If there’s one thing I remember particularly vividly from my first Cambridge interview, it was this question:
“Can you tell me how many nanograms are in a milligram?”
Expectation: I am calm. I know enough chemistry to know what these words mean and enough maths to work this out.
Reality: Mindblank. I start splurting out random, orders-of-magnitude out numbers (eg. 0.1) that prompt pitying looks from said interviewer until he finally puts me out of my misery and explains the answer (it’s 1,000,000, by the way). When he asks me if I understand, I can only nod in faint horror and wish I could bang my head against the table.
Now, the point of this story isn’t to say that all medical interviews will be testing your ability to do fractions in your head, but to highlight that the Oxbridge interviews are testing something very different to what other unis might do: your ability to think things through. Despite the maths wobble, I received an offer a month later.
I had two interviews. While the odd point on my personal statement was discussed, questions were mostly the kind of thing that you’d expect to pop up in A Level exams. At the time, I was wondering why I needed to what diseases were prevalent in the Victorian era (I dropped history in Year 9..), but looking back on it, I wasn’t being tested on my ability to remember Horrible Histories episodes, but instead whether I could work this out from basic knowledge (poor sanitation means water borne diseases etc.). The kind of questions they ask are difficult to prepare for, but are almost exclusively questions that, if you keep calm and think a little, you can at least try and discuss if not reach an answer.
The Oxbridge medical courses are all about taking your core science – your anatomy, physiology, pathology – and building on top of this later with clinical experience. If the foundation is there, if you know what the parts of the lungs are, thinking about what goes wrong and why makes a lot more sense. So, in interview, by asking the kind of questions that you couldn’t just practice in your head a million times (“I want to do medicine because…”) you are forced to take a step back, think about what you do know and at least try to form a logical argument. It’s not the answer they’re looking for, but the way you think it through. That’s an excellent indicator of the kind of student you’ll be.
Of course, interview preparation for the “standard” questions is absolutely necessary – your reasons for doing medicine and applying to Oxbridge will roll off the tongue soon enough. But additionally, for those questions where you don’t have a pre-packaged answer, keeping calm and realising that you actually know a lot more than you think, and relaying this to the interviewers in a relaxed and confident way – whether your answer is right or not – is not a bad idea at all. And if you make the occasional blunder, it doesn’t have to be the end of the world.