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The Cambridge Interview and The Supervision

“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.