Top of the Class

#2 College Tips - Oxbridge Interview Insights with Former Oxford Admissions Officer, Hannah Rowberry

February 10, 2021 Crimson Education Season 2 Episode 2
Top of the Class
#2 College Tips - Oxbridge Interview Insights with Former Oxford Admissions Officer, Hannah Rowberry
Top of the Class
#2 College Tips - Oxbridge Interview Insights with Former Oxford Admissions Officer, Hannah Rowberry
Feb 10, 2021 Season 2 Episode 2
Crimson Education

Are you aiming to apply to Oxford or Cambridge? The interview is a critical part of the application and few people know the process better than Crimson Education Strategist, Hannah Rowberry.

Hannah is a former Oxford Admissions Officer and Cambridge alumni. She shares her insights including what to expect from the first question, how best to prepare, tips for during the interview and why it's likely to be the most interesting interview you'll ever have!

Show Notes Transcript

Are you aiming to apply to Oxford or Cambridge? The interview is a critical part of the application and few people know the process better than Crimson Education Strategist, Hannah Rowberry.

Hannah is a former Oxford Admissions Officer and Cambridge alumni. She shares her insights including what to expect from the first question, how best to prepare, tips for during the interview and why it's likely to be the most interesting interview you'll ever have!

Podcast Host  00:17

Hello, and welcome to College Chats and new series of the Top of the Class podcast. I'm your host Alex Cork, and today I chat with Crimson Education strategist, former Oxford interviewer and Cambridge alumni, Hannah Rowberry. Hannah shares her insights into the all important Oxbridge interviews, her advice for students to prepare, and some funny stories that have come from the high pressure interview environment. Let's chat with Hannah Rowberry. Hannah, welcome to College Chats is awesome to have you on the show. Can you tell our listeners a little bit about yourself?

Hannah Rowberry  00:47

Thank you very much. It's great to be here. So yes, I used to be a student at University of Cambridge natural sciences, but since then have been quite a few different things as I was a scientist for a little while, and then as a science teacher for a few years. And I spent most of my career as an admissions officer at the University of Oxford's really enjoyed working with students, supporting them through the application process and then running the application process as well. And then since then, I've come to work at Crimson which has been fantastic.

Podcast Host  01:12

Is that like heresy in the UK? Going from Cambridge student to Oxford admission officer, talk me through that.

Hannah Rowberry  01:19

Absolutely. The Dark Side. Yes. Yes, actually, you know, obviously, there's this great rivalry, at least kind of perceived between Oxford and Cambridge. And indeed, Cambridge started as professors that you ran away from Oxford and start up their own university. So there is this historic rivalry for hundreds of years, however, a friendship between the two and a huge amount of students and staff. Lots of people have have dual citizenship as it were. Okay, right. There you go.

Podcast Host  01:46

I didn't know that. I thought it was like, once you're a Cambridge person, you're a Cambridge person for life, or vice versa. I didn't know there was many staff and students moving in between. But that's good to hear. I guess, you know, the more the merrier, and sharing of knowledge and all the rest of it. That sounds good to me. Now, you're a crimson strategist, nowadays, what does that role entail? And how have you found that fulfilling for you?

Hannah Rowberry  02:07

Yeah, it's, it's a great role. So it's sort of spans a lot of things really. So I'm working with lots of different students around the world, supporting them in preparing for an application process in the UK. So that can be anything from just thinking strategically, obviously, as a strategist, in terms of their university choices and cost choices, but also thinking about things like their qualifications, and their super curriculum, say things that are doing to kind of boost that profile in terms of developing that interest, and and deepening those as well in preparation application. And then also specific aspects of the application process, say, preparing personal statements, and thinking about some admissions tests and interviews, and sort of working towards getting ready for those and getting students feeling comfortable and confident with application process. When the time comes.

Podcast Host  02:53

Are you the kind of strategists that you wish you had when you were a student applying to Cambridge?

Hannah Rowberry  02:59

Absolutely. I mean, I didn't have anyone like that when I was applying. So I grew up in rural Yorkshire in the UK, and my lovely kids didn't go to Oxford, Cambridge, really, where I grew up, that wasn't really an expectation for students there. And so I kind of made it up myself, really, I was my own strategist, in terms of preparing for that, but I had no no expectation that I would be getting to Cambridge. So it was very, very exciting to do so.

