Welcome back to our final blog post in our Oxbridge Resources series! We hope this series has been beneficial in guiding your application process and making it easier to understand which bits you may have to focus on more. Following our blog post on the BMAT, we will now be giving you some advice and top tips on how to prepare for Oxbridge interviews.
This is the last step in the application process, so if you have made it this far, firstly, give yourself a pat on the back! You’ve probably heard many scare-stories regarding Oxbridge interviews and how they like to ask weird and wacky scientific questions. So, today, we will be separating fact from the fiction.
In all honesty, we both found the experience challenging yet incredibly rewarding, and we’ll be discussing how you should go about preparing effectively whilst sharing any pearls of wisdom we have garnered from our experiences along the way!
Differences between Oxbridge interviews and other medical school
Oxbridge interviews are typically quite different from the interviews at other medical schools as they are panel interviews and have more of a focus on the science behind medicine rather than the skills of a doctor. As the degree Oxford and Cambridge offer are heavily science-based, the interview is an opportunity for your interviewers to challenge your scientific understanding, find out about your strengths, and see how passionate you are to study medicine.
The interview will typically mimic the style of supervisions/tutorials that are unique to Oxbridge, allow students to learn in a small group and talk through topics with a world-leading academic of the field in a stimulating environment. Therefore, it is essential to realise that you are not expected to get to the answer immediately and to make mistakes, but to problem-solve building on from your A-Level knowledge and some guidance from the tutors. However, if you go in with an open-minded mind-set and are willing to learn, they will help support you and be happy to see you persevering and trying your best.
Below is a table summarising the key similarities and differences between the interviews at Oxbridge and the interviews at other medical schools:
Regardless of whether you apply to Oxbridge or other medical schools they will still be assessing whether you would make a suitable doctor in the future.
All medical schools will be focusing more on your soft skills such as communication, leadership and teamwork.
Your personal statement and information that you have submitted as part of your UCAS application may still be used.
Panel interview – this is not as commonly used at other medical schools anymore but it is important to note that it is still used in some cases.
Oxbridge interviews are designed to determine your suitability for tutorial teaching style.
Oxbridge interviews will be more likely to delve into topics that you are unfamiliar with.
Oxbridge interviews will use the personal statement less that the interviews you will have at other medical schools
Differences between Oxford vs Cambridge interviews
Although Oxford and Cambridge follow similar interview styles and are typically academic, they still have some differences. We have aptly summarised the similarities and differences between Oxford and Cambridge interviews below:
Little focus on ‘why medicine’.
Questions will initially be based on parts of your A-Level Biology and Chemistry syllabus and then they will delve deeper into topics that you may have less knowledge about.
Oxford interviews take place over two days at two different colleges (4 interviews overall) and you will likely have to stay there overnight.
At Cambridge, interviews only occur at 1 college. You will have 2/3 interviews at this college. This will only last for 1 day so you won’t have to stay overnight but may be offered accommodation at the college you have applied to if you are travelling from afar.
A much higher proportion of applicants are interviewed at Cambridge (around 80%) due to the holistic nature of selection (i.e. everything is considered after interview) compared to the 25% of applicants interviewed at Oxford as people are only called for interview based on their BMAT and GCSE performance but then only interview performance is looked at after this stage.
Pooling system at Cambridge.
Note to 2020 applicants:
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the interviews will be conducted online, so we would recommend that you practise speaking over a zoom call so that you can mimic the new interview environment. Although this may be happening from the comforts of your home, it will still be equally challenging, so we would recommend that you practise as much as possible and prepare as you normally would without taking things for granted.
Below we have put links to the Oxford and Cambridge pages that have more information with regards to how things will change due to COVID so definitely check them out and keep updated!
Pooling system (Cambridge)
The pooling system allows candidates who are strong enough to be studying at Cambridge to have a chance to still get a place at the university even if it isn’t to the college they originally applied to. Following the interview, if the interviewers believe you are a strong candidate, but unfortunately all the places that the college has to offer have been taken up, they will put you in the winter pool. This is an opportunity for colleges who have not already filled up their quota of medical students to take on students they feel fit their requirement and would excel in a Cambridge environment. This system is quite nice such that even if you don’t go to the college of your initial choice, you can still study at the university if you’re good enough, just at another college!
