Whether you have extensive interview experience or such situations are completely new to you, it is unlikely that you have been interviewed on an academic basis before now. Between courses and universities, the intention behind admissions interviews can vary dramatically. It is important then, before any you begin any initial preparation, to consider whether the interview is evaluative or informative. Although your interview might not be explicitly informative in intent, it would be unwise to disregard this expect entirely; it is always useful to approach an interview situation with the idea that you are also interviewing your lecturer. At the end of the day they are going to be teaching you, and it is important to gauge up front whether that relationship is likely to be fruitful. This approach should also help to put your mind at ease.
If, as is more likely with particular universities (Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial) and particular courses (Medicine, Pharmacy, Engineering) your interview will be evaluative in nature, then it is crucial to consider your interviewers’ priorities. On a subject-neutral platform, this will generally include
- Your enthusiasm for the area of study.
- The quality of your ideas.
- The clarity of your thinking.
- Your communication skills.
Whilst quality, clarity and communication speak in many ways for themselves, and will be addressed throughout what follows, it is useful to clarify upfront that enthusiasm can be displayed and assessed in two primary ways: through interview style and manner, and through the depth of your current knowledge. These tips will address each of these areas in a digestible and (hopefully!) encouraging manner.
Before an interview preparation is key, and for academic interviews it is best to prepare in terms of knowledge and awareness, interview technique and personal scheduling. Knowledge based preparation provides a useful initial base, and is indeed the easiest place to make significant preparatory strides.
- Do not put things on your personal statement that you have not read. If you do or have done this, make sure to read them thoroughly prior to interview. This does not exclude references only made in passing – indeed, these are perhaps all the more important to know in detail, as in a tricky interview they may be looking to differentiate you from other candidates through thorough testing. It is always wisest to eliminate the possibility of the unknown as much as possible.
- Expanding upon the last tip, try to make sure that you are able to explain your references’ relative significance to both your statement and study intentions. Your interviewer might not necessarily guide you in these instances, so it is handy to formulate a short, conversational pitch for yourself and your interests prior to interview.
- Read beyond your school curriculum. It is good to be able to refer to what you have read beyond your statement if possible, though try not to make unnatural leaps between subject areas. A good tip here is to take a look at a couple of journal articles related to specific interests, perhaps those referred to in your statement, and try to establish a clear thesis which you are able to discuss with confidence and enthusiasm.
- In spite of the previous tip, it is definitely best to cover the basics before you go the extra mile with your preparation.
Once you have gotten to grips with your subject area and some of the key topics that you would like to discuss, it is time to move onto interview technique. Whilst you may appear enthusiastic, in order to clearly demonstrate the quality of your ideas you must refine your communication technique.
- Practice answering interview questions. This can be done with a family member, a friend or a teacher, and is useful in getting to grips with how your ideas come across in a spontaneous and slightly pressurised setting. Before doing this, though, it is advisable to think through the questions that you might be asked and consider your approach. This is avoid scaring yourself with sudden stage fright during a mock interview. Indeed, even just discussing these topics conversationally will help significantly.
- A personal tip that I would like to share is to write potential questions and their answers in a mini booklet, creating a miniature database of potential discussion areas. This also provides the opportunity to condense information into a coherent and conversational format.
- Research your interviewers. This will allow you to tailor your answers to their research interests, and will potentially harvest more welcome feelings toward you over other candidates who have overlooked this.
- On a like note, research the course thoroughly. This will allow you to tailor your discussion to the course, demonstrating your enthusiasm for the particular department and teaching staff. Try to relate your individual subject interests to the course itself, and consider how these might interact productively.
- Come prepared with a couple of questions to ask your interviewer. If these are comprehensive and demonstrate thought, you will come across as enthusiastic and attentive to detail.
- If you are to be tested at interview, make sure to practice the specific test and examination style.
- Make a list of the areas which you would most like to address during your interview, and try to hit all or most of these topics or points. In doing this, try to consider what might make you particularly memorable, whether academic- or experience-based.
- It might also be useful to consider your own prior interview experience, whether for school positions or part-time jobs. Consider your past successes, and why these were particularly successful. Try to implement these in your own preparation, despite it being a different type of interview.
- Consider your future – specifically, what it is that you want to gain from study. If you are asked, you will then be able to talk about what your ambitions and how they interact with the course itself
Despite preparation, extensive or otherwise, an interview will always come down to your performance on the day. Whilst prior preparation is extremely important, you must not disregard the less immediately obvious ways in which your face value performance may be enhanced.
On the day, prepare your mind-set by trying to keep yourself as calm as possible. There are various ways in which this can be maximised, each by eliminating potential obstacles.
- Arrive early. This will ensure that you are not worried about arriving late, minimising nerves that may carry over into the interview itself. This can be ensured by knowing your way to the interview building and room.
- Get a good night’s sleep. If it has reached the point of the night-before, the best thing you can do is ensure that what you have prepared can be shown to its best, rather than trying to cram in more at the expense of your coherency and conversational ability.
- Prepare your outfit beforehand, making sure that it is both smart enough and comfortable.
- Do not reschedule.
This in mind, it does ultimately come down to the interview itself. I have a few smaller tips that can help you come across both as eager to learn and easy to teach as possible.
- Be aware of your body language and facial expressions. Try not to look bored at any point, and try to think about how your body language might be demonstrating your attitude toward the discussion.
- Listen to your interviewer, and answer their questions relevantly and appropriately. This means not wandering too far with answers, though of course refer to your different interests when appropriate! This can generally be ensured by trying not to ramble tangentially too often or for too long.
- Equally, make sure that your answers are not too short. It often helps to explain the logic behind your answer as well as the initial response itself, and to add any relevant or interesting detail.
- Do not try to bluff, as this is generally obvious to your interviewer. Remember that you are not expected to know absolutely everything – after all, you are interviewing for the course in order to receive teaching! If caught in a situation in which you are tempted to bluff, it is much better to demonstrate your attempt to answer the question by explaining your thinking. This will show your ability to compute ideas logically.
- Try to maintain your interviewers’ gaze, and do not stare at the wall or floor. Remember: these are the people who will potentially be teaching you, and they are looking for a candidate with whom they can connect. For this reason, it is good to model your interview technique as a ‘conversation’.
- Take your time when answering questions. An interview is not a test, rather your interviewers want to see that you will be susceptible to their teaching. It is better to consider your responses rather than rush into them too quickly.
- For the same reason, it is wise to try not to come across as arrogant. Whilst displaying comprehensive knowledge is always a good thing, you will be there to be taught, and nothing is more off-putting to a teacher than somebody who seems to think that they know more than they actually do. You should be interested in learning, not interested in proving others wrong.
I hope that I have provided ample basis for university interview preparation. Remember: you are there to learn, and more than anything your interviewer is looking for a bright, receptive candidate with whom they can engage and have productive discussion.