Interview Advice

Although not all universities interview applicants as part of their admissions process, some do require candidates to attend one – particularly for the more competitive courses – to help them decide who to admit. Check the relevant university’s course website to find out whether or not they use interviews as part of their selection process.

This page aims to offer guidance on what to expect if you are invited for a university interview, what the interviewers are looking for, and how best to prepare for the interview in advance.

Why do Universities Interview?

The way students are taught at university is very different from how they are taught at school or college. To succeed on a degree course, you must be able to both engage in and absorb the information you are taught in lectures, as well as being able to develop your own opinions on the topics you are studying. An interview allows you a chance to show the admissions staff, face-to-face, your enthusiasm for the subject and your ability to converse confidently about topics related to it while, at the same time, showing them what you’re like as an individual. A misconception is that the interviewer will be deliberately trying to catch you out – this isn’t true; they are looking for you to do well just as much as you are, and will be particularly interested in exploring your thought processes when responding to unseen questions. This is your chance to show the interviewer you have the ability to think through and adapt to new concepts by applying existing knowledge to problems you won’t have previously encountered – a key skill on any degree course – rather than simply being able to regurgitate pieces of information for exam situations. The majority of interviewers are less interested in how much you know – rather, they are more interested in seeing how well you can learn, and what you would be like to teach as a student.

It is important to remember that, from the university’s point of view, the interview is just one part of the decision of whether to make an offer. The admissions tutors will take all aspects of your application into account – your personal statement, grades, reference, contextual data – when making their decision. So the interview isn’t the be-all and end-all of your application, and whether you feel it went brilliantly or awfully, the outcome of your application doesn’t rest entirely on it.

The day of the interview is also a good chance for you to assess whether the university and course are both right for you. Use the day as an opportunity to explore the campus, facilities and surrounding areas, and to meet some current students – can you see yourself living and studying there for the next three or four years?

What to Expect?

Depending on the university, interviews can last anywhere between 10 minutes and an hour, and will usually be conducted by either one or two interviewers. Check your invitation email from the university for more specifics about your interview(s) and, if possible, try to research who will be interviewing you. The style of interviews differ between courses and universities – from being an informal and relaxed chat, to essentially a ‘verbal exam’ – the latter being more common with science subjects and Oxbridge interviews. Two-way interaction is expected; let the interviewer take the lead when doing handshakes, formalities and asking the questions, but when it’s your turn to talk, think aloud and try to give articulate, confident and enthusiastic responses, contributing to the discussion, not one-word answers.

There are usually two types of questions that the interviewers will ask – general/university/application-related queries, and subject-related problems or tasks:

  • To prepare for general questions, revisit the university and course prospectus or website, and think how you’d answer questions about why you chose to apply for that course or that university, what your plans are after you graduate, and what your expectations are of the course. Familiarise yourself with your personal statement and AS and A-Level content and consider your responses to questions about your extracurricular activities or books mentioned in your personal statement, and topics that most interested you at A-Level.

-> For examples of general interview questions, click here.

  • For the subject-based questions, the interviewer will expect you to use knowledge from your current level of study, but stretch it to unfamiliar situations or concepts – the key is to think through the problem and use what you do know to work towards an answer. Keep up to date with the latest issues, topics and current affairs relevant to your subject – the interviewer may use these as a discussion point.

-> For examples of Physics and Engineering questions, click here.

No matter how much you prepare, you will be asked questions with which you are not familiar. It is how you engage and respond to these questions that the interviewers are interested in – use your response as an opportunity to show how you use your knowledge to work your way through and pick apart the problem, working towards a solution. If you are stuck, the interviewer may give you hints to guide you to the answer – listen carefully and take these hints into account. Remember, not knowing the answer is not necessarily a problem (and is to be expected as they will be testing you to the limit) – but getting nervous or not saying anything if you don’t know, is. A good technique is to think aloud during the interview, explaining each step of your thinking so you can demonstrate your logic and thought processes to the interviewer.

What are the Interviewers Looking for?

Firstly, it is important to remember that being invited to interview in itself is an achievement – it shows that the admissions tutors are interested in your application and are considering making you an offer. The interview is just one part of their selection process so, although it is advantageous to make a good impression, the interview isn’t the only factor that will influence their decision.

Above all, the interviewers are looking to see that you’re genuinely motivated and enthusiastic about your chosen subject. It is easy in your personal statement to claim you’re passionate about the subject and have read numerous books about it, but are you able to elaborate on these and genuinely show you have the qualities they are looking for in their students – critical, independent thinking, logical and flexible thought processes – are you someone who will thrive in a varied academic (and social) environment and make the most of your time at university? Genuine passion and enthusiasm for the subject can be shown by elaborating further about the reading and extracurricular activities you’ve done, and by giving firm examples to describe and justify why you want to study the course. Don’t just assume the achievements you’ve listed in your personal statement will be enough by themselves to persuade the admissions tutors to make you an offer!

There is no such thing as the perfect interview – every candidate will get stuck at one point or another, and since the interviewers want to test your limits, the harder the questions get, very often the better the interview is going.

Preparation

There are numerous ways to prepare for the interview – and the better you prepare, the more confident you will likely feel on the day.

