Interviews: Essential advice from UK admissions officers
As part of your application to a UK school, college or university, you might need to attend an interview. Institutions have different policies about interviews – some don’t interview any students, others (the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, for example) interview the majority and the interview weeks are a big part of the application process.
At some universities and colleges, there are interviews for certain courses – typically those with a practical element, such as medicine, some science courses, art and design. Check the course information online or in the prospectus, or contact the admissions department to ask (click here to find the institution’s contact details).
What will the interview be like?
If you do have an interview, it will probably be with a member of staff who would be teaching you – such as a course tutor – or a member of the international office. Many universities, colleges and schools hold interviews over the phone or via Skype (or can arrange to do so if needed), although this varies.
It’s likely you will be asked questions related to your subject, and you might also be given a test to do on paper. It’s also possible that you’ll be asked to chat about your academic and personal interests. Don’t be surprised if an interviewer asks you what you do in your spare time, or what magazines you read!
It’s natural to feel nervous about face-to-face talks with teachers or tutors – but don’t be! Your interview is also a chance for you to get a feel for the course, meet the people who would be teaching you and see the campus (if you’re attending in person). It’s also a great opportunity to show off your passion for your subject. Remember – if you’re a good candidate, the institution will want you as much as you want them!
7 top tips from the interviewers
So how do you stand out? While all universities and colleges have different interview policies and techniques, they agree that there are a few key ways to make sure you perform well in an interview.
1. First, be prepared – think about the key points you want to get across (such as your reasons for
wanting to study at that institution, your ambitions and interests) and make a few notes to gather
your thoughts before the interview. But don’t write an entire speech, or you’re likely to sound
2. If you’re invited to interview but can’t attend in person, ask if it could be by phone or Skype – many
institutions are happy to do this.
3. If you’re attending in person, aim to arrive 10 minutes early. Ask in advance if you’re not sure where
to go or what to bring (for some courses, you might be asked to bring a portfolio or examples of your
work – but if they don’t ask for it, there’s no need to bring one).
4. Know your subject and be enthusiastic about it. As well as explaining what you like about it, prepare
for the interview by reading the latest news about research and developments in the field. This shows
you’re genuinely interested in studying that subject.
5. Be honest – there’s no point trying to guess what an interviewer wants to hear, or pretending you’ve
read a book that you haven’t.
6. It’s important to get your English up to a good standard, but if there is something you don’t understand,
do not be afraid to ask the interviewer to speak more slowly or to explain the question.
7. This is an opportunity for you to ask questions too, so note down a few to take with you. Don’t feel you
need to ask ‘intelligent’ questions that will make you look good – just ask what you actually want to
Here’s what some universities and colleges say about their interview processes – and what they think makes a successful interviewee.
International Office Deputy Director Charlene Allen, University of Reading:
‘An interview is an opportunity for the applicant to communicate one-to-one with a member of staff, to know more about the university and the course.
‘When an applicant is genuinely enthusiastic about their subject, their confidence is evident. It is important to gather their thoughts about why they are doing the course, what they want to achieve and why they have chosen our university.
‘We want to understand the applicant’s motivation, suitability for the the course and what they want to achieve through the course. We may also check the applicant’s experience according to their application.
‘In terms of preparation, it would be useful for applicants to think about questions they want to ask and ensure they write these down in advance.’
International Officer Sarah Bradley, Sheffield Hallam University:
‘Interviews are usually a conversation to understand more about a student’s interests and motivations to study a particular course. We want to hear about a student’s personal and academic interests and see whether they share our enthusiasm for our subject areas.
‘It’s always a good idea to think about what you’re going to say beforehand – but often it’s also best not to over-prepare so that what you say doesn’t sound too rehearsed.
‘We know that speaking can be difficult when English isn’t your first language – especially if you choose to have your interview over the phone – so it’s important to remember it is absolutely fine to ask if a tutor could speak as clearly or slowly as possible. There is no need to worry – our tutors will always do their best to make you feel at ease.’
Regional Manager, Europe and UK Andy Thompson, Bournemouth University:
‘Make sure your level of English is good enough by the time you come for an interview. This is not a test of the candidate’s English, but good, articulate communication is key and the interview cannot be undertaken with the help of an interpreter.
‘Interviews are typically quite informal and are intended to help the candidate and the course leader get to know each other, as well as gauging the candidate’s suitability for the course. They take place in the form of a two-way conversation based around a portfolio or showreel of the candidate’s work.
'The candidate can ask questions, and it’s a chance for the course leaders to gain a personal impression of them, including their hobbies and interests. We want to find out about the candidate’s creative process and inspirations, as well as their ambitions for their future career and how they feel the university can help them in achieving their goals.
‘Confidence is important, but we do allow for some nervousness and course leaders do their best to put the candidate at ease. A good level of knowledge about the course is essential, and an awareness of the broader industry would be an advantage. Most importantly, the course leaders need to know that the candidate has a real passion for the subject and the motivation to see it through.’
Director of Admissions Bella Mallins, University College London:
‘It is important that interviewees know their subject matter and can speak intelligently about it. We advise interviewees to read around the subject and not just rely on what is in the curriculum of their current studies.’
Head of Learner Services Darren Armstrong, Petroc further education college:
‘Our policy is to interview all international students to gauge their knowledge of the subject they want to study, how well they speak English, their educational background and any qualifications they hold. Non-native English speakers also have to meet test score requirements.
‘The best way to get prepared is to practise your English exam technique, grammar, spelling and sentence structure.’
Admissions officers Rachel Lister, University of Cambridge and Helen Charlesworth, University of Oxford:
If you apply to the universities of Oxford or Cambridge (note that for undergraduate courses, they have an earlier deadline for applications – see dates here), the next thing you’ll hear is whether you’ve been shortlisted for interview – typically, around 60 per cent of candidates are asked to come for interview.
The interview process is designed as a chance for students to get to know different colleges at the universities (Cambridge is made up of 31 separate colleges; Oxford has 38), meet other prospective students and get a feel for the universities’ teaching systems. This means that the universities prefer students to attend interviews in person, although sometimes overseas interviews can be arranged.
Check the universities’ websites for more information and contacts for international students, as well as detailed guidance about interviews, including sample questions and videos of demonstration interviews.