1. Read a book you’ll enjoy, not one you think will sound impressive.
When I was interviewed for Geography, I was obsessed with South Asia, but had little concentration for books centred on economics, development, or world politics. Despite my best efforts, none of the ‘intellectual’ texts my Geography teacher recommended would hold my attention – and I was beginning to panic. Further reading, I had been told, was essential to acing an Oxbridge interview; but I was so bored that reading ten pages would take about five evenings. With time running out, I decided to pick a book that I’d genuinely enjoy reading, and settled on the brilliant ‘An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions’. The pages flew by, and in the process, I barely noticed the richly situated case studies I was learning about economics, development and South Asian politics. When questioned on these topics in interview, I realised I was able to passionately give detailed examples on these processes in action. Whilst my anecdote is specific, the lesson is general: select further reading that will genuinely capture your interest, rather than the driest, but most impressive-sounding book you can find. You’ll not only remember more than you thought you were capable of, but you’ll also be able to illustrate your points in interview with an enthusiasm that admissions tutors love to see in prospective students.
2. You have to get out of the habit of saying “I don’t know” – even if you don’t know.
This took me a long time to get the hang of – I was a rabbit in the headlights when questioned on anything I wasn’t sure about during mock interviews, and “I don’t know” almost became my catchphrase. As cheesy as it sounds, interviewers love to see a “can-do attitude” in students: without this, an Oxbridge student will struggle to keep their morale up in the challenging terms of the degree course, so it’s essential to demonstrate this in interview. Embrace guessing – after all, being brave enough to guess has been the basis behind thousands of discoveries since time immemorial – and most interviewers are just genuinely pleased that you’ve tried. In my Geography interview, I was asked how many satellites orbited the Earth for the purposes of GPS navigation – I had no clue. However, using the information I did know about satellites, I voiced my line of thinking to arrive at a reasoned – but completely incorrect – guess. I still received an offer. You will be deliberately challenged in your interview, but the most important thing to remember is not to panic. Even when you’re completely stumped, always guess for interview success!
3. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself – and adapt in the face of adversity.
This isn’t the same as not caring about the outcome, but by looking after yourself in the build-up to the interview, you’ll likely perform better. The night before my interview, I was so nervous that I only got two hours’ sleep. But, feeling certain that I’d mess up due to sleep deprivation oddly set me free – I no longer hesitated and agonised over every question like I’d done before. Guessing no longer felt like a dangerous activity; I knew it couldn’t be much worse for my performance than exhaustion, but the latter was now unavoidable. I know now that these guesses probably helped win me my place. Being flexible in the face of adversity is crucial; an important skill is to effectively deal with problems you’re inevitably going to encounter. Overall, these interviews are important – but do be kind to yourself. Your performance will thank you for it.