It’s that time of the year again. Final-year secondary school students are beginning to hear back from universities in the UK and abroad, and admissions stress is beginning to kick in. Even more stressful than waiting to find out whether your top choice has accepted you, is knowing that you might have to clear one final hurdle: the university interview. Oxford and Cambridge are most famous for conducting interviews as a component of determining who to admit for their undergraduate cohort and interview offers are being dispensed over the latter half of November. This marks the beginning of interview season, with other universities calling up students over the coming months for certain courses. As students await their interview, it’s only natural that they feel a lot of pressure to perform on the day. We thought that it might be helpful to give offer some help for handling stress before, during, or after your interview.
Many academic (as opposed to creative or personal) university interviews are designed specifically to weed out those genuinely promising students from those who have been intensely trained to give the “right” sort of answers. However, preparation is still incredibly useful in reducing your stress going in. A couple of practice interviews, preferably with someone who has some experience in the area, can let you know what to expect and how you perform under that kind of pressure. Some initial exposure like this can do wonders to remove the worry of the unexpected and get you used to responding to questions on the spot.
Interviews, particularly Oxbridge interviews, are not primarily tests of knowledge, rather they are used to determine whether you are the right kind of student for the university. Interviewers want to see that you can learn quickly and respond well in a tutorial-style scenario by synthesising arguments on the spot and responding to criticism. Just as importantly, they want to know whether you will be pleasant to teach for the duration of your course. As such, it is not the case that candidates with the most subject knowledge will always succeed in interviews and you should not stress yourself by attempting to cram as much of this knowledge as possible. However, one of the main causes of stress in interviews is the worry that you will “caught out”. To relieve this, I would recommend doing enough background research on your subject that you can talk comfortably about all pertinent aspects of your A-Level or IB syllabus (or whichever alternative you study) and to answer any past interview questions that the department has released. Most importantly, make sure that you can talk confidently about anything that you have mentioned in your personal statement, as this will often guide the interviewers questions. If you’ve covered these bases, then there is unlikely to be anything else you are expected to know going in, and you should not worry about being caught out.
One of the main things you can do to reduce stress during your interview period is to make sure that you have all the boring practical details arranged as far ahead of time as possible. More than one prospective Oxford student has missed an interview because they couldn’t find their way through the college or because a train was delayed. Although tutors are very understanding and have always, as far as I’m aware, rescheduled the interview, situations such as these add undue stress and uncertainty to the process. Make sure that you have your travel arrangements planned early, arrive with plenty of time to spare, and make sure that you know where you ought to go when you get there. With this sorted, you can focus on the important thing: preparing yourself mentally for the interview.
Interviewers know that students who arrive at interview are going to be very nervous. They also know that being nervous can stop people from performing at their best. Generally, interviewers will try their very hardest to try to help candidates to relax and coax the best out of them. I know of more than one successful applicant who burst into tears during their interview, at which point the interviewer allowed them to take some time to calm down and attempt the interview again. If you are worried going into the interview, remember two things: firstly, it is perfectly natural; and secondly, the interviewers are going to work to help you perform strongly anyway. Finally, it’s worth remembering that everyone else is probably feeling the same way (even if they are trying to hide it).
One way to make your interview process less stressful is to talk to other candidates and make some friends. Beware: there is nearly always one loud applicant who is showing off about how much they know and how well they are going to do. While this can be off-putting, the best thing to do is to steer well clear of them and be comforted by the fact that people like this tend not to succeed (at least in Oxbridge interviews). However, there will be plenty of other people at your interview that is just as nervous as you, and keen to talk to someone to calm themselves down. Spending time with other applicants will have the added benefit of preventing you from trying to cram too much – a sure-fire way to make you more stressed and less organic in your interview.