Top Tips for a Cambridge University Interview
It's almost a year to the day that I got an email in the middle of my Chemistry lesson telling me the news that I really hadn't expected to here - Cambridge University had looked at everything I'd given them on my UCAS form, and still wanted to interview me.
The reason that this was such a surprise to me was mostly because I didn't technically have the right A-Levels - medicine courses at Cambridge generally want you to have three science A-Levels, and I just had the two. But low and behold, the good people of the veterinary medicine admissions panel had decided that I seemed to have a reasonable shot at getting in, and so made the (slightly shocking?) decision to invite me to interview.
Part of the reason I'm doing this series is that interview season is coming around really quickly, and I know last year I spent a lot of time looking for people who'd actually gone through vet med interviews to tell me what to expect. They're almost exactly the same as medicine interviews (for the most part, MMIs, or multiple mini interviews) but I never found a blog post that I thought really told me exactly what I wanted to know.
So, I'm hoping, that with my series of three blog posts over the coming weeks, I can cover a lot of ground that I think needs covering, especially in terms of widening participation and access requirements. I'm also really hoping I can get this post back to the people at my old school so I can tell them first hand what it's like, because although we got help in terms of interview prep, what I really wanted (and, arguably, needed) was somebody who had been through it to sit me down and tell me what to expect, why I didn't need to worry, and why it was totally okay to turn up to my Cambridge interview in ripped jeans, even though my nan nearly had a heart attack when she saw me.
I plan to post a series of blogs over the next month, covering the Cambridge Interview in general, what my Vet Med one was like, and then my Vet Med interviews at other universities around the country as well. These interviews are almost identical to the ones the medics and dentists have to do (as well as paramedics, midwifery, nurses, etc) so if you're applying for one of these courses, I hope you find the information in these blogs helpful and informative! I have no authority to talk about this, it's purely anecdotal and not at all 'standard' advice, but it's all relevant and interesting.
Now - Cambridge...
1) For God's sakes, be comfortable
One of the things you get told in the email when you get your interview offer, is to wear whatever makes you feel comfortable to the interview. For some people, this will mean the full business suit: pearls, heels, the full schabang. If wearing a suit is what's going to give you the confidence to show your interviewers that you deserve a place a Cambridge, then go for it.
But I suspect for most people, this isn't how they spend their everyday. I, for one, tend to live in the least dirty hoodie I can find and five year old Primark jeans.
I'm not advocating for showing up to your interview in the most holey, grubby, disgusting pair of leggings you can find. That probably would be a bad idea. But don't assume that when that email is telling you to go in what makes you feel comfortable that it's trying to trick you. They really do mean come in jeans if that's how you live your everyday. Go in a suit if that's what you fancy. They're not the judges at Paris Fashion Week scoring your jumpers and ties on how fancy they are - they're the judges at Cambridge University scoring you on your brain.
So, if your brain is going to be distracted by being completely uncomfortable in the suit your mum made you buy from Next because you thought you had to do the whole business casual thing, for God's sakes don't do it. Go. In. Jeans. (or whatever else floats your boat)!
After all, I wore ripped jeans and I'm still here...
2) Say what's on your mind - just not the slew of swear words
For the majority of my interview, my brain was cycling through the various expletives of the English language, and the few French ones I could remember from GCSE (not that they're teaching that these days, I just spent my time not listening and Google Translating stupid words.)
One of the big things any clued up teacher/advisor/whatever they call themselves will spend their time telling you, is to talk through your thought process when you're working out questions. This, annoyingly, is true. I'm almost certain I got half the things I was asked in my interview wrong (Google also tells me this when I try to look up The Cori Cycle), but because I said things out loud, because I explained why I thought something might be the way that it is, I showed the interviewers that I can think things through and I make guesses based on the evidence in front of me.
If you want an analogy, Sheldon off The Big Bang Theory probably wouldn't get in. He's the smartest person in the world (allegedly, fans of the show may disagree) but Cambridge don't want the Sheldon's of the world, they want the Leonards, who are plenty smart enough but don't just know things for the sake of it, they work things out. They keep trying. They guess, they get it wrong, they learn.
These are all things I think sound incredibly patronising and annoying when someone is telling you it for the fiftieth time in a row. But if anyone were to ask me what I thought the most important part of my interview was, it would be the fact that I just didn't leave much room for the interviewers to interrupt me (can't get it wrong if they don't have a chance to tell me I'm wrong, right?)
3) Be prepared to think you're rubbish and stupid
There are some (strange) people out there (my flat mates) who tell me they enjoyed their interview. I did not.
I came out of each of my (three!) interviews feeling even more stupid than when I'd gone in, and although my brain was enjoying being challenged for the first time in a long time, the fact that it felt like it was set up to get harder and harder (spoiler: it is!) made me feel like an idiot.
I'm not saying this is how everyone will feel - I have a whole staircase of people who'll tell you that they enjoyed the conversation, that they felt it was incredibly stimulating and that they would do it all over again if they could. If you feel like this when you come out, well done, you're a bigger person than me.
But I'd like to warn you now, that you may feel completely confident (as I did) that no matter how badly it goes, you'll enjoy it and relish the opportunity for high level convos on whatever it is that you enjoy, but could come out feeling like completely and utter rubbish. This is normal. You have not done as badly as you think. But try and prepare yourself now for the fact that the interviews might not go as well as possible - and do everything within your power to make sure they do go well.
