Oxbridge Interview: when should schools start preparing students?

Guides / UK

Writing this in November 2021, one topic seems to be dominating international university advisors’ minds – how do I prepare my students for the Oxford or Cambridge interviews they’ve just been called to? Emails went out, students celebrate, and then panic sets in – blimey, I need to get ready. College counselling social media and our own inboxes here at The University Guys are flooded with requests for sample questions, interview activities, and more.

For someone used to the UK school system, some of this glitches with my own understanding of Oxbridge preparation. Having attended a UK school, been through the Oxbridge process myself, and taught in a UK school preparing many students for Oxbridge entry, it’s clear that something is perhaps amiss. Surely students should have been preparing for months (if not years) for this interview? Is last-minute preparation going to do any good?

When I’m talking about Oxbridge applications with a family, there’s an analogy I use – training for the 100m Olympic finals.

All over the world, sprinters are preparing for the next Olympics. They know that in one, two, or three years time, that final race will happen. On that day, if everything goes right, for a very short period of time, they need to perform at their best. The same is true for potential Oxbridge applicants – they know that in December of their final year of school, they will have to perform at an interview.

From a number of years out, the sprinters are doing things in preparation. There are the things they do on their own or with a coach – they work on their starts, they build the appropriate muscles, they work on their nutrition and their mental preparation. For a potential Oxbridge application, this would be their wider reading, their independent research, doing well at school, learning content.

At the same time as working on the background things, those sprinters will also be learning the craft of running the 100m. They’ll go to local competitions, regional competitions, international competitions. They will get used to how to start, how to finish, how to respond to different competitions. They’ll make mistakes, they will fail, and learn how to fail better. They know that all the other activities are just the precursor for the one that matters – that Olympic final on a defined day a year or more down the line.

The same should be true for someone targeting Oxbridge. The interview will be the deciding factor. So they need to get used to discussing academic content with adults. It may be broken up in different ways, it may be in clubs, in after-school activities, or in regular meetings with a subject specialist, but all the time it will be based on the idea that we know you will need to have an interview if you want to get in, so we should start preparing you for it now.

You wouldn’t expect the future 100m Olympic champion to run their first-ever 100m race two weeks before the Olympic final. They’d need to find it to be completely second nature, to have had all the things go wrong that could go wrong, and to be clear in their mind about what happens on the day. They knew that to win that medal they are going to have to run that race, so they had a plan built up over years to work towards it.

This is why in many schools, including here in the UK, Oxbridge preparation isn’t something that starts at the last minute. The formal parts of it – test preparation, interview practice and more – may only start in their penultimate year of school, but the work that leads up to it started earlier. From my own teaching career, I remember being told that a student who I would be teaching for GCSE History – when he was only 15 – was a likely Oxbridge historian, and thus I needed to build into my planning for him from that age activities to prepare him for a likely interview.

I realise that in many schools in the UK and internationally, some of this is not realistic. But just as we wouldn’t be helping that sprinter to give of their best if we only let them have a mock 100m race two or three times, we’re not helping Oxbridge applicants if the first time they get a practice interview is in the autumn of their final year of school.