How to prepare for interviews
Preparing for your interviews can be a daunting process as this is the last stage before securing an offer. You may feel like there’s a lot of work for you to do to get prepared, but if you use a structured and systematic approach, this will help make it a lot easier for you and make it more straightforward.
In terms of time management, while preparing for interviews you want to chunk your time into sections so that you don’t feel overwhelmed and work efficiently, especially as you will still have to keep on top of school at the same time. Also, you don’t have to wait until you get shortlisted to begin your interview preparation, as having an early start will enable you to perform to the best of your abilities and get as much practice in as possible!
So, there are three main aspects of preparing for your interviews: knowing your content well, being able to demonstrate the skills and qualities of a doctor, and interview technique.
From personal experience, what helped us tackle the interviews was by building our resilience and being open-minded to learn during the interview and pick up on cues the interviewer may be giving you. Although this may seem easier said than done, the best way to prepare yourself for the situation is by being proactive and arranging as many mock interviews as possible. Doing these and reflecting upon your performance, will allow you to learn how to deal with making mistakes under pressure and how to remain unfazed to continue giving it your all!
Though the Oxbridge interviews are not designed to be a test of your knowledge, but to assess the way you think and problem-solve, having a solid foundation of a few topics can help you tackle some of the interview questions.
- A-Level Biology and Chemistry – Make sure that you know most of the content of your specifications well and are comfortable talking about it.
- Make sure to go into more detail on topics that are more likely to be connected to medicine – e.g. genetics, cardiology as these are more likely going to be the topics of questions at interview.
- Also, look at what you have recently learnt in year 13 as often they ask questions about this and look to see how you can apply this.
- Know what you have written in your personal statement inside out.
- They may ask you questions on this to ease you into the interview, so it is important that you are confident with this to set a good first impression.
- You could annotate your personal statement with questions that could arise from it, and make a note of what your answer would be at the interview.
- Have a good general understanding of how the human body works, the mechanism of some common diseases, and the general history of medicine.
- Even though the questions are meant to stretch you, and the answer will not be apparent at first, having a clear understanding of some basic concepts to rely on can serve as a springboard to answer the questions.
- For example, you could have a quick look into the main systems of the human body and the most common diseases such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, etc.
- Especially in the current COVID-19 circumstances where a global pandemic has caused such widespread disruption and mourning, it’s important to have an understanding of the importance of global communication and public health diseases.
- An understanding of the general history of medicine can also help tackle questions regarding how medicine has changed and improved over the years.
- It is important to have a strong understanding of the four pillars of medical ethics and be able to apply these to scenarios that they will most likely ask you about. This will not only come up at your Oxbridge interview but will come up in all interviews so are very important to get to grips with.
- Alongside the four central pillars, it can also be helpful to look into associated topics such as patient confidentiality, consent and capacity. You can practise answering questions using these principles by arranging as many mock interviews as possible
- Basic understanding of the principles of research
- As Oxford and Cambridge are research-heavy institutions, having an understanding of how medical research works can help you show your appreciation for the importance of science underpinning medicine.
- Be aware that your interviewers can ask you questions that may surprise you, such as, asking you how to design a clinical trial so having as much as an insight as possible can be helpful.
- Skills and qualities of a doctor
Though Oxbridge interviews tend to focus more on the academic side, the tutors will still be trying to assess whether you would make a good doctor. A great way to make sure you can demonstrate that you have the skills and qualities required for medicine is reflecting upon your experiences before you go into your interview. You can draw up a list with all of the skills and qualities of a doctor (i.e. empathy, communication, teamwork, leadership, etc.) that can be found on the GMC’s Good Medical Practice Guidelines and then link them to something you have done in the past which demonstrates it best.
You can do this in note form using the STARR method so that it doesn’t sound too rehearsed at interview, as you don’t want to come across as if you have memorised a script. This way, you will know what example you want to use and won’t get stuck thinking about it on the spot.
