Academic support

Building confidence to help students prepare for university interviews

With the right preparation, students can approach university interviews with confidence and turn what might be a daunting experience into an enjoyable one. Interviewers are not there to trip students up with weird and wonderful questions; they genuinely want to get the best out of each candidate and assess their suitability for the course. Here are some tips on how to help your students build their confidence and get ready for their interviews.

Help students to understand the format of the interview

A thorough understanding of the way the interview will run will mean that students can feel more relaxed and familiar about the situation. At Cambridge, most of our interviews for 2023 entry will be online, but whether the interview is online or in-person, the aims and content will be the same.

Interviews at Cambridge mirror the format of our small group teaching and are a challenging academic discussion; an opportunity for students to share their knowledge and enthusiasm for their subject with experts in the field. The discussion is usually based on A Level subject material or what a student has written in their personal statement.

Usually for science-based subjects, students are also asked to work through a series of problems, and for arts, humanities and social science subjects, they may be given a passage of text to read and discuss, or other material relevant to the course applied for.

Ensure students have all the practicalities in place

Students should take time in advance to ensure they have everything they need to access the interview – either the appropriate tech set up for an online interview, or travel arrangements for an in-person interview. 

Encourage students to keep a close eye on university websites for details of interviews, and to regularly check their emails for the exact date, time and location of their appointment. Institutions will be clear about what format the interview will take and what students should bring with them. Make sure your students ask for help as soon as possible if they don’t have the right equipment or if they need support with travel arrangements. Universities are usually very happy to advise and support students to ensure they have everything they need to access the interview. 

At Cambridge, we don't mind what students wear for interview; they should be themselves and feel relaxed, so advise them to just choose something comfortable.

Help students to prepare

The interviewers are assessing a student’s academic ability, critical thinking skills and intellectual flexibility. Therefore, it’s important that they get used to discussing their subject in detail, drawing on their own ideas, and making connections between different concepts. You can help students by encouraging discussion in school, either with staff or amongst peers. Speaking out loud and debating academic ideas with friends, family members or teachers is much better preparation than rehearsing prepared answers. Interviewers are not looking for polished responses, they want to discuss a student’s interest in the subject and find out what sparks their passion for the course they have applied to.

Other useful preparation could be:

> reading their personal statement, and ensuring that they’re confident with the topics they’ve referenced
> practising problem solving (for science and mathematics-based subjects)
> practising analysing pieces of text and/or graphical information (for arts, humanities and social science subjects)

Top tips to share with your students:

> Make sure to listen carefully to the questions, and feel free to ask the interviewers to repeat the question or clarify it if you don't understand.
> In all your answers, show your working or talk through your thought process, so the interviewers can assess your critical thinking skills.
> Even if you are unsure of the answer, talk through what you do know, and the interviewers will give you pointers to help you in the right direction.

Something to consider

Many schools and colleges encourage mock interviews. While these hold the best intentions, they can encourage students to rehearse answers and reel off what they think interviewers want to hear, answering questions they have prepared for rather than questions they have been asked. It is much better to practise talking around the subject, bouncing ideas off one another and responding to conflicting ideas with well thought through reasoning. This is much better practice than a formal mock interview setting.

For first-hand interview experiences from Cambridge and Oxford students, visit


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