Preparing for interviews

If you are called for an interview, St Catharine’s will probably be your first university interview, so it is entirely understandable if you are nervous. However, it is important to us that you are able to participate fully in your interview, so we try our best to make our interviewees feel as relaxed as possible. The interviews are designed so that we can see how you think about and tackle new ideas. 

Why do we interview?

Interviews are an important part of the process by which we determine which of our applicants would thrive best were they to come to study at St Catharine’s. Because of this, the sole attribute we seek in candidates is their academic potential.

(The only exception to this is Medicine and Veterinary Medicine, where we also seek potential as a clinician. However, as we believe the best clinicians are those with a thorough understanding of the science underpinning practice, you may find that your interview is very science/maths focused, with some additional discussion of any work experience you've unertaken.)

It is important to emphasise that we look at all the information available to us – exam results, written work, additional tests, and other information on your UCAS and SAQ forms – and not just how applicants perform at interview.

However, most applicants to St Catharine’s will be on course to get A- and A*-grades at A Level (or top grades in other exam systems). This makes it very difficult to distinguish between candidates on the basis of the paper application alone. The interview, therefore, remains an important part of the selection process.

Many people worry about their Cambridge interview, and some suspect that there is a secret ‘knack’ to pleasing the interviewers. However, we are simply looking for academic potential, which we try to find through enthusiastic and thoughtful discussions at interview. The interview should stretch your understanding of your school subjects, and hints at what your chosen course might involve, but it will not be reliant on you following some kind of formula.  

Format of the interview

If you apply to St Catharine's and are on course to achieve the appropriate grades, you will probably be called for interview – in recent years, we are the only Cambridge college to have interviewed more than 90% of our applicants. You will normally have two interviews, each of about 25-30 minutes, although arrangements may differ slightly in some subjects. We try to schedule the interviews so that they run consecutively and so that you will only need to visit Cambridge for one day, rather than stay overnight.

Candidates in some essay-based subjects may have been asked for examples of their work in advance; this will have been read by the interviewer(s) and might form the basis for part of the discussion. Written tests are a part of the process in some subjects, and you may well be asked to solve problems or discuss unseen texts during the interview.

Most subject interviews will involve technical, specific discussions of subject-related topics. A number might also incorporate other components, and details of these are given under each subject's admissions page. We will inform you in writing when you are called for interview if there are any particular instructions (e.g. if we wish you to send in some work in advance, or if we wish you to read something before the interview).

On the day of the interview, please come first to the Porters’ Lodge at the front of the college, where you will be welcomed and given instructions about where to go. The porters will tell you the location of rooms for you to relax or prepare for your interviews, and you can also ask them precisely where your interviewers’ rooms are, too. If there is anything you need to know, just ask.

Give yourself lots of time to get to St Catharine’s, but if your travel plans go awry and you are running late for your interview, please do not panic. We will do our best to accommodate you, but we can do this better if you warn us as soon as possible – phone the porters on 01223 338 300.

What are we looking for?

The interviews are your chance - over the course of an hour or so - to show the interviewers why they should be making you an offer. The best advice we can give is to be yourself, talk freely and enthusiastically about what interests you, and not to worry if you are asked questions to which you do not immediately know the answers. At interview, we are not impressed by people who are simply confident, or articulate, or over-prepared, or well practised. The interviews are sufficiently long and technical that we hope they give everybody the opportunity to show what they can do, irrespective of how confident or shy, calm or nervous they are.

In some subjects, the first interview will be with an experienced interviewer who is not a specialist in the subject for which you are applying. S/he will be aiming to find out a bit more about you as a person, but may also use the time to assess your enthusiasm, motivation and preparedness for the subject you are hoping to read at University. For example, the questions may relate to why you selected your chosen subject, what you have done to find out more about it, or what you’ve written on your personal statement.

During the first interview you may also be asked to talk about your non-academic interests. Here, we are not looking for anything specific, but wish to gain an impression of how self-motivated you are, how good you are at organising your time, and how you can cope with balancing the competing demands of work and the rest of your life.

The second interview, and in many subjects both interviews, will be with subject specialists, and may involve either one or two interviewers. Depending on the subject, the interviewers will use this opportunity to assess specific skills related to your school subjects and proposed university course – although we will not assume any knowledge of that course. This may involve paper-and-pencil exercises in maths and science subjects, critically appraising an unseen passage or article in arts subjects, and so on. You may well be asked questions on unfamiliar topics; what we will be looking for here is to see how you can approach the problem, given your current level of understanding, and how you can think or talk your way through it.

Often, the interviewers will give you the chance to influence the direction that the interview takes, by asking you for information about things you are interested in, or topics you may have recently covered at school. So, while you shouldn't prepare 'topics' in any formal sense, you should be prepared to talk about your interests and things you mentioned in your UCAS personal statement. However the interviews develop, the interviewers will not seek to trip you up; they just want to see how you will respond to the sorts of intellectual challenges you will face at university.

A few pieces of advice:

It is important that you do not over-analyse how well an interview is going – use your brainpower for something more useful!

It is very likely that you will be asked questions which seem much more difficult than those you’ve faced at school, or even questions which you initially have no idea how to tackle. Bear in mind that all interviewees will face such questions, and the reason we ask them is to find out how you cope with stretching material – so just try your best to analyse the concepts involved and work out the best way to address the question.

If you think you have made a mistake or taken a wrong turn, simply retrace your steps a little and start again.

Do not worry if your progress seems slow, or you seem to be getting lots of help from the interviewers – many concepts take time and support to understand.

Don’t worry if you think you have been talking for too long. We want to hear what you have to say, and it is the interviewers’ responsibility to keep an eye on the clock.

After the interview

During late December and early January, your interviewers will meet with an admissions tutor to discuss and compare all the applications they have received for their particular subjects. In January, you will then be informed of their decision, either that the College wishes to make you a conditional or unconditional offer of a place, or that unfortunately we did not feel able to make you an offer.

A third possibility is that you will instead be contacted by another college about a possible offer. St Catharine’s participates fully in the University’s ‘intercollegiate pool’ system, which allows colleges to make good applicants to whom they themselves were unable to make offers, available to other colleges. Many very well qualified students follow this route; we will certainly be looking for candidates in some subjects, and we will do our best to find places at other colleges for those we have placed in the pool. For this reason, every January many applicants instead receive a letter from a different college, either offering them a place, or calling them to a second round of interviews.

Please note that decisions made at the pool are sent out at the same time as decisions made by the colleges to which applicants originally applied, so any letter you receive will take into account any redistribution to other colleges. Thus, unfortunately, if you receive a letter from a college saying you have been unsuccessful, then this also means that you were not taken from the pool by another college.

  • For more information about interviews, see the University Admissions Office's guide to interviews.