UK University Interviews: How to Alleviate Stress

Every year, usually sometime between the middle of November and the beginning of December, thousands of prospective first-year students receive invitations to university interviews. 

You might head to an Oxbridge college for your interview in early December. On the other hand, if you’re applying to study Medicine at a UK university, you’ll probably need to attend an interview between the months of December and February. 

As well as this, other prestigious British colleges like Imperial College London and UCL will often also interview applicants, whether you’re planning on studying Medicine or not. For more in-depth insights into applying for Medicine in the UK, head to the Choosing the Right Course for You section of our site. 

All this is to say that it’s useful to equip yourself with a number of simple tools, tips, and behaviours that can reduce any stress surrounding your interview. The more composed and relaxed you feel, the better you’ll perform, and the greater your likelihood of success. 

We’ve compiled a list of actionable steps you can take to reduce any worries you might have about the interview and allow you to feel at ease during the process. 

  • Practice

Oxford and Cambridge university interviews are far more academically minded than their US equivalents (which tend to be informal conversations about your personal beliefs, passions, and hobbies). 

You’ll find that Oxbridge interviewers will look to pick out genuinely promising students who are able to adapt and think on their feet to answer intellectually challenging questions. They will be well trained when it comes to recognising overly-rehearsed or trained answers. 

However, having said that, you can still settle your nerves a lot by doing a bit of practice before you head into your actual interview. 

Practice Interviews

Rather than trying to second-guess or predict what your Oxbridge interviewer will ask you, set up a couple of practice interviews with someone who has experience with the process. 

Your practice interviewer can ask you difficult and open-ended questions, which will allow you to get used to responding calmly and confidently when under a bit 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.  

Put simply, the more you put yourself into uncomfortable training situations where you have to strive and grapple with new ideas, the more confident you’ll feel going into the interview itself. 

Think of it as intellectual resistance training. You load weights on the barbell at the gym to get stronger, so put a bit of pressure on yourself to think more seamlessly and rapidly in the leadup to your interview for the best possible result. 

  • University Interviews: Do Your Research

When it comes to university interviews, it’s crucial to think about what the tutor is looking for when they talk to you. Generally speaking, Oxbridge interviewers aren’t necessarily looking for applicants with heaps of trained knowledge. 

Here are some of the most important factors that Oxbridge tutors are looking for when it comes to the interview process: 

  • An open-mindedness and desire to learn: interviewers want to meet applicants who have a clear “intellectual capacity to learn.” That means that they’re not expecting you to be this polished candidate with pitch-perfect, checked-box answers. They’re looking for people with a willingness to learn and engage with new, challenging ideas and theories. 
  • A clear and obvious passion for your subject. This one may sound a bit cliched, but interviewers want to see you displaying “a deep, irresistible interest in the subject they want to study.” Candidates with a real, intrinsic curiosity for their subject will be able to talk about relevant work experience: they’ll also have an authentic and clear-cut motivation for wanting to study this particular university course. Think about what your motivations are. 
  • An ability to acknowledge and work through mistakes. Tutors love to chat with self-aware candidates who grapple with difficult ideas and try out different potential solutions or responses to see what might work. It’s quite natural that your first answer to a challenging intellectual question might not be the most effective one. A lot of candidates will plough on, but it’s useful to acknowledge that and propose a revised or completely new solution: this shows tutors that you have the capacity to admit mistakes and use them to produce stronger hypotheses or arguments. As one tutor says, “everyone makes occasional mistakes, but only very good candidates spot their own mistakes and recover from them.”

It’s also important to remember that tutors are naturally looking for candidates that they themselves would want to work with. In other words, they want to know whether you will be pleasant to teach for the duration of your course. 

If you bear all these factors in mind, you can see that it’s not always the case that those candidates with the most subject knowledge will always succeed in interviews. Try not to stress yourself out by attempting to cram in as much of this knowledge as possible in the days and weeks leading up to the interview. 

Research Strategically and Effectively

It’s much better to be strategic in your research and preparation. Here are a few really valuable ways to spend your time in the lead up to your interview:

  • Do some basic background research on the pertinent aspects and courses in your A-Level, IB, or Advanced Higher syllabus. For example, if you’re applying to study History, do a bit of work on each of the topics in your History A-Level or IB HL subject. You might also want to talk about the historical consequences of a case study from your Geography course, so make sure to do your research in that subject area as well. Interviewers will love to see that you’re taking an interdisciplinary approach to your research and thinking.  
  • Head to the relevant department’s website and see if they’ve released any past interview questions. You can spend some time verbally answering these questions, or just sketching out mentally how you would go about answering them. 
  • Most importantly, make sure that you can talk confidently about anything that you have mentioned in your personal statement. Interviewers will often begin with a question about an idea or essay that you’ve alluded to in your statement, so make sure you’re comfortable with all this material. 

If you’ve covered all these bases, then you should feel pretty confident and comfortable talking about a whole range of relevant material with your interviewers. 

  • Practical Planning and Preparation

A really simple way to reduce stress during the university interview process is to iron out all of the practical details several days or weeks in advance. For example, if you’re travelling across the country for your interview, get your train or plane tickets early, and make sure you have somewhere to stay for the night before. 

You should also double-check the room number and location: the last thing you want to be doing is wandering lost around the college in the minutes before your interview. Even if you manage to find the correct room on time, you’ll likely turn up a lot more stressed than you would have been otherwise. 

When you’re clear on important administrative details like travel arrangements and room location, you free up a bunch of mental space in your mind. This allows you to focus on the most crucial aspect of the whole process: going into the interview with an open mind and an adaptable intellectual capacity. 

  • Remember That The Interviewers Won’t Punish You For Being Nervous

Interviewers know that prospective applicants who arrive at the interview are going to be very nervous. They’re also very aware that these nerves can stop people from performing at their best. Generally, interviewers will try their hardest to try to help candidates to relax and coax the best out of them. They know that they need to make you feel comfortable before you can demonstrate your intellectual capability. 

If you are worried about 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).

  • University Interviews: Make Friends

Many people who have successful university interviews will talk about how talking to other candidates and making some friends helped to alleviate stress. 

Beware: there is nearly always one loud applicant who is showing off 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 are 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 authentic in your interview. 

The Final Word

The Oxbridge and medical school university interviews can be stressful for prospective candidates, but it’s useful to remember that everyone else will be in the same boat. You should also bear in mind that the tutors will have seen everything in these interviews, and are well versed in putting you at ease almost as soon as you walk into the room. 

If you’re not sure how to answer an interviewer’s question right away, remember that it’s completely fine to take a breath and mull over your answer for a couple of seconds. Tutors aren’t looking for pitch-perfect answers delivered in record time: they want to see your thought process in action. Remember that they’re also looking for people that they themselves want to work with in the future.

If you want more in-depth advice on the university interview process in the UK, visit the Oxbridge Interview Tips section of our site. You can also get in touch with us via our A&J Education website to book a free consultation with one of our experts.  

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