University interview tips ‘confidence won’t make up for flannel’

Interviews are a chance for university applicants to ask questions about the course, meet the academic team and show they deserve a place. They might also be a time to say “um, like” six times every sentence, develop a muscle twitch and get hit by a crippling cough.

“Lead the interviewer into asking about the things you want to talk about.”

To demystify its interview process and soothe students’ nerves, Oxford University last week released its annual sample questions and – crucially – the answers to them. But besides knowing what questions might come up, what else can you do to prepare? And how does this differ at other universities? We spoke to interviewers to find out more.

Don’t stick to a script

Everyone has a favourite topic to talk about, but trying to reel off a party-piece is a bad idea. “We’ll stop any such attempt and remind them of the question we had asked, not the question they wished we had asked,” says Steve Watts, admissions tutor at Homerton College, Cambridge. “Any sense we have that the applicant is well rehearsed rather than thinking for themselves will lead to a move to the less familiar.”

Dr Helen Swift, tutorial fellow in medieval French at Oxford, agrees, adding it’s not like an X Factor audition; interviews are conversations. Applicants should make sure they’re listening carefully to the question. “Even when your heart is pounding, answer as precisely as possible, don’t just pick up on keywords,” she says. Students need to pause to think. “Even though silence can be daunting, allow yourself time to process your thoughts.”

Interviews also aren’t quizzes with marks for right answers. “Don’t try and bluff your way, and hope that confidence will make up for flannel. The interviewer is an expert in the subject who wants the applicant to show off what they know and how well they think; not deliberately bamboozle them,” says Watts.

However, Julie Tucker from the applicant services team at Falmouth University, which interviews all prospective students, says isn’t necessarily a bad thing to have some talking points prepared – it can help with focus when the nerves are kicking in.

Think beyond stock questions

Most interviews won’t have trick questions and you can think about your answers beforehand. For medicine, questions are set by the Medical School Council, which are often predictable: Why do you want to be a doctor? What are your interests and hobbies and how does this relate to being a doctor? Discuss a medical issue – and so on.

That said, Simon Atkinson, who interviews medicine, veterinary and dentistry students at Bristol, says you need think beyond the stock questions. He advises being able to talk about your hobbies and work experience and how this relates to being a doctor – whether it’s a part-time job at Tesco, planning the family holiday or clinical work experience.

“You’re applying for a job. The interviewers are asking themselves, would this person make a good doctor or dentist? It would be strange if someone hadn’t prepared for a medicine interview, but I think preparing answer by rote is a bad idea. It’s obvious which candidates have done that and you don’t come across as genuine.”

Student with bags luggage and portfolio case at entrance to St Catherine’s College, Cambridge.

Practice on anyone who’ll listen

Spend time reacquainting yourself with your personal statement or doing further reading. Atkinson advises taking notes and talking them through with friends and family. He says that the better you can get at talking to adults you’ve never met before, the better off you’ll be.

“You could record yourself and listen back or even talk to the cat,” Swift adds.

Look beyond the syllabus

Interviewers are looking for people who love their subject. Languages courses, for instance, include the study of literature and culture and so Swift says Oxford wants students who are keen on this too. “We’re not looking for particular experience, but motivation. People who have read a bit off their own back and are interested in thinking about and discussing what they’ve read, such as listening to podcasts, reading articles and thinking about films they’ve watched.”

Atkinson agrees. “It’s very hard to say no to someone who is absolutely passionate. If they live and breathe it, that’s really hard to turn down.”

You don’t have to be slick

Don’t imagine people like you never get a place, because somebody does. Professional programmes are looking for people with a high degree of integrity. “The kind of people who could treat your mother,” says Atkinson. “You don’t want someone who is glib, or says something someone wants them to say. You want them to be true and that comes across even in nervous candidates. It isn’t always about slickness.”

If you’re feeling especially nervous, there are some things you can do to keep your thoughts on track. “Don’t talk for longer than 45 seconds,” says Atkinson. “Lead the interviewer into asking about the things you want to talk about by letting them ask more. Avoid telling them everything at once.”

Know when to ask questions

At the end of the interview, you might be asked: “Have you got any questions for us?” A perfectly acceptable answer is – no. Don’t bother asking about what’s in the course, Watts says, because that might appear a bit daft. You’ve hopefully applied because of, well, what’s in the course.

However, questions that emerge from the discussion can be sensible. Tucker says these should reflect your interest in the subject and show you’ve done some research already. “Questions can reinforce an applicant’s suitability, and it gives them an opportunity to get to the heart of any academic issues they’re not sure about.”

Applicants should remember that interviews are just one part of the admissions process. “We look keenly at everything sent in from previous results to the school reference,” says Watts. “These will form just as important a part in our judgement as the interview does.”

And, if things don’t go your way, well, you can always reapply next year. “Loads of people get into medical school second time round,” says Atkinson. “It’s not the be all and end all.”