To those about to be interviewed: it’ll all be alright in the end

Melanie Etherton 28 November 2013

So, why do you want to study at Cambridge?” the interviewer enquires. Your mind empties.

You wonder in the silence: when did this feeling start? Was it the moment that bike nearly ran you over?  Or perhaps when you disbelievingly opened the interview invitation – or maybe even long before that, when you upgraded watching videos on the University website from procrastination to ‘vital research’?

The horror stories didn’t put you off. You knew an applicant was told to wait outside the paper-thin walls of the interview room and then, on being asked questions to which they’d just heard the previous interviewee provide the answers, had to decide whether this was the professor’s absent-mindedness or a test of their intellectual integrity? You’ve done your research on the infamous curveball questions and considered whether books could be bad for you and even the infamous demand of ‘Tell me about a banana…’ You were even prepared to deal with the shadowy presence behind the main interviewer: a silent fellow, lounging in his leather armchair, fingers steepled, eyes closed, entirely motionless but for the occasional slow, scathing shake of the head.

Amidst these sensations and memories, realisation dawns.  This interview, however terrifying, is just one piece in the academic jigsaw through which they are trying to puzzle you out.  Very famous people on blue plaques were once 17 and nervous; your interviewers are neither trying neither to trap you nor make you look foolish.  The imposing 17th-century bookcase that looms on the wall behind contains not only leather-bound tomes but also the entire Harry Potter series.  

So, you’re back where you started – where we all started. Why do you want to study at Cambridge?  You smile, and begin to explain.