How interviews work

Each interview typically lasts around 20-30 minutes. You will have at least two interviews and possibly an assessment. Unlike some colleges, Downing does not do general interviews about your non-academic activities. All Downing interviews are subject-related or “academic” but one or both of these interviews might also mention any non-academic activities you have mentioned in your personal statement;  your participation in these may give information to the interviewers about how you manage your time and about other personal skills you have which may benefit you in pursuing a Cambridge degree.  However, for the majority of candidates, the interviewers will have already have learned about any non-academic activities from your personal statement and will want to find out more about your academic knowledge and ability during the interview.  Particularly in science subject interviews, you may find that your personal statement is not mentioned at all - you should not be concerned about this.

Interviewers may also ask you about current affairs where they are applicable to your subject, so it is advisable to read a newspaper regularly and keep up-to-date with developments in your subject (although you may have to do this for your studies anyway). 

All those who interview you will be a specialist in the area, or part of the area, of study you have applied to do. Usually, the Director of Studies (the person who would oversee your studies during your time at Cambridge) for the subject is one of the interviewers. The other interviewers are likely to be University teaching officers who teach the subject or a part of that subject. Therefore, some Chemistry experts may interview Medical Sciences candidates, or Classicists may interview Historians. The only occasions where a non-specialist in the subject will be involved in the interview, is if one of your interviewers will be the Admissions Tutor.

There is no need to worry if the person interviewing you is an expert in an area of the subject of which you have no knowledge. They will not expect you to know what subjects they do and will not tailor the interview around their own specialist subjects. Before the interview they will already know what topics you’re more familiar with because they will have either seen work you have been asked to send, will have a reference from your VI Form and/or will know what you are studying or have studied at A2 level or equivalent. Work sent to Downing before the interview is partly for assessment, but also may be used as a guide for interviewers to structure the interview around a topic you are knowledgeable about. Often the interviewers will give you the chance to influence the direction of the interview by asking you for information about areas of the subject you are interested in or what areas of the subject you have recently covered at school.

Some interviews may be structured around information you are given to look at before the interview or during the interview. All candidates are given the same or similar material, and again this is to test how you think through new problems. Demonstrating your enthusiasm is key in interviews – after all you are trying to persuade the interviewers to let you study the subject for 3 or 4 years. In order to demonstrate your self-motivation, you will most likely be asked questions designed to show that you have read around your chosen subject and, where you’ve already studied the subject, done more than the syllabus demands.

When being interviewed, the interviewers may present differing arguments to your own or may bring in different angles to a subject. This is to encourage debate and to see how you can handle differing opinions and articulate your views. They are not telling you that you are wrong and you are not meant blindly to agree with everything they say. Be confident in your own opinions and enjoy the intellectual debate. Don’t try and say what you think the interviewers want you to say, or what you think your teachers would have wanted you to say – say what you think and be yourself.

Downing will not expect you to have encyclopedic knowledge of your subject. We are not testing how much you know but more how you apply your knowledge, articulate your views and construct an argument. Interviewers will expect you:

  • To have thought carefully about your application
  • To be genuinely and broadly interested in your subject
  • To be able to think things through, clearly and flexibly
  • To be able to take part in discussion
  • To have intellectual curiosity

Remember to take your time in the interview and stay composed (easy for us to say!). The interviewers will know you are nervous – many have been interviewing for many years and are experienced at coping with very nervous candidates. The interviewers are not trying to trip you up – the interview is not a series of hidden traps you have to negotiate. They are however seeing how you will respond to the intellectual challenges you will face at Cambridge. If you are unsure on your response to a question immediately, take a deep breath and pause to collect your thoughts.

Broadly speaking, Downing is looking for candidates with a proven ability in their chosen subject and the potential to develop that ability further. We are looking for people who will enjoy, work hard and progress intellectually in the academic system at Cambridge.

Be relaxed and be yourself.

Our Meet the Interviewer video series aims to answer the most common questions we receive from prospective applicants. These can be found on the Discover Downing YouTube channel.