Medicine @ Gonville & Caius, Cambridge in 2016

Interview format

Three 25 minute interviews ( two ‘science’; one ‘medicine’).

Interview content

First interview: ‘medical’ focus (personal statement, work experience, clinical problems). Second interview: chemistry focus (A-Level material, EPQ). Third interview: biology focus (A-Level material and beyond).

Best preparation

A-Level textbooks and BMAT knowledge. Practice interviews. EPQ (or equivalent) for advanced knowledge.

Final thoughts

Be enthusiastic and ‘teachable’! Think aloud and they don’t expect you to know all the answers.

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

I had 3 one-to-one interviews, each lasting 25 minutes, with quite large gaps between each one. I had two 'science' interviews and one 'medicine' interview. Essentially, they were all problem-solving style interviews, with the medical interview having a slightly more clinical focus.

I had been sent the details for timings and locations, so I started the day in Cambridge by scoping out all of the rooms, just so I knew where they were when the time came - just to avoid any mad panic! I then spent the time in between interviews in cafés around the city centre, either trying to prepare for the next interview or simply relaxing.

What happened in your interview? How did you feel?

My first interview was the 'medicine' interview. This involved a brief discussion of my personal statement and reflections on my work experience, followed by solving clinically-themed problems. This involved some estimation problems related to drug delivery. I was also asked about breakthroughs in recent medical history.

Honestly, I left this interview feeling very anxious and that I'd performed poorly, since I was pushed on almost every question to give multiple answers, making me feel like I had never reached the 'correct' answer. In hindsight, however, this was probably a positive thing, as I gave multiple plausible answers to every problem and had to adapt my answer every time I was told a new piece of information, to give the best possible solution.

My second interview was strictly scientific, specifically chemistry-based. I was asked to draw a couple of mechanisms of reactions from the A-Level syllabus, as well as one that I hadn't learnt already, which I had to think of on the spot. I also had to interpret some graphs related to enzyme activity. Finally, I was asked what reading I had done lately and we discussed some of the papers I had read in relation to my EPQ, followed by discussion of the EPQ itself. I found this very enjoyable, as I was quite comfortable on the topic, and I felt the interview overall went quite well.

My final interview was biology-based and quite relaxed. We discussed the anatomy and physiology of the kidneys and liver, which were both on my biology specification. I have since learnt that not all A-Level syllabi cover the kidneys, so I would advise looking over various A-Level courses and making sure to learn any holes in your course [Editor's Note: The prupose of the Cambridge SAQ, Supplementary Application Questionnaire, is for interviewers to find out what topics you have covered at A-Level]. A good resource for this is probably the BMAT specification. This interview was genuinely fun and more of a relaxed conversation than a problem solving session, however he did ask me a few short questions throughout the discussion, to test the detail of my knowledge.

How did you prepare?

In terms of revising the scientific knowledge, I simply used my A-Level textbooks. As I said earlier, I think that going over the BMAT material for the science section of the exam would also be a beneficial exercise, followed by learning any topics that your specific A-Level does not cover.

For preparing interview technique, I had multiple mock interviews, which were invaluable to me. I had one MMI-style interview, which was run by my teachers and medical applicants in the year above, who had already had their interviews. I also asked one of my biology teachers to do a one-on-one Cambridge style interview with me, since she studied at Cambridge herself and had a good idea of the interview system. Finally, I organised an interview with a local GP who I'd never met before, in order to have both a medically-focused interview and the experience of talking to a new face. All of these interviews taught me very valuable lessons.

I also found that my EPQ was oddly valuable, as it displayed a concerted interest in a relatively advanced and extra-curricular topic. It's not necessary to have done an EPQ per se, but I think that the ability to discuss on a scientific topic was quite beneficial to my application. It's important to remember that the interviewers are probably active researchers and are therefore likely to be more keen to discuss academic papers than mainstream medical novels. There is of course nothing wrong with discussing an interesting medical book though - just try to be relatively original in your choices!

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

The two most important lessons that I took away from my preparation (and they kind of go hand in hand) were as follows:

(1) Your interviewer is almost certainly a supervisor, who you will at some point meet with every week to discuss aspects of medicine. With this in mind, you have to come across as someone they'd like to supervise! It should go without saying, but smile and be friendly, interested and enthusiastic. If you can display the kind of excitement that your interviewer has for medicine, then it is very likely that they will like you.

(2) Speak your thoughts aloud. The interviewer will be far more interested in your thought process than the final answer, since this gives you room to allow them to adjust your thought patterns along the way. It is also a much more desirable characteristic to have for supervisions, where thinking through problems becomes a very regular affair.

Naturally, you must have the knowledge to back these up, but they're not expecting you to be learning vast amounts of extra information on top of your A-Levels. A sound knowledge of the A-Level specification will suffice, as long as you can link ideas together well and think flexibly when solving problems. However, the only way the interviewer can see that you possess these skills is to vocalise your thoughts, so I would very strongly advise practising this, because it certainly doesn't come naturally to most.

On the day, don't let the interviews stress you out unnecessarily. It's natural to be nervous of course, but once the interview is over, don't dwell on it - just relax and move on to the next one or go and get something to eat. Importantly, if you are pushed, it's a good thing! The interviewers want to see how you respond outside of your comfort zone, and if they are asking you difficult questions then it probably means you've got through the more basic ones quickly. Good luck!