Rachel Naylor (Cambridge applicant 2016)
‘Nervous’ doesn’t come close to explaining how I felt before my Cambridge interview.
The best way to control the nerves is to be as prepared as possible. For me, this meant reading. Annoyingly, you can never do too much. For each book I mentioned in my personal statement, I made sure I could say one thing that I liked about it, one thing I didn’t like and one aspect I found interesting that I would like to explore further. I made sure I could give my opinions on key themes, and also have maybe a couple of questions about certain aspects I didn’t understand so well. Academic articles are also helpful; obviously you’re not expected to quote faultlessly from six different journals, but to be able to talk about the main points in one or two shows how you are taking your interests beyond your curriculum.
Actual interview practice is crucial. Interviews are about not just having opinions but being able to articulate them and form clear, coherent arguments. Practice with subject teachers is very helpful, but so too is practice with parents, friends and teachers unrelated to your subject, for reasons I shall explain.
I applied to study Spanish and Portuguese (ab initio) at St John’s college. All MML applicants through to this stage have two interviews – one subject-specific and one general – as well as a written exam. First for me was the subject interview, conducted by a professor of Portuguese, a Spanish lecturer and the college’s head of Modern Languages – all of us on sofas in the professor’s study.
Before the interview I was given a choice of two short texts in Spanish – one prose, the other poetry. I was given 20 minutes to go to the library and, with the use of a dictionary, read over/analyse the text for discussion. This part of the interview scared me most, since at that point in my course I had never studied literature. Before the interview, I made sure I went over some basic terminology, as well as reading up on methods/checklists of what to do when analysing an unfamiliar text.
In my interview, we spent only about two minutes talking about the poem. I was asked to read out a stanza so they could hear my accent, then give a brief summary and comment on what I thought to be the major themes. After that, the conversation moved on to my particular interests; for example, what I’d read and why I wanted to continue Spanish and begin Portuguese. You can’t anticipate every question you’re going to be asked, but the interviewers usually begin with the basics just to get you talking a bit. Your answers will determine the way in which the conversation progresses.
If there’s something you really want to talk about, it is possible to steer the conversation that way. Raising particular interests is likely to count in your favour, and you shouldn’t feel scared to take control of the conversation to show this. However, the most important thing is to be ready to justify any position you take. This is an intrinsic part of studying at Cambridge: there’s no right or wrong answer, just make sure you can explain your reasoning – you will undoubtedly be asked, ‘So WHY do you think this?’.
The general interview is very different. Whilst the subject interview is based on uncovering your areas of interest and dedication to your chosen subject, the general interview is more focussed on finding out about your character and whether or not Cambridge would be the right place for you. My two general interviewers were unrelated to my subjects (one I think was a professor of Archaeology) and most of their questions were drawn from my personal statement. Broader questions included ‘How do you deal with stress?’ and ‘Tell us about your extra-curricular interests’.
The final part of the interview process was an entrance exam. Be sure you practise all available past papers. They may seem daunting at first, as the articles to discuss tend to be on unfamiliar topics, but practice lets you understand the mark scheme and get advice from teachers. I did my first practice paper using as much time as I needed, but after that I practised under timed conditions, so I would know how to manage my time.
It’s rare to comes out of an interview thinking it went well – they are meant to be challenging. The experience is not a horrible one, and it’s over in what feels like thirty seconds. The important thing is not to worry; Cambridge interviewers do not set out to be intimidating. If you are asked a question that stumps you, don’t panic! It’s okay to admit you’re not sure, or to ask for a couple of moments to think. In fact, it’s probably beneficial: pausing to think and formulate a clearer opinion is better than blurting out the first thing that comes into your head.
Whatever the outcome, knowing that you have prepared and tried your best is what matters most.