I once thought stories like that were actually true. Thankfully, although my own interview was a traumatic experience I'd like to forget, I now know that the Cambridge interview is a much more structured and logical experience than the horror stories circulated over the years. In an effort to shed more light on the interview process, I called at the office of long-time Cambridge interviewer to Malaysia and Southeast Asia, Dr Visvanathan Navaratnam of Christ's College, Cambridge (pictured here).
I still remember two years ago, when I was a mere A-Levels student, walking into my interview dressed impeccably in a suit, right up to the tie, expecting to find a large intimidating bushy-eyebrowed Cambridge don dressed in full black robes staring hawkishly down wire-rimmed glasses at me behind a huge oak desk and barking at me to hurry the hell up. I'd heard all the horror stories about Dr V Navaratnam; that he was a demanding taskmaster, that he yelled at interviewees, that he asked you so many scientific questions that you eventually broke down and ran out the door crying for your mummy. Instead the door opened and out stepped this genial-looking Asian man dressed in an open shirt and with large glasses. I blinked. This was Dr V. Navaratnam, interviewer extraordinaire, the evil Cambridge don who ate undergraduates for breakfast, looking as laid-back as a surfer dude on an Australian beach in summertime.
My interview proceeded rather smoothly, even though it focused heavily on stuff that I wrote in my additional Personal Statement. Dr Nava said that this was because of the fact that the interviews are designed to test interviewees' ability to think on their feet and create logical arguments to back up their assertions, not only to test their academic prowess. It's all spelled out on this page, which clearly answers the question "What are we looking for?" "Students who enjoy a challenge." And that, folks, is what Cambridge is all about; one big fat challenge.
However, there was a tale going around that both last year's successful applicants had their hands shaken by Dr Nava as they left the interview room, with him saying "I hope to see you in Cambridge". Dr Nava assured me that interviewers don't leave telltale clues as to whether a candidate is successful or not, and that he spoke to the applicants simply because he really DID want to see them get in. He was just very good at predicting the successful candidates. Candidates should remain positive throughout the interview, no matter what the interviewer says, because the interviewer's behaviour is supposed to be completely neutral.
When I asked him about KYUEM (my old A-Level college), Dr Nava replied that he thought very highly of the college and remarked on their high standards, saying of KYUEM candidates "they are quite impressive". Regarding the controversial EEE offer given to certain candidates applying to Christ's College, he said it was a sort of psychological test by the College. "They want to see what happens when the student isn't under stress to perform well academically," he explained, stating that while Cambridge colleges usually LIKE to stress their applicants, Christ's sometimes decides to experiment in the opposite direction. Usually, however, the students perform well in their exams anyway.
Regarding the actual power of interviewers to make offers and to decide which candidates get in, he reassured me that there was no way that the interviewer could allow a candidate in, unless said interviewer happened to be the Senior Tutor of the college to which the particular interviewee was applying, and the interviewer was very impressed with the interviewee's performance. Unconditional offers are rare, although one was recently documented in a rival A-Level college when an engineer currently studying in Queen's College was reportedly admitted on the spot. However, Dr Nava was quick to affirm that interviewers only writes down his views for the colleges' admissions tutors to peruse and make the final selection. No interviewer should be "easier to get past" than any other, as they compare notes on candidates before submission to the University.
His general advice to students is to aim high, because Cambridge University is all about excellence. To gain entry, some part of the application will have to be outstanding and catch the University's attention, be it the Thinking Skills Assessment (TSA) score, the Bio-Medical Admissions Test (BMAT) score, or the Law National Admissions Test (LNAT). Of course, the interview also counts, but it is not everything. In recent years, several Colleges that have experienced declining academic performance have revised their admissions policy to favour academically-minded applicants. As such, candidates can no longer expect to gain admission purely on their extracurricular achievements, whereas examples abound of successful applicants who have outstanding academic prowess but mediocre extracurricular merits. In short, the nerds have it lucky, ladies and gentlemen.
Dr Navaratnam and Dr Richard Barnes, Senior Tutor of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, are set to leave for Southeast Asia on October 17th for this year's round of interviews. I'd like to take this opportunity to wish all applicants the best of luck, and to advise you all to aim high. If you do get in, come pay me a visit in Jesus College. We have the best lunch for the best price (and served by the best-looking waitresses) in Cambridge. Honest.