My Cambridge English Literature Interview Experience and Advice

Thursday, November 29, 2018

It's that time of year again where prospective Oxford and Cambridge students are preparing non-stop for their interviews in the next few weeks. I was in this position last year and it was an incredibly daunting time, filled with non-stop reading, preparation and mock interviews. Basically, all other work and life were put on hold to prepare for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Although I was unsuccessful and wasn't offered a place after my interview, I did learn a lot about the entire process, which I never actually spoke about on my blog. Since I can imagine that quite a few of my readers are in the same position this year, I thought I'd write a post all about my experience and give my best advice one year later.

Tip 1 - if possible, don't go down there alone
Interviewing for Cambridge was a scary and nervewracking experience, but one of the things that made it manageable was the endless support from my parents. They drove me down there, and we actually turned it into a 3-day mini vacation seeing Cambridge and feeling festive (especially since it snowed on the way there) and this definitely helped to calm my nerves. It also means that you won't be in the preparation mindset 24-7 and can have some headspace, especially in those final moments when you need some words of encouragement.

Tip 2- read all of your texts and know them inside out
Much like any interview, if you've put a novel or poem on your personal statement then you can guarantee that you'll be asked about it, but this could be anything rather than the specific theme or character you highlighted. It's important to be well-prepared, not just with plot summaries but also with quotes and analysis that you can just rattle off, as well as critics, context - basically just think of it as a verbal essay! I actually made a load of flashcards on my phone to help me remember these, and it actually worked in my advantage since a couple of the texts were for my A Levels and acted as a great revision tool.

Tip 3 - do mock interviews and practice talking
This is genuinely what made the biggest difference for me, as when I first started preparing I was in the position of having a lot of knowledge in my mind but didn't know how to approach the questions or have the confidence to vocalise my points. My English literature teacher definitely tested me thoroughly (which I hated at the time but it definitely paid off), and you could tell by the end that there was a huge difference in my ability to answer the questions and carry the discussion.

On top of this, I also spent a lot of time practising talking to myself. I know it sounds crazy, but I sat for hours in front of the mirror or my webcam going through different questions they could ask about my texts, myself and anything else I could think of. It really helped to make me comfortable talking and answering the questions.

Tip 4 - be comfortable with unseen material
No matter how much you prepare about the texts on your personal statement, it's inevitable that you'll be asked about unseen texts as well. For me, this was both as a test at 8am and in my second interview, so it's definitely worth getting a lot of practice with this. Just take it slow, remember to breathe and think it through before saying something stupid - a good place to start is always the literal meaning of the text rather than delving too deep into it.

Tip 5 - keep yourself busy before your interview
Let's face it, if you don't know something a couple of hours before you go into the interview, chances are you're never going to know it. Aside from quickly reading over my notes to keep them fresh in my mind, I didn't do any other work on the morning of my interview. For me, the main issue was nerves, so I ensured that I was busy getting ready, listening to a podcast, and I also chatted to the other students doing their interviews, as it was incredibly reassuring hearing that they felt the same.

Tip 6 - remember that the interviewers are human too
Before the interview, it's easy to have the impression of this intense, incredibly formal interview, but that definitely isn't the case. Instead, you'll be invited into a cosy room, offered a drink and engage into a more relaxed whilst still formal discussion of many points. They're not there to lecture you, shout at you or tell you off for not knowing something - instead they just want to see how you think and approach a question, and to what extent you can take a discussion. They'll also recognise that you're a seventeen or eighteen-year-old student with a lot of learning left to do - it's more about your academic potential rather than knowing everything.

Tip 7 - think of some questions to ask beforehand
Although you're not required to ask a question at the end of the interview, this definitely looks good and shows that you have an interest in the course and are passionate about it. Have a few questions prepared that you might want to ask, but nothing too generic about the course or the college that you could find out online, instead it'd be better to go for personal experience or discuss an aspect of literature. I had a couple of questions in mind before each interview to ask, but I quite often found that an aspect of our previous discussion was something I wanted to talk about more, so I instead opted for a topic more relevant to the interview.

Tip 8 - be well-prepared about your course and college
Linking in with the last point, you want to be extremely knowledgeable about all of the details of your course and college, including what you'd typically study in your first year, how many students they take for your course and other details. These are basics that you should definitely have in your head, as it proves that you're passionate about studying there and know exactly what you're applying for.

Tip 9 - remember that they don't know what you know
One of my biggest struggles with my mock interviews was that I felt as though my teacher kept nudging me to include certain things, and at the end told me what felt like endless things from class that I could've included. Although this was definitely helpful, it won't be the same in your interview. Aside from what's in your personal statement, they'll have no idea what you've studied, and so now is your chance to show off some critical quotes, literary theory or any other ideas that you may have

Tip 10 - go above and beyond
From talking to other students and previous interviewees, one of the things that I've discovered is that they really want you to go above and beyond where possible. Anyone can read a book for A Level, learn a few quotes and analyse them verbally in an interview. But instead, you want to be the person who's read lots independently, who's attended extra workshops or went to a lecture, who have furthered their knowledge of the topic in many ways. I even brought blogging and Lipa into mine to add to the links, as long as what I was saying was relevant.

I hope that this was somewhat useful for anyone applying to Oxford or Cambridge, and if your interview is soon then I wish you the best of luck! I'd be more than happy to answer any questions you may have in the comments or on Twitter, so make sure you let me know if there's anything I can help with! Thank you very much for reading this post and I'll actually be back with a new one on Saturday since I've decided that I'm doing Blogmas! I really can't wait for this and I know that you'll enjoy it, so make sure you check back then!

Love from Daisy x

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