On Monday the 4th of December 2017, I had two interviews at Jesus College, University of Cambridge. I applied to study the biological branches of the Natural Sciences course, and I’m fortunate enough to have been accepted. In this article, I recount my interview experience.
The day before the interview, I came up to Cambridge by train and made my way to Jesus College. I was then given access to my room, where I’d be spending the night. It was a nice ensuite room, and during term time it would be freshers’ accommodation.
For dinner and lunch the next day, we got to eat (for free) in the fancy dining hall. The food was very nice, and I got speak to other interviewees as well as current students. I’ve ended up being friends and even living with some of the people I met then.
I met a lot of people during my short stay. Most of them were interviewees like me and they were all nice. There was a great variety of people, with students from famous private schools as well as students from more modest backgrounds. For one meal, I was sat opposite an Etonian and next to two Westminster students. Interestingly, the Etonian was rejected, one of the Westminster students (who was rejected from Oxford the previous year and had taken a gap year in response) was pooled to another college, and the other Westminster student was accepted (although they’re not exactly a top student). For anyone thinking that going to Eton or Westminster or another prestigious private school will automatically get you into Oxbridge, I hope that what I’ve just told you shows you that it is not the case. Getting into Oxbridge is more about you as a person, though I won’t ignore the fact that a more privileged upbringing can make things easier in some ways.
One thing which a lot of interview candidates had in common is that they were stressed. I too was stressed on the day I arrived, but when I saw how everyone was stressed it made me realise that it was futile and that it will only weaken my interview performance, which is why I felt much less stressed on the day of my interview. The day before my interview I was still going through textbooks to revise content, but on the day itself I stopped because I realised it wouldn’t have an effect and that it would just stress me out.
In terms of getting around the college (it can initially feel like a labyrinth), there were undergraduate students to show us around and were very helpful. There was a waiting room for interview candidates, where some were revising and others were socialising, with the undergraduate students on hand for help.
The first interview
When it was time for my first interview at 9:30, I was led to the room. Whilst waiting outside, I could hear the friendly laughter of the interviewers in the room. I was soon lead in, and the two interviewers shook hands with me. I was offered a glass of water, which I declined but the interviewer must have misheard me because he poured it anyway.
The first question I was asked was if I had brought something for them. I was very confused because I had no idea that I should/could bring something for them, so I said I hadn’t. I think what happens is that sometimes students bring something with them to talk about, but I hadn’t brought anything because I didn’t think I would have time. Anyway, I don’t think it mattered.
This first interview was much more a conversation about my interests than it was a formal interview. The second question I was asked was simply “what kind of biology do you like?”. I said I liked evolution and behaviour, and the rest of the interview was about those fields. It did not feel scripted at all, and I don’t think it was.
At some point we were talking about the latest Nobel price in physiology, which was for circadian rhythms in cells. Fortunately I’d had a quick read about it because one of my school teachers recommended I do so.
I mentioned the replicator and vehicle analogy presented by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene, which is a book I’d strongly recommend anyone to read regardless of what they study. As an added incentive, it was in that book that the word meme was coined.
I was asked how I would find a specific gene. I initially wasn’t sure how to answer this, and they rephrased the question by asking how to find a needle in a haystack, to which I responded that you can burn the haystack or use a magnet. I don’t think that’s the response they were looking for. They were trying to get me to talk about how mutants can be used to find genes, but I only caught on to this as the interview ended.
Overall, the first interview felt quite relaxed and not scripted at all. The interviewers were friendly and welcoming. There was nothing in the interview that was based on my application, unlike the second interview.
The second interview
I then went to the waiting room until it was time for my second interview.
This interview was more scripted. I could see that the interviewers, a man and a woman, had pieces of paper in front of them with highlighted sections, and I assume that they were looking at my personal statement and/or my reference from school.
The first question I was asked was about a project I was involved with at school. I had specifically avoided putting that project in my personal statement because I did not want to talk about it because I’d rather talk about another project. However, the project I didn’t want to talk about was mentioned in my reference. Fortunately for me, I was given access to my reference so I was slightly prepared, though not much. I talked a bit about my role in the project but I don’t think I was very confident in what I said.
The second question was how I could find out if a specific protein is in a cell. I talked about how antibodies can be used to identify the protein in a sort of ELISA test, and with fluorescent proteins (GFP). At some point we talked about CRISPR, though I didn’t know much about it then. I think the answer they might have been looking for is a technique called Western blotting, which was mentioned in my reference but I didn’t think of that.
The next thing I remember talking about is my extended project qualification (EPQ). This was a big project I did in year 12, where I investigated the effects of heat on the iridescence of beetles. Find out more here. I summarised my research to the two interviewers and they seemed interested. I mentioned light interference at one point and the interviewer asked me to draw a diagram demonstrating that. I then took piece of paper and drew out what you can see below, which is something you’d cover in GCSE physics.
I mentioned that I got to use an electron microscope for my project, but that it wasn’t powerful enough to do what I wanted. They then asked me what aspect of the microscope was too weak, and I said that they cathode ray tube wasn’t good enough (though I don’t know if this was correct).
About half of my second interview was about my EPQ, and I think that it really helped my application.
I left my final interview smiling. I hadn’t got everything right, I had made mistakes, but I had enjoyed the experience.
What’s interesting is that people who applied for the same course at other colleges had very different experiences. I wasn’t asked any questions about chemistry or maths whilst other people were, though maybe I wasn’t asked about maths because I was doing further maths A-level and I had an A* in maths A-level already. Regardless, it is important to note that every interview is unique.
I’d say my interview experience was relatively normal. Nothing too extraordinary, especially not like the interview myths I had come across. I enjoyed the experience and would recommend anyone else to enjoy it as much as they can too. It’s amazing to be in such a beautiful place and to speak to scholars from a field you’re interested in.
If you want help with preparing for an interview, check out my interview advice article and video.
Also, here’s a small anecdote. When I took a shower on the day of my interview, the bathroom mirror steamed up and words appeared. It’s kind of thing you’d expect in a horror thriller, except the words that came up seemed to be part of someone’s to-do list.