• Kate

Reliving my Cambridge Interview...Ten Years On

On a cold and grey December day in 2008, I took my first steps to becoming a Cambridge student. Now, with interviews taking place at my former university this week, I wanted to relive my own day of interviews, exactly ten years on.

As a BA Classics applicant for Gonville and Caius College, I would have to go through the following, before my fate could be decided:

  • A written translation test

  • A "general" interview (non-subject specific)

  • A subject specific interview

  • A "random college" interview, with a second college (a back-up in case my college of choice rejected me).

The day got off to a bad start. Heavy traffic between my Nottingham home and Cambridge caused us a huge delay, and as the clock approached 9am (the allotted time for the translation test for all applicants), I realised I would have to call the college and ask to reschedule. Already I felt like I was making a bad impression, and as if this may somehow scupper my chances before I had even set foot in the interview room. To me, Cambridge was my one and only academic goal for university study. My elder brother had attended and loved it, and I had set my sights on following in his footsteps at an early age. So strong was my desire to go there, that, if my first attempt was unsuccessful, I was considering taking a gap year to reapply. At this early point in the day, rejection did not even bear thinking about.

My first interview was with a Philosophy Fellow, who immediately put me at ease. We chatted about my academic achievements, how I wanted to contribute to college life and the usual question: "What is your biggest weakness?" I did as I had been advised at school, and turned a negative into a positive. "Sometimes I can be TOO organised," I confessed, seriously. So far, so good. I got into my stride as we discussed why I had chosen Caius, what I liked about Cambridge and my impressions of the College so far. There were none of the obscure questions which I had read about online ("How do you nail jelly to the ceiling?" etc); it felt more like a friendly chat in which my interviewer genuinely wanted to get to know more about me.

Filled with positivity, I left my first interview with an "I'm going to get in" feeling.

This quickly dissipated about thirty seconds after I began by rearranged translation test. What impossible vocabulary! Grammar I had never seen before! Long sentences which looked nothing like any Latin I had ever translated! With a strong feeling that this test would dash any hopes of me making it to Cambridge, I made a string of educated guesses and cobbled together a somewhat sensible translation. As my test had been rescheduled, I was taking it alone, which meant that I couldn't even assess the expressions on my peers' faces, to check if they were finding it as impossible as me.

I distinctly remember crying into my Marks and Spencer Emmental and mushroom toastie, insisting to my reassuring parents that I was definitely not going to get in now. I couldn't see how I could make such a mess of a Latin translation, and still be accepted at one of the world's top universities to study Classics.

Onwards and upwards, to the final Caius interview, with the Director of Studies: a jovial man, with a specialism in Ancient Greek Tragedy (my favourite!) As I stood outside his room, waiting my turn, a man walked up and placed a text in my hand. I had heard that I might be asked to prepare some text analysis before my interview, but this was a story about a man who had committed a crime...surely this wasn't meant for me? I was trying my best to figure out what points I could make about the story - perhaps this was some sort of strategy test - when the same man popped out of his room again, apologised, and took the text off me again. There had been a mix-up; this was meant for a potential law student. Phew.

The interview with the Director of Studies was everything I had expected Cambridge to be: floor to ceiling bookcases crammed with leather bound books, low, squashy sofas which looked hundreds of years old, and a wise, middle-aged Professor who wanted to find out everything I knew. For every answer I gave him he pushed, squeezed and mentally wrestled more information out of me. It was like some kind of intellectual gymnastics, where nothing I said could be taken as a given. Everything required justification. It's exhausting just to remember it. My problem (although, I guess in this case it was a good thing) is that I often start speaking before I have thought of how the sentence is going to end. It probably looked impressive because I left very few pauses between his questions and my answers, but it was difficult to maintain a conversation at that mental pace. Shortly after telling him that my favourite play was Medea, but forgetting where the main character came from, the interview was over. In terms of the positivity scale, I was somewhere between the heady high of the first interview, and the gloomy low of the translation test. I was at a "maybe".

My final interview took me to Corpus Christi, one of the smallest Cambridge colleges in terms of student body. I had never been here before and, in the fading late afternoon light, I was taken aback by how pretty it was. At least if I did not get into Caius, this college might accept me.

Pushed to the limit of my intellectual powers once again, we discussed Ovid's poetry for what felt like hours, thinking more deeply than I felt possible. It was a real opportunity to see the kind of learning which takes place at Cambridge: intense one-on-one discussions with experts in their field. While it was tiring, given that it was the last interview at the end of a rollercoaster day, it also felt like a privilege to discuss one of my favourite topics with someone who shared my passion and enthusiasm.


I will never forget the morning of 3rd January 2009, hearing my Dad rustling the long-awaited envelope outside my bedroom door. I was still lying in bed when I ripped it open, first catching sight of the conditional offer and realising I was IN. I had gone over and over the ill-fated translation test in my head from the beginning of December until this point, asking myself what I could have done to prepare myself better for it. But now it didn't matter. I had my place at the University of Cambridge, and nothing was going to take that away from me.

For anyone having their Cambridge interview this week, a few quick tips from someone who has been there:

  • Try not to worry if any aspect of your interview/assessment goes badly. The whole point of the day is to test you and see how you cope with it. It is far better to give things a go (whether that's answering questions verbally or in a written assessment), to show that you persevere and attempt things. They're looking for potential, not necessarily the complete package.

  • Enjoy the experience. This is an amazing opportunity to spend time with people who love your subject as much as (and probably more than) you do. Listen to their opinions and show your interest in your replies to them.

  • Set off for Cambridge earlier than you think you should! If you have an early appointment or meeting, there is bound to be morning rush hour traffic which will just love to get in your way and ruin the day's schedule, like it did for me.

  • Don't be afraid of getting things wrong. The interviewers want to test your limits, and see if you would be a good person to chat with in your tutorials. After all, you are someone who they will possibly be teaching for the next three years at a minimum, so they need to check that you'll be a worthy intellectual sparring partner and bring some interesting points to discussions.

  • Once it's done, it's done. Try your best to relax between now and the beginning of January. There really is nothing more you can do or change about the interview day.


Good luck to all those who have a Cambridge interview this week!

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