The ‘STARR method’ is a great way to structure your reflections at interview, which involves the following points:
S – Situation
T – Task
A – Action
R – Result
R – Reflection
So, before going into your interview, you can review your notes and make sure you have practised what you would like to say, as this will help you present yourself in the best light.
It is unlikely for opportunities for you to be able to talk about your extra-curricular activities and experiences too often as it will mainly be scientific, but preparing like this will help with interview prep for other medical schools where it comes up a lot more often. It is also very important to try and structure your answers wherever possible.
3. Interview technique
The most important thing that you can do to prepare for your interview is to practice and arrange as many mock interviews as possible – these can be with teachers, friends and family. By doing this, you can learn from your mistakes and make a note of them so that you can improve on them for the real interview. Mock interviews will also allow you to see how you deal with new situations under pressure and help you get rid of any nervous ticks/habits you may have!
You can also record yourself and then watch the video back to spot if there are any quirks you need to work on such as fidgeting, averting your gaze for too long when you are thinking, etc. Additionally, don’t be afraid to smile! This will help you come across as an enthusiastic student and show your tutors you are enjoying your time at the interview (even if you’re not.) Perfecting these skills as well as the basics of having good body language and being confident and coherent whilst you speak, maximise your chance of success and setting a good impression.
You should always answer the question you are being asked, not one that would be more convenient for you to answer, as this will make you waste valuable time at your interview and show you haven’t understood the question. If you are indeed confused as to what the question entails, don’t be afraid to ask the interviewers to repeat their question as they would be more than happy to do so and this will allow you to feel better prepared to tackle the question.
The most important tip by far is that you should ‘think out loud’ throughout your interview. When faced with a question, likely, you won’t know the answer immediately, but you shouldn’t sit in silence trying to work out the answer on your own. Instead, you should express various trains of thoughts, explaining yourself as you go along so that the tutors can see how you think and problem-solve, and can therefore guide you towards the right answer.
Finally, they are not looking for a perfect student who gets everything perfectly right the first time, but more so for a student who isn’t afraid to talk through their thought process and this will allow them to assess your suitability for the supervision/tutorial style teaching methods employed at Oxbridge. You will inevitably make a mistake at some point so don’t worry about this as the questions are difficult but instead be resilient and stay open-minded to learn from the cues that are given by your interviewers and this will serve you well to excel in your interviews.
Debunking the common misconceptions of Oxbridge interviews
- Although it may be challenging, it can also be enjoyable – The interviews mimic the supervision/tutorial style learning environment. Therefore, don’t worry at all if you don’t know everything and find it a bit difficult at times as they are probably expecting that and are instead trying to see how you cope with unfamiliar circumstances and if you would thrive under the unique Oxbridge teaching style. If you go in with a mind-set of wanting to learn and picking up on cues they give you, you may even end up enjoying the experience and find it interesting!
- The interview is not a memory test – The interview is designed to see how you think, not so much as to how much knowledge you have got from memorising facts from a bunch of textbooks. Therefore, you should not spend your time preparing by learning the minutest details of topics but instead spend more time practising explaining and coherently applying concepts as this would be more beneficial for your actual interview.
- Don’t worry if you don’t know the right answer immediately – As we mentioned earlier, the correct answer may not be apparent at first, and the interview aims to show the tutors how you think. Hence, you should aim to discuss possible solutions with your reasoning and THINK OUT LOUD so that they can get an insight into how you learn and subsequently guide you down the right path. The best way to practice this is regularly speaking to people who you respect on an academic level. Next time you see something unusual, try to work through a process as to why it happens. While it sounds very abstract, it gets you in the right mind-set to excel in an Oxbridge environment.
- Closed questions are not really asked, and they are often left more open – Most questions will involve you having to develop your answers, as this will allow the interviewers to see how you think. The interviewers will then lead you on from your train of thought.
- Although it may be difficult to believe, the interviewers are not monsters and do want to see you succeed – The interview is a chance for the tutors to assess your strengths and suitability for the course so they won’t give you trick questions as that won’t show them anything. It is in the interviewers’ interests for you to perform to the best of your ability so that they can make an accurate judgement of whether they want to offer you a place or not.
