Natural Sciences (Physical) @ Clare, Cambridge in 2015

Interview format

2x interviews (20-30 mins)

Interview content

1st: A level basis, extended; 2nd: more abstract

Best preparation

Revising A Level; mock interviews; magazines

Final thoughts

Don't worry about mistakes/things you found tricky afterwards.

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

2 interviews, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, each with 2 interviewers. No tests required. Approximately 20-30 minutes each and both Physics-based interviews.

I didn't particularly want to talk to anyone that day as I was nervous so I avoided the Library Common Room where all the student helpers were and instead spent the day with my mum and sister (we kind of made it a fun day trip as well). The only bit of communication I had was in the morning with one other person who was waiting for her history interview which was going to happen in the room next door to my interview.

What happened in your interview? How did you feel?

In the first interview there was a broad range of questions covering various topics we learnt at the time during A-level but in more complicated contexts. 1 question was strictly mathematical, one on electricity and one tricky mechanics question about a bicycle. This interview felt like my weakest as I asked a lot of follow up questions and even made mistakes (some very silly ones) in pretty much every question. The questions could be answered but I did feel very nervousat the time that I didn't get to show off as much as I did know, plus I took my time to get to the answers and thought that the interviewers were getting impatient with me.

The second interview felt much better as the concepts were very much more abstract and there was more discussion that could be had which meant that taking my time didn't feel as much of an issue. One of the questions I had to use relevant equations and mathematics to get an expression for overall work done (I also forgot a reasonably simple equation which made me feel a little silly but they didn't seem to mind). Another was a question that required me to talk k about different properties that would need to be considered in order to calculate the answer. The questioner was the PhD student so I felt like he was a bit more sympathetic towards me and interested in knowing what I knew which definitely helped reassure me. There were also a few more mathematical based questions including another electricity one, but as maths is definitely one of my strengths it didn't matter so much that I absolutely hate electricity. I also managed to slide in at one point a reference to one of the books I read about quantum mechanics and general relativity.

How did you prepare?

Generally, revising A-Level topics for mock exams and practicing over and over again hard questions from physics and maths was the best preparation I had. In terms of other subject specific things I did skim read 2 books from the reading list when I had time and also read some other books that I was just interested in reading - mainly about quantum theory because we hadn't really covered anything like that at A-Level (apart from photoelectric effect).

Could probably find some good books for free as PDFs online or in a library too. Would highly recommend QED by Feynman for a really good bridge into university level quantum physics (it didn't come up in interview but it did spark my interest in the slightly more abstract concepts of physics). I also subscribed to BBC Focus magazine for a year as New Scientist was a bit too pricey for me. Thought it was really good reading in general and ended up finding out about new areas or innovations that helped me keep my enthusiasm up.

My sisterstudied Land Economy at Queens' and graduated before I applied so probably the best preparation for the general interview scenario ultimately was my sister giving me tips about her own experience and just reassuring me that I was good enough when I felt low.

I had one mock interviewon purely physics at school and one on personal statement stuff. The personal statement interview ended up being redundant and was actually quite useless as the teacher contradicted all the pieces of advice my sister gave me - ensuring that your sources know the admissions process is important which is why I think this access initiative is so so good! The physics mock was very helpful but was also something I had to organise myself as my school didn't really get a lot of people into Cambridge and didn't really understand much about the admissions process and what they look for - although the questions in this mock interview weren't as abstract or tricky as the real thing it still really helped me to get in the mindset of a purely physics based interview and practice my skills at thinking out loud.

In summary (sorry this is long!) - most helpful preparation for interview content was A-Level revision from Physics, Maths (and Further Maths). Get physics teachers to carry out a mock interview with perhaps some example past interview questions - answering a question in person with only a pencil and paper is, needless to say, very different to an A-Level exam.

Good preparation but not necessarily essential is further reading from book list and/or magazines - good to pad out personal statements and to further your interest, as enthusiasm for your subject certainly helps. Any other interview practice that you can get or tips (even from students not studying your subject) are helpful extra things that can get you into a positive mindset.

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

Utilising people you know or getting in contact with current students is honestly one of the most powerful things you can do to help boost your confidence at least. Interviews are daunting and they really appreciate that - they don't want to see someone who is perfect or who can reel off answers off the cuff but someone who can communicate their thought process to the interviewers.

Don't fixate on questions you get wrong or needed loads of help for because it's likely that if you found it hard, every other interviewee probably found it hard too. Remember that the questions don't necessarily have to have either a numerical or definite answer - abstract questions are designed to be open ended and allow you to ask follow up questions or show off the knowledge you already have.