Applying To Oxbridge: How To Bag The Interview (But Not The Offer)

Applying to Oxbridge can be incredibly daunting – it’s a long process that requires a lot more than just writing a good personal statement and getting the grades. Unlike other universities, Oxford and Cambridge ask you to submit written work as well as a personal statement and to complete an entrance exam – and if you’re successful through all those stages, you’ll be invited to the college for the interview stage.

I applied to study Classics at Oriel College, Oxford, and was fortunate enough to get an interview after completing the tough entrance exam. But I was not lucky enough to gain an offer, and although I was pretty disappointed at the time, here are some key lessons I learnt through it all.

What is the interview process like?

Something that’s important to note before you go into an Oxbridge interview is that they are not trying to test you on HOW much you know, but HOW you THINK. Knowledge, of course, is important, but working through problems out loud and showing the tutors that you can get to the answer by thinking logically is key.

The interview process lasts a couple of days and is honestly quite a fun experience. You get to stay in the college rooms and get a taste for what university life is like, as well eat your meals in the college dining room and meet some new people (who may very well become your college mates).

For Classics I was given 2 separate interviews: one general one and another on Philosophy and Ancient History. At first, you’ll be interviewed by professors at the college you applied to (or have been allocated if you didn’t apply to a specific one), and in the days following, you might be sent to other colleges for interviews. Bear in mind this is completely random - just because you might only have interviews at one college doesn’t mean you won’t get an offer.

The pre-reading:

Fifteen minutes before each interview, you are usually given some sort of pre-reading to make notes on and discuss with the tutors. I was given a poem – ‘To Homer’ by Keats - and it was clear that the tutors were assessing how I spotted patterns in language and poetry.

For my second interview, I was given a couple of philosophical problems to look over and decide what would be the most moral and best course of action in each scenario. My knowledge of Ancient History was really tested in the second interview, where I was asked (out of the blue – for me at least) to put pictures of Roman coins into chronological order. Having only ever studied Latin at school, rather than Roman history, I found this quite tricky.

Looking back now, as a Classics graduate, I could very easily place those coins into date order, and probably also do much better on the entrance exam – which shows just how many steps ahead of A level Oxbridge expect you to be.

Having passion for your subject and reading widely outside of the school syllabus are not the only things you need to succeed – you almost need to live and breathe your chosen subject and be really on top of it, which is not always possible when you’re studying 3 or 4 different things at A-level.

The post-interview experience:

After an afternoon of waiting to see whether I’d be called in for another, third, interview, I was told they had all they needed from me and that I could return home. I knew in my heart that I just simply wasn’t ready, or smart enough, to get an offer and in fact I received a rejection letter about a month later from the college. I was incredibly upset and disappointed in myself. My mother comforted me and told me that: “When one door shuts, another one opens.” Thank goodness for mothers, they are usually right.

So instead of Oxford, I went to Warwick, and I don’t regret it at all. Although I was smarting from being rejected from Oxford, as soon as I made my first friends at Warwick and settled into university life, I knew it was for the best. Warwick’s Classics course was challenging enough to keep me on my toes, but also flexible enough that I could enjoy societies and life outside of academics. I really loved getting involved with the student radio station where I was able to broadcast my own shows, which led me to pursue a master’s degree and a career in broadcast journalism.

So, if you are reading this wondering whether to take the plunge and apply for Oxbridge – my advice would be GO FOR IT! Even if you don’t get in, the experience is well worth it. And take it from me, there is life beyond not getting an Oxbridge offer!

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