Human, Social And Political Science @ Downing, Cambridge in 2017

Interview format

2x interviews (30-35 mins each); 1x test (taken before interview day)

Interview content

First interview: topics from personal statement/SAQ; Second interview: international relations

Best preparation

Reading above all; taster days; researching the course; practice interviews

Final thoughts

Find parts of the subject you are genuinely interested in and research them

Remember this advice isn't official. There is no guarantee it will reflect your experience because university applications can change between years. Check the official Cambridge and Oxford websites for more accurate information on this year's application format and the required tests.

Also, someone else's experience may not reflect your own. Most interviews are more like conversations than tests and like, any conversation, they are quite interactive.

Interview Format

I had 2 subject specific interviews, each with 2 interviewers, each lasted 30-35 minutes, both on the same day in late November. I’d already completed an entrance exam earlier in November. I arrived at the porters lodge and was directed to the interview waiting room where students greeted me. I sat and read through some last minute notes before a student took me to the interview room, I waited outside for a few minutes before the interviewers called me in. I then left for lunch and came back for the second interview in the afternoon.

What happened in your interview? How did you feel?

In the first interview, we focused on my personal statement and my additional personal statement from the SAQ. I had talked about populism, state-centricity, security, development and democracy, so we touched on these areas. In the second interview, we talked about the relationship of International Relations to the other HSPS disciplines like sociology and social anthropology (my entire application was based around IR).

Both interviews used my personal statements as a starting point but then built on this and added in new material that they knew I hadn’t covered in school. It was challenging and it really made me think, but overall I thoroughly enjoyed both interviews and came out smiling but with absolutely no idea of how I’d performed.

In the first interview I was also asked about the reading I’d mentioned in my personal statement and asked me to expand on what I’d said about it. I was just trying to think out loud and try and guess where the interviewers were trying to get me to go with my thinking. I did at times pause and say things like “that’s an interesting question” which they didn’t seem to mind at all. They also gave no indication whatsoever if they agreed with my responses or whether I was right or wrong. I found the first 2 interviewers very difficult to read but I got more positive vibes from the second 2 interviewers who were a little more friendly and seemed a little more interested in what I had to say.

All the questions were subject specific, there were no questions about why I chose the college that college or anything about my suitability for the environment at Cambridge - in complete contrast to what my school had advised me.
How did you prepare?

Definitely reading - it gave me a solid understanding of what sorts of things are involved in studying IR as I'd never come across it at school. I only read books from the suggested reading list that the HSPS faculty had recommended.

I also found the Cambridge subject taster day very useful, where I went to two taster lectures about politics and IR, which sparked specific interests that I then followed up on in my reading. My school had advised me to do as much as physically possible however the advise directly from Cambridge professors was to focus more on fewer resources but try and absorb them fully. Therefore I only read 3 books but I completed them, took notes on what interested me and then wrote about this in my personal statement. The professors also told me directly that reading impressed them far more than flashy work experience that you got through a family friend or something, as long as you finish any books you read and you actually take something from them.

I also thoroughly researched the course itself to understand what I’d be studying. I also wrote about 5 essays on IR prior to interview, and then discussed them at length with a teacher in an interview-style. This was really helpful for me as I had to research the debates and come up with my own arguments to questions I’d never come across before such as ‘can political violence ever be justified’. This weekly preparation got me used to having in depth academic discussions so I wasn’t daunted by the interviews.

Looking back, what advice would you give to your past self?

Genuinely try and find what interests you about your subject, even if it’s really specific as they can spot fake passion from a mile off. Find what interests you, and then research this further and follow it up in more readings/research - they really like to be able to follow your train of thought - e.g. when reading this book I was intrigued by x, so I read another book specifically about x, then I wrote a discursive essay exploring the debates around x. This is far better than trying to be interested in everything - this advice came directly from David Runciman who is head of the politics and IR department.