Podcast Host  03:26

Yeah, I bet I bet. Well, we are going to be talking about one particular element of the application today, and that is the Oxbridge interviews. Now these have taken on, I guess, like a kind of mythical status around the world for how challenging they can be. I've seen some blogs about the kind of questions that students get depending on the courses they're applying for. But for students who may not know too much about the Oxbridge interviews, can you give us kind of like a general introduction as to what they are?

Hannah Rowberry  03:52

Sure. So it's quite an important part of the application process for like Oxford and Cambridge of aspects as well. But this is the kind of key element in terms of testing a student's teachability. So a lot of people get very nervous about interviews, and think that it's meant to be this sort of nasty, difficult tests, where you'll find lots of impossible questions or bizarre things that you couldn't possibly be empty. And that's not the intention at all. And so the nature of interview is actually a mock tutorial on mock supervision. So oxygen came into different words. But basically, this is the small group teaching, which is typical for how teaching happens in Oxford and Cambridge. And so they're testing the students suitability for that kind of teaching, When are they going to flourish? And that kind of environment, the nature of questions will often be that it's something that you perhaps haven't come across before as a new scenario, but something where you can apply your existing knowledge and skills to to sort of work through that question. So it might be something where you don't have an immediate answer to it, which often is why then if you see you know, blogs about interview questions, they are completely bizarre that are completely impossible, and it can be a little bit of quitting, because they can completely out of context have no sort of single standalone question that you just have to ask. I'm 30. But Robert, that'll be a sort of starting point for a discussion, you might not immediately come to answer. But actually the tutors will be sort of giving you prompts maybe giving you questions or new information to help you work through that. And they're seeing how you respond to that effectively how you respond to that teaching. And so whether you're going to be a good student for them. 

Podcast Host  05:19

Yeah, so what kind of dictates a well done interview? Is it been super chatty? Or is it been super knowledgeable? Like, what would a student have to do to leave the interviewers wowed after you leave the room?

Hannah Rowberry  05:33

Yeah, really good question. I think there's no sort of typical student. And in that sense, I think a lot of people think that they even need to be very extroverted, very opinionated, all those things. None of that really matters. You know, ultimately, these interviews that they're interested in your brain, they're interested in finding out what's what's going on in there, and sort of finding out about your intellectual curiosity and flexibility. I think the key thing in terms of wowing interviews, I mean, obviously, being knowledgeable isn't gonna be a bad thing. But actually also being kind of intellectually curious, intellectually open minded. So again, these questions might be things you haven't come across before, but actually kind of approaching them with an open mind and thinking, Okay, you know, how, how can I think about this? What can I do about this? What do I need to find out to be able to work through this, so actually, a student who listens to the interviewers will impress them. And since they're taking board all that information, and giving, also a student who, you know, isn't afraid to try things out, and actually sort of speak out loud, often advice I give to students is sort of say what you're thinking, because ultimately, the interviewers want to see that thinking process such as saying, you know, no, I'm not sure. But this is what I do know, this is what I'm going to try here. Yeah, that's a really useful thing in sort of showing that thinking process to the interview.

Podcast Host  06:46

Right. And I think I've heard from students in the past that the interviewer is not necessarily looking for a student who knows everything, right? They're not looking for correct answers, because there really is no correct answer to a lot of the questions. They're mainly, as you say, looking for that thinking process and that thought process. So to do that, well, as you said, like talking through the answer is perhaps a good tip. Are there any other tips that could help a student demonstrate that they are thinking their way through these questions in an intellectual manner that the interviewers are looking for?

Hannah Rowberry  07:18

Sure. So I think, certainly explaining themselves is really important. And also, again, kind of having flexibility in terms of information, often a common error for students is thinking that to kind of show off, they need to doggedly stick to their opinion and need to be like, Yes, I can argue well, because I know what I'm saying, or I changed my mind for anything. And actually, you know, that's not going to be impressive in the sense that they want to see that you could maybe change your mind in new information and actually take that on board. And so again, sort of absorbing information as you're going along. Also not being afraid to sort of go back and correct yourself in the sense that it's quite common. In an interview that you might have said something earlier that you gradually realized later on was rubbish. Yeah. And actually, rather than being like, No, I was brilliant, nothing was wrong. I've realized what I said back then wasn't quite right, kind of go back and you know, took that through again. And again, it's fine, also fine, you know, not to have an immediate answer. And it doesn't mean it's actually enough to take a moment to think these are these are hard questions, these are things that you're going to have to use a bit of bit of brainpower about. So it's fine to take a beat. And think that through and also just for clarification, from interviews, interviewers are human beings, they're fallible, they might not have the perfect question. They might have asked it in a really rubbish way. And so to say, Oh, you know, could you repeat that? Could you say that in a different way? Could you explain what this means? And that's perfectly acceptable? Well, I'm actually you know, it's impressive to interviews that you're kind of really thinking things through.

Podcast Host  08:46

Yeah, for sure. Now, I know this is more like a logistics question regarding the interviews, but I'm not quite sure what happened during the last interview round because of COVID. And I know there's always been debate around the value of going on campus versus doing it virtually versus I believe, you can also do the interview in Singapore, as I understand. So what are your thoughts around like the logistics of actually sitting the interview?

Hannah Rowberry  09:11

Yes, obviously, no last round are different from usual UK was in full lockdown at the time. And so all of your interviews were remotes in normal years, and hopefully in three years, a situation if the majority of interviews happen in person in the colleges, but obviously students sort of from overseas aren't expected necessarily to travel all that way. Occasionally, do you have students who want to come in person I think I had one student come from Australia, once for us, that's a long way to go. Most students outside of Europe would be having remote interviews in terms of the sort of situation for students and what's best for them and I actually used to run the remote interviews from the colleges that I worked in. It was always a great, great phrase so students that I knew that I would say you know, it is a slightly different experience from an in person interview, you know, you aren't quite as face to face The same way, you don't get quite the same interaction of interviews, that's a slightly different thing. But that doesn't mean that you're at a disadvantage. If they're interviewing you, they want to see, like the student, they will do everything to get all they want out of you and see what's going on in your brain. But yeah, it's a slightly different experience. But now now everyone's happy to be the same for everyone really, um, in terms of like the overseas in person entities, that's just a Cambridge bangs, Oxford don't do that. And although they do have a sort of a big set up in Singapore for my interview, so it's quite a thing that remote interviews, and Cambridge do breaks them in person overseas interviews in a few locations. And again, that can be a good opportunity for students to have that experience. Although you might be getting different interviews then from the sort of main cohort of students. So yeah, roundabouts in terms of sort of what's best for students in that respect,

Podcast Host  10:50

I remember chatting to one student who went there, and she wanted to go there just to have the campus experience as well as the interview on campus as well. So it can be beneficial. I think, if you're planning on staying there, if you haven't been to Cambridge, or Oxford, before, I was lucky enough, I actually went in 2019, I think and just as a tourist, and hardly went and did the Oxford tour and the Cambridge tour and love both of them. Is the interview style different depending on the university? Are they looking for, like different things? So say, for instance, you're a student wanting to study science, for instance, would you prepare differently for a Cambridge interview as you would an Oxford interview? Or would you prepare fairly similarly?

Hannah Rowberry  11:28

Yeah, they're pretty much identical in terms of how they operate the interviews, I would say, I mean, there's some logistical differences in terms of how they work. And so candidates tend to do interviews in one day, but each student still might have two or three interviews, but it'll be in a relatively short space of time, you might also have adding to the tests or activities on the reading to do prior to the interview, that usually happens in a more condensed period. That said, students obviously still can stay overnight in the colleges, if they have come in from overseas and Cambridge, and Oxford, it's a slightly longer process. So you still are likely to have two or three interviews, but maybe more, if you're going to stay in Oxford for the process. And it usually happens over the course of maybe two or three days. And so students will be kind of in there for the long run. And it's kind of nice experience of hanging out in the college, you'll get to know the other candidates. Usually they're putting on kind of socials and activities. They have lots of lots of student helpers in Oxford, and come and come hang out with me. So it's quite a quite a fun time. Often, this is December around Christmas time, I've only ever it snowed. A lot of fun with that. But it was it was quite a good time. So yeah, different experience with the auction process, but introduce themselves will be the same and have a slight difference toxic is that he might be interviewed by more than more college while you're there for interview. And so Cambridge, you'd only be interviewed by the one that you'd apply to Oxford. Everyone has a good luck. Yeah, so sat around, and you don't necessarily know in advance, which colleges those are going to be. So you'll know your first one, but you might not know, maybe one or two other colleges that you're going to go to. So it's a bit of a bit of a mystery talk in that respect.