- It isn’t an assessment of what you wear, the way you speak, your origins, etc. – The interviewers are looking for the best students regardless of your background, so don’t try to act in a way that doesn’t represent yourself. Be confident in who you are and your skills – if you’ve prepared as best as you feel you can, hopefully, this should come across at the interview! Also, try to dress formally as it is an interview at the end of the day, but also make sure you feel comfortable, as you won’t be judged on what you wear.
The night before the interview advice
The night before the interview is in some ways, just as important as the interview day itself. Getting a good night sleep and mentally preparing yourself is incredibly important and are critical recipes to success on the day itself. Although it is entirely natural to feel nervous and to have jitters as to how it is going to go, make sure that you do things that help you relax and you don’t stress yourself out too much as that won’t help.
I (Koby) personally tried to visualise how the interview day would go and accepted that it was likely that I wouldn’t know everything but imagined what I would do if I didn’t know the answer to a question. I visualised myself not getting flustered and instead of thinking it through methodically and explaining my thought process each step of the way. This ended up being the case a couple of times during the interview. Still, as I had premeditated the situation of myself making mistakes, I wasn’t too uncomfortable when it actually happened and instead accepted it and tried to be resilient and persevere. On top of this, I made sure I was positive beforehand and wanted to visualise it going well so that I was more confident on the interview day!
We would also definitely recommend that you make a list of the key information you want to remember beforehand and have a look at this to recap information the day before the interview. This will prevent you from having to cram in the last minute and will help you feel more comfortable on the day of the interview. Finally, try and read up the medical news on the day before your interview and stay informed as this would be a great way of showing your passion for the subject and would be of great help if what you have read, potentially comes up!
On the day of the interview advice
So, it’s interview day! You’ve spent the last couple of weeks preparing for this moment, and now it’s your time to shine! We can all agree that this must be incredibly nerve-wracking, but honestly, as people who have just been through the process, we think the best piece of advice is to stay calm and realise that they’ve called you for an interview as they want you to join their college. So, now it is your time to show them why they need to select you.
Sometimes, when people are stressed, they can behave in ways in which they wouldn’t in a normal situation. Therefore, you should aim to learn to manage your nerves so that you can remain alert and clear-headed, and you can perform at your best during your interviews. Ways in which you can get into a calmer state is by meditating on the day of your interview as well as repeating positive affirmations, and visualising the interview going well and you tackling the situation confidently!
As tempting as it may be to review all your notes before the start of the interview, we wouldn’t recommend this as it could cause you to stress out and get worried! As discussed earlier, the interviews are designed to assess your academic ability and potential and not if you know the precise answer to a question, so you would probably be better off if you can settle into ‘interview mode’, as this will help you make sure you go in with the right attitude and give you the best chances of success.
A useful piece of advice that helped us was to recall times when we have felt happy or achieved something we were proud of. This helped us start the interview with a positive mind-set. This technique allowed us to save time, listen and think more clearly from the outset – something we both struggled with when we first started practising.
On a more practical note, there is plenty you can do to ensure that you make a good impression on the day. As this year’s interviews (2020 entry) will be online-based, there are a few tips which can help you come across well, such as placing your computer on top of some books so you can maintain good posture and adjusting the lighting of the room so that the interviewers can see your face clearly.
Though this is not relevant for 2020 entry, if you are staying at your college, we would recommend you to try to enjoy your time and chat with other students if that makes you feel comfortable. When I (Laura) had my interviews, the other applying students were friendly, and the student helpers from the college were all incredibly helpful and made me feel welcome. This motivated me as it left me with a great impression as to what studying at Oxford would be like.
Although my interview at Cambridge was more scientifically challenging than the ones I had at other medical schools, it was one of the ones that I found most interesting and enjoyed most.
I had two interviews with two interviewers in each and made sure that I went into it with a positive mind-set and the willingness to learn. This really helped me perform as best as possible as, when, I inevitably didn’t know something straight away, I quickly picked up on the cues that they gave me and used them to try and get to the right answer.
