How to Help Your Students with University Interview Practice

Becky Kleanthous  · Feb 3rd 2023

Interviews generally fall into the same life-event category as MOTs, divorce and dentist trips. Does anyone get excited for them? No. Are they even remotely tolerable? Still no. Are they sometimes entirely necessary? Sadly, yes.


You’ve been through enough interviews in your time to know a trick or two to keep the perspiration at bay, but your students are only just about to be unleashed on the world, and they may need quite a bit of help readying themselves for university interviews. Fortunately, you can offer some major support by playing the interviewer in a role-play scenario, which will help your class get familiar with the setup and feel a little more confident when it comes to the real deal.

But, just in case you never attended an interview for your university place (or if it was so long ago that your memory has since been replaced by scenes from Breaking Bad and instructions for setting the thermostat), here’s a rundown on role-plays.

Go easy

As with everything in teaching, differentiation is key. If you’re interviewing a bundle of nerves, then go gently in your manner, giving plenty of thinking time, smiling and offering help if they falter. The last thing you want to do is traumatise them so badly that they have a nervous breakdown about the prospect of an interview. Equally, if you’re interviewing a supremely confident prefect who’s intending to study PPE at a top-5 uni, then you should probably bring out the big guns and give them a bit of a challenge to chew over. It’s all about making progress, whatever the starting point.

Dress to impress

Not pirate costumes or black tie, but it will definitely feel more authentic if you all treat it like a dress rehearsal. Smart clothes will help adjust your frame of mind into that of interviewer and interviewee. Even better, schedule time-slots in advance and call students in one-by-one when their slot comes round.

How long is a piece of string?

It might feel like an absolute lifetime, but actual university interviews will probably last anywhere from 15 mins to an hour. Obviously, with your timetable to consider, you’re more likely to be holding 10-15 minute role-plays, but even this is valuable experience for your youngsters to get acquainted with the formalities, routines, and adjust to the pressure of one-to-one questions.

Bumbling or brilliant

Do make notes during the interview so that you can give some positive feedback and some constructive targets afterwards. This is a learning curve, so it’s important to steer your students in the right direction. Positives - or points to work on - might include body language, length of answer, or appropriateness of answer.

Tangible tips

Before the role-play (and the real thing), give your students some general advice:

  • Follow the interviewer’s lead for things like introductions, handshakes, and knowing when to sit down
  • Smile, be polite, and maintain positive body language with regular eye contact.
  • Say “no thank you” if you’re offered a drink. You’ll only worry about slurping it, or you’ll spill it in your lap.
  • A little bit of revision: refresh your memory beforehand by reading through your personal statement and reminding yourself a bit about the university itself (courses, lecturers or societies - whatever drew you to that choice).
  • Enthusiasm, enthusiasm, enthusiasm. Any gaps in knowledge are most effectively patched by showing a willingness to learn and a genuine interest in the answer.
  • If you’re not sure how to answer, don’t try to blag it. Ask to hear the question again, or pause to think, or ask for further explanation.

Questions, questions, questions

Ask one or two questions from each section to give the student chance to show off their well-rounded qualities.


  • Tell me about yourself.
  • What are you interested in / what do you like to do?
  • What have you read lately?
  • What are you proud of?
  • What would your teachers/caregivers/friends say are your strengths and weaknesses?


  • Why do you want to come to this university?
  • Why do you want to study this subject?
  • What do you have to offer to this university?
  • Why did you choose your A levels? What do you like about them?
  • How will you manage the workload here?


  • Do you have any work experience? What have you learned from it?
  • Do you have a career plan? Why have you chosen that career?
  • What personal qualities or skills do you have that suit that career path?
  • What do you think are the main problems faced in that career?

Subject Stuff

There are also likely to be subject-specific tasks or questions, so tailor the interview experience to your academic area. That means holding auditions for Drama, looking through portfolios for art and design subjects, asking source questions for History, issuing problem-solving tasks for Maths and Informatics, discussing a literary text without prior preparation for English, or holding group interviews for Teaching or Social Work.

Debating with the don

Applicants to Oxford or Cambridge will probably already be aware of the universities’ unusual approach to interviews. While it’s possible their experience will be entirely conventional, there are often a few curveballs in the form of unexpected or wacky questions. Bear in mind when you use them (and only use one or two during a session) that you’re looking for the quality of approach more than the destination. A student’s answer does not need to be ‘correct’ necessarily, but it should show a thoughtful and rigorous process. These questions are designed to test skill and application, rather than knowledge and memory. And in a way, that levels the playing field a bit, so they aren’t really bizarre at all.

So, if your student has applied to Oxbridge, drop one or two of these past questions into the mix, and look out for the way that students handle their responses: how are they managing their discomfort? What’s their thought process? How is their argument structured? Are they showing critical thinking or evaluative skills?

  • “An experiment appears to suggest Welsh speakers are worse at remembering phone numbers than English speakers. Why?”
  • “Would you rather be a novel or a poem?”
  • “Will this bag ever be empty?”
  • “How much of the past can you count?”
  • “If a wife had expressed distaste for it previously, would her husband's habit of putting marmalade in his egg at breakfast be grounds for divorce?”
  • “Why do animals have stripes?”
  • “What exactly do you think is involved in blaming someone?”
  • “What is language?”
  • “About one in four deaths in the UK is due to some form of cancer, yet in the Philippines the figure is only around one in 10. What factors might underlie this difference?”
  • “A large study appears to show that older siblings consistently score higher than younger siblings on IQ tests. Why would this be?”

Ah, interviews. Still no fun, but important nonetheless. And while an interview for Computer Science at Aberystwyth might look very different to a Spanish interview at Loughborough, it’s the context that counts. The less alien the whole interview process feels, the more mental and emotional energy your students can channel into thoughtful answers (rather than spending the whole 30 minutes worrying about visible sweat patches, whether to shake hands, or where to put that awkward glass of water). Good luck!

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