My own Cambridge humanities interview was a tense and uncomfortable experience.
I remember realising halfway through my Cambridge humanities interview that I was constantly fidgeting with my sweaty hands, and then sat on them to make it stop. I came out thinking that I’d blown my golden chance, and was therefore ecstatic when the letter from Corpus Christi College came in the post a few months later.
You can only imagine my horror, therefore, when I arrived there for my very first day at Cambridge, and at my opening freshers dinner I was sat next to one of the women who had interviewed me…
She told me that she would be supervising me for the entirety of the term. For those that don’t know, a supervision is an hour sitting alone or perhaps with one other student with a someone assigned as your supervisor. They they discuss your latest essay and often move onto the wider themes to which it is connected. They are not for the faint-hearted, but after a term, I grew to enjoy them more and more. They were not like exams or tests of how many books that I’d read, but they were discussions between two generally interested parties.
That led me to think about the supervision from the supervisor’s point of view – and then the interview, which is – in effect – a practice supervision under far more pressurised conditions. In this case, your personal statement is the starting point for discussion rather than an essay. As a result, the qualities that make supervisions successful are essential for an interview, and the key to working out what these qualities are is to see the interview from the perspective of the interviewer looking for a student who is capable of holding their own and bringing original ideas into a supervision.
As a result, an ability to listen to alternative points of view whilst also defending their own and to engage with the interviewer and their own interests are highly important, as is demonstrating a genuine interest in the subject. Doing these things seems daunting in the hyper-pressurised environment of the interview, where nerves are inevitable, but seeing it in this way, as a practice supervision, also takes the pressure off in many ways. For one thing, the main thing that your supervisor wants you to do once you’ve got in is learn, and as a result, showing off endless knowledge of facts, dates and authors helps but is not enough.
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Not knowing something is not a problem, as long as you own up to it and show a willingness to learn there and then in the interview.
The interviewers want to see how you think to simulate a supervision environment and so they will chuck curve balls at you. The key is not to panic but to reply in an interesting way. Just like in a supervision, a ‘wrong’ answer is fine if it leads to an interesting debate, which means that asking questions and defending your position against the interviewers does not make you look stupid, it does the very opposite.