Interview-Passing Pro Tips!

(apologies if you’ve had your interviews and this is all in vain!)

A lot of my friends read this blog, at least sporadically, and a lot of my friends – hello – will be having university interviews in the next few months, or this time next year; so I thought I’d give you the benefit of my fifteen minutes’ worth of interview experience, and try to offer advice to the daunting culmination of both your academic and personal development over the last ten years, in the form of five bullet points and some brief explanatory paragraphs. Time Person of the Year material right here..

Also, I’m 1-1 in interviews, having got into UCL, but been rejected by Cambridge; and before you say anything, I was pooled by Cambridge, which means I was technically good enough, they just ran out of space at my college (right? *cries*).

1) Be yourself

Hate to sound like a cliched self-help video right off the bat, but this advice works. Remember that to get to the interview stage, you have to be academically good enough for the university you’re applying to, so that the interview itself is that university’s professors judging you more as a person than as a grade-grabbing machine. Therefore, they want to see if you’re a decent person, if you’re inquisitive, if you can listen to instructions and converse in a grown-up manner, and if you can conduct yourself in a more elegant way than you usually do, which is probably eating Doritos off your chest while marathonning Orange Is The New Black on Netflix.

Also, there aren’t really objectively bad character traits you can display beyond the obvious: being rude and ignorant is a bad thing, but you won’t get penalised if you’re a little shy, or a bit too talkative. Basically, be yourself, without being a dick (this was a stumbling block for me).

2) They want you there

This is perhaps the most important piece of advice, so I’ve put it in the unremarkable number two slot. Essentially, approach your interview from the mindset that you and the interviewers are working together, for the common goal of getting you an offer, rather than the more daunting position that your interviewers are obstacles to the happy dreamworld that is university life, with its societies and open-minded students and conveniently plentiful public toilets.

If you take that more optimistic approach, you’ll start seeing their questions in a more helpful light; that tricky question becomes an opportunity to show your creativity and original thinking, it might be wrong but at least you gave it a go. If you take the more negative approach, however, you’re likely to perceive hard questions as them stroking their superior egos and intellects in front of you, which can be soul-crushing in a ten-minute meeting.

3) Don’t be a suck-up

It’s easy to look up their course’s reading list, skim a few of those books and casually mention how you’ve just happened to read The Iliad, so really you were destined for the course. For the love of God, don’t do this – anything you mention they will take as a red flag to grill you on, so you might end up talking a lot about the war in Troy, when you’ve only read the Wikipedia summary. They’ll be able to spot false reading like that easily.

Even worse is finding out your interviewers in advance, then reading books or essays they’ve written, with the goal of saying how great those works were to your interviewer; I read some essays by my Cambridge interviewers before I went up, just to get an idea of the sort of texts I might be asked to talk about, and the communicative style of my interviewers (and the one with the pompous-sounding essay was rather pompous), which was marginally helpful, but I didn’t suck my interviewer’s dick over it.

4) Be honest

Another line from a self-help video! I mentioned that I’d read Middlemarch in my UCL interview, but in reality I’d only read the first half; so as soon as the ending was mentioned, I had to fess up that I’d blagged a little bit, and I was only halfway through. I don’t want to say that that piece of honesty got me the place, but if the interview is designed to judge you as a person, I’d imagine most people would prefer an honest embellisher (because everybody does that on their personal statements) than a guy who outright lies to their faces. Unless you’re really good at lying, at which point go for it and let me know the results (DISCLAIMER: any failure to get into university using this method is strictly not my fault).

5) Other people are irrelevant

Yes you’ve got an interview at Cambridge, and yes you’ve been talking to other candidates in the common room waiting for your turn in the interview room, and yes they’ve memorised The Bible, have translated The Divine Comedy from Italian into English, French and Spanish, and had an essay of theirs published in the London Review of Books, and they’re three months younger than you.

In all honestly, such people can get stuffed.

Although this process is probably a competition somewhere down the line – someone decided that I was worse than one other student for the one remaining place at Cambridge to do English – there aren’t really a fixed number of places for a course, so you don’t have to survive an Apprentice-style elimination, where you have to beat each of the other students individually.

You just have to prove that you’re competent at and interested in your subject, and if your interviewers agree with you, they’ll give you (and that overachieving bastard) a place. Remember, you’re eighteen and you’re applying to university; the point is to learn once you get there, not be learned; as long as you show enthusiasm for your subject, you ought to do fine.

And if you bomb out of all your interviews and have to join the Navy to get a job, at least you’ll be free of 27-odd grand of debt!


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