The Director of Admissions at Cambridge was reported to have said that advice given by companies who help Oxbridge candidates with their entrance interviews is a waste of time and money.
Speaking at the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2016, Dr Sam Lucy said they can spot people who are delivering rehearsed answers, and it never ever works.
As a company that does help people prepare for their Oxbridge interviews, we agree that rehearsed answers are a waste of time. We also agree that overthinking the process is unhelpful.
What is helpful is for candidates to feel comfortable having the kind of academic conversation that they may rarely have encountered at school.
As Dr Lucy implies, it’s not rocket science to work out what the interviewers are looking for. They want enthusiastic students with a natural aptitude for the kind of learning they would experience as an undergraduate, and the knowledge to back it up.
The trouble is that years of high pressure schooling can bury that natural aptitude. We have worked with hundreds of straight A* pupils who have sailed through school, and have seldom been pushed on a question to which they don’t know the answer.
They’ve been trained to get top marks in exams. They are used to knowing the right answer. When they’re deliberately pulled out of their familiar intellectual territory, it feels very uncomfortable. If the first time this happens is at their interview, that discomfort can be enough to mess up their chance to win a place.
If these candidates have had a chance to get used this type of conversation, they begin to relish it. They might have been raised in a family where normal dinner table conversations are full of academic debate. Or they might have had an inspiring teacher who spent lessons exploring territory beyond the syllabus. Or they might have been to one of our workshops.
We’re not really coaching them for interview, we’re just getting them used to the kind of mental rough and tumble that’s normal at top universities, but less so at many schools. It just happens that feeling comfortable with this, sets them up well for a great interview performance.