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The ultimate guide to university interviews

Whilst most universities don’t interview candidates, some universities and courses do.  Read on to find out how interviews work – and how to interview

Why some universities and courses interview

Universities and courses that interview do so to help differentiate between applicants. Often there are such a large number of applications that it’s impossible to choose who to admit on the basis of grades and personal statements alone. Interviews are a chance for the university to work out whether you're a good fit for the course and university you’re applying to.

How can I prepare for interview?

  • Read the interview instructions

If you’ve received a letter inviting you to interview, read it very carefully. This seems obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people make this elementary mistake. If the letter asks you to confirm your attendance at interview, make sure to do so well in advance of your interview date.

Usually your invitation to interview will give you guidance on what type of interview you’ll have. They should let you know whether you’ll have a one-on-one interview or panel interview. You’ll usually also be told how long the interview will take, and whether you can expect to attend more than one interview.

Your interview letter should give you advice on what to wear to interview, and whether you need to bring anything with you.  If the letter does not tell you what to wear, contact the university to check. Or, if you’d prefer, play it safe and dress in smart but comfortable clothing.

Make sure you know when your interview will take place. If you’re not able to attend interview at the time specified in your letter, let the university know immediately. Ask if it’s possible to reschedule, and make sure you can provide a good reason for doing so.

Last but not least, make sure you know where your interview will be, and how to get there. You should plan to arrive at your interview with plenty of time, allowing a margin for error with transport delays.

  • Think about what you’ll be asked at interview

What will you be asked at interview? Well, your interviewer will probably ask you about the subject you’re applying to study.  Be prepared to answer questions about what you’re studying at school, along with anything you’ve written in your Personal Statement. Demonstrating knowledge shows that you’re interested in the subject you’re applying for. It also shows that you’ve got a strong foundation that university study can build on.

Think about any recent books or activities you’ve completed outside of your course. Encourage a friend or family member to ask you questions about them. What did you find interesting about what you read or did? What did you like or not like? This will give you something you can talk about at interview beyond your personal statement.

Be prepared to explain why you want to study the course you’ve applied to at that particular university. Say what course content you’re interested in and why. Try to demonstrate through your answers why you are suitable for that particular course. If you’re applying for medicine, for instance, try to show empathy if you’re asked about patient care. 

Of course, there will be some questions that you can’t prepare for. Often interviewers want to see how you think, rather than hear what you know. This helps them see what innate potential you have. Don’t panic if you’re asked about a topic you’ve not yet encountered at school.

The most successful interviews are like a conversation, rather than a cross-examination. The interview is a good opportunity for you to find out more about the course, and asking questions shows that you’re both interested and proactive. Just make sure not to ask questions which are answered on the university website!

  • Identify your strengths and weaknesses

Whilst your knowledge and ability is important, you'll need interview skills to showcase them.

Think about each of these statements. Do they describe you? Which ones do you feel most confident about, and which ones do you feel least confident about?

  1. I can make a good first impression.
  2. I know how to prepare by researching the course and university.
  3. I have the skills and knowledge I need for the courses I want to apply for.
  4. I can talk about my subject and interests confidently.
  5. I can handle extra interview challenges, like written tests or group discussions.
  6. I can deal with an unexpected question effectively.
  7. I know what to ask to find out if the course is right for me.

Working out exactly which skills you are worried about is the first step towards improving your interview technique.

  • Tackling your weaknesses

Think about ways to improve or work around the skills you are feel less confident about. This will both improve your interview technique and increase your confidence in your ability to interview well.

You might be able to build up a skill directly, by practicing, or by doing more reading and research. For example, if you're not confident in interviews, you could ask your subject teacher to set up a mock interview for you. This will develop your ability to think on your feet whilst responding to questions. Make sure to ask your teacher for feedback and tackle any weaknesses they identify.

Managing nerves before your interview

Being nervous at interview is natural. It’s only a problem if your nervousness impairs your ability to perform.  If this is the case, explore ways in which you can manage this anxiety:

  • Think about other situation where you have had a similar problem. How did you deal with it? What else might have helped?
  • Talk to other people who have been in similar situations. What works for them? Do you think it would work for you?

If you have a condition that you think could impact your performance at interview, let the university know. For instance, if you have a stutter that is worse when you’re nervous, you might feel less nervous during the interview if you let the interviewer know beforehand. Sometimes acknowledging a situation makes us less anxious about it.

During the interview

  • Managing nerves during your interview

Stay calm and try not to panic. It’s easier said than done, but it’s worth a try. Remember, everyone’s nervous in these situations, and interviewers know that. They know that you’re trying to think under pressure.

Take your time during the interview. Don’t feel like you have to answer a question immediately. Sometimes pausing for a moment before answering a question can be helpful. Taking a deep breath whilst you do this can help you clear your head and focus on the question at hand.

  • Don’t be a yes-man

Try to avoid one-word answers during your interview. If you think that there is more you can say about a topic, elaborate on it. If you disagree with your interviewer, say so – and explain why. You may be able to impress them with a compelling argument, even if you don’t change their mind!

After the interview

People rarely feel completely happy with how an interview went.  Everyone’s bound to say one or two things that they wish they could take back. It’s easy to see how things could have gone better with hindsight.

At the end of the day, the interview is only just one part of the admissions process. The university will look at your interview performance in the context of your whole application. So don’t panic if you don’t perform as well as you’d have liked to. Put the interview behind you. If you’ve got another interview, keep your chin up and try again. Good luck!

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