Explaining my thought process and being very methodical helped my interviewers know what direction of thinking I was going down and subsequently allowed them to support and guide me in the right direction. I ended up enjoying it as I found the interview stimulating but like a conversation and genuinely felt I had learnt something which I hadn’t known before.
Of course, I was very relieved when the interview was over and also a bit nervous as to what the outcome would be. But at the end of the day, I knew I had given it my all, and this is all I could have hoped for! I’d recommend you to not stress out too much about this being your ticket to getting a place Oxbridge but instead, go there with confidence and a willingness to enjoy and learn from the experience as this is what the interviewers will want to see!
My interview experience at Oxford was both challenging and rewarding, as it was a fantastic opportunity to meet world-leading experts and be stretched academically.
At one point in my interviews, I made a silly mistake and let out a nervous laugh, worried that I had left a bad impression. However, I went on to explain my reasoning as to why I thought I was wrong, enabling the tutors not only to see my thinking process but also that I was resilient enough to keep trying. This highlights the fact that you are not expected to know everything: while the answers may not be evident at first, you should try a few avenues, as the tutors can offer some guidance which can help you get to the answer.
The critical thing to remember in interviews is to vocalise your thought process. You could say something like, “I think it might be related to x, but from chemistry and biology I learnt at A-Level I wonder if it’s to do with y.” Essentially, the more you explain why you are going down a path, the more the interviewers get to learn about the way you draw conclusions.
By the time I finished my last interview, even though I didn’t know whether I was going to get an offer or not, I was content because I knew I had tried my hardest. I couldn’t have done anything else to prepare as I had also given my preparation my all. A piece of advice that helped me was to treat the interview as a conversation rather than an interrogation. Hopefully, this will help you settle in, perform at the best of your ability and even enjoy yourself!
Waiting to hear back following your interview
Following your interview, it can be a daunting wait to hear back as to whether you got in or not, and that’s completely understandable. You will typically do your interview in the first few weeks of December, and you hear back in the second week of January. During this time, it is very easy for the wait to feel overwhelming for it to feel like the month is going slowly but what we would recommend you do to get over this is to try and carry on doing things you enjoy and would normally do.
You can no longer change the outcome of your application process, and now that it’s over, you should focus on the other aspects such as revising for your mock interviews as well as taking care of your mental health. Be proud of the fact that you have completed the majority of the Oxbridge application process and if you do ever get worried, realise that you have given it your best shot. It is by no means the be-all and end-all if it doesn’t go your way as we all end up with the same medical degree whichever British medical school we go to!
- SimplyFran: Oxbridge Medicine Interview tips: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BX029hwWB78
- Ali Abdaal:
- How to prepare for medical interviews in general – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uY01uhhIuzI
- Oxbridge interview tips – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s6NR6YQcxyA&list=PL7BImOT2srcHUbjyyTfN7hVL4ZmFc-Irc&index=10
- Experiences of the Cambridge interview – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iIdqPeI-Po0&list=PL7BImOT2srcHUbjyyTfN7hVL4ZmFc-Irc&index=13
- Medic Mentor Book Club: https://medicmentor.co.uk/books-2/medic-mentor-book-club/
So that’s it! Over the past couple of months, we’ve released eight comprehensive blog posts detailing the Oxbridge application process as well as sharing advice we would have liked to have heard a year ago. We really hope this has helped you and that it has directed you in the right direction.
We’d like to stress the importance of not letting this application process govern your self-worth and realising that this is only a phase of your life. Though it may feel somewhat stressful, if you go in with a positive mind-set and the willingness to give it your all and focus more on the journey rather than the end goal, it’ll hopefully work out. Even if it doesn’t, don’t worry as it is by no means the be-all and end-all, but we hope this will help support you along your journey!
Thank you very much for keeping up with the blogs along the way and best of luck with the application process. Let us know if you have any questions using the comments section and we will definitely try and get back to you as soon as possible (although we’ll be quite busy as we are heading off to university)!
Good luck and we hope you smash it! 🙂
Koby Kalavannan and Laura Stirling