Natural Sciences (Physical) @ St John's, Cambridge in 2017

Interview format

NSAA; 3x interviews

Interview content

Interview 1: general; Interview 2: academic, physics; Interview 3: academic, maths

Best preparation

Practice papers and engaging with the subject generally

Advice in hindsight


Final thoughts

Don't panic, ask questions

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: Natural Sciences Admissions Assessment (NSAA), Extra test upon arrival

Number of interviews: 3

Skype interview: no

Time between interviews: 1 hour

Length of first interview: 30 minutes; Length of second interview: 30 minutes; Length of third interview: 30 minutes

What happened in your interview? How did you feel?

I had a test upon arrival. It had more abstract physics questions than I had at A-level.

The first interview was just about me and my interests in general. We covered my head of sixth form role, whether I was into politics and what I enjoyed. It felt more like a simple chat to get to know a little bit about me. I was obviously nervous to begin with but there wasn’t any need to be.

My next interview covered physics. They introduced a concept I’d not heard of before and asked me to derive an equation. They helped me along and I ended up getting it, but I’ve been told that getting to the final solution isn’t important, but rather how you respond to being proposed a question I’d never thought about before.

My last interview was maths and an observation style question. The former was an extremely simple question, the latter I tripped up on. I began getting too panicky, which I wouldn’t recommend. Just describe exactly what you see clearly. They asked me about my personal statement, specifically about a book I read.

How did you prepare?

To prepare for the testI did the specimen paper and questions on and went over what I knew from AS so far

I did a fair anount of preparation for interview; again, a lot of questions on, attended Headstart STEM events, thought about what questions they could ask me about my personal statement, read books to do with my subject that interested me, attended open days and scored highly on my AS levels. I tried to see if anyone knew someone who had gotten into Cambridge and managed to briefly chat to them. I think Isaac physics was the best thing for the entrance exam, and getting comfortable with answering questions completely different to A-level style like I encountered in the on-arrival exam and interviews.

What advice do you have for future applicants?

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

One note, bring pens and pencils for the exam on-arrival! It was also run by students and quite disorganised so led to a bit of a panic, but don’t worry you don’t need any calculators or anything. The best advice I’d give is to realise that your grades prove you know all you need to know to answer the questions set to you in the interviews, and if you don’t, they’ll tell you all you need to know. You’re not meant to know the answer immediately, they’re trying to see how you’d handle supervisions. So don’t panic, ask questions, think out loud calmly and just have faith in yourself. They want to see that you’re teachable in that setting, so if you don’t understand ask for further explanation. Also, three interviews is more than most, but I think it’s actually a positive thing. It gives you more chances to prove that you’re capable of handling and actually thriving in supervisions. If it just depended on my last interview I wouldn’t have gotten in. [Editor's note: many students think they know what 'made them get in'/was bad about their application - but according to the admissions tutors, we're also quite often wrong!]