Preparing for Oxbridge interviews

Education, Interviews, Oxbridge

28th November 2018

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In just two weeks, you’ll be sitting – knees trembling – on a worn old leather sofa, in a room where books seem to multiply every time you blink; they’re on the shelves, cascading from windowsills, and propping up wonky tables. Who could possibly have time to read all these books? Well, the Oxford don sitting opposite you, that’s who. (Or the Cambridge one, obviously).

Oxbridge interviews. Absolutely terrifying. But potentially quite exhilarating. How can you make sure you’re preparing for Oxbridge interviews in the right way? Well, reading this helpful guide is a good first step.

What is the point of the interview? What do interviewers want to see?

Remember first and foremost that these guys aren’t here to catch you out. They have to sit opposite you, once a week, and try to make you understand the finer points of de Broglie’s wavelength calculations/the Trustee Act of 2000/Camus’ concept of the absurd.

They don’t want to feel like they’re banging their head against a brick wall – they are hopeful that the encounters you have over the course of your degree can be enriching for them too. They’re seeking enthusiastic and motivated students, students who provide a challenge and hold a stimulating and passionate discussion – students who maintain unique perspectives, enquiring minds and analytical quick mindedness.

This means that the interview is simply about ascertaining how desirable you might be as a student under their guidance for three years. Thus, they may not favour the best read student, the loud overbearing intellectual one, or the quiet mathematical whizz. They are looking for one who is considered, able to process information quickly, recognise implications and react and adapt accordingly. They want to know how you think, not necessarily what you know.

I’ll provide a brief caveat there. Some subjects do require you to have existing subject knowledge, whilst some don’t. In both cases though, your knowledge should be aiming to be above the minimum – firstly because it gives you the ammunition upon which to show your critical thinking abilities, the meat to chew through in the interview. But secondly because it is the single best way of communicating your genuine ‘passion’ (bleugh) for the subject, and your diligence and propensity for study.

So, for example, even though law applications do not require you to have an A-level in the subject, I’d personally make sure you walk into that interview with a clear knowledge of how the UK court system is structured, how statutes and case law function (and why that’s different to the rest of the world), and be well versed in some basically legal philosophers.

The same with any other subject – make sure you’ve read up enough to be well above the bare minimum. If it’s Chinese, show that you’ve read about the country, its history and philosophy extensively – and maybe even had a go at the fundamentals of the language. If it’s a core subject like science or English, make sure you’ve read above and beyond the curriculum – adding breadth and depth to your knowledge. Remember, this is not so that you can walk into the interview and regurgitate things like a barely sentient encyclopedia, but so that you are able to show off your opinions, critical thinking and mental flexibility to the max.

Oxbridge Interview Questions

What will they ask you to test this? Well, they’ll ask you question which aren’t ‘trick’ questions per se, but which are tricky. They’ll be questions that require you to think both logically but also potentially ‘outside the box’ (bluegh). They’ll require consideration – and they’ll almost certainly stimulate debate. One of the biggest things to expect is that you will be challenged on your response. How you respond to this challenge is perhaps even more significant than the initial response you give. Don’t assume that the challenge means you were ‘wrong’; even if you gave the most textbook answer they would find a hole to pick just to judge your reaction.

The trick is not to back down, but don’t be belligerent either. Consider their counter argument. What points of your original answer are defensible? Defend them. What parts of your answer might change in light of this new information or perspective? Concede this change, and justify why. Constantly remind yourself that this is not a question and answer session, but a dialogue. You’re exploring meaning together in the Platonian tradition – remain confident, calm and considered.

Spend some time looking through these questions – they are ones that have been released this year by Oxford to give candidates an idea of what they can expect in the Oxford interviews. Think about how you’d answer. Then think about how someone else might question or challenge your answer, and what you’d say in return. Make this a mental exercise you undertake every day up until the interview. Some apply to the humanities and arts, some to the sciences – but it’s worth taking time to consider them all.


  • What does this rock look like?


  • What can historians not find out about the past?


  • Is religion of value whether or not there is a God?


  • How can we estimate the mass of the atmosphere?


  • What is the difference between intention and foresight?


  • You’re in a desert and two enemies are working independently. One poisons your water bottle, the other then tips the water out (not knowing it was poisoned). You walk out into the desert and die of thirst. Which one is guilty of murder?


  • What is a monopoly? What are the advantages and disadvantages?


This website is a fantastic source for more questions that you can chew over:

These are all examples of genuine questions that have been asked within interviews. Any ones you’ve heard that involve breaking windows, catching balls or setting fire to things are almost certainly not genuine experiences. Do NOT allow others to scare you with tall tales, or make you believe the system is rigged against you. It really isn’t. In fact the whole interviewing system is perhaps the fairest and most democratic way of letting people get in on merit, and not because they’ve been primped, prepped and preened by tutors. Don’t fall for media scaremongering, or let lesser people bring you down. You’ve got this!

So this was part one of our guide to preparing for Oxbridge interviews. Why not post below how you’d respond to any of the interview questions listed above, and we can start a dialogue on what makes an effective or less effective interview response.