Interviews for Elite Universities
How to Prepare and What to Expect
By: Kiran Raju
Profile, transcript, essay – these define a university applicant on paper. Elite schools such as Oxbridge in the UK or the Ivy League schools in the US need something more from their applicants. An interview allows them to meet the potential future occupants of their lecture theatres and classrooms. It allows them to gain an insight into their applicants’ characters and passions, helping them make their decision. Applying to such elite schools can be a daunting task, even for the most intelligent of us. Here is a guide to the interviews for some of the most elite schools in the UK and the US.
United Kingdom – Oxford and Cambridge
What are they looking for?
It is an undeniable fact that Oxford and Cambridge represent the pinnacle of academic excellence in the United Kingdom. Two of the most elite universities in the world, Oxbridge, as they are known collectively, are known for their unique and challenging interviewing style. They push candidates beyond their book smarts, challenging them to think outside the box. They want to see you, not what you are on your UCAS form, but your natural raw intelligence, your personality, your confidence, your passion. Everyone who applies to these two universities has straight A’s, so what sets you apart from the rest?
Both universities follow a similar interviewing format, with 3-4 interviews spread across the span of a couple of days. Each is looking for something different, a different skill or aspect of the candidate’s character. Rebecca Williams, a law fellow at Oxford’s Pembroke college explains – “We are testing their logical reasoning and want to see how they think and how their brains work.” The questions are designed to keep students on their toes – the Independent lists some great examples like: “At what point is a person “dead”?” for medicine applicants, or “Instead of politicians, why don't we let the managers of Ikea run the country?” for political science applicants. They are not looking for the right answer, but instead want to see the student’s approach to an unfamiliar and potentially challenging question or situation. The interview is not a performance. You are not expected to know everything and have all answers prepared beforehand – this is not possible. They want to see if the student can calmly consider the different possibilities and choose one, to see if the student can revaluate their choices based on further considerations. They want to observe inquisitive and dynamic on the spot thinking. Not only are they listening to your answers, but they are observing your confidence, your body language, every indicator of who you are as a candidate.
How to prepare?
Given the format and subject matter of the interview, there is not much the student can do to prepare in terms of studying content, but there are ways the student can make themselves a better and potentially a more successful candidate.
As for all interviews, it is essential that you know yourself and your experiences better than anyone else. Analyze your own strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, experiences and skills. This way, when interviewers ask you any questions about yourselves, you will be able to critically answer their questions rather than getting stumped.
Know your stuff
Make sure that you have a thorough command over your high school academic learning, especially in the subjects you are pursuing. This doesn’t mean you study for your interview like you do for your A level exams, but you should be ready to discuss your subject area in an academic manner.
Read outside your curriculum
Over time, demonstrate your passion and academic curiosity by reading outside your academic curriculum. Read books, learn about current events in your field of interest, seek experiences that enhance your academic learning and put it into a real-life context. If you say that you have read something, be prepared to discuss and debate it.
Read through your application beforehand
Make sure to know every inch of your application very well, especially your personal statement. Be prepared to discuss the content of your personal statement, it makes a very good conversation starter. Your interview should not showcase you as an entirely different person from your application, but rather enhance the interviewers view on who you are as a candidate, going beyond just your application on paper.
Research the university
Read about the university, research the colleges and the course structure. Make sure you know what you are striving for, and show them that you have done your research. Being prepared helps show your interest in the university, a quality admissions officers look for.
Practice with mock interviews.
These have been proven to be very beneficial tools in preparing for Oxbridge interviews. Find a teacher, advisor, parent or even a friend who can act as the interviewer and ask you sample questions and give you some feedback. These mocks don’t teach you content, but they do train you on how to approach surprising questions and how to explain your thought process.
Take care with clothing and body language
Make sure you dress smart for the interview. Appear engaging and confident, but not cocky. As important as the content of the interview may be, factors such as clothing and body language have a significant impact on their impression of you.
Types of questions
You can find some sample questions for the course of your choice using the following links:
United States of America – Ivy leagues and Stanford
What they are looking for
The interviews for the elite US universities such as the Ivy Leagues and Stanford are often very different from those for the UK universities. These interviews are often alumni interviews, which means that they are conducted by trained graduates of the university rather than admissions officers and faculty. While they can be an important part of the admissions process, they are not as strong a determinant of applicant success as the interviews in the UK. Furthermore, most of these universities offer interviews as an option for candidates rather than a compulsory requirement. However, it is recommended that applicants do accept the offer for an interview, as it gives them an opportunity to stand out from the rest and really show off their personality and character.
The purpose of these interviews is simply to personalize an application, and the interviewer will send their report to the admissions committee for evaluation. These interviews are not designed to trip you up, nor are they designed to test your subject knowledge or academic capabilities. It sounds like a daunting task to have to interview for such prestigious schools, but the interviews may well be the least difficult part of the entire application process. All they want from you is you. You have to be yourself, talk about yourself and your experiences, your interests, your opinions. These interviews are very applicant-centric, and are often conducted in a relatively informal and personal style. They just want a conversation with you.
How to prepare
Despite the interviews not being as rigorous as those in the UK, they still require preparation on the part of the candidate. Questions asked might seem vague or broad, but preparation will allow you to steer your answers in a clear direction. Here are some things applicants can do to prepare.
These interviews are centred around you. They are about your personality, the extra-curricular activities you have been a part of, your achievements in various fields, your subject interests. They want to know you as a person and as a student. Your reflectiveness, curiosity and passion should shine through your conversation in these interviews. To prepare, think about your high school and previous experiences, evaluate them and think about what they have taught you and how they may have impacted your life. Analyse your strengths and weaknesses, your likes and dislikes, and be prepared to discuss these. Think about your ambitions for the future – a common question is “What are you interested in studying in college?” This question gives you the opportunity to demonstrate your focus, future ambitions and the influence of your background. Let your values shine through in your answers.
Research the university
It is essential that you know your university well. Be prepared to have a conversation about why you applied to that particular university. Show them that your choice is well-researched. Your answer should have academics at its core in terms of the majors offered and the course structure, but do make sure to also involve extra-curricular activities, university location and social environment in your conversation to demonstrate a well-rounded approach to your university selections. Don’t be afraid to be honest. If you have a unique or different reason for your application to the university, don’t be afraid to explain it. It might just make you stand out from the rest.
Read outside your curriculum
It is good to be well read outside your school’s curriculum and academic content. Current affairs, books and articles all make for stimulating conversation topics, and allow the interviewer to see your interest and passion for serious subjects, as well as your general curiosity and knowledge. US universities are looking for well-rounded individuals that are knowledgeable and curious about various topics, rather than purely book-smart students. Everyone who applies to such elite schools has perfect transcripts, so show them what you can offer their university outside of academic excellence.
Think of questions
There is almost always a part of the interview where you are expected to ask the interviewer any questions you may have about the university. These may be related to academics, social life, environment, extra-curricular activities or even related to their personal experience as a university student (if it is an alumni interview). It is helpful to think of some good questions beforehand for two reasons – one, it helps demonstrate your interest in the university, and two, it is an incredible opportunity for you to learn more about the university to help you make your final choices of whether the university is right for you.
Types of questions
You can find the type of questions that may be asked using the following links: