to the bar and registered there, where I was given my timetable with interviews on it.

I had one interview with my now-DoS and a fellow from a different college, which lasted about 25 minutes.

I then had about half an hour before another interview within college with two researchers, one from Jesus and another from a different college. This one was longer, around 30/35 minutes.

I was then provided lunch in hall. After this, I (along with the other candidates) was taken to Sidgwick Site to sit a test, which was an hour long.

What happened in your interview? How did you feel?

Both interviews had a similar format: the first half consisted of questions exploring one or two major topics within linguistics, the second half consisted of a problem sheet that I had to work through out loud.

The first interview began with some basic introductory questions: why did I choose the subject, what particularly attracted me to the course at Cambridge etc. Then I was asked questions concerning language acquisition. In retrospect, this progressed very much like the "classic" interview, where one topic is pursued in greater and greater depth until the candidate has nothing else to say.

I remember feeling frustrated at the time as on the website, it was specifically stated that no prior knowledge of the subject was needed (on the grounds that there is no equivalent A-Level) and yet even with my background reading I felt like I was in no position to answer the questions; however, on reflection, I think it was very much the Cambridge cliche of "seeing how you think". Some of the questions they asked me were in a similar vein to my first year exam questions, to which I now know there is no definitive answer. The activities that followed primarily consisted of commenting on interesting uses of language in example sentences, particularly involving meaning - I remember finding this difficult and thinking that I only provided surface-level analysis.

The second interview began with a few of questions relating to my personal statement - once again, these began more generally about my interest in the subject, and then they focussed on the implications of one sentence I had written (I think possibly my opening sentence). They then moved on to questions about linguistic theory, once again honing in on a particular topic and asking more and more specific questions. I generally felt that this interview did not go as well, as I felt like I was not articulate enough. However, I did actually enjoy the activities given in the second half, as they were more interesting and I felt like I said some more insightful things.

The test was a bit of a nightmare due to how short it was. It was split into three 20-minute sections, but due to my general panicking I spent too long on the first part which skewed my timings for the rest. The first part was very similar to the UKLO (United Kingdom Linguistics Olympiad) [Editor's note: You can find UKLO past papers online for free] and reasonably straightforward. The second part was a dataset question which I remember finding quite difficult and missing out a few questions on. The third part was an essay - this would have been difficult to do in 20 minutes, but since I only had 10 minutes left it was virtually impossible! I don't remember writing much - I think I made two or three reasonable points.

How did you prepare?

I generally have a habit of over-preparing and this went into overdrive in the weeks leading up to my interview. Despite the fact that it was made quite clear that no prior knowledge was expected, I did flick through a couple of general textbooks ('Contemporary Linguistics' and 'The Cambridge Encylopedia of Linguistics') so I had a rounded knowledge of the main topics within the subject. This was not specifically helpful to the actual interview and the questions they asked, but definitely gave me confidence going into the interviews - perhaps more of a personal preference. I had been interested in linguistics since about 14/15 so the culmination of that reading (a lot of Pinker and some Crystal) meant I just had familiarity with the subject, and the main topics and theories.

I would generally say the more reading the better, as it just means you have a huge supply of examples to give. Two of the points I made were based upon things I had literally learned the day before at another university open day!

My school also offered Oxbridge-style interviews with my school-teachers, which was good preparation. Although none of them knew much about the subject and the questions were not much like the questions in my actual interviews, I think the fact that I was constantly talking about the subject allowed me to become more eloquent, and to become more adept and confident at thinking on my feet: two skills which I believe are really helpful in a Cambridge interview.

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

When I had finished the interviews and test I didn't think it had gone terribly, but I still wasn't at all happy with my performance. I fundamentally remember feeling like I hadn't had the ability to "show off" (not in a brazen, unfounded way, but rather show off what I knew and how I could think), and that I didn't give an impression of the best version of myself. With almost two years of hindsight, I think my first concern about not being able to show off was totally unfounded. The interviewers are skilled, smart people and ask questions deliberately to assess whether you have the desired qualities of a Cambridge student.

I think my concern about my interview performance not being representative of my actual abilities is something that is to be expected, and that everyone feels. It is a highly pressured environment, and it is not unusual to feel stressed and forget some things, or not be as eloquent as you would like. I spent the weeks afterwards painfully reliving the interviews and thinking of better answers - something I would not recommend as it totally ruins your Christmas, and is ultimately pointless. I think I was also just frustrated that my efforts to steer the interview towards things I was actually interested in and had read lots about were entirely futile - I'm not sure if anyone has had success in doing this!