Podcast Host  13:04

Right? That sounds pretty fun. Well, what's one of the most common questions that you get from students and or parents about the interviews? Like you're a strategist, you're working with this student throughout their entire application process? If they were to sit down and say, Hannah, we're looking at the interviews, this is my main concern, what is that main concern that you often hear?

Hannah Rowberry  13:23

One of the biggest concerns? Is it going to be scary? quite nervous about interviews, that's completely understandable. You know, it's a big important thing about the application process being nervous is entirely fine. But I would say that there's nothing really to be said about the nature of the interview, as I said, is that it's meant to be the sort of mock tutorial, it's not meant to be this nasty test, you're not expected to know the answers. If you already knew everything, you wouldn't need to go to university to get things wrong, also interviews, humans that have strong memories of my time and the things that went wrong. And that wasn't the students introduce themselves, and say I had wanted it and they were just completely missing. And we really worried that something terrible had happened, we were like sending people out to try and find them. And just just let them make mistakes. They're not these like, you know, higher beings. So don't worry, you know, these people, these people are normal. These people make mistakes, and actually know that there are also people who love your subjects as well. So they're gonna be super excited to meet you. You might be doing quite a niche, academic field, they might not meet many people who like the same thing that they do have a student who's like, yeah, this is what I want to study, but a nice experience for them as well. So I would say certainly from from my experience onwards from having been a student and having gone through the interview process, the ultimate Cambridge in These are probably the most exciting and interesting interviews you'll have in your life until you go into business for yourself in five years time, right, right. weakness. You're debating a subject, you're talking to people who are at the top of their field, you know, the best people in your subject ever. That's pretty exciting opportunities out. 

Podcast Host  15:22

Yeah, I mean, I know, if I was a student in that situation, I would be super nervous waiting for the interview, like in that kind of five minute beforehand type of scenario. Actually, I was talking to a student from Sydney, who worked with us for a while and got into Oxford. And he said he was waiting outside the room. And the door was slightly ajar. And he could hear the interview going on before him. And he said, the the poor kid before him did terribly, or what he thought, you know, did terribly. And it just made him like 10 times more nervous, like his heart was already in his throat. And he gave he what was going on. And he now wonders whether or not that was like a deliberate tactic by the interviewers, just to kind of scare the students coming in, you know, straight after they leave the door just slightly. And, yeah, that that was not a good experience. But once he got in and settled and started realizing, as you said, they're just people, he relaxed into it, and ended up getting it, which is fantastic. Now, in terms of preparation, what would you recommend for students to do as like preparing for an interview that changes all the time, right? Like it changes depending on the day or the interviewer or their subject? Like it's, you know, it's a moving target. So how do you prepare for this?

Hannah Rowberry  16:38

Sure. So I mean, I think there are obvious things to do in the sense of actually just being comfortable with the things that you should know. Expect to learn extra stuff, to know anything beyond what you've done at school. But feeling comfortable with everything that you have learned in an irrelevant school subject is pretty humbling, it's not going to get you to do a revision. Also, I think just kind of familiarizing yourself with that process. Like I say, don't feel nervous, obviously, that's natural. But actually being aware of what's going to happen being prepared for that means that you're going to feel a little bit more calm, you're gonna find out what this is. And there are lots of breakouts and lots of colleges have produced nice look at videos of what videos of what interview should look like. And you can sort of see, see what it looks like. Also, you know, just getting comfortable with chatting about your interests, chatting about academic matters and what you think about them. So find find a willing victim. You can tell all your favorite things, but subject playing the difficult bits to them. That's really easy, essential as well. That can be a useful process. I bet you do that plenty, right. I love all my favorite things I love I love interview. I love working through interview questions. Beautiful in how they work. Being like this is really scary. Okay, this is something that's accessible. It's something we can work through. Actually, I have I have my own door ajar story. So when I was my own into payments over many years ago, the door was ajar. And I was saying the previous student wasn't there anymore. And they were talking about me, which is pretty horrifying. So they were talking about my application. And they said, Oh, you know, good grades. Let's look again. Let's ask you the hard questions. Yeah, I was I was a little bit shaken. But actually, that was fine. Yes, the questions are challenging, actually. They were enjoyable and helped me work through more difficult and obviously, I got it. Clearly, but takeaway from that, is that yes, challenging. But actually, if you're, if you have an open mind to what's being asked, then you you're right through that process. But yeah, don't don't be put off by things where the interviewer say, Well, sorry, I got completely thrown like this question of interview because often interviewers will ask what they think is like a sort of settling question like how was your journey? Or you know, what, do you have a breakfast like that? And they misread between my school from where I lived, and they were like, Oh, no, did you have a good journey from this town? And I was like, that's not where I live. This question should not contradict. The first question. was a student was so nervous that interviews came out and called the name for a student to come into the interview. Wasn't the student's name. Isn't it Nice. I didn't tell him but he got it wrong. They just carried on and consummate professionals. Yeah, they just went for it. And so I was like running into this. But I was quite worried because the student then officially, from my point of view, had gone missing. hadn't turned up. In a lovely interview, just gone into the student, he was none the wiser, but it was it was very kind to him and got through that. 