4) Revise (I'm being hypocritical, I know, I'm sorry)
Funnily enough, Cambridge interviews are hard, and it's usually helpful if you brush up on stuff before you come. If you said anything particular in your personal statement - make sure you know it inside, outside, backwards, forwards, sideways, diagonally - can you think of any other ways? If so, do it.
This way, whilst they may not ask about anything specific, you have a little bit of background and context that you can use to steer the conversation in which way you want to go. My biggest tip is to make these interviews work for you. You're going to get horrible questions you haven't got a clue how to answer, but when you say 'I don't know the exact answer, however...' you can steer the future questions towards things you do know, and you can keep yourself feeling confident.
Q. "So Miss Rawson, how do you think we implement One Health in everyday practice?"
A. "I don't know how it would be implemented specifically in everyday practice, but I know One Health is the idea that animal, plant, and human health is all interconnected, and we can only be truly healthy if all the elements of this 'triangle' are healthy. So One Health in the veterinary context is understanding that making a pet better will ultimately help a human in some way, and vice versa, so in everyday practice we're striving to not just fix the animal, but help the wider community as well.'
That? Not waffle, which is what I would've done otherwise in that situation. If the interviewer says something you don't know, relate it to something you do know - not only does it show you're making connections between different aspects of veterinary practice, but it also shows that you can work through problems and come to a (reasonable) conclusion even without having a clue in the first place. You'll probably end up surprising yourself with what you can figure out yourself like this.
5) Remember you have as much right to be there as anyone else
I think this is the most difficult point to discuss, because it's multi faceted in so many ways, but I'm going to try and give it a go.
Cambridge loves to boast about it's statistics for students who come from state schools - for example, Jesus college this year proclaimed that 85% of their intake were people from state school backgrounds, their highest ever in take. This seems fantastic on the face of it, and a real improvement from the typical view of what Oxbridge is like. However, these statistics are interestingly skewed in ways we don't really have time to get into in a post like this, so truly, wholly state school educated students are much thinner on the ground than you may think. If you don't believe me, there are 12 people in my flat this year - this is the breakdown:
2 Internationals - we're not counting them
4 state school kids (this is including Grammar schools, which are often not usually
counted as state schools, but since they're funded by the state, I
consider them to be)
6 privately educated students
So, more than half of my staircase has been privately educated. This is even more amplified at interview.
For my course, everyone I met on interview day was privately educated. Obviously, there would've been state school kids there like me, but I just didn't happen to run into them. If you're anything like me, this will make you feel like - oh god, these people know so much, how the hell am I meant to get a place when you have people knowing so much more than me?
Something I've learned from living with private school kids, is they get a lot more interview help, prep, entry exam help etc than state schools are able to provide. I would like to emphasise here I'm not bashing private school kids, most (like people in general) are perfectly lovely and understand the privilage a private education has afforded them. But seeing such a high concentration at interview feels incredibly weird, especially when you're like me and had never met a privately educated person in your life.
Please remember you are just as smart, just as worthy as they are. They may have had more resources to prepare for this than you, but Cambridge are aware of that advantage, and they know you don't have it. They understand. Do NOT let this put you off from applying, doing the interview, or whatever else you're panicking about.
The second part to this is much smaller, but still relevant: professors and doctors. Your opinions are just as valid as the people sitting in front of you. You are not 'stupid' for putting something from a different perspective; you are not 'wrong'. It's natural to feel intimidated by people with thirty six letters after their name, but try not to be. They're people too, they use the toilet just like you do, they have all the same problems you do. (A lot of people think I'm gross for the toilet thing, but I think thinking that your professors need to poop just like you do is pretty humanising and reminds you there's no need to be intimidated by them!)
6) And an extra one...don't worry!
Your worth as a student and as a person is more than whether or not you get into Cambridge. If you've always been the smartest person in school and you find these interviews hard/you don't get in - so what? I remember this time last year thinking - oh God, I'll be so totally embarassed if I don't get in because everyone's said to me they know I'll get in - and yes, I did eventually get an offer. But something I've learned this past year is that good god there is so much more to the world than just being the smartest person in the room.
It seems difficult at the time, but honestly these interviews will have no impact on your life beyond whether you get an offer or not. If you do, the interviews will mean nothing to you, and if you don't, they won't mean anything either because you'll have another place waiting for you at a different university that's right for you. Because lets face it, interviewers know the type of person the Cambridge environment is right for - them turning you down is more for your benefit than you realise. I don't love the high pressure environment here already, I don't thrive in that kind of thing, but I'm learning to and that's something the interviewers will know after you've had your interview.
So, just to sum up: your worth is not defined by how these interviews go. Yes, I know what it's like, you'll feel rubbish if you think they went terribly and you'll feel stupid and silly and wonder what university in the world would ever let you in. But honestly, if you take one thing away from this blog post, let it be that these interviews should not worry you. Take it in your stride, (try) and enjoy it, and remember you are just as worthy of being there as anyone else.
And hey, if you don't get in? Enjoy being able to have a job, a busier social life, and not as many lectures crammed into a short period of time! I'm jealous of you...
If you want more content like this, keep checking back for my follow up blogs in the coming weeks, and check out some of the 'related posts' below if you want to see what the first few weeks of vet school are truly like!