  • Start by researching as much as you can about the content of the course, and about the university and department. Use the department’s website to find out who lectures in what field and, perhaps, what research they have carried out – that way, if you are interviewed by them, you can ask questions relevant to their area of expertise. This shows the interviewers your initiative and interest in their department.
  • Ask a teacher or advisor if they would be willing to do a mock interview with you, based around your relevant subject. Mock interviews allow you to gain some first-hand experience into what it’s like to be put on the spot in a face-to-face interview-like scenario, and increase your confidence in talking about yourself and presenting yourself in an assured manner. It doesn’t have to be a formal mock interview – you could ask a family member if you wish – and try to ask for their feedback after the mock interview.
  • Be prepared to talk about anything you’ve written in your personal statement – the interviewer will likely have a copy of it to hand during your interview. Since you will have written your personal statement several months before the interview, make sure you re-read and re-familiarise yourself with topics you’ve written about and any books you mentioned in it, and be ready to recall facts and information about any work experience or extracurricular activities you undertook (or have undertaken since writing it). Be ready also to justify any aspect of your personal statement – any exaggerations in it could become obvious at interview.
  • In the weeks leading up to the interview, go over the AS syllabi for the most relevant subject(s) to your course and make sure you’re confident with the A-Level content you’ve covered so far. Just to reiterate, you’re not being tested on how much you know (there are exams for that) – more, how well you learn. Search for YouTube videos of example interviews for your subject. In addition, for the science subjects, go through past Olympiad papers (here are links to the Physics Olympiad, Chemistry Olympiad, Biology Olympiad and Maths Olympiad) and Cambridge Chemistry Challenge papers, as questions in these tend to be at the level of interview questions, and give good examples of the types of unfamiliar contexts that interview questions are set in, which require flexible thinking using knowledge from your studies so far.
  • Use the General interview questions list to draft answers to these queries (such as “Why this course?” and “What do you plan to do after graduating?”, etc.). By setting out an idea of the points you want to make in your answers, you will be better able to give confident responses to the questions in the interview and this will help you remain less nervous. However, don’t simply memorise a set answer to each question for the sole purpose of repeating it in the interview – interviewers will be used to hearing rehearsed speeches and won’t be impressed, so make your replies enthusiastic and natural.
  • Be aware of current major developments in areas relevant to your course by browsing news websites and magazines/blogs for new discoveries or advancements in your subject area. The interviewers may ask to hear your views on these.

Planning Ahead

There are practical aspects you should prepare for in advance of the interview – for example, your choice of clothing. Dress appropriately, in something that is smart but also comfortable and practical (eg. does the clothing remain presentable and comfortable when sitting down or walking?), and ensure it meets any dress code or recommendations the university sends you.

Plan your journey to the university well in advance – sort out any train/bus tickets and accommodation you need. Read your interview invitation email or letter carefully and check their website and email attachments for maps and directions so you know where you need to be and when, leaving ample time to get there – it is better to give yourself plenty of time on the day, so plan to get there early to avoid the extra stress of rushing or getting lost. Keep the department’s contact number to hand so you can phone them in case you’re delayed. Make sure you bring to the interview any work or documentation the university has requested.

It’s natural to feel nervous before the interview – have a good night’s sleep and a good breakfast, and remember all students will be feeling nervous before the interview – even if they try not to show it.

During the Interview

Interviewers will likely see several candidates one after another, so it’s important to make a good impression within the limited time you spend with them. Highlight to them things that make you stand out against the other applicants, such as projects, awards, and relevant work experience you’ve done (especially if you’ve undertaken any more of these since writing your personal statement).

Show your enthusiasm throughout the interview – convey a real desire to study at the university, showing the interviewers that you’ll be willing to put in the hard work, commitment and effort required, bearing in mind that students who are not that keen on the course in the first place tend to be more likely to fail or drop out. Although the interview can be a pressured environment, remember to be confident in your potential to succeed on the course and at the university.

During the interview, if you don’t understand a question, there is no problem asking the interviewer to repeat or rephrase it. If you’re not making progress on a question, start from the beginning and explain every step of your thinking, or try to relate it to something you know better – but ensure you still answer the question the interviewer set, as they will be alert to candidates answering a question they wanted the interviewer to ask, but didn’t. Make sure to listen to the question carefully, and use every piece of information you are given to help you work towards the solution.

Engage with the interviewer from the start, but let them take the lead with formalities, hand shakes, and asking the questions. Ensure you make a good and lasting impression by using positive and confident body language – no slouching, yawning, or folding your arms. Make eye contact and speak clearly and concisely, sounding enthusiastic and interested – try not to mumble or speak too quietly.

Show initiative by asking the interviewers questions too – remember, the interview is also a chance for you to find out more about the course and university so if, during your research you had any questions about the course content or teaching, now is the time to ask them.

After the Interview

After your interview, it might be useful to take notes of the questions that came up and to reflect on how you feel the interview went, including noting areas which you could improve on – especially useful to use as preparation if you have been invited to interview at another university. If you felt the interview went badly, don’t just assume you won’t get an offer – remember that the university admissions tutors take all aspects of your application into account and that the interview is just one part of this.

It can take several weeks for university departments to interview all their applicants, decide which ones to admit, and then reply to them all – so don’t worry if you haven’t heard back from the university for a while, it isn’t necessarily a sign that you won’t receive an offer. The university’s reply will appear in your UCAS Track. Good luck!

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