“One of the bits of advice I give to applicants is to pretend that you are already a student and you are just turning up for a supervision.”
- Dr Sam Lucy, Director of Admissions for the Cambridge Colleges
It’s now the season for polishing off your personal statement, honing it to the courses you’re applying for at different institutions. For anyone who is applying to the UK’s elite universities, this is a stressful time as you think about how best to present yourself and your love of your chosen subject.
But if we’re talking about Oxbridge, or other institutions which carry out full, academic interviews, then the personal statement does not stand alone. To think about your personal statement, you also have to think about the interview. I'll tell a story about Cambridge, which is where I studied.
It begins with the difficulty of the interview. Why are the questions asked at Cambridge so weird and difficult? We know the stories: the maverick Professor Eric Griffiths asking questions in Greek and then mocking his student for not understanding him; the blank unwelcoming stare of the don who has just asked a candidate to tell her “about a banana”. At the top of one online list of possible interview questions is something simply astonishing: “Describe this saucer to me as if I wasn’t in the room”.
One friend of mine expressed (and demonstrated with examples) her love of literature and passion for English, only to be told by the interviewer, in all seriousness: “I think of all literature as data; how can you possibly love literature?”
Are these questions there to pick out unique candidates by tripping up the rest? Are they to make foolish minds reveal themselves by launching into pointless digressions, struggling to grasp at something, anything, in the question which they can just barely understand?
Having spent four years at Cambridge, I’m now convinced that this is not the best way to think about the interview. It suggests that the main aim is negative, and the interviewer is not really trying to work out how much of a fit you’d be for the university, but is instead trying to arbitrarily rule you out.
The experience of study at Cambridge is characterised primarily by one stand-out, weekly event: the supervision. During the short eight-week term, the next mandatory meeting with a personal academic supervisor, to rake through your inadequate answers to a set of challenging questions, constantly looms. You have to get those answers ready, and they have to be as good as you can make them, every week.
And if you ever have a moment in all this to stop and think back to your interview, you realise something you really wish you’d known back then: the supervision you’re having every week is remarkably similar.
This has significance for those dreading the Cambridge interview with its horrifying twists and bemusing queries: the interviewer really isn’t trying to trip you up. She is just giving you a supervision, and in many cases on topics of your choice. The trickiest questions I’ve heard of sprung from the candidate’s personal statements, as they were attempts to check whether complex arguments from statements were actually created by the candidate.
This doesn’t mean it’s easy: Cambridge supervisions are hard! That’s why the interview’s hard. But the difficulty really is the difficulty of your subject, which you'll be expected to study as hard as possible if you get in. You can’t go wrong by treating the interview as a very challenging teaching session, where you’re expected to perform at your best and know as much as possible about the topics you’re going to analyse.
So it comes back to the personal statement: for these top institutions, you do have to think about the interview, which is a difficult teaching session based partly on the statement you hand in. If that statement matches the high level of the institution you’ve applied to and really reflects the subject you’ve chosen, they then want to check if you can go deeper and take your knowledge further.. Because once you’re there, you’ll have to take it further week after week, for at least three years!