Podcast Host  20:25

Fantastic. Well, we were about to wrap up. But before we do, what would be your one or two top tips for students to stand out from the crowd. Of course, this is the top of the class podcast, we've had some amazing students that we've been interviewing over the last 3132 episodes now. And you know, a lot of these students standout mainly through pretty amazing extracurriculars. But what would be your advice for students? If they were like, okay, competition's pretty fierce? I want to make myself stand out? How would I best do that? What would be your advice?


Yeah, I think at a very basic level, it was just finding something that I really love, and exploring kind of broadening my horizons. And ultimately, you want the subjects that you're going to apply for that you're going to study at university to be something where, you know, perhaps, you go home to your family, and you tell them everything that you learned in that thing today, at school, or, you know, you read a book and you like, run downstairs and say, Oh, I found this out, I want to tell you about it. That's how you should feel about it. And actually, if you have that level of enthusiasm, and that is something that's gonna shine through in the application process, that's something that's going to come through in the personal statement, that's something that's going to come through it interview, and you know, people who are looking at those are going to be able to see that and are going to see, okay, this is a student who loves this, who is going to be motivated to continue this through their studies. And I think again, sort of specifically then within that aspects, like the sort of personal statement in the interview, there are areas where you really can shine and sort of show where your strengths are in that respect. And so I suppose, within a personal statement, obviously, I've been watching podcasts, and I've seen some really inspiring students, and I think they're wonderful, but not every student has the opportunities to these sort of experiences, however, can have relatively separate experiences, and still have a dazzling insight into them. And I think that's the key thing in terms of shining as a student, is that I, one of the best pencil statements I read was from a student who'd watch a TV show political comedy from the UK called the thick of it. And again, I'm not necessarily advocating that you should write about TV and universal payment. But this one was fantastic that he was saying, you know, what he learned from that? What inspired him from that, and you know, all the books that you've read about, on the basis of that inspiration, but it was it was just very, very genuine. And actually, his insights on that was so so fortunately, he was showing this thinking skills that universities are going to be looking for on that basis. So it's not not what you've done, but what you got out of it, what you thought about it, and so showing depth before.

Podcast Host  22:51

I think that's such good advice, and I can't believe I've worked at Crimson now for nearly What is it almost five years now. And that is the first time I've heard that actually, kind of, you know, in that civil term, right, it's not about the heights of your experiences, it's about the kind of depth of your insight more so, you know, the access to these kind of amazing extracurriculars might not always be possible, you know, particularly now in COVID, when half the world's lockdown, it's very, very difficult. So oftens, about the depth of your insights is what will really make or impress particularly interviewers. And I think you know, that that kind of subject specialists, interviewer, right, they're really looking for someone who has thought deeply about the subject. And it's sometimes hard to think deeply about a subject that you might not have studied much of school like astrophysics or something like that, right. But even if it's like watching a cool TV show, and getting some insights from that, and the books, of course, let's not forget the book. So it's a very important ingredient there. Right. But still, I love that I love that I think that's such a good takeaway for students. And I'm sure students would apply that lesson they would be held in good stead for their application, or Hannah. It's been an absolute joy chatting and I hope students have learned as much as I have about the Oxbridge interviews. And of course, if students want an opportunity to work with someone like Hannah, there is going to be a link in the show notes for a free one hour consultation with a lovely local academic advisor as well. Thank you again, for joining us on the college chats as part of the top of the class. I don't want to get confused with all these series names. But either way, it's been an absolute joy having you on and look forward to sharing your insights about the Oxford interviews far and wide.

Hannah Rowberry  24:28

Thank you. It's